Bob Gould, 2006

Peter Costello, Muslims and sharia law

Source: Ozleft, March 6, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

In a February 23 keynote speech at Gerard Henderson’s conservative Sydney Institute, federal Treasurer Peter Costello positioned himself in the leadership contest well to the right of Howard. No dog-whistle politics for the new Costello, more like foghorn politics intended to appeal to a perceived popular racism in Australia against Muslims. Costello concentrated on the proposition that Muslims who advocate Muslim sharia law should be deported from Australia.

This attempt by Costello to exploit a current, largely media-created, moral panic, requires careful examination.

Sharia law

Australia has just witnessed a very public exercise in assorted sharia laws — the sharia law in this instance of Protestants, Catholics and Muslims versus modern secular Australia, in the debate on the drug RU486 in the federal parliament.

In this public political battle, a number of religious leaders, mainly Protestant and Catholic, intervened in the public debate, trying to get their view of abortion, which they claim is the law of god, embodied in law.

This political intervention by religious leaders is their right. People who think that those with strong religious views will exercise some kind of self-denying ordinance in public political life are dreaming. Others, including a fair number of practising Catholics, took the opposite view, that the alleged law of god should not be the law of the state.

On this occasion, the supporters of Protestant-Catholic-Muslim sharia law side were defeated. Many of the main features of modern secular Australian society have been achieved in the course of political struggle against various religious sharia laws.

On other occasions, however, the Christian conscience of many people who hold religious views have been a progressive force in politics. I am thinking here of the former Governor General Sir William Deane, a conscientious Catholic, who was quite likely on the side opposing free access to the RU486, but on matters of Aboriginal affairs and migration has been an extraordinary humane influence (driven also on those matters by his Catholic conscience).

Another example is Tony Burke, Labor’s shadow minister for immigration, who was one of the small minority of Labor MPs, almost all Catholics who voted against free access to RU486.

Burke was on the losing side on that issue, but he certainly had a right to campaign for his beliefs. The same Tony Burke has been a breath of fresh air in his vigorous defence of the rights of asylum seekers against the primitive dog-whistle and foghorn politics of Howard and Costello on these matters.

The small minority of Muslims who campaign for sharia law in Australia are only doing what people of other religions do. The reason Costello singled them out should be named for what it really is: racist scapegoating to appeal to the most primitive prejudices in Australian society for electoral purposes.

A little bit of history

In the past, Irish Catholics were the main community in Australia subjected to this kind of scapegoating, which reached its peak after the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916 and after Daniel Mannix the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne played a prominent role in the successful campaigns to defeat conscription in 1916 and 1917.

When Mannix made a trip to Europe after the war, Billy Hughes proposed to his Cabinet that the Irish-born Bishop Mannix be excluded from Australia on his return unless he signed an oath of loyalty to the British Empire. Wiser heads prevailed, and Mannix was greeted by a delirious crowd of 20,000 supporters on his return to Australia.

Other were not so lucky. Hugh Mahon, the Labor member for Kalgoorlie in WA, became the only MP ever expelled from the Australian Parliament, for defending the Irish in their military insurrection against British rule. The most unlucky man of all was Father Jerger, a Passionist priest of the parish of Marrickville, in Sydney.

Father Jerger gave a sermon at mass in which he attacked conscription. Right-wingers in the congregation dobbed him in to military intelligence and a witchunt was spearheaded by the Protestant Federation. Military intelligence discovered that he had been born in Germany although his parents emigrated to Britain and then Australia when he was two years old.

His parents had overlooked having him naturalised and in the hysterical climate of the time he was ultimately deported to a war-ravaged Germany, but not without a strenuous but unsuccessful campaign in his defence by Archbishop Mannix and the well- to-do Catholic layman John Wren.

Wren sought the support of the maritime unions and there was a strike in Adelaide in an attempt to stop the ship carrying Father Jerger. This is all covered in James Griffin’s biography of John Wren, and in a lengthy journal article, The Deportation of Charles Jerger, by right-wing journalist Gerard Henderson.

It’s a disreputable feature of the Australian political tradition that the last cultural group off the boat is often subject to hysteria and discrimination. When Labor leader Arthur Calwell, to his eternal credit, bent the rules just after World War II to allocate migration places on a ship to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the late Joe Gullet made an extraordinary and revolting speech in the federal Parliament attacking Jews, and Arthur Calwell for letting them in.

Such withchunts arise from time to time and should be resisted strenuously. The border between intense religious belief and public political life is notoriously vague. Various sharia laws exist, and have existed, and are not confined to Muslims. The minority of adherents of various religions, including Islam, who wish to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of Australian society can be checked by normal political processes. Costello’s calculated beat-up about sharia law is something quite different: an attempt to scapegoat Muslims for electoral and other politcal purposes.