The last acceptable prejudice

On the UNSW UN Society, Palestinians and Tom Switzer

Edward Said once said: ‘Malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians.’

That is, saying something racist about Muslims is not considered the same as saying something racist about black people or Jews. When anti-Muslim prejudice is expressed, it is regarded as a reasonable ground for disagreement or, simply, a radical position. One perhaps mistaken, but not reflecting the kind of radically warped mind view we would assume of someone who made such claims about Jews. This attitude can be extended to people from the Middle East more generally.

It’s an attitude perfectly illustrated by an event being put on at the University of New South Wales by the United Nations Society. One expects such groups to be composed of the usual types of mercenary social climbers who put ‘passion for social justice’ on their resumes, and point to the tepid societies they joined at university to demonstrate this deep, otherwise undetectable commitment. Such groups typically choose safe, uncontroversial causes, so that they can show how much they care about issues that run no risk of offending potential future employers.

Yet, what is considered safe is still rather revealing. UNSW UNSoc is hosting a forum on China and the West. They have four speakers: three white, all men. One of them is Tom Switzer.

Readers will know I am not a fan of Switzer. He once claimed that ‘it’s surely simplistic to denounce Cairo for denying democracy to the Egyptian people’. After all, ‘the more democratic and revolutionary Cairo and the Middle East become, the more Islamist, authoritarian and anti-American the region will be.’

Anyway, back in 1998, Switzer wrote an article about Palestinians. Ali Kazak lodged a complaint of racial vilification against the Australian Financial Review for publishing it. The Administrative Decisions Tribunal of New South Wales found, among other things, the following:

78 The article as a whole paints an extremely negative picture of the Palestinian people and an extremely positive picture of the Israeli people and their government. The language used suggests that the Palestinians, unlike the Israelis, are unworthy and undeserving of support because, at least in relation to the peace process, they are hypocritical, untrustworthy, blameworthy and viscous.

79 The language used is strong and consistently demeaning. …

83 In our view, based on these considerations, the ordinary reasonable reader would be incited to hatred or serious contempt of the Palestinians by reading the Switzer article. The article uses brief and one sided ‘factual’ information to justify extremely negative generalisations about the Palestinians. It paints them as inferior to the Israelis in the sense that all the features attributed to the Palestinians are negative, while those attributed to the Israelis are consistently positive. It negates the worth and value of the Palestinian people in the peace process. The effect is to incite an ordinary reasonable reader to hate or despise Palestinians, to view them with contempt and to see them as inferior to the Israelis.

Now, you might think that someone who has very publicly been found guilty of inciting ordinary reasonable readers to hate or despise Jews, gay people, or Indigenous Australians – to view them with contempt and to see them as inferior – might not be welcome at such an event. Given that such organisations like to play it safe, one would not expect them to court the controversy and outrage that would be expected if their speaker were a renowned anti-Semite.

But saying such things about Palestinians is just considered an unpleasant side issue.

The UNSW UN Society explained that

as it stands, given that the topic of the Q & A is not in relation to the apparent comments made by Mr. Switzer, and whilst we understand the wariness that has been expressed as regards such strong comments being made, it is not generally the policy of the UNSW UN Society to remove speakers should they have strong opinions on any topic.

You see, racial vilification of Jews is anti-Semitism. But racial vilification of Palestinians is merely ‘strong comments’ or ‘strong opinions’ on another topic. Racial vilification of Palestinians, you see, has no bearing on a talk on China.

The UN Society shows its anodyne values online, where it describes itself as a ‘non-partisan society that aims to foster a diplomatic culture on campus’ that provides a ‘forum for discussion’. If the culture isn’t so diplomatic, and the forum isn’t so welcoming for Palestinians, who cares?

Because malicious generalisations about Palestinians are still acceptable in the West. So acceptable that such villifiers are even welcome at a safe, bland, meaningless uni society forum.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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  1. au contraire! Islam is a political animal leading us back in to ways of sexixm, segregation, totalitarianism and barbarism. Who else hangs boys for homosexuality, stones women for adultery without allowing them to voice defence, circumcises girls at birth, the list goes on. Islam is intolerance. The Quran contains many demands of death to the infidel. People are able to freely speak out against all religions but fear to do so against Islam due to the often violent response. I have experienced this first hand. Comedians dare not deride the dogma of Mohommed as they do all other theological beliefs due to likely personal recriminations. Islam does not abide any argument. Islam does not abide any differences of opinion. Islam quashes free speech. You are ignorant to believe anything else and contribute to the demise of democracy with your feeble justification. Shame on you for jeopardising our children’s future with your cowardly and uninformed commentary. Take your daughters to Afghanistan to reside amongst muslim men before you throw barbs at people with the gumption to speak out on this issue who actually risk their welfare to do so

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