Australia's border policy already targets Muslims for exclusion. Do we just forgive and forget?

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Somayra Ismailjee

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Waleed Aly's plea for public calm

In a moving plea, Aly calls for Australians to empathise with one another during what he calls these 'dark times'. Vision courtesy The Project, 6.30pm weekdays on Ten.

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 For the past two days, Sonia Kruger has faced a barrage of criticism after expressing her support for a ban on Muslim immigration on national television. Kruger cited a supposed correlation between the number of Muslim migrants and the amount of terror attacks that occur in a nation, as well feeling unsafe "as a mother" after hearing about child casualties of the Nice attack last week.

Kruger's views were rapidly debunked as Islamophobic by commentators, with many questioning her lack of empathy towards Muslim children, and pointing out that divisive remarks have tangible repercussions. Waleed Aly and Tom Whitty's impassioned Send Forgiveness Viral segment on last night's episode of The Project, however, took a different approach.

Using social media takedowns of Kruger as an example, Aly urged audiences to react to bigotry with forgiveness rather than hostility, explaining that Kruger's views are born of a legitimate fear.

On the wish list: Sonia Kruger.

On the wish list: Sonia Kruger. Photo: Channel Nine

The crux of Aly's speech emphasised the cycle of fear that perpetuates Islamophobia. He argued that by responding with anger to instances of bigotry, we are merely fuelling it.

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To illustrate this point, Aly read aloud a letter published in The Australian calling for Muslims to be detained in internment camps for the "safety" of the general population – a terrifying, but apparently hypothetical situation.

The segment ended by encouraging viewers to #SendForgivenessViral – reiterating that forgiveness, rather than outrage, may be able to break the cycle. But surely experience tells us this isn't realistic.

 

Both The Project and Sonia Kruger have approached the issue of Islamophobia from a false assumption: that Muslims are free of systematic oppression in Australia, and that the nature of discrimination against Muslims is individual, reasonable and reactive to a valid threat. Even when Kruger's comments are recognised as bigotry, they are portrayed as personal slights instead of reflecting deeply entrenched facets of Australian society.

The media landscape constantly churns out hateful voices like Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, yet their comments are often dismissed as a racist deviation from the norm, rather than acknowledged as the status quo. Making a spectacle of a few loud voices seems to be easier than confronting the fact that, as a nation, we have held firmly onto the xenophobia of the White Australia policy while leaving its legislature behind.

Last night, SBS program The Feed aired a parody tourism advertisement satirising Kruger's approach to Muslim migration. The video gave a list of names, all typically Muslim, deemed unwelcome in Australia.

Eerily, it's not unlike advertising already undertaken by our government; the "No Way" campaign displays billboards carrying the words "You will not make Australia home" in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, and across social media.

In 2015, The University of Melbourne conducted research into dominant attitudes surrounding asylum seekers and found that among the factors shaping our climate of animosity, fears of "Islamisation" were the most prominent. Islam was seen by participants as intrinsically hateful, seeking to either exclude non-Muslims or destroy them completely. And while not all of the people who seek asylum on our shores are Muslim, it is undeniable that the fear of Muslims drives our hostility toward them.

In part, this occurs because Islam is a racialised religion. Over centuries, Western characterisations of Muslim people have made them synonymous with certain ethnic and cultural traits – dark skin, facial hair, head coverings and languages like Arabic and Urdu are all symbols evoked by the dominant representation of the Muslim figure throughout Western media. Other groups who share these traits, such as Sikh communities, are often inaccurately perceived as Muslim and targeted by Islamophobic attacks as a result.

The diversity of over one billion Muslim people is erased in favour of a single, homogenised image: brown faces from a 'backwards' culture. Asylum seekers are burdened by this stereotype – connotations of savagery, violence and terror are projected onto their bodies, even when it is violence they are fleeing.

Comments by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton earlier this month are a stark indicator of this, indiscriminately linking asylum seekers to the threat of terrorism despite an overwhelming lack of evidence to support the idea. Refugees are framed by the discourse of national security in Australia, described as people we need to be protected from, rather than affording protection to. It is our fear of them that is used to rationalise the damage we do to them physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Doctors, teachers, aid workers and trauma experts have routinely spoken out about the harm caused by mandatory detention of asylum seekers, particularly in regional processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Still, the ongoing rape, assault and abuse of asylum seekers is allowed to continue because violence inflicted at the border is seen as a necessary defense; the indefinite detainment and degradation of brown and black bodies is excused as a preemptive measure to keep Australia safe.

What is the difference, then, between the "internment camps" for Muslims that Aly discusses as a hypothetical future, and the camps that exist today on Nauru and Manus Island? Both are intended for non-white people who signify a terrorist threat; people who, without crime or charge, must be locked away for the "protection" of the Australian people.

While Aly's approach of sending forgiveness in the face of bigotry may have the power to change individual minds, forgiveness cannot end the systematic persecution of racialised groups, and the people harmed by this brutality are right to express their pain, grief and anger.

Victims of Australia's border protection policies are remembered during a rally in front of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office.

On the 18th of October last year, nine months prior to Kruger's comments on Muslim immigration, Hazara refugee Khodayar Amini died by self-immolation. Khodayar was terrified of being placed back into detention or deported to danger like so many of his friends had been, and like so many asylum seekers continue to be.

This is the inevitable conclusion of a border policy built on Islamophobia and xenophobia: a system that has killed Khodayar Amini, Omid Masoumali, Fazal Chegani, Reza Barati, Nasim Najafi, Reza Rezayee, Ahmed Ali Jaffari, Hamid Kehazaei, Leo Seemanpillai, and so many others who have gone unnamed but not unnoticed. This is what closing our borders to Muslims already looks like.

Seeing an Australia that allows its fear, hatred and hostility towards Muslim people to brutally police, detain and end their lives does not require imagination. It is a reality lived by the most vulnerable, and a reality we can no longer refuse to acknowledge.

Somayra Ismailjee is a writer and visual artist. Her work has appeared in New Matilda, Junkee, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow, and she was the inaugural recipient of the Margaret Dooley Young Writers Fellowship for social justice.