Earlier this year, the Australian government was given special mention by the distinguished intellectual, Bruno Latour. In a lecture titled ‘On Some of the Affects of Capitalism’, Latour singled out Tony Abbott’s leadership for having implemented ‘the Australian strategy of voluntarily sleepwalking toward catastrophe’. Given such a hapless reputation, excessively inflated since the time of Latour’s lecture and by now worthy of popular lampooning, it was not surprising to read reports on the latest phase of this uniquely Australian strategy.
No less surprising was the prime minister heralding the next round of attacks on minority groups. Having already demonstrated its cruelty and complete lack of empathy towards refugees on several occasions, most recently by detaining a 157 of them on a customs vessel, the government has now turned a sinister eye towards the Muslim community.
Appearing at a press conference, and flanked on each side by his imperial accomplices like some modern-day Caesar, Abbott announced the government’s commitment to the safety and security of Australians. Moreover, he stressed, his government would be delivering on that commitment by revamping ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation and supplementing it with greater capabilities to monitor and detain Australian citizens.
In other words, the safety of Australians will be secured by the diminution of the few protections they supposedly enjoy.
The new measures, we are given to understand, are the government’s response to what it describes as the international threat emanating from ‘Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere’. Of course, one would be wishful in thinking that ‘elsewhere’ and ‘other countries’ are references to Israel, where Australian Zionists have been involved in the genocidal campaign against the Palestinians.
Much like the apartheid state it avidly supports, this government reserves its designations of ‘terrorism’ for the Muslim alone: a body that is always potentially suspect and dangerous. The prime minister made this clear in his suggestion that the government will be working in ‘close consultation’ with the Muslim community in particular. It is here that the real reason behind the new measures is divulged. The logic of security and ‘counter-terrorism’ does not need actual terrorism to sustain its practice and circulation. The real ‘threat’ that the government is responding to is that of its own lack of legitimacy; the real spectre hovering over its head is that of democracy.
After announcing the new measures, Abbott went on to explain with barely hidden conceit that the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act would be dropped altogether. The amendments, which were intended to curb the protection against racist and hate speech, were part of a long-running and reactionary campaign to sanctify bigotry. But after heavy criticism and fierce opposition following Attorney-General George Brandis’s absurd assertion that ‘people do have a right to be bigots’, the government was forced to back down.
Presumably, Muslims are now expected to graciously join hands with a wistful yet magnanimous government. Never mind the fact that Muslims, as a religious designation, are technically not covered under the RDA to begin with, which is why some states have introduced other laws targeting religious vilification specifically. The sudden change of heart has far less to do with consulting an at-risk community than it does with mitigating the hubris and failures of a politically bankrupt government; it is not so much an olive branch as a fig leaf.
This year’s budget acted as an article of the government’s faith in unbridled capitalism, and its release was a proud declaration of loyalty to the interests of the rich and powerful in Australia. Since then, Abbott and his ministers have time and again reaffirmed their commitment to the war on minorities, the poor, and the under-privileged. As a result, the government has faced an increasingly alienated and hostile public.
The ‘risk to national unity’ that Abbott cites in justification of his ‘leadership decisions’ is technocratic code for the increasing dissent voiced in opposition to his government by workers, students, and, more recently, rallies demanding the severance of ties with Israel. But instead of addressing the very grievances they have created, and against a tide of democratic demands, the ruling powers have resorted to fashioning a racist consensus of opinion vis-à-vis the amorphous Other.
There will always be those who take offence at racism for all the wrong reasons. In this particular case, it is none other than Andrew Bolt himself, the very individual whose particular brand of vitriol spurred his accomplices in government to propose changes to the RDA in the first place. Bolt described Abbott’s announcements last week as ‘dangerous’, but he was of course not referring to the blatant attack on basic rights that ‘counter-terrorism’ exemplifies, but to the failure of fellow Tories to protect old-school racist ideas, where things are as simple as black and white.
Among the countless things that Bolt is incapable of understanding, however, is the fact that in the post-democratic regime of consensus that Abbott is pushing, there is no longer a place for visible and direct forms of exclusion, no space for difference or disagreement. ‘Everyone’, in Abbott’s own convoluted words, ‘needs to be part of team Australia.’ Those who disagree and fail to cooperate are framed as those who brought the rest of the team down.
