On racism, how to tackle it and why the state often worsens it

My weekly Guardian column:

As an atheist Jew, I find it distinctly uncomfortable to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers. I utterly oppose the inaccuracy, hatred and intolerance that goes with refuting the reality of Nazi crimes against Jews, gay people, Gypsies and many others.

But a truly free society is one that tolerates and encourages strong exchanges of ideas. This includes the most abominable of them, such as those expressed by German born, Australian-citizen, Holocaust denying Frederick Tobin, a regular bogeyman wheeled out to justify laws against offensive thoughts.

I fundamentally share the view expressed by Noam Chomsky that “acceptable speech” should never be decided by the state, because we “don’t want them to have any right to make any decision about what anybody says.” As a result, “a lot of people are going to say things that you think are rotten, and you’re going to say things that a lot of other people think are rotten.”

Australian academic Clinton Fernandes furthers this argument:

“One of the most important points in any discussion about the right of free speech is this: the defence of a person’s right to express certain views is independent of the views actually expressed. Thus, one might defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom to write The Satanic Verses without agreeing with the content of that book – or even needing to read it.”

These issues have all been thrust back into the public spotlight with the Australian government’s desire to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to, in their view, expand free and often inflammatory speech. Attorney general George Brandis said last week that, “it is not, in the government’s view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”

Tellingly, Brandis has also arguably given the green light for intolerance when he said that people “do have a right to be bigots“. Surely the role of any responsible government is to condemn and fight hatred, rather than encourage it.

The response from the vast bulk of the left to the RDA alterations has been horror and opposition. Minority groups are outraged. The Labor party doesn’t support the changes and leader Bill Shorten has urged the Jewish community to lobby hard against the amendments (a request he would probably not make to other, equally affected communities because of the power of Australian groups backing Israel in influencing both major sides of local politics).

The Zionist establishment, long-time backers of the RDA, have written thousands of words in opposition to the government’s proposed changes, but the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. This is coming from individuals and organisations that routinely petition politicians and media organisations to erect tightly controlled limits on so-called acceptable talk around Israel and Palestine, illegal West Bank colonies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They rarely have any complaints when anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian sentiment is floated in the press.

Unlike those groups, I welcome a robust discussion over the limits, intent and interest of the state in trying to restrict the most offensive speech imaginable – although I do have some misgivings.

I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.

In supporting some changes to the RDA – principally supporting the removal of laws against “offensive” speech – I acknowledge that I’m writing this as a privileged white man who has rarely experienced racial abuse or hatred because of my religion (except my public, journalistic frankness over Israel/Palestine and the “war on terror” has brought constant hate mail and even death threats).

And at this stage, I also have to underline the fact that the vast bulk of commentators pushing for changes to the RDA are also white and male. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of female, Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives (there are some exceptions, such as Aboriginal advisorWesley Aird and Sue Gordon, who both back the government’s moves).

As a result, much of the discussion about the RDA is expressed by a political and media class that indulges racism on a daily basis, from theNorthern Territory intervention against Indigenous citizens to our treatment of asylum seekers, racial profiling, or our backing of wars in the Middle East. These groups and individuals don’t really care about tackling everyday racism, preferring to distract the public from their own shocking records instead.

None of this means, though, that those of us who have spent years fighting discrimination against minorities can’t feel uncomfortable with current laws that seek to restrict free speech. The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.

After thinking about this issue for many years, and growing up in the Jewish community I was constantly warned about rampant anti-Semitism, I support this comment by the 20th century American journalist H L Mencken:

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

It may make our hearts sink, but we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community.

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How Israel brutally imposes regional order (yet fails to get respect)

A strong piece by Larry Derfner in +972 magazine:

Most people in the West, I’d say, think that if Israel gives up the occupation, it will be healed. It will no longer be a danger to others and itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and additional proof of this came Monday night when Israeli jet bombers again struck Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack was another reminder that even if Israel were to get out of the West Bank and adopt a hands-off policy toward Gaza, it still believes it has the right to bomb neighboring countries to retard their military develoIpment, all the while Israel itself, of course, goes on building its arsenal to the heavens.

That won’t change if Israel signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Hezbollah will still be arming itself across the border, Muslim countries will sooner or later try to build nuclear weapons. And Israel won’t tolerate that; Israel will keep sending out the jet bombers (unless, as in the case with Iran, America puts its foot down).

Israel’s regional military policy – bombing Iraq’s embryonic nuclear reactor (which marked not the end of Saddam’s nuclear program, but really its beginning), bombing Syria’s embryonic nuclear reactor, killing Iranian nuclear scientists, killing Hezbollah’s military chief, bombing Hamas-bound arms convoys in Sudan, and, the latest obsession, bombing Hezbollah-bound arms convoys along the Lebanese-Syrian border – is more dangerous, at least in the short term, than the occupation. Any of these attacks could start a war, and eventually one of them is likely to do just that, unless you believe that Israel can go on hitting its neighbors indefinitely without them ever hitting back. (Since the 2006 war in Lebanon, the blowback has been limited to a Hezbollah terror attack that killed five Israelis on a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, and an Iranian attack on the Israeli embassy in New Delhi that injured the wife of a diplomat.)

