Aussies and Afghans

The recently released film ‘Serenades’, set in central Australia in 1890, tells of a girl born of an Aboriginal mother and an Afghan father who grows up very much ‘between worlds’ – culturally, spiritually and emotionally dislocated . It is a beautiful and moving film whose themes have suddenly become uncomfortably relevant to contemporary Australia.

It is a fact of history that between 1867 and 1910 thousands of camels, together with Afghan ‘cameleers’ were imported to assist in exploration and freight haulage in the great outback before the modern system of roads had developed. These people constituted a small Muslim subculture, but they were too remote from the main population centres to touch the lives of most Australians. That they made their mark, however, is demonstrated by the fact that the northern train from Adelaide is still called ‘The Ghan’.

In 1903, the ‘White Australia Policy’ came into being, with the intention of making sure that Australia remained Anglo-Saxon and white. This policy targeted Asians in particular, but it effectively prevented immigration from all non-waspish backgrounds. And so, with the demise of the Afghan cameleers, the Muslim population plummeted in the first decades of the twentieth century.

It was not until after World War 2 that southern European immigration began seriously to change the white Anglo-Saxon monoculture of Australia. By the late 1960s this wave of immigration had slowed down and people of non-European races began to be admitted in greater numbers. Amazingly, it was not until 1967 that our own indigenous people were allowed to vote!

The White Australia Policy was officially withdrawn in 1972. Since then, more and more people from Asia and the Middle-east have settled in Australia, mainly in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They include communities of Muslims who have built mosques (there are about 60 mosques in Australia at present), and even a handful of schools. Although pockets of vocal resistance to Muslim settlement persisted in some areas, the average ‘ethnic Aussie’ (who is now likely to be related by marriage to people from previous waves of non-English speaking immigrants) extended a ‘she’ll be right, mate’ benevolence to the small but growing Muslim minority in our midst.

Over the last few years, however, there has emerged a real racist backlash in the more politically conservative parts of Australia – particularly in rural Queensland. Fuelled by a widespread dissatisfaction with both sides of mainstream politics, this movement managed to get its leader, Pauline Hanson, elected to the Senate, where she served one term. Although not from any particular religious background, those who support the Hansonite approach seek to limit the growth of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities and their faith traditions. This movement is also against those working to ensure a ‘fair go’ for Aboriginal people.

This is the backdrop to the increasing hostility towards ‘boat people’ landing on northern Australian shores, seeking political asylum and refugee status. These people are often Muslims, and they come from a range of countries including Afghanistan.

Over the last few years there has been much criticism of the Australian Government’s treatment of boat-people seeking asylum. Newspapers and electronic media frequently described the routine herding of these people into detention centres amounting to little more than concentration camps in conditions that any fair minded person would agree are grossly inhumane. Church leaders of all persuasions have consistently joined together in speaking out against the Government’s approach. In fact this was the only issue that united orthodox and liberal Anglicans when the Minister for Immigration was invited to address General Synod on these matters back in July.

As a result of the Hansonite movement, the increase in asylum seekers and now the suicide bombings in the USA, Australian public opinion now overwhelmingly supports the Government. In fact, if Prime Minister John Howard were to call an election now, he would be returned with a 70% majority!

When, in August, the Tampa, a Norwegian vessel, picked up 433 shipwrecked asylum seekers, mostly Afghans, near Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory near Indonesia, Howard, sensing the mood of the nation, would not allow the asylum seekers to land. His decision was criticised around the world and within Australia, especially when footage of Australian troops boarding the Tampa was shown on television. But he persevered, eventually funding the construction of a ‘holding centre’ for these asylum seekers on the tiny island nation of Nauru, where they will await the processing of their claims to refugee status. Various polls show that up to a staggering 90% of Australians support Howard’s approach, in spite of the unanimous voice of the churches pointing out just how inhumane he has been. In all fairness, it must be noted that the Labor Opposition publicly supports the kind of attitude found in the Government, obviously believing that a truly principled stand would be electoral suicide.

There are corrupt asylum seekers. Just as there are corrupt members of parliament, schoolteachers and clergy. But what about the others? Recently, one of my parishioners introduced me to a man in his thirties who had come to Australia illegally a couple of years ago seeking political asylum. His father and brothers had been murdered in his presence for peacefully working towards a change of government in Afghanistan. He would have been next. A range of relatives and friends clubbed together to raise the money needed to get him out of the country and give him a new beginning. He is now saving up to bring his deceased brother’s children to Australia. At home this young man was a surgeon. Here he works as a plumber’s labourer while learning enough English to do further study that may one day enable him to practise medicine.

Needless to say, Australia’s small Muslim community has already begun to suffer in the aftermath of the American terrorist strikes. Here in Brisbane, a Muslim school bus was pelted with rocks three days after the bombing. And as I write, the radio news contains the story of a local mosque being burnt down.

There seems to be little understanding of the complexities of Islamic history (and Christian history, for that matter), or the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are enemies of terrorism. Archbishop Peter Jensen picked up on this in a widely reported memorial service at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, when he told his hearers that they must ‘refuse to engage in racist attacks on others. There are people in our community who are being harassed and vilified on religious or racial grounds. They do not deserve this, and the offenders are displaying ignorance. This will only breed further injustice. The Christian way is that of love. Let us give ourselves to that path.’

The Christian community in Australia has a mammoth task ahead of itself in these difficult days, trying to live and share gospel values in the run-up to the forthcoming federal election, when cynical politicians of all colours will get the greatest mileage possible out of our present ethnic problems. May God give us grace to bear witness to his love for all people, and act with compassion and generosity towards the suffering, the vilified and the wounded.

David Chislett

Vice Chairman FiF Australia