How Australia stopped being the lucky country

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No safety net The hostage drama at the Sydney cafe, which resulted in a shootout and three deaths, is a pointer to the reach of jihadis in a globalised world, Photo: AFP
No safety net The hostage drama at the Sydney cafe, which resulted in a shootout and three deaths, is a pointer to the reach of jihadis in a globalised world, Photo: AFP

The Lucky Country’s lucky streak has ended in a blaze of gunfire. Australia became the newest target of Islamic terror when an Iranian-origin man held up a Sydney café, ending in a shootout that led to the deaths of two hostages and the gunman.

The scariest part is the terror strike happened in Australia. Located far from the world’s trouble spots, the country has vast mineral resources, loads of sunshine, and down under Monday is just another excuse to hit the beach. If you are not safe in Australia, where else are you safe? It is a pointer to the reach — and more significantly the networking skills — of jihadis in a globalised world.

Australian authorities are reluctant to describe it as a terrorist act perhaps because the gunman may have acted alone. But such quibbling over semantics doesn’t hide the fact that Islamic terror did not incubate all by itself. For, the Australians went looking for trouble and then brought it home.

It’s said about the Australians that if they could somehow tow their continent-sized country up the oceans and position it somewhere in the North Atlantic, they would do it. Certainly, over the decades, Australians have echoed such sentiments. Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, said about his people: “They prefer to keep Asia and its peoples at a distance.” Paul Keating, a former prime minister, said Asia is a place to fly over en route to Europe.

In 1919, when Japan proposed the “racial equality clause” in the Covenant of the League of Nations, Australia rejected it, with the then prime minister, Billy Hughes, saying that “95 out of 100 Australians rejected the very idea of equality”. It was only in 1973 that the White Australia policy — that favoured immigration to Australia from certain European countries, especially Britain — was dismantled.

Yet in April this year, Australia’s attorney general sought to strike down the country’s anti-discrimination law. He received wide support, especially from the Institute of Public Affairs, which takes the view “that the law should not prevent private companies from discriminating, which would mean that shopkeepers would be allowed to refuse to serve Aboriginal customers”.

A huge problem with Australia is that it is a country of just 29 million people but with a landmass that’s nearly as large as China. The country is sparsely populated and needs planeloads of immigrants every month to keep it working like clockwork. In 2011-12, India provided 29,018 and China 25,509 permanent settlers, while traditional source UK supplied 25,274 migrants. Without immigrants, the country could go under.

But where India and China are the source of white-collar migrants, there is also a large underbelly of nearly 638,000 Muslims who — typical of Muslim communities in non-Islamic countries — form a turbulent minority. Their ghettoisation is a result of Australia’s flawed immigration policies.

When Australia opened up to immigration in a big way in the 1970s and ’80s, it allowed unrestrained immigration from the volatile West Asia. Unlike in the case of Indians — who had to submit all sorts of documents to prove they were engineers, doctors or scientists — no such verification was done with people from West Asia.

For instance, an Afghan could claim all his educational certificates had been destroyed in a missile strike and waltz into Australia. It seems all you had to do was turn up at an Australian embassy and say you were being harassed by, say, the pro-Russian government and you got the visa stamp.

Many such immigrants entered the country in this manner, went on the dole and got free housing. Some even had multiple wives and claimed cash benefits for each of their families. (Likewise, a large number of Sikhs moved to Australia and New Zealand claiming they were being harassed by the Indian police. Many were welcomed with open arms when they claimed Sikhs were England’s allies during the colonial period.)

But like all Faustian bargains, there comes a time to pay up. Over 150 Australian Muslims are currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. One, Khaled Sharrouf, used to live on a disability pension in Sydney but was last week pictured in Iraq, waving the flag of the Islamic State. These men are guaranteed to bring even more violent views upon their return.

Perhaps the most vivid symbol of the radicalisation of Australian Muslims is the image of a four-year-old boy holding up a placard (during the September 2012 riots over a film about Prophet Mohammed) saying “Behead All Those Who Insult The Prophet”, while his hijab-wearing mother proudly clicks pictures.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that burqa-wearing West Asians were unlikely to blend in with bikini-clad Australians. In December 2005, gangs of Lebanese men swarmed on to Sydney’s Cronulla beach, abusing Australian families and threatening to “rape Aussie sluts” for wearing bikinis.

Outraged, more than 5,000 Australians marched to “reclaim Cronulla”, resulting in the biggest riots in the country’s history. Chanting “No more Lebs (Lebanese)”, they attacked men and women of West Asian appearance. The following day, the Lebanese retaliated. More than 40 carloads of Lebanese smashed car windscreens, jumped on car roofs, smashed shop windows and beat up anyone of European appearance.