Another way in which Israel’s regional military policy is a worse problem than the occupation is the complete acceptance of it by the country’s Jewish majority, and the apathy toward it from the Western world. That these attacks are acts of military aggression by a regional superpower using bombs to maintain its “qualitative edge” doesn’t seem to matter to anyone; Hezbollah is bad, Iran is bad, Syria is bad, they’re all bad, and Israel is good, or at least relatively good, so anything goes. (As long as it doesn’t backfire.) These enemies are “pledged to Israel’s destruction,” they’re “militant Islamists,” so Israel can attack them to its heart’s content. They don’t have to fire any missiles at Israel, they just have to possess those missiles (which are a pittance compared to Israel’s), and any Israeli bombing run on their territory automatically becomes “self-defense.”

It goes without saying that if any of the neighbors bombed Israel’s advanced weapons or killed its nuclear scientists or even tried to fly a spy plane through its airspace, which Israel does about every other day in Lebanon, it would be treated as an act of war, an attempt to destroy this country.

You would think that a nation which is so much stronger than its enemies, which attacks them time after time without getting hit back, would one day say: “What do you know – they’re afraid of me. That means I don’t have to attack them – I just have to sit on my military superiority and I’ll be safe. There’s a name for this, isn’t there? Oh yeah – deterrence.” Israel’s deterrence, as seen again in Monday night’s lethal, unanswered attack on Hezbollah, is absolutely incredible. Hezbollah, Syria, Iran – as much as they loathe Israel, as much as they’d love to attack it, not only don’t they attack, they very rarely lift a finger when Israel attacks them! Yet this country goes on doing it because it believes that if these enemies ever get even a fraction of the sophisticated weaponry Israel has, they will go for the kill.

The problem with this theory is it assumes that Iraq, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah (not to mention the Palestinians, who have been under attack 24/7 for nearly half a century) are willing to destroy themselves for the sake of destroying this country. Because no matter how strong they get, they will never be able to carry out a crushing, life-threatening attack on Israel, even with nuclear weapons, without ending up in smoking ruins themselves.

But Israeli policy is based on the assumption that its enemies are willing – no, eager – to pay that price. They are willing to die en masse for the privilege of annihilating the Jewish state. And there’s no deterrence against that, there’s only, as Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to call it, “vigilance.”

Yet what does this assumption say about Israel’s view of its enemies? That they’re not exactly human. They’re willing to sacrifice their entire country, their entire society, for the sake of destroying this one. What human society has ever been willing to do that? What species of animal has ever been homicidal to the point of collective suicide? Yet this is what Israel believes about its enemies, which is why it can’t stop bombing them. We’re up against a “culture of death.” As Golda Meir said, in one of the most beloved aphorisms of Zionist history, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

This is what we believe: that the Arabs hate us more than they love their children.

There is a term for an attitude such as ours: “dehumanization.”

It is dehumanization of Arabs, of Muslims, that causes Israel to go on bombing its enemies even when those enemies don’t retaliate, even when they are incomparably weaker than Israel, even when it’s self-evident to Israel that those enemies know how weak they are and how strong Israel is. We bomb them because we know that if they ever stop being weak, they will kill us, even though they know we will kill them, too, because they don’t care. They hate us more than they love their own children.

They’re not human. There’s no deterrence against them. Only vigilance.

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A new year and BDS already challenging heart of Zionism

Strong piece in this weekend’s New York Times by Palestinian Omar Barghouti on the logic and increasing power of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] against Israel:

The landslide vote by the American Studies Association in December to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, coming on the heels of a similar decision by the Association for Asian-American Studies, among others, as well as divestment votes by several university student councils, proves that B.D.S. is no longer a taboo in the United States.

The B.D.S. movement’s economic impact is also becoming evident. The recent decision by the $200 billion Dutch pension fund, PGGM, to divest from the five largest Israeli banks due to their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory has sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment.

To underscore the “existential” danger that B.D.S. poses, Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This unfounded allegation is intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism.

Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, it also presumes that Israel and “the Jews” are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.

The B.D.S. movement’s call for full equality in law and policies for the Palestinian citizens of Israel is particularly troubling for Israel because it raises questions about its self-definition as an exclusionary Jewish state. Israel considers any challenge to what even the Department of State has criticized as its system of “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens as an “existential threat,” partially because of the apartheid image that this challenge evokes.

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How Western-backed Saudi fundamentalism is causing chaos

One of the great unspoken truths of the 21st century. After this week’s shocking terrorist acts in Russia, it’s possible (though impossible to know) that Saudi Arabia may be behind the carnage (they threatened as much a few months ago).

The venerable Patrick Cockburn, writing in the UK Independent, on the ominous signs of sectarian madness in the Middle East and globally. The West turns a blind eye:

Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last month it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.

At the beginning of December, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station. Days before the attack, he announced that armies and tribes would assault the hospital “to take revenge for our brothers. We say this and, by the grace of Allah, we will do it”.

Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qa’ida across the Middle East, to a degree that Western politicians have so far failed to grasp. In the last year, Isis has become the most powerful single rebel military force in Iraq and Syria, partly because of its ability to recruit suicide bombers and fanatical fighters through the social media. Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.

Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia. In Benghazi, in effect the capital of eastern Libya, a jihadi group uploaded a video of the execution of an Iraqi professor who admitted to being a Shia, saying they had shot him in revenge for the execution of Sunni militants by the Iraqi government.

There is now a fast-expanding pool of jihadis willing to fight and die anywhere. The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies may find, as happened in Afghanistan 30 years ago, that, by funding or tolerating the dissemination of Sunni-Shia hate, they have created a sectarian Frankenstein’s monster of religious fanatics beyond their control. 

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Beware the saviours of the new atheists

Here’s my weekly Guardian column (from last week):

There’s nothing like an internal critic taking on the most powerful force in his religion.

Roy Bourgeois is an American Catholic priest. He’s the founder of School of the Americas Watch, a group dedicated to closing the US Army School of the Americas – a military training centre for Latin American officers from nations with horrible human rights records. After Pope Francis recently damned capitalism as a “new tyranny”, Bourgeois told Democracy Now! that he welcomed the strong comments, but urged the Catholic head to go much harder:

“Pope Francis must simply come out … and say, we are all created of equal worth and dignity. We do not have this inclusiveness in the Roman Catholic Church. Therein lies the problem … I highly recommend that our viewers go to the catechism of the Catholic church which talks about the church’s official doctrines and teachings. Some of them, especially dealing with women and homosexuality, I would refuse to read on the air. It is so offensive, it’s so cruel … The Pope must get serious and start talking about inclusiveness in the Catholic church.”

In the same vein, George Monbiot recently damned Pope Francis for whispering some progressive thoughts and throwing bones to liberals desperate to imagine the Catholic hierarchy as open to reform, while still celebrating the worst forms of colonialism and fanaticism. Don’t expect to be welcomed into the highest echelons of Rome if you’re female, openly gay, married or polyamorous. For these reasons alone, the church must be treated with the contempt such views deserve.

But the argument must not end there.

A dangerous trend has developed in the last decade with the advent of the “new atheism” movement – it often states that people in business, politics and entertainment should avoid discussing religion, and how faith affects their lives. According to its proponents, belief is pathetic and tired, anti-intellectual and predictable. Anybody who follows the Quran, Bible, Torah or other holy book should “grow up” and stop following the teachings of old, bearded men from a time when women were little more than ornaments and baby makers.

How terribly wrong and bigoted such advocates are.

I write this as an atheist, anti-Zionist Jew who worries about the conservative religious views of my prime minister Tony Abbott – journalist Geoff Kitney once accurately described him as a leader who presents “brand Australia” as “neo-conservative nationalism with a populist twist”. Abbott’s intervention against abortion drug RU486 and traditional (and often sexist) politics must be repelled and challenged. Australia in the 21st century should strive for gender, sex, religious and pay equality.

All these concerns are valid: religious views must not influence governmental decisions about abortion, reproductive health or gender parity. But too often aggressive atheists, perhaps rhetorically competing with the most militant religious fanatics, argue that religion is a disease that needs a cure. Taking comfort or lessons from religion is a perfectly legitimate way to live life. Private atheism is as harmless as quietly praying in a church, synagogue or mosque. New atheists are always quick to forget that some of the finest advocates for human rights and justice are religious believers.

US atheist philosopher Sam Harris - lover of US imperialism in the Muslim world and Israel - recently praised the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai as “the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years.” He went on:

“She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam.”

In his rush to demonise hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, Harris clearly hadn’t read the words of Malala herself, praising traditional Islam:

“The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us … I’m still following my own culture, Pashtun culture … Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.’

Harris and his many followers in the new atheist movement are desperate to eradicate religion from public life – though it’s worth noting the vast bulk of their hatred is directed at Islam and not Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism. Unfortunately, it ignores the fundamental tenet of personal, religious belief: on its own faith isn’t oppressive. It’s the organised nature of law and teachings that can overwhelm and demean. The fact that Malala clearly wanted a devout Muslim life is an inconvenience conveniently ignored by Harris – it goes to the heart of the unthinking, visceral disdain shown towards religious adherents.

We too often poke fun at political leaders who espouse certain religious views only to have a change of heart – like former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who reversed his position on gay marriage and arrived at the conclusion that it was un-Christian to discriminate against gay couples. This shows there is place for debate and U-turns in religion – and surely this is something to be welcomed.

The ideal secular nation is one where people of all faiths, or none, believe that everybody is encouraged to not feel ashamed of public displays of faith. The richness of humanity, after all, lies in the desire to avoid sterility and uniformity.

An atheist utopia sounds like a nightmare on earth.

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How US/Australia intelligence collusion rightly concerns Asia

My weekly Guardian column is here:

Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?

There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.

When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.

Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.

The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.

We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.

Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.

The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.

The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.

So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.

And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.

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Hold the champagne, but nuclear deal with Iran (probably) avoids war

Robert Fisk on the winners and those who are pissed that a war against Tehran may not now happen:

It marks a victory for the Shia in their growing conflict with the Sunni Muslim Middle East. It gives substantial hope to Bashar al-Assad that he will be left in power in Syria. It isolates Israel. And it infuriates Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and other Sunni Gulf States which secretly hoped that a breakdown of the Geneva nuclear talks would humiliate Shia Iran and support their efforts to depose Assad, Iran’s only ally in the Arab world.

