Facing Scorn of Public And Press Down Under
AUSTRALIA. IMPACT ON MUSLIMS. Saddam Hussein has called the Gulf conflict a holy war and tried to enlist Muslims around the world in the battle. How are they responding? In some areas with large Muslim populations, such as Pakistan and Southeast Asia, people are in turmoil over their governments' backing of the US-led coalition. At the same time, in some Western nations, Muslims are facing new forms of discrimination.
MANY residents of this small Sydney suburb fled from Lebanon so they could practice their religion and earn a living in peace and safety. Now, the Gulf war has made them highly visible - and open to abuse. According to one woman, dressed in a black veil and long dress, there have been ``heaps of problems'' with verbal abuse or people pulling off the women's veils. And last week a mosque in a nearby suburb was attacked by a primitive Molotov cocktail.
Ali Roude, chairman of the Islamic Council of New South Wales, says, ``The discrimination and abuse against Muslim Australians certainly has seen a dramatic upsurge in the wake of the Gulf conflict and eventual war.'' He blames the news media's handling of the crisis for the increase in violence against Muslims.
For example, this past Sunday the front page of the Sun-Herald, a tabloid, carried a story about an Arab charged with threatening to endanger the safety of an airplane. The headline: ``Aussie Arab Planned to Hijack Jet.'' Next to the story was a photo and story about a suspicious fire at the Jewish School in Sydney. In the story, a policeman says the fire was likely related to the Gulf war.
At the same time, the local news covered the expulsion of Iraq's charg'e d'affaires for ``security reasons.'' There was an implication he was involved with promoting terrorism.
Mr. Roude says there has been a lot of ``disinformation'' about Australian Muslims and their loyalties. ``The media typecast Australian Muslims as unqualifiedly endorsing the invasion of Kuwait and the policies of President Saddam Hussein.... Our reaction to the Iraqi invasion was right from the beginning `thumbs down.'''
Indeed, in interviews, many of the Arabs in Arnecliffe say they are loyal to Australia. ``I like Australia. I am worried about what is going to happen to Australia,'' says Fatima (she would not give her last name), who moved to Australia from Lebanon 15 years ago. Another Lebanese woman sitting on a bench exclaims, ``I love this country and that's all.'' The woman who talks about the ``heaps of problems,'' says of Saddam, ``We don't even like the bloke.''
Bob Hawke, the Australian prime minister, and Nick Greiner, the premier of New South Wales, have been quick to condemn the abuse against the Arabs. Mr. Greiner established a phone line to report incidents of harassment. The state government also established a committee of high-level public servants to keep on top of the situation.
This week, for example, the state commissioner of education warned that Muslim children might be subjected to racial harassment because of the Gulf war.
``I am concerned that these tensions do not create anxieties between various groups of students and staff within our schools,'' says Fenton Sharpe, the director-general of education.
Muslims have a long history in Australia. In fact, Muslim traders from Makasar, Indonesia, landed on Australia's shore before Captain Cook and his ``first fleet.'' Then, 150 years ago, Afghan camel drivers were brought into the country to help in the exploration of the desert interior. These Afghan Muslims built the first mosque in South Australia.
More recently, a flood of refugees has arrived from Lebanon. About 8 percent of the 250,000 Muslims in Australia are Shiite Muslims. The rest are Sunni Muslims from Turkey, Fiji, Pakistan, and scores of other countries.
Typical is Iyhm, an Arnecliff resident who works for Qantas, the national airline. Wearing a pink veil, she says, ``I've had no problems so far. But, we keep our fingers crossed.''