By Chip Henriss
Former Dutch MP Geert Wilders’ recent visit to Australia has once again stirred up the ugly face of xenophobia amongst certain elements of the Australian population. Driven by a near hysterical fear of what they term the “islamification” of Australia, Mr Wilders was sponsored by the Q Society, a group that believes Islam is incompatible with western values.
Its website reads in part: “If you are concerned about Islam, you came to the right place. So far Australians relied mostly on what Muslim apologists and islamophiles had to say about Islamic doctrine, Islamic history and the efforts of Islamic supremacists to establish a global Islamic theocracy.
“We found this imbalance disturbing, akin to foxes lecturing on the management of the henhouse. We also believe that no ideology or religion can be beyond criticism.”
The reality is that Mr Wilders’ visit attracted only small numbers of supporters. According to the ABC 100 people attended his Melbourne event.
That event was driven 40 minutes outside of the city after venues began to decline hosting Mr Wilders and the Q Society. About 150 local activists were less deterred and turned up to demonstrate with chants of “refugees are welcome, racists are not”. At the time of writing, Mr Wilders’ Perth event was cancelled.
Suspicion and fear of the unknown are not new in Australia. The same type of arguments used against Muslims today were levelled against Italians in what was termed the “Olive Peril” as this extract from Boomerang in 1891 demonstrates.
“The fiery Italian is as explosive as his native mountains and would overflow lava-like our regions and institutions … the contingency of a mafia or camorra being established in our midst; of labour disputes and family quarrels being settled by the knife and of the terror of organised assassination being substituted for the law-enforced quiet and safety of our towns … We want no blood-liquifying lazzaroni from the Vesuvian capital to let daylight into us — no ‘Sicilian cooks’ to spoil our ‘broth’.”
Manager of the Uniting Through Faiths project, Larry Marshall, said although visits from the likes of Mr Wilders cause pain to some they also provide opportunities.
In the light of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 groups like the Jewish Christian Muslim Association formed and grew.
“There’s no getting away from the fact that there was a lot of pain after 2001. People were spat on, there was fear of Islam in general, misunderstandings.
“People who had quietly gone around being Muslim found they were in the spotlight.
“Suddenly everyone noticed them and they were fearful of their neighbours.
“What that did was offer the churches, the Uniting Church in particular, an opportunity to grow up, look at itself, look at the neighbours who were in trouble, to hold hands with our sisters and brothers in Islam and to learn more about the religion,” Mr Marshall said.
Reaching out rather than closing doors has worked well, with friendship groups forming at many levels across Australian society.
“Friends in the Muslim community say: ‘We never expected that so many people would understand about our Quran, about the Hadith, about why we have 40 days of fasting’.
“The Federal Police, the Victorian Police, my University of LaTrobe, they all have these lovely celebrations where people of many cultures and many faiths get together to celebrate after the Muslim fasting period,” Mr Marshall said.
He said it was out of the fear and misunderstandings that many people actually came together rather than moved further apart.
“We have grown up. People have actually gone out of their way to form multi-faith organisations,” Mr Marshall said.
There are many groups people can join, inside and outside the Church, where people from diverse faiths come together to learn from each other.
“Australia, and Victoria in particular, has one of the oldest networks of multi-faith programs, from Dandenong all the way to Northcote and Thornbury. So that’s one place to go, your local council.
“Another place to go is the churches. I think the Uniting Church and the Catholic Church have done a lot of good work in bringing people of faith together,” Mr Marshall said.