Looking for Lomu: The politics of Muslim bashing

In the late 1990s the All Blacks force in decline, an ageing pack and timid game plan should have ensured their failure, and yet they remained competitive. It was due entirely due to the “Lomu” factor, the two meter tall man mountain who was 120 kg of muscle on the left wing. When the ABs were down and out in a test match they would invariably cycle the ball out wide and Lomu, the human battering ram would do his thing, run through the opposition and score. He was the go-to guy, the reset button, the first, final and only solution.

So too it is with Islam and Muslims in contemporary Australian politics. The Howard government especially, but all other organisations seeking quick, cheap and dirty public support, the go to guy is Muslim bashing, here is their game-plan…

Earlier this year Peter Costello spoke at the Sydney Institute hoping to widen his support base beyond the pompous middle-class tight arsed prisses with whom he has a natural affinity. He launched an extraordinary attack on Muslims who were calling for sharia law to be imposed in Australia; he also told them to leave. What was extraordinary, was that nobody, least of all the usual rabble rousers in the community, had called for any such thing. But no matter, Costello’s fantastic crusade against sharia resonated with those who mattered: outer suburban white males, and women. Conservative MPs related how their telephones ran hot for days afterwards with constituents enthused by Costello; he was now a contender. Howard, the master politician, whose natural constituency of suburban battlers had just been wooed by his opponent, didn’t wait long before also taking the unprecedented step of calling the breakfast shows next morning and vilifying these “a minority of..” Muslims (who didn’t exist) who want to impose sharia on nice white people. I listened to him on ABC radio, something he naturally avoids because its target demographic (the tertiary educated) already loathe him. “Its not all Muslims,” he purred (the inevitable fig leaf for bigotry), “it’s just those fundamentalists”.

Late last year, when the government was in trouble in the House and in wider society during the passage of workplace laws that would reintroduce a master-servant workplace, a poll showed the government’s primary vote falling. Howard called the entire parliament (House and Senate) back from recess to change a single word in anti-terror laws from “the” to “a”. An attack was imminent, and the federal police were ready to pounce on these Middle Eastern villains, they were waiting for parliament to amend the law. The entire national discussion was suspended for 2 weeks whilst this pantomime was played out. Ctrl-alt-delete had reset the political pendulum

During the highly charged debate on the one-stop abortion pill RU 468, conservative forces were on the eve of defeat in the House when Dana Vale made an impassioned plea that Muslims were about to colonise the country through excessive breeding. This was echoed by Catholic commentator Angela Shanahan (who herself has 9 children). The attack was ultimately unsuccessful. It was a reminder however how easily one reaches for the lever at times of political trouble.

The use of Muslims as the ubiquitous brooding menace from which society must be saved by their leaders dates back to the November 2001 federal election. In the shadow of the September 11 attacks, and a series of pack rapes in Western Sydney, Howard built his election campaign on the emotive issue of protecting Australia from the massive tide (also largely fictitious tide) of Muslim refugees. The victory was resounding, and a previously precarious government base was solidified.

Channel 7 has been especially venal in its exploitation of naive elements within the Muslim community, as documented by the ABC’s Mediawatch. It is a prescient lesson for those Muslims who wish to deal with the media. Every time a tabloid TV program or newspaper wishes a ratings boost it heads for the Masjid for two rakats of tabloid 101. Sex used to sell, but today there is nothing sexier than a bearded fundie calling for jihad on everything that moves, crawls or swims. The cameras love him, the sub-editors dare not alter his deliciously virulent rhetoric, and around him the myth of the great Muslim menace is built.

So when Howard piously instructs Muslims that they should learn to speak English, we understand this to be crude attempt to keep the anti-Muslim bigotry boiling, to keep the well spring of his power intact. It has nothing to do do with policy initiative (indeed he has not issued any, beyond peremptory instructions to people). Much like a king, he feels that his words are to obeyed.

This course of action has always been prefaced on a single assumption: that Australians are fundamentally different from other peoples and cannot, by mere words alone, be incited into violence. Until recently this was true, but that myth was shattered in December last year by race riots in Cronulla (a Kath & Kim suburb in Sydney’s southern beaches). Rioters fuelled by a single radio shock jock, gathered on the beaches and, in the “reclaim the night” fashion, they then singled out and assaulted anyone of Semitic appearance, man or women.

So when ratings are down, when one’s target audience is on the wane, and when one wishes to energise the great unwashed masses, there is no better pass than the one out far right to the great black, all black, menace; us.