In the cruel politics of the Middle East, the partial nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s six most important powers proves that the West will not go to war with Iran and has no intention – far into the future – of undertaking military action in the region. We already guessed that when – after branding Assad as yet another Middle Eastern Hitler – the US, Britain and France declined to assault Syria and bring down the regime. American and British people – those who had to pay the price for these monumental adventures, because political leaders no longer lead their men into battle – had no stomach for another Iraq or another Afghanistan.

Iran’s sudden offer to negotiate a high-speed end to this cancerous threat of further war was thus greeted with almost manic excitement by the US and the EU, along with theatrical enthusiasm by the man who realises that his own country has been further empowered in the Middle East: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Assad’s continued tenure in Damascus is assured. Peace in our time. Be sure we’ll be hearing that Chamberlonian boast uttered in irony by the Israelis in the weeks to come.

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David Hicks deserves justice, an apology and compensation

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.

Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.

Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.

Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.

This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.

Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.

There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.

It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.

Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”

Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.

Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”

Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.

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Why it should not be unlawful to offend a person because of their race

Today the Guardian hosts a discussion about the proposed changes to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. Writer and academic Alana Lentin argues the laws should remain while I state they need reform:

Alana Lentin

The right to offend is often held up by liberals everywhere as more important than the right to be offended. But posing the problem of protection from racial discrimination in this way suggests that “taking offence” is a choice of the same order as being deliberately offensive.

When Aboriginal people, asylum seekers and other racialised groups are told that those who vilify them in the press – often touting stereotypes and outright lies – are merely voicing their opinions in a free society, their experience tells them that a truly free society would not look like today’s Australia. Democracy exists in name, but systemic inequality makes a mockery of it.

When Andrew Bolt and his political supporters speak of rights, they know as well as any critical legal theorist that rights are far from universal, despite the rhetoric. The message sent to those victimised is “why can’t you just be free like me? Why can’t you get beyond the identity, the difference, that calls for it to be pointed out and ridiculed?” For example, those in favour of publishing the infamous 2004 “Muhammad cartoons” claimed that for Muslims to take offence was ridiculous, as to follow Islam is a choice that could just as easily be renounced. Tell that to any man or woman next time they are suspected of being a Muslim terrorist just because they’re not white.

By repealing the so-called “Bolt laws”, Brandis is not only telling racialised minorities in Australia that the right to vilify them is more important than their right to be protected from racist insults, he is going a step further. At the very least, this ends the duplicitousness of the “antiracist racist state.” However, political point scoring is not a good reason for lauding the repeal.

Some on the (white) left who support Brandis argue that curbing media freedom opens the door to Zionist groups using racial discrimination law to sanction those calling for a boycott of Israel. As a Jew, an Israeli citizen and a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporter, I reject this. We must be able to protect those who face the worst racism in our society from the spread of hatred, while at the same time exposing the nonsensical equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

In matters of race, freedom of speech only protects the right of some to offend; and the right of those in power to be offended has, and always will continue to be protected anyway.

Antony Loewenstein

The proposed changes by Australian Attorney General George Brandis to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) – removing a section that makes it illegal to insult and offend people because of their race – have nothing to do with freedom of speech. Ignore the true believers who say they are.

It displays a selective concern about dissenting views. Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is being taken to the federal court after allegedly breaching the RDA over his support for BDS against Israel, and yet Brandis has said nothing. I would hazard that these ideologues support “free speech” that empowers their worldview, not oppressed minorities. It’s an unsurprising first legislative move by a new government which will do nothing to widen the range of views in the public square.

In spite of this, I believe Brandis’ proposed changes should be welcomed – albeit with clear caveats. I agree with Sarah Joseph, director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, who points out that “there is no human right not to be offended or insulted“. The Centre welcomes the amendments, pointing out they’re consistent with international law, but calls to retain a restriction of intimidation and humiliation over race. The Human Rights Law Centre has also called for reform and not repeal of the RDA.

Section 18c of the RDA, which is set to be amended, was used in the successful prosecution of Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt in 2011after he attacked the credibility of Aboriginal Australians. His popular and far from silenced newspaper responded with the front page headline This is a Sad Day for Freedom of Speech. Bolt and his colleagues have suffered no loss or lack of voice ever since.

But the principle is nonetheless important – and section 18c isn’t keeping the racist hordes at the door. Fighting intolerance and discrimination isn’t the job of an ever more powerful state. It must be fought in the public domain while never forgetting the profound power disparity between different individuals or groups. Bolt has the right to express his odious views, but I have an equal responsibility to challenge them vigorously.

In the meantime, if Tony Abbott’s government was serious about strengthen Australia’s democracy, it would improve FOI lawsrelease basic information about asylum seekers, and reform onerous defamation laws that protect the rich and powerful.

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How do we know right from wrong

My recent book, For God’s Sake, continues to generate interest in debates over the ethics and actions of daily life. 

Here’s an extract published in ABC Religion and Ethics:

Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock wrestle with their own traditions and each other over the question of how to determine what is morally right and how we, in turn, should live.

