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Husic feels the chill of Australia's racist winter

  • 05 July 2013

When I read about the abuse levelled at Ed Husic after he was sworn into Parliament holding a copy of the Qur'an, my heart dropped. I talked about it with my housemate Nader, who is from a Lebanese/Palestinian Muslim family. He told me that of all the things in Australia that made him feel uncomfortable about living here — the street harassment and racial violence that so many people are exposed to — it was this kind of thing that disturbed him the most: the normalised racist outrage against even the most conservative expressions of otherness.

These past few months have been a disturbing time for public discourse in Australia — for women, and non-white people. Is it obnoxious to suggest that it's too far gone, that it might be better to forge a new life elsewhere? It's hyperbole, of course, a cliché reminiscent of all the American liberals threatening to move to Canada if the Republicans win an election. But it's a sentiment that is growing in the absence of strong intellectual debate in the media, and amid the frightening sense that it's more democratic to utter hate speech than it is to take offence.

My sense of foreboding that winter is coming is grounded in history. I was a teenager when 9/11 stopped the world, I was subject to Howard's 'culture wars' throughout my schooling (which my school teachers rolled their eyes at and which I, like most children, was largely impervious to), my feet were still growing when we invaded Iraq. I feel shaped by the violence of that decade, and there's nothing that could convince me to go back there. Back then, 'terrorism' was the shorthand that justified a range of racial and religious discrimination.

My best friend's sister was abused and spat on by a group of grown men because she wore a headscarf on a Melbourne train. She was 14. Another friend had a thickshake thrown on him from a passing vehicle for 'looking like a Muslim'. The voices that came out of the cracks this week regarding Husic's swearing in are, indeed, 'harsh words from dark corners', as Husic himself responded. But they are also the voices which represent a certain form of Australian bigotry that we should be careful around. These words are never entirely empty gestures.

There was something troubling about the media coverage of the issue. There is a public interest in exposing the