The Abbott government’s quest for authoritarian power is now corralling Muslims into a position where they must play the roles of both scapegoat and accomplice. In such a position, the Muslim community is saddled with a double burden. On the one hand, the community is placed in a condition of extended interrogation, in which it must go on the defensive and continuously justify its actions and its handling of ‘radical’ elements. On the other hand, it is pushed into a condition of social isolation, in which its inclination towards political action is more easily checked, and its dissenting and independent voices are either demonised as examples of radicalism and extensions of the ‘terrorist threat’, or brought into line by the more ‘moderate’ and pliable old guard.
This double burden serves to transform the legitimate grievances of a variety of groups and individuals into a ‘problem’ within a homogenised Muslim community, and with the Muslim identity itself. The regime of consensus warps the figure of the Muslim from a coercively excluded other, who can at least act politically to initiate disputes with an accountable government, into a coercively ‘included’ semi-other, who must negotiate with a self-legitimating authority in order to be rehabilitated and acquitted. In other words, the political, speaking subject is reduced to acting as the mouthpiece and self-policing proxy of the very authority that dispossesses it.
Decades ago, Edward Said wrote that ‘the modern Orient … participates in its own orientalising’. Today, the victims of racism must be made to participate in their own racializing – and that is why Abbott must include the Muslim community in the operation of its own exclusion. In the age of neoliberal capitalism, when the state has only the monopoly over violence; when the only protection it is willing to offer is to the rich and private property; when it has relinquished every form of responsibility and confesses subservience only to ‘market forces’, the state must maintain its tenuous hold on legitimacy by other means. It must blunder, blindly as Latour puts it, from one disaster to another, parasitically feeding of the energies and the desires of those it oppresses. In order to continuously create crisis and then restore its legitimacy, the post-democratic state must force its victims to negotiate the terms of their own surrender. The logic of this oblique and twisted contract in fact precludes any possibility of ‘dialogue’, let alone democratic action. To loosely paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, in order for dialogue and consultation to work, your opponent must first accept you as an equal. But a racist government is incapable of such egalitarianism.
Jihadist dole bludgers: in all its perversity, this catchphrase is nevertheless fashionable enough for mainstream Australian media. This language captures more than simply the current climate of sanctioned ignorance. It also speaks to the distorted logic of a government which, in its bid to shun terrorism, is quick to ostracise and disown its own citizens, but remains fervent in its support of Israeli state-terrorism. A government that pronounces without hesitation ‘the right to be a bigot’ and then backs it up with a promise of over $600 million to boost an unashamedly racist ‘counter-terrorism’ policy, yet dismisses as fantastical the rights and claims to free education, accessible healthcare or affordable housing. Jihadi dole bludgers signifies the convergence of the new war on ‘home-grown terrorism’ with that oldest of conflicts: the class struggle, and the attack on the poor and the working class.
In place of this struggle and reality, those in power attempt to simulate a consensus of opinion where a matrix of identities and crude stereotypes – the experts and community leaders, the ‘average’ Australian, the ‘moderate’ Muslim, the bogan, the wog – can all hang out together in fear of the amorphous ‘terrorist’.
No amount of dialogue or bread-breaking will be enough to placate ‘Team Australia’. Muslim leaders were aware of this when they launched a series of boycotts in protest against the bombing of Gaza as well as Abbott’s announcement of the draconian new measures. In the face of consensus, it is precisely this collective agency to disagree, to enunciate a resolute ‘No’, that is the best hope for democratic, political action. The last words belong to the Islamic Council of Victoria:
We will no longer allow such insults and cheap rhetoric to go unanswered.
Our community has been repeatedly targeted in this regard for over 2 decades now and we will not tolerate it any longer. Muslims have been a part of the Australian landscape since before the arrival of Europeans to this land. We have and will continue to make significant contributions to this society and we find it insulting and offensive that we are repeatedly asked to reassert our connection with this country.
Finally we would give the Prime Minister and his Government some free advice. Criminalising the support of rebellions overseas will in no way stop young Australians from doing this. The Government needs to stop focusing on these sensationalist symptoms that accrue them political mileage and genuinely look at the root causes. The question of why young Australians would willingly put themselves in harms way is much more complex than some spurious notion of religious extremism. We would point the Government to its own foreign policies as a starting point. The government stance on the issue of Israel and the massacres in Gaza over the last 4 weeks has done more to ‘radicalise’ people than this boogie monster of radicalisation that it uses to periodically scare the community and divert attention away from the reality.
The Islamic community is not what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. We will no longer stand by and be treated as the demon used by political parties for their own gains. The sooner all politicians come to terms with this the sooner we can have genuine engagement.
Image: ‘For Peace’, by Abdul Abdullah.