Rachel Woodlock

She stared at me with big brown eyes. Both her and the small child on her hip looked wispy, their clothes threadbare, both living on the margins of existence. That’s how I’ll always remember them, be haunted by them. Maria, a fellow language student, and I were wandering through local Yemeni markets searching for gifts for friends back in Australia.

She followed us waiting for an opportunity to ask if we might bestow some generosity on her. Finally, she came close and gingerly put out her hand. Maria shook her head firmly, and steered me away commenting, “You should never give to beggars. It just encourages them.” I was too embarrassed to challenge Maria, feeling foolish to seem so gullible. I’ll never forget the look on her face – a mixture of sadness, disgust, hopelessness and curiosity that with all our money to fritter away, we had no heart to give her even a few token riyals. From time to time I remember to pray for her.

These situations seem designed to test a person’s flaws, like water to a clay pot, revealing where each otherwise unobservable crack is hidden. Often it’s not intellectual consistency with a moral philosophy that’s revealed, but some startlingly base behaviour: submission to authority, self-interest and weakness to peer pressure. This is what Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his now infamous experiment where people were ordered to administer (fake) electric shocks to a person in distress. Milgram and his team set up a scenario where unwitting subjects were asked to “teach” a simple language task to a learner who was really an actor in a different room. Whenever the learner apparently made a mistake, the subject was instructed to shock the learner. The experimenters were actually playing pre-recorded distress noises, and the levels were increased to the point where the subjects were made to believe something dire had happened to the learner in the other room. Milgram wished to observe how bad things would have to get before ordinary people would buck against orders and do the right thing.

It turns out most of us will obey authority even when it so obviously conflicts basic ethics. This is why, taught Prophet Muhammad, the jihad (struggle) to live a moral life is greater than fighting in any military war. Battling to choose the good over self-interest takes a lifetime of training, according to the spiritual adepts.

While to the vast majority of us, acts of great evil – Nazis committing genocide against the Jews, Soviets starving political prisoners in communist gulags, paedophile priests assaulting children, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers targeting innocents – are clearly wrong, more ambiguous moral conundrums require some introspection. Is it wrong to tell your friend she looks fabulous when she proudly shows off her mullet dress?

Historically, Muslim theologians and philosophers debated morality, questioning whether acts are intrinsically good or bad, or whether they are arbitrarily named so by God. Some argued that good and bad exist objectively – for instance, that killing and lying are inherently and under every circumstance wrong. Others pointed out, no, in some extremely rare cases it is right to kill and to lie.

Take the case of the Muslims during the 1994 Rwandan genocide who saved many Tutsi lives based on a lie. In 2009, Jason Klocek interviewed the head mufti of Rwanda, Sheikh Saleh Habimana, asking him how Muslims were able to shelter Tutsis, given the danger to their own lives, to which the Sheikh replied:

“[W]e Muslims had an advantage. You see, for many years Hutus had been taught to fear Muslims. They were scared of our mosques, so we could hide Tutsis there without fear of Hutus entering. Hutus had been taught that our mosques were houses of the devil. They were taught that the devil lived in Muslim homes, too. “From one perspective, the lie that mosques are full of devils was harmful, yet the same lie proved so useful in saving many innocent lives.

There’s a postscript to my opening story. When an old Yemeni friend reached out and asked for help, I knew immediately what the right thing to do was. The 2012 food crisis had hit him and his family hard, with the lack of work due to political turmoil affecting soaring food prices. With some generous and compassionate friends, including a number of Twitter mates, I got together enough funds to help his family repay some food debts and buy enough stocks for several months. I hope it makes up for my shame just a little.

Antony Loewenstein

I was standing in a refugee camp in Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti. It was September 2012, more than two and a half years after the devastating earthquake that ravaged the impoverished country and killed up to 250,000 people. It was a steamy hot day and a sea of human beings – men, women and children – were living in squalor. Many had been there for years, failed by the UN, NGOs, the United States government and other foreign powers. The smell of faeces filled the air as the day came to a close. The sun shone on the men playing dominos while many women stood around chastising their dirty children.

Words failed me. I asked questions of men who were keen to express their frustration to a Western journalist, but I felt impotent, an imposter, useless. All my questions seemed trivial. “Why has the world forgotten us?” was a constant refrain. Giving a response seemed worse than saying nothing at all, so I simply expressed sympathy and solidarity with their plight, promising to report fairly what I saw. I’d rarely felt more aware of the inadequacy of journalism as a tool for positive change.

What I witnessed was wrong and cruel. It’s hard to imagine anybody challenging that assessment. I didn’t need God, spirituality, my Judaism or faith to understand that claiming to assist a place such as Haiti, and pledging billions of dollars to do so, is radically different from ensuring the money actually reaches the people who most desperately need it.

Talking about doing good is irrelevant when people are still suffering. It’s a Western indulgence to think we’re helping to bring any sense of true dignity to the Haitian people just by donating money to a favoured charity or believing our governments when they say they’re doing all they can. We make a moral call, as I did when seeing the reality up close in all its grimness, that it’s right to do more than simply express hurt and impotence. It’s called being human.

Like every conscious human being, I have lied and cheated. I have wished ill on people. I have done wrong many times and will inevitably do so again for as long as I live. The older I become the less sure I am about the certainties of my youth. I don’t believe my values have fundamentally shifted but I’ve become sometimes more tolerant of intolerance. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I’m far more interested in understanding where somebody who’s acting correctly has come from, what in their past has made them do right.

