Recent debates in Australia surrounding immigration have revealed a long-known underbelly of racism and a country in denial.
Australia is witnessing increasing debate about Muslim immigrants over the last few days, followed by more of the usual speeches and inflammatory remarks. An awkward comment from one leader, however, unwittingly captured the country's relationship with racism.
It all began with Senator Fraser Anning's first speech. In a droning monotone, he preached to parliament on the need to break the supposed silence imposed by the nation’s political correctness. Throughout his call, he echoed a century-old cliche, that has never ceased to be said or heard. Immigrants threaten Australia.
In his vitriolic desire to end Muslim migration, he used a phrase synonymous with the darkest times in human history, hate and racism: the en-masse Nazi genocide of the Jews, calling for “the final solution.” This sparked national outrage. Another remark made as the debacle unfolded is worth pointing out. Anning’s party leader Bob Katter held a press conference to reply to the party’s critics. Katter's answer to whether or not his Australian Party was racist came with an ugly rhetorical twist. Managing a hostile, almost comical rant, Katter shouted back, “Are we Racist? Well, we are Australians ...”
While Katter would argue that he meant to dismiss the charge, the callous carelessness effectively makes the comment an unwitting revelation of the true party line. Better yet, it works as a fitting summary of the country’s intimate history with racism.
At the very least, it tells us that this latest episode is a reoccurring episode. Australian politicians have made it a curious habit to use Muslims in announcing themselves and building their political platforms. They know what we all know. A white fragility undercuts the nationalist's intolerance to immigrants. It has existed since the nation's birth. The smallest observable ethnic differences in the demographic landscape leads to resentment in some. Any interruption to the familiar and comfortable results in rhetoric to “win back the country.” Conflict on the issue of immigration often triggers a range of defensive hyperboles from all sides of politics.
Anning's speech has its roots in far-right apocalyptic statements. To make sense of his claims, we have to turn a blind eye to plenty of history. While the country had an active hand in the destruction of life in Syria and Iraq, some in Australia only see Muslims through the lens of a western fragility and its potential demise. Australia’s feigned vulnerability before Muslims – who constitute two percent of its population – follows. The folly of the loss of a white nation’s culture insidiously masks a long and complex history of racial brutality and xenophobic extremism, displacing the issue towards immigrants and their values rather than the nation’s practices.
In this projection, we find the logic of Australia's racism towards immigration. The obsession is not about Muslims. It is instead about the absence of a pure white Christianity, which has never existed in the country’s history. Anning seeks a return to a non-existent fantastical Christian past, where the duty of such crusading idealists to defend the nation against brown usurpers becomes crucial. For him, Muslims prevent the unification of Australia's modern democracy with a lost conservatism. But in truth, a pure Christian Australia never really existed or came close to existing – unless Anning is trying to admit that genocide and apartheid are Christian. To this end, it’s far more powerful, and much less awkward to say some “Other” stole the good nation than to prove it ever was.
This is also why Anning’s speech was full of errors, given that it was more concerned with building sentiment, not the truth. For instance, he conflated Melbourne’s "terrorising" south Sudanese gangs – another fiction – with ISIS in a single sentence about Islam. Details about Australian Muslims are suddenly irrelevant. For the Muslim works like a road sign to show a fork in the nation's road, functioning to organise debates about the threat to the future. It works to instil in people the powerful notion of the country taking the wrong turn.
Throughout the backlash to Anning and Katter, we find a curious interpretation for "Are we Racist? Well, we are Australians," namely the mainstream ritual of ignoring racism while opposing it.
Far too many figures, including the country's PM, have made use of and profited from anti-Muslim sentiments. Last week’s routine and reaction of a good Australian shock is telling, if growing old with repetition as Australia also laments a lost tolerant and multicultural Australia that only existed in lip service and imagination.
Australia’s Islamophobia is not creative. It is not even new, nor is the backlash to be unexpected. It is hard to comprehend the level of national shock until you see it is as part of the theatre that Muslims provide. The common rituals of bashing and defending Muslim immigrants are part and parcel of the country’s fundamental incapacity to confront the truths of its racial engineering and the wounds of its past.
Consider how the outrage against Anning and Katter depends on a simplistic view of individual racism. A view where racism collapses with offence. It becomes simply about individuals and their prejudices, and the specific offence of Anning’s grotesque use of the phrase "The Final Solution."
A simple view of racism undercuts scholars’ views who define racism as a material system. A racism that built Australian economic, political, social and cultural structures. A racism that continues to perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of colour, particularly the First Nations. It is nearly impossible to provide a truthful narrative of Australian history without speaking of its genocide, racial brutalisation and intentional displacement of indigenous Australians. Yet, the nation seems to exhibit far less rituals of outrage towards the gap in health and wealth between indigenous Australians and white Australia, yet exhibits shock and outrage when a politician says something profoundly stupid about Muslims.
Australia thrives on muting discussions on racism. A muting that involves the use of complex indexing, dog whistling, erasure and coding. What makes Katter and Anning’s actions ugly is that the nation’s mask of civility has slipped and not for the first time. They were loud. Perhaps the best way to describe Katter’s comment is through the analogy of a Freudian slip. His comment serves as a return of truth the country would rather repress: Are we racist? Well, we are Australian.
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