Social Segregation in Australia
Yesterday afternoon the Department of Parliamentary Services announced new security measures on Capital Hill. From today “persons with facial coverings entering the galleries of the House of Representatives and Senate will be seated in the enclosed galleries”. In essence, Islamic women who choose to wear the niqāb when visiting our national parliament will be required to sit separately in the public galleries – behind glass – and away from the rest of “Team Australia”. This is despite them having passed through the very same stringent security measures that every other visitor must pass through in order to gain access to Parliament House.
This ill-considered and insensitive proposal sets a dangerous new precedent in Australia. For the first time, we’re deliberately segregating a group of people in a public building based on their faith. Whilst it’s true that most Muslim women in Australia don’t wear a niqāb (or a burqa for that matter), there’s a certain section of that faith group that believe that they should cover their face and hair with a niqāb, as is their right in a free society.
Earlier this week at a press conference, the Prime Minister had this to say about the burqa:
I have said before that I find it a fairly confronting form of attire. Frankly, I wish it was not worn but we are a free country, we are a free society and it is not the business of government to tell people what they should and shouldn’t wear. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, 1 October 2014
When asked whether he’d support a “ban on the burqa” in Parliament House, the Prime Minister said that he wouldn’t oppose it. Following massive community backlash, he’s since changed his mind. Whilst it’s good that he PM has come to his senses, this all comes a bit late.
Only last week, Senator for Tasmania Jacqui Lambie announced that she’d introduce a bill into parliament to make the wearing of identity-concealing garments such as a niqāb and burqa illegal in Australia, saying
I agree whole-heartedly with Senator Cory Bernadi’s comments – and call for an immediate and complete ban on the wearing of burqa’s in public. People can do what they want in the privacy of their own homes – but for the public safety of our children and families – remove the burqa. Sen. Jacqui Lambie, 19 September 2014
Of course, such a ban would almost certainly be struck down if challenged in a court of law. Section 116 of the Constitution reads (in part):
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion… Section 116, Constitution of Australia
Aside from the irrational hysteria surrounding niqābs and burqas in Australia, I am concerned by the apparent willingness of our current political leaders to undermine Australia’s multicultural fabric and erode basic freedoms and civil liberties. It was not that long ago that the same government sought to remove portions of Section 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, on the grounds that this legislation somehow interferes with the rights of Australians to free speech or even to bigotry. Thankfully after a strong community backlash, Section 18C was spared.
The behaviour of senior government MPs, with the tacit approval of the Prime Minister, has sought to undermine religious tolerance and social cohesion in Australia. I cannot entirely understand the logic of such a move, but if it’s to gain some sort of electoral advantage, we have to ask at what cost this might come.
Racism and intolerance are pernicious ideologies. Sometimes, I wonder whether many people appreciate this. As an Anglo-Saxon Roman Catholic male in Australia, I never experienced racism when I was growing up. Lucky me. But my wife has Asian heritage and following our marriage I suddenly came to see first-hand how nasty some people can be towards others. I have been genuinely shocked at some of the outbursts that we have had to endure, although thankfully these are rare. Nevertheless, they cause great pain and anger and achieve no useful purpose.
It’s bad enough that racist bigots exist in society. It’s probably impossible to entirely eradicate racism and intolerance but we must all remain vigilant. When a government seeks to remove legal protections and openly attacks certain minorities, their actions provide succour to those with malicious intentions.
What makes all of this worse is the notion of “Team Australia“. No-one quite knows what “Team Australia” is exactly, but it seems to me that as far as many government MPs are concerned, it doesn’t include Islamic women who choose to wear the niqāb or perhaps even a hijab. This divisive, offensive concept which has been widely promoted by the Prime Minister adds further encouragement to the racists and bigots and isolates big chunks of the nation. What a horrible concept.
Of course, intertwined with all of this official domestic nastiness is the enthusiastic commitment that our government has shown towards sending troops to Iraq to fight Islamic State (IS), a barbaric regime of religious fundamentalists who have a penchant for beheadings. The actions of IS are horrific. In all the chaos, its easy to forget that these people are fundamentalists and do not represent mainstream Islam any more than the Inquisition represented mainstream Catholicism. Most Muslims would be appalled at the rise of IS, in part because they’d be this group’s biggest victims. Almost nobody wants to live under a bloodthirsty tyrannical regime of religious zealots. Even niqāb-clad Islamic women.
I do not want to see our nation torn apart by division, racism or intolerance. I do not want to see attacks on mosques, or offensive graffiti, or suspicion amongst Australians. We all have an obligation to remain vigilant and stand up against such behaviour. If there is to be a Team Australia, then we all have to work together, make it inclusive and welcome everyone who loves this great nation.
Lets collectively work towards bringing out the best in each other, not the worst.