I’m very much in the “nurture not nature” school of thought. You aren’t born good nor are you born a Nazi. The values we inherit from family, friends, media, religion, travelling or partners develop over a lifetime. But these values aren’t universally shared. Sadly, in some Muslim communities, rape is defended and even encouraged. In some Jewish circles, the killing of Palestinians is classed as an unavoidable reality. In many Catholic communities, abortions are denied even in cases of incest.

Faith can be distorted. Faith can bring renewal. Faith can be life-affirming. Faith can make people do good and give a moral framework within which to build a life. I don’t think I’m being equivocal by arguing against the demonisation of religious faith in an age of reason. There are untold millions of people globally who give their time and money to various causes principally because they believe they’re doing good in the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus. None of this means it’s necessarily unthinking charity or pressure from an imam.

When there’s no one definition of goodness and evil in the world – things that were seen as an abomination by the vast majority of citizens in the West a few decades ago, such as gay sex, are now popularised through mainstream Hollywood, situated in one of the most conservative Christian nations on earth – it’s inevitable that most of us will be able to agree only on the bare minimum of what’s wrong in our society.

We exaggerate allegedly noble Judaeo-Christian “values” when many of them are inherently racist, homophobic and intolerant. Building a just society requires progressing beyond the tired arguments of past decades, when believers would instruct non-believers they would go to hell because they didn’t feel the love of an omnipotent being. We learn what’s right and wrong from experience and these can and should change throughout our lives.

It’s incumbent on us all to remember that nobody has a monopoly on goodness or evil, right or wrong. We’re all capable, no matter our background, of being a bit of both, and liking it.

Jane Caro

I do not believe that children are born in sin, or born sinners. I do not believe that people can only be good if they’re bribed with promises of heavenly reward or threatened with eternal damnation. I believe that people are likely to do the right thing unless they’ve been warped and damaged – particularly in childhood – and so have lost that innate capacity to treat others as they’d like to be treated.

My own moral compass is fundamentally based on the Golden Rule. If I wouldn’t like something done to me, then I assume other people wouldn’t like it done to them. Such a simple ethical framework, and yet it covers murder, torture, stealing, cheating, lying, hitting, hurting, kidnapping, threatening, bullying, intimidation, slavery and a thousand and one other crimes both great and small. It also means I cannot countenance racism, sexism or homophobia.

I use another moral philosophy to help me decide right and wrong, and that’s the right of everyone to live as they wish, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. My greatest desire is for the liberty and freedom to do what I freely choose to do without answering to others. To be granted the respect that I am capable of making my own decisions and strong enough to live with the consequences, be they good or bad, is how I wish to be “done by.” And I try to grant that same respect to others.

I’m simply not interested in other people’s sex lives. As long as all the activities involved are between consenting adults, I have no moral problem with multiple sex partners, use of any or all orifices, positions, combinations or even fetish behaviour, including freely consented-to sadomasochism. How other people give and receive physical pleasure is not for me to judge, and I actively object to attempts to restrict them. I have many more moral qualms about old-fashioned marriage – particularly when it included conjugal rights – than I have about the honest, transparent, economic transactions involved in legal, well-regulated prostitution.

Which brings me to moral dilemmas such as the right to safe, legal abortion. I am a firm believer in a woman’s right to choose and have had an abortion myself. I don’t intend to go into my personal decision here, but my own morality demands that I also do not act the hypocrite. In cases like abortion, I’m guided by a pragmatic belief in choosing what I regard as the lesser of two evils. Because I don’t believe in a soul, I have no hesitation in putting the rights, hopes and liberty of the sentient human being (the woman) ahead of the potential human being (her foetus). As a mother, I’m very much aware of the commitment and effort required to bring up children well. I believe that such a demanding relationship should always be entered into voluntarily. I would also argue that this is an entirely moral decision. I’m perfectly willing to respect that others make a different moral decision about abortion based on their own deeply held beliefs.

However, my moral beliefs about the world are also the reason I fiercely oppose attempts to restrict access to safe, legal terminations. It’s also why I believe in the right of the terminally ill to access voluntary euthanasia, and yet am opposed to capital punishment. To me, there’s nothing contradictory about these beliefs because they are about fundamentally respecting each individual’s right to decide the circumstances of their own life and death. To kill another sentient being – whatever they may have done – is against my moral code. To choose to die or to end a potential life because you don’t believe you can adequately parent the child it will become, may be regrettable – even tragic (just as the suffering person would prefer not to be ill, the woman would have preferred not to fall pregnant) – but not immoral.

I find the use of shame by religions to prevent adults enjoying the full delight of human sexuality morally repugnant. To me, it’s simply wrong to have made so many people feel so miserable and guilty about what is not only entirely natural behaviour, but also the source of so much joy.

I am also suspicious of the sanctimony of much religion. Always putting the other ahead of oneself smacks of masochism and manipulation. The unrealistic expectation of selflessness becomes another stick to beat people with. I don’t understand why seeking pleasure, as long as it doesn’t prevent others from doing the same, is a bad thing. I prefer the brisk, upfront honesty of the negotiation between what I want and what someone else wants, expressed candidly, to the sickly-sweet self-effacement of selflessness. Sometimes it’s generous to take and allow others to give. For me, true morality lies in being self-responsible.

