“Frankly, heads should roll over this,” said Prime Minister Tony Abbott in June. He was not talking about the claims of widespread child sexual abuse in refugee detention centers. He was not referencing the expose of his own Liberal Party taking money from the mafia. He was not speaking of this year’s staggering domestic violence death toll.
He was talking about the brief appearance of acquitted terror suspect Zaky Mallah on the ABC’s current affairs program Q&A. From the audience of the program, Mallah asked the panel, “As the first man in Australia to be charged with terrorism under the harsh Liberal Howard government in 2003, I was subject to solitary confinement, a 22-hour lockdown, dressed in most times in an orange overall and treated like a convicted terrorist while under the presumption of innocence. I had done and said some stupid things, including threatening to kidnap and kill, but in 2005 I was acquitted of those terrorism charges. What would have happened if my case had been decided by the minister himself and not the courts?”
Mallah was referencing a government bill designed to strip the citizenship rights from dual nationals suspected of partaking in ‘terrorist activity’ – a very broad term that includes simple acts like damaging government property. According to the bill the power to strip an Australian of their citizenship would rest with one person: the Minister for Immigration.
Q&A panelist and Liberal MP Steven Ciobo responded to Mallah’s question by saying he would be “pleased” to be part of a government that kicked him out of the country. Mallah suggested that it was extremist statements like Ciobo’s that were encouraging young Muslims to leave Australia and join ISIS. It was this comment that created the storm that followed.
The next day Prime Minister Abbott went on the offensive, denouncing both Mallah and the ABC. To his colleagues he said “we all know the program is a lefty lynch mob” and to the country he said “heads should roll”. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull used his position to demand a departmental inquiry into the incident. He has also said that the Australian Federal Police should investigate Q&A.
All of this because an acquitted terror suspect asked a question and expressed a common sentiment: that the Government’s racist rhetoric has played a role in pushing some frustrated and angry young people towards far-right groups like ISIS.
This is no doubt true if you listen to the recruitment propaganda coming from ISIS itself. It is reflected in some of the statements made by the handfuls who have joined ISIS. It is also clear that the blatant Islamophobia of the government and the broader demonising of Muslims is feeding into the growth of other right-wing forces within Australia.
Terms like “Lefty lynch mob” and threats like “heads should roll” are found all over internet pages dedicated to ‘eradicating’ Australia of its Muslim population. The fear mongering has increased in recent months and new right-wing groups are taking their racist anti-Muslim message to the streets.
Australia’s tiny far-right groups hope to experience a revival by riding the wave of Abbott’s Islamophobia. The core of these groups are committed neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but they are following the lead of more mainstream culprits – primarily members of Parliament.
So far this revival has been held back by successful anti-racist mobilisations, particularly in Melbourne. However, for as long as the government and other mainstream politicians use Muslims as scapegoats for their own failed policies, the threat of a far-right revival remains present.
It was the mass anti-war and pro-refugee movements of the early 2000’s that challenged the worst of the anti-Muslim rhetoric during the last decade. Now, a new anti-racist movement must be built. To succeed, this movement needs to expose how both major parties have used racism to justify failed imperialist interventions abroad and the social pressures caused by neoliberal policies at home. We must highlight how racist divide-and-rule tactics facilitate the growing gap between rich and poor.
Most importantly we must make the case for a unified struggle of working class people of all faiths and ethnicities to put an end to this market system that fuels war, division and scarcity for the many and obscene wealth for the privileged few. Ultimately we must replace it with a socialised economy where society’s wealth and resources are used to improve the lives of all – regardless of race or creed.
By Mel Gregson