The Government’s backflip on hate speech laws, made at the same press conference, and in almost the same breath, as the announcement of tougher anti-terror legislation has offended some in the Muslim community, despite having the opposite intention.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott made “a leadership call” to divert precious political capital away from controversial changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and towards expanded terrorism laws.
An unnamed cabinet source told Fairfax Media that the Prime Minister made the decision because the Government “could no longer keep Muslims offside”.
And yet, Mr Abbott’s mention of the Muslim community in close proximity to terms such as “counterterrorism” and “national unity” has riled community leaders.
Islamic Council of Victoria secretary Ghaith Krayem echoed the sentiments of many other minority groups in praising the backdown, but was “appalled” that anti-terror laws were discussed immediately after.
“We are appalled that the Government made the announcement and linked it in some tenuous way with the Muslim community’s willingness to support anti-terror activities,” Mr Krayem said. “The two have absolutely no connection whatsoever.
“Clearly, the Prime Minister did it for the sole purpose of diverting away the reality that they should never have headed down the 18C road, and using the whole anti-terror laws, and in fact our community, as a scapegoat for not having to confront those issues, and it’s just appalling behaviour.”
Muslims excluded from ‘Team Australia’?
Mr Krayem also took issue with Mr Abbott’s use of the term “Team Australia” – which was widely ridiculed on social media.
“When it comes to counterterrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia,” Mr Abbott said at the press conference, describing the proposed changes to 18C as “a complication” to that end.
The implication was that the Muslim community had used the racial discrimination laws as a bargaining chip in exchange for support for anti-terror laws, according to Mr Krayem.
“This is just an appalling position to put 500,000 people in because it’s simply not true. The issues are completely unrelated,” he said.
The tougher anti-terrorism laws are opposed by many in the Muslim community, particularly the proposal to reverse the onus of proof for those who travel to specific conflict zones.
A person returning from one of these zones (such as Syria) would need to prove they had not acted unlawfully.
Jamila Hussain, a Muslim convert and research associate in Islamic law at the University of Technology Sydney, told The New Daily that these changes would target Muslims.
“It’s more likely to impact on people who come from the Middle East, who have relatives in the Middle East and who have strong feelings about the Middle East, so I would like to hope that they would be very cautious,” Ms Hussain said.
“If people want to visit their relatives from time to time, do they have to come back and find some way of proving that they weren’t engaged in terrorism? And what happens if you have a second cousin who is engaged in terrorism and you don’t know about it? It’s wrong to reverse the onus of proof,” she said.
Abdullah Eshtewi, spokesman for the Islamic Council of Western Australia, highlighted the perceived double standards of the legislation. Mr Abbott made it clear at Tuesday’s press conference that Australian Jews who fight for the Israeli Defence Force will not be prosecuted.
“Any legislation targeting danger from people returning to Australia with unwanted military skills should be fair and include Australian who travels to fight with Israeli army against killing innocent civilians in Gaza,” Mr Eshtewi said.
Professor Greg Barton, acting director of the Centre for Islam and the Modern World at Monash University, described Mr Abbott’s press conference on Tuesday as “good progress” in Muslim relations compared to his “pugilistic” approach in the past.
“He correctly recognised that it’s not enough just to have legal reforms to deal with the terrorist threat,” Professor Barton said.
“You actually have to bring the community with you, and you have to work with community groups, including the Muslim community groups. I think it’s a very welcome thing that he’s recognised that.”
The Prime Minister has made the “correct calculation”, according to the Professor, in prioritising trust and goodwill with the Muslim community, and other ethnic minorities, over free speech reforms.
But the Professor acknowledged that Muslim communities feel singled out by these and other debates about national security.
“There’s a tendency to conflate Islam and the teachings of the Islamic faith with extremist ideas, and there’s a lot of Islamophobia around that suggests that the problem is Islam itself. The Government is not guilty of that, but it has to be very careful not to be falsely understood as somehow endorsing that view,” Professor Barton said.