Simon Smart

Very often the difference between right and wrong is complex and far from obvious. There are times when the answers to ethical puzzles involve choosing between the lesser of two evils. But from where do we source our wisdom for such choices? In attempting an answer, the West once relied on a worldview that was thoroughly soaked in the Bible and its depiction of what is true and real.

Even as modernity took shape and a strong current of thought came to regard ethics as based on human reason, a massive system of moral values and practices based on Christ’s teaching continued to exert influence in terms of what was considered good and right. Since then, large and relatively sudden cultural shifts have delivered us to the point where the ultimate reference point for establishing right practice in the social realm appears to run no deeper than human desire and will. Simply to desire something is seen as a good enough reason for doing it.

But without an outside influence, ethics becomes about whatever we can construct for ourselves, or whatever stories our society tells itself. That could mean a society that chooses solidarity, kindness and compassion just as easily as one that chooses fascism and the building of death camps. Those who object have no higher authority to appeal to, and so, as atheist philosopher Richard Rorty admits, the “good” under such circumstances becomes whatever those in power decide it to be.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need faith to lead a good life. It’s obvious that plenty of people who have rejected the idea of God or religion can and do make heroic contributions to society and lead thoroughly ethical lives. But having lost the transcendent, the ground on which ethics rests becomes decidedly unsteady. Take human rights. On what basis can we say, along with theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, that all men and women are equally valuable, possessing an inherent dignity such that we should act towards them in a spirit of brotherhood?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor of philosophical theology at Yale University, wrote about this in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs. According to him, the attempt to find a basis for human rights apart from a theistic framework is bound to fail, whereas the notion of intrinsic worth bestowed by the creator establishes a firm foundation for rights in a way nothing else can. Human rights established on the basis of being merely a social fact of a civilised society are feeble at best and defenceless before powerful opposition. Wolterstorff argues that the “image of God” status of each individual that emerges from the Judaeo-Christian framework provides the only stable basis for the notion of inalienable human rights.

What also emerges from such a framework is Christianity’s key ethic: love for God and neighbour, which includes care for the weak and oppressed.

I suspect that Jane’s resistance to the idea of living self-sacrificially might stem from her fear that women especially are likely to be disadvantaged by such thinking, and fair enough. But in Christianity, what Jane calls “sickly-sweet self-effacement” is in fact not about being a willing subject of manipulation and other people’s selfishness, but being drawn into a vision of reality that offers the mutual cultivation of human life and love. Putting ethical questions before the “test of love” as the measure of how to act is a crucial part of this. It’s the sort of motivation for action that leads so many of the aid and charitable agencies to care for those on the scrapheap of urban poverty and homelessness; to pour resources into the developing world to ease crises and contribute to long-term change for those unlucky enough to have been born in the wrong place; to provide protection and dignity to the aged and people with dementia. It’s what has for centuries impelled people to sacrifice comfort, time and wealth to alleviate suffering and work ceaselessly on behalf of powerless and vulnerable people. Can you get that from “enlightened self-interest”?

Jesus talked about “losing your life in order to find it,” which, interestingly, is a paradox that all the current “happiness” researchers say we need to understand – the centrality and priority of relationships, the benefit of “other-person-centredness” and the personal satisfaction and benefit that comes from putting your interests aside to serve others.

My point is not that people of faith are the only ones doing this, but that they have a powerful reason for doing it that is grounded in and consistent with their view of the world and all of reality.

Our culture has been so shaped by the Christian story that even in cases where we have rejected or forgotten the story itself, its influence forms much of the ground on which we stand, shaping our view of each other and ourselves. That influence is undoubtedly waning, but what will replace it is hard to see. Perhaps we’ll find ways to live well together and foster a culture of fairness, justice and love, but I suspect it will take something a heck of a lot more profound than polite civility, faith in human goodness and collecting your neighbour’s mail when they’re away on holidays.

Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock are the authors of For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion, from which this article is drawn.

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What asylum seekers are facing on the ground and why support is desperately needed

My weekly Guardian column is published today (here’s my archive):

Blind compassion is killing the asylum seeker debate. While Tony Abbott entangles his new government in megaphone diplomacy with Indonesia,upsetting our biggest neighbour in the process, refugees are struggling to survive closer to home.

Vast swaths of the Australian public remain hostile towards asylum seekers, and the advocacy groups supporting them need to ask if the strategy they employed over the last decade is partly responsible for it. Accusing the bulk of Australians of racism and discrimination, a common catch-cry of the left, has done nothing except harden hearts and allow media and political elites to ramp up cruel policies towards the most vulnerable souls landing on our shores.