But the primary reason for Australia’s tryst with terror remains its close association with America’s intervention in West Asia.

Flashpoint The 2005 Cornulla riots pitted Arab Australians against the Anglos, Photo: AP
Flashpoint The 2005 Cornulla riots pitted Arab Australians against the Anglos, Photo: AP

Australians have watched with dismay the world go multi-polar and the western economies crumble in slow motion. Many Australians like to think of themselves as integral to the maintenance of the West’s hegemony. They have blindly followed the US and have been loyal foot soldiers in a string of American-inspired conflicts around the world — Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, with the mother ship Britain listing and increasingly focussed inward, Australia is keen to take over the role of America’s closest ally.

For starters, Australia has legitimate security concerns. Most of its limited population is concentrated in the east coast while the sparsely populated northern coast is closer to crowded Indonesia than Sydney or Melbourne.

Fuelling Australia’s paranoia are other strategic developments in the region. China is building its Indian Ocean task force and the Indian Navy is also on a high-octane expansion programme. Add in the fact that Indonesia is arming heavily right next door, and you begin to see why the Australians are getting jittery. (It is worth mentioning that during World War II, more bombs were dropped on Darwin than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, from 1942-43, the Japanese launched as many 100 raids on Australia.)

In this backdrop, the Australians feel only an alliance with Anglo cousin America can ensure their security.

Predictably, Australia’s involvement with the “Great Satan” has invited attention from the likes of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. These days with terrorists hitting the Internet, opening an Islamic State franchise in a new country is as easy as starting a new Twitter account. Australia’s dilemma is that it has to stick with the US at the risk of increased radicalisation of its Muslim population.

But while Australian Muslims are becoming increasingly radicalised, Australian Anglos are not blameless either. During the First Gulf War in 1991, newspapers received numerous letters calling for Arab Australians to “prove their loyalty” or “go home”. Arab Australian Muslim women wearing  hijabs were reportedly harassed in public.

Nahid Kabir writes in the book Muslims in Australia (2013) that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, there were only 4,500 Iraqis living in Australia. “But since they were Arabs, this broad category became targeted. Arab-Australians, and particularly those Muslims, Arab or not, conspicuous because of their traditional Islamic attire, were identified as siding with the enemy.

“Some of them made statements supportive of Saddam Hussein while others became the victims of racist hysteria. Attacks against Muslims and their institutions such as mosques and schools became commonplace from August 1990 to February 1991. Though the war was against Iraq, the category of enemy was expanded from Iraqi, to Arab, to Muslims.”

The Christian Democratic Party’s Fred Nile said in 2005: “Our Muslim population is very small. We can handle it at this stage, but what I have learned from other nations is as it grows, then somehow the tension develops. The Muslims themselves change. They become more demanding and begin to flex their muscles. They are doing that in the UK, demanding sharia courts.”

Australia’s Muslims suffer from the same set of problems that Muslim immigrants face everywhere: they feel culturally at odds with their adopted countries. While non-Muslim immigrants also start at the bottom and attain gentrification in a few short years, the majority of Muslim immigrants remain ghettoised, eventually seeking comfort in the environs of the local mosque.

Where earlier it was just a myopic mullah talking nonsense about kaffirs going to eternal hell, today’s Twitter recruiters for the Islamic State, al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiba are all offering not just the promise of paradise and heavenly concubines, but the opportunity to join a multinational army of Muslims and defend the ‘caliphate’. It has been an irresistible call to many radicalised Muslims around the world and Australian Muslims are no different.

Ironically, the name Lucky Country was coined in the 1960s by author David Horne, who wrote, “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” Indeed, the Australian leadership is reacting to the rapidly transforming world order around them with hysteria rather than level-headed thinking.

After the Sydney café crisis, the Herald Sun (not exactly a fan of India) editorialised: “Muslim immigration has exposed Australians to a level of danger — including extraordinary gun crime in western Sydney — that immigration from India, Europe and China has not.”

Australia, it adds, cannot screen out likely terrorists when the second generation is more radical than the immigrant parents. “The conclusion is irresistible: the more Muslim immigrants we admit, the more terrorists we risk one day having.”

Clearly, when it comes to radical Islam there are no easy solutions.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. ‘But where India and China are the source of white-collar migrants, there is also a large underbelly of nearly 638,000 Muslims…’
    No Indian Muslim has ever migrated to Australia?

  2. Just thinking over commenting on this obnoxious article is an insult to the laptop and the internet..such a peice of crap.published by a portal of tehelka’s calibre is a shock in itself….has tehelka stooped to publishing trolls on its once respectable edits..

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