Australian Muslims feel the heat as right-wing parties rise

Australian politics gives alarming signs as right-wing nationalist movements dominate the political sphere with their anti-immigrant rhetoric reinforced by Islamophobia.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A protester casts his shadow across a poster displaying Australia's far-right politician Pauline Hanson during a rally orgnised to show support for the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, in central Sydney, Australia, on July 16, 2016.

Race relations in Australia has deteriorated to such an extent that some community leaders fear violence will erupt in a political vacuum where the new government, elected with a bare majority, must rely on the support of parties that have fomented the discord.

The potential for violence after a bitter election campaign, which featured calls for a ban on Muslim immigration, is palpable for people like Afghan-born Sydney resident, Muhammad Taqi Haidari.

Haidari, from Afghanistan's Shiite Muslim Hazara minority, no longer tells people his name is Muhammad, preferring to use Taqi.

"When there is a problem like in Paris and now in Nice they hear the name Muhammad. They include me as one of those Muhammads."

Muslim Australian girls are shown in an undated photo. Courtesy of Deakin University.

Australia, a staunch US ally with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been spared the mass violence that has become common among other US allies, particularly Europe.

In just over a month, scores of people have been killed in Paris, Nice and Germany, many of them in attacks claimed by DAESH.

Machete-wielding attackers and suicide bombers have also struck with devastating effect in Bangladesh and the Afghan capital Kabul.

In Australia, once fringe parties such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation, which first gained international notoriety in the late 1990s, have exploited the fear such attacks have generated by saying that Muslim immigration must be stopped.

Australian politician and leader of the One Nation Party Pauline Hanson holds an election placard as she stands with supporters during a function on election night in the city of Ipswich, west of Brisbane, Australia, July 2, 2016. Image: Reuters

Hanson was originally a Liberal Party candidate for federal elections in 1996.

After she made some incendiary remarks against the indigenous Australian Aborigines, she was disendorsed by the party.  

But she was still able to win the elections which made her the first female independent to gain a seat at the House of Representatives.

In 1997, she co-founded her One Nation with David Ettridge and David Oldfield on a anti-multiculturalism political platform.

Many community leaders such as Stepan Kerkyasharian, a veteran former head of a government anti-discrimination board, fear their rhetoric will also generate retaliatory acts against Muslim migrants.

Anti-Islam protesters are shown in an undated photo during one of the rallies held across Australia in late 2015. Image: Reuters

Escalated Political Tension

The more pressing concern is after the narrow win secured by Australia's conservative coalition in July 2 elections, a stronger voice has been given to to fringe political players like Hanson.

"The intensity and feeling has been there for some time but it has now made it into the public discourse. It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the potential for violence," Kerkyasharian told Reuters.

"Unfortunately there has been a reluctance on the part of political leadership to engage people in rational debate and discussion on this matter."

Race relations have threatened to erupt in the barely four weeks since Hanson secured her return to the Australian parliament.

Her public appearances have attracted protesters and supporters in numbers rarely seen in Australian politics.

Protesters show pamphlets displaying Australia's far-right politician Pauline Hanson during a rally organised to show support for the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, in central Sydney, Australia, July 16, 2016. Image: Reuters

Outwardly easygoing and peaceful, Australia has a troubling race relations record.

The White Australia Policy, which was only dismantled in the late 1960s, favoured European migrants over non-whites.

Australia’s Aborigines were administered under flora and fauna laws until then, and remain far behind the rest of the population in literacy, health and economic standards.

There have also been racial flashpoints before.

In 2005, riots broke out in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla between white residents and Lebanese from other suburbs, gaining international notoriety.

Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, told a parliamentary committee in May that as many as 59 Australians had been killed fighting with DAESH in Iraq and Syria.

So it's not entirely surprising that many ordinary Australians, and even morning TV show presenters, have come out in favour of Hanson's Muslim immigration ban, stirring fierce debate on prime-time television and on social media.

Leader of Australia's One Nation Party, Pauline Hanson, speaks during a news conference in Brisbane, Australia, July 4, 2016. Image: Reuters

Her unexpectedly influential position after an indecisive election - Hanson and a small handful of others will likely form a bloc whose vote will determine the passage or rejection of legislation - mean that mainstream politicians ignore her at their peril.

Foreshadowing that newfound influence, Hanson released a video message on Monday after meeting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, telling her supporters they had discussed several policies and that he was "prepared to listen to me."

Right-wing Unleashed

The rise of One Nation in Australia echoes what has been seen in Europe, where centrist governments are being challenged by right-wing, anti-immigration parties after hundreds of thousands poured in, fleeing war in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Brian Burston, who represents Hanson's One Nation in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, said a moratorium on Muslim immigration was needed to alleviate community fear.

"You can't discern between the different groups and you don't know whether there's ISIS [DAESH] infiltrators in any of them," Burston said.

"The weapon of choice now is a truck. What next? It's just frightening," he said, singling out the attack in Nice.

A man places candles near flowers that were left in tribute at makeshift memorials to the victims of the truck attack along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, July 18, 2016. Image: Reuters

Hanson told Reuters that banning new mosques and Muslim immigration were issues that resonated with voters.

She did not respond to more recent requests for an interview.

Muhammad Ali, a 30-year-old Afghan who lives in Sydney, said her anti-Islam comments were already putting people at risk.

"Hanson has a right to speak. But will she take responsibility for what happens as a result of her words?"

TRTWorld and agencies