The SMH reports Peter Costello accuses Australia's Muslims of tolerating a message of hate by Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly for a decade too long as the leading cleric stood down yesterday from preaching duties at Lakemba Mosque.
Whilst I have no sympathy for the Islamist propaganda running through the Sheik's rantings, he is far from being Robinson Crusoe in Australian public life in terms of propagandizing extremist sectarian social and political views. There is a history of religious leaders inciting fear and prejudice and advocating views at odds with the mainstream culture. Just a casual stroll through Australian public discourses during the last century will reveal some real doozeys.
Let's put aside religious leaders as the general population does'nt elect them. Throughout our history many have had a 'clubby' tendency to advocate a narrow sectarian point of view to their followers. If someone has broken a law they can be charged with an offence. However, freedom of speech remains a central pillar of our democracy.
On that subject and more to the point, we currently have a PM who has made fear and prejudice one of the underpinning themes of his public posturing. His dog whistle politics won him an election in 2003 and he and his lieutenants continue to ramp up racial and sectarian intolerance to shore up their electoral standing. The current uproar over the Sheik is a heaven sent opportunity to dog whistle with impunity and boy are they lining up with relish.
Howard constantly refers to the 'Islamic community' as having to put its house in order and to integrate more successfully. As if the Muslim community was an homogenous cultural and political entity that can speak and act with one voice. That would be like asking Australia's Catholics to act as one entity. We are on a slippery slope indeed if this continues.
The new line is to blame the Sheik and his ilk for criminal behaviour and the Cronulla riots. Take this offering from Costello: "These kinds of attitudes have actually influenced people," Mr Costello said in an interview with the Herald. "So you wonder whether a kid like Bilal Skaf had grown up hearing these kind of attitudes and you wonder whether kids rioting down at Cronulla have heard these sort of attitudes." Nothing to do with the hate mongering of shock jocks or yobbos who respond willingly to the dog whistle - it was the sheik's fault! Individuals must take responsibility for their own actions. If the Sheik influences credulous minds, the same could be said for the polemical tirade coming from Howard, Costello et al on the failings of the 'Islamic community'.
I remember other countries at other times, when particular communities got blamed for everything. We should not forget what can happen when religious,racial and ethnicity stereotyping becomes central to the mainstream political discourse. It can be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians to consolidate their power base by presenting themselves as the purveyors and custodians of 'security', 'integration' and 'civil harmony'. The threat is made to seem real and the consequent actions justifiable!
And one last cautionary note - beware of the 'chaplain' in your Christmas stocking!