The previous Labor government instituted a harsh regime of dumping asylum seekers out of detention without work rights, and the Coalition is set to deepen the problem. As a result of these policies, asylum seekers require community support. But according to Sri Lanka-born Ramesh Fernandez, CEO and founder of NGO Rise: refugee survivors and ex-detainees, this is not happening nearly enough. I met him last week at his organisation’s office, a small, bustling space in the heart of Melbourne.

refugees centreRamesh Fernandez and Nazeem Hussain. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

As new arrivals visit Rise for legal advice on their refugee status, mass persecution continues in Fernandez’s birth country – despite the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, claiming otherwise. The Australian ran a fawning profile of Bishop last week. In it, she stated that on a trip to Sri Lanka this year she neither saw nor heard any evidence of persecution against Tamils, although statements by human rights group around the world proves the fallacy of this allegation.

Fernandez was released from mandatory detention in 2004 after spending time on Christmas Island and at the Baxter detention centre in South Australia. He says that he’s proud of the fact that Rise is the first asylum seeker organisation to be run by ex-detainees and people of non-white background. Rise is not funded by the federal government, and routinely refuses offers by the department of immigration to apply for grants.

Fernandez is outspoken and unforgiving towards the vast bulk of asylum seeker support services. Just this week, he sent out a press release damning the Uniting Church and human rights lawyer Julian Burnside for pushing for temporary mandatory detention. “Will the Uniting Church or any other organisations or community groups ever have the courage,” he wrote, “to call for humanitarian reception centres and hostels used in the past in Australia that assist in the rehabilitation of a group of people who are fleeing from situations of extreme trauma and cruelty, rather than advocating for the detention and security industry and stop compromising the lives and wellbeing of the refugee community for the sake of PR?”

The group has released a list of the companies making a fortune from privatised detention, and also didn’t spare community groups receiving federal government money, such as Anglicare, Wesley Mission and the Salvation Army.

“All human rights groups in Australia use unhealthy emotional attachment to refugees,” Fernandez tells me. “I’m against the stereotyping of refugees with sad and crying faces. White guilt is rampant, which often causes people to act to make themselves feel better rather than empowering asylum seekers. I want refugees to have a voice in this debate. I hate how refugees are often told at refugee rallies, by asylum seeker groups, “thanks for coming”, which is patronising and crazy when it’s white people saying that to brown and black people. Australia is one of the most racist nations in the world. Australia has never accepted that it has a racist past.”

Rise hosts a food bank, hip-hop concerts by asylum seekers, English classes, legal advice, publishes art and writing by refugee survivors, has a library featuring books by primarily non-white authors and a drop-in centre for children and adults. There are now 1,060 registered refugees with the group, and the need for such services has never been higher.

One of Rise’s volunteers is Nazeem Hussain, a Muslim comedian with a Sri Lankan background who performs with the group Fear of a Brown Planet and is the star of the SBS skit-show Legally Brown. Hussain tells me, “I grew up in a community of refugees and Rise is the only group I know that has the understanding of what they’re going through. Too many people are involved in the asylum seeker movement to feel good about themselves instead of helping refugees. Australia has a huge problem with racism, affirmed by both major sides of politics. The intervention against Indigenous people in the Northern Territory is mostly ignored because the racism is accepted.”

Over in west Melbourne, I visit the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre(ASRC). Community team leader Jana Favero shows me around the three story office building. She fears the coming three to six months under the Abbott government will tighten the noose around refugee rights and reduce their ability to source legal and community care. ASRC’s funding is mostly from private donations and philanthropy, with only 5% from the Victorian government, which ensures they’re not at Canberra’s mercy.

Favero worries that the “Abbott government could put pressure on the immigration department to discontinue our mostly good relationship between us and them, helping individual refugee cases.” ASRC never has enough money for the daily assistance in food, legal advice, housing, english and children’s classes and job hunting (for refugees allowed to work). Thousands of asylum seekers remain in limbo, on visas that don’t allow them full rights and unsure when that status will change, if ever.

Every day, volunteers cook up a lunch meal for up to 150 asylum seekers with donated food. Refugees have access to a large storage room for food, soap and healthcare products thanks to a needs-based points system. Refugee families are also given assistance in cooking healthy meals. During my visit, I meet Hazara men and women, African asylum seekers and, since it was during school holidays, a few rampaging kids. ASRC becomes an unofficial child care centre at various times during the day, and its office now opens into the night a few times a week to cope with the huge demand for services.

The ASRC’s Pamela Curr worries that the new federal government will only increase the secrecy around asylum seekers, a policy ably challenged by the Australian’s Mark Day this week. “I know of government-backed contractors signing confidentiality agreements and NGOs forcing staff with poor english to sign agreements with no legal standing”, Curr says. “They claim that speaking out in the media is not the way forward, private engagement with the immigration department is better, but it’s not born out by the facts.” One year after the re-introduction of off-shore processing, she despairs as she still hears stories of young men being raped and abused on Manus Island.

Resistance to the Coalition’s policies, coupled with outlining viable alternatives, is surely the best way to reform Australia’s dysfunctional relationship with asylum seekers.

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Jeremy Scahill gives background to Somalia’s Al-Shabab

The horrific attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi continues to generate headlines around the world. But what’s the background to the attacks, who are Somalia’s Al-Shabab terror group and what’s been the position of US and Kenyan intervention in the region?

Jeremy Scahill, author of the recent book Dirty Wars, tells Democracy Now! that Washington’s role in Somalia since 9/11 has been one of supporting some of the most brutal warlords, leading to Islamist resistance:

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