Husic feels the chill of Australia's racist winter


IciclesWhen 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 reality of racism, but to what extent did the media response legitimise the more salacious of the Facebook comments against Husic? Is there an ethics of representing hate speech?

In response, Husic pandered to domiant notions of Australian-ness. He's a successful politician, so he knows how it works. But it was uncomfortable to hear the 'son of an immigrant' say 'children of migrant parents always want to give back to Australia'. I'm sure Husic, like many public servants, feels a grave sense of service to his national community. But to think he feels a greater debt because his parents migrated here from Europe confirms the idea that people should feel uncritically lucky to live in Australia if they're not from a white, Anglophone family.

Husic's nominal religiosity was emphasised, and Labor MP Stephen Jones called Husic an immigration success story. I wonder what an immigration disaster story would look like. Would it look like the British-descendent bullies who spat on a young, headscarved girl in 2004?

And what if Husic were a devoutly religious man? Like all people, he is entitled to a religious life. A celebration of multiculturalism is not contingent on the ability or willingness of a new citizen to lose their religion and assimilate, nor is it dependent on members of a dominant cultural group being able to fully comprehend the cultural differences of the othered person. Celebrating assimilation is really just celebrating monoculture. Australians need to get over the idea that social inclusion is conditional.

The idea of a static 'immigrant' whose identity can be understood in terms of its 'otherness' is a troubling notion. You can say 'nominal Muslim' or 'Albanian-Australian', but you are only referring to superficial markers, not how they might be experienced.

Like love and bowel movements, the core of religion is a deeply private undertaking. But like love and bowel movements, freedom of religion, which is the same as freedom from religious compulsion, needs defending when it comes under attack. There is a public interest in defending people's right to their conscience and their identity.

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist, arts editor at The Lifted Brow and politics editor at SPOOK Magazine. She has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, Arena, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. Her 2012 essay 'A Man Like Luai' won the Tharunka Non-fiction prize. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Icicles image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Ed Husic, racism, Muslims, Islam, headscarf



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Existing comments

Televised interviews in the street formed part of the media response to the social media bigotry. The four or five respondents all expressed their distaste at Ed Husic taking the oath on the Qur'an "because Australia is a Christian country". Quite apart from that assertion being debatable, would these "good Christian citizens" prefer to see a man who follows a different sacred scripture go through the motions of swearing to fulfill his parliamentary duties on the Bible? Do they consider that would be respectful of the Bible? Or are they just demonstrating that they share the bigotry expressed on social media?
Ian Fraser | 05 July 2013

deeply saddened at all the vitriol at Mr. Husic bullies dominate , hatred grows. its time for change and acceptance ,most of us migrants do not have hidden agendas the while Australia policy is over and done with ,we must pray for those who hate .
irena mangone | 05 July 2013

"Racism" seems to be becoming a general term for xenophobia, bigotry, and other forms of immature self-centered attitudes. When it focuses on religion it seems to be rejection of what is evidently God's Plan to call different numbers of his children by different paths. Sometimes the interpretation of what is seen as "their path" conflicts with what we see as our path, but this is no excuse for indulging in selfish "racism"
Robert Liddy | 05 July 2013

Gold star for you Ellena. The response overall is just so mornic and depressing.
John Elder | 05 July 2013

I disagree with virtually none of the sentiments expressed here, Ellena, but I wonder if there is not an assumption of your own inherent in the story of your friend having a milkshake thrown at him for 'looking like a Muslim'. It seems to me to be an increasingly popular form of entertainment for passing cars full of yobbos to throw objects or scream sudden abuse at anyone they think they can get a rise or a startled jump from. It doesn't just happen to people who 'look like Muslims'. Whether the purveyors of racist or religious or simply moronic abuse are young nitwits or old nitwits, and use cars or Facebook as their vehicles, it seems to me that what they have in common is drastically inadequate parenting, poor social adjustment, a personal history of frustration or failure of aspiration, or lack of any aspiration. And often low intelligence, or at least the notion that acting like an Epsilon Minus semi-moron identifies you with a like-minded support group. Racism, sexism, ageism - all the isms that make ignorant people think they have a right to abuse others - always say more about the perpetrator than the abused.
P Miles | 05 July 2013

There seems no point to an oath taken on a symbol that has no deep significance to the person taking the oath. I would have much less confidence in the man if he had simply gone along with custom and sworn on the bible as so many do..
Margaret McDonald | 05 July 2013

So many important issues raised here. To take just one: “Australians need to get over the idea that social inclusion is conditional.” This is certainly true but identifying the idea and changing it are two very different things. Australians have always accepted that it is true – expressions like “Irish-Australian” have seemed innocent and have even been used proudly, but they depend on assumptions about belonging that, applied to, say, Moslems, where religion or race or colour is more obviously the dividing characteristic, can be very discriminatory. Similarly, racial stereotyping (Greeks always run cafes) is often a joke, but can be a dangerous one, dangerous physically sometimes and culturally at all times. It’s hard to talk inclusion at the same time as accepting conditions on that inclusiveness.
Barry Breen | 05 July 2013

Interestingly enough, Ed Husic's parents came from Bosnia, which, I believe, was an extremely tolerant and cosmopolitan place. Religiously I believe it was strongly influenced by Sufism. As far as I am aware - and I hate labelling people - he is a "secular" or "ethnic" Muslim. He also seems pretty mainstream Australian. There are many "ethnic" people like that. It is unfortunate that the idiot yobbos or supposedly "Christian" nutters denigrated him. The fact is he's in Cabinet and they're not. The Indonesian motto "Unity in Diversity", and, by heaven, they're diverse, strikes me as a good thing. It's unity not uniformity. Younger people like Ellena seem to me to be more open to this diversity.
Edward F | 05 July 2013

Thank you Ellena for voicing so eloquently what has been a concern of mine for many years. Our religious groups seem to give "lip service" only to the notion of genuine inclusiveness that is at the core of love of neighbour. They foster, through inaction, an undercurrent of dislike bordering on hatred of those who choose to believe differently. Their hesitations seem to be fuelled by a sense of superiority that mirrors the class divisions of past generations. Media reflect what the top of town want to see as it pays the bills. They haven't the freedom one would hope they have to express contrary views. They don't help either, but subtly reinforce racist attitudes.
Jim Slingsby | 08 July 2013

And why am I still waiting for Christian Church leaders to speak out against this bigotry?
Ginger Meggs | 08 July 2013

Beautifully written. I never thought I would be saying this after living in this country for the last 38 of my 40 years and adopting the 'Australian way of life' in every sense of the phrase but I too was subjected to a racist hate attack over the weekend. I stepped in to defend an animal that was being hurt by some brutes when their family stepped in and started asking me to show them my visa and to "eff off to where I came from". It didn't stop there. It went on and on, in front of a large group of people who said nothing and did nothing other than smile and look on. I defended myself eloquently and with strength and did not stoop to their level. Many who face these attacks on a daily basis lack the confidence and language skills to do so. These experiences are demoralising and shameful and these feelings are exacerbated when you realise no-one is stepping in and speaking out against these vile actions and words. We need to start in schools and educate our children that discrimination is not acceptable - in no way, shape or form- and not speaking out against it makes one complicit...
SB | 06 August 2013


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