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Shane Elson


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November 2006 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2006

The Mufti and the Dog Whistle

So much is going on one really struggles to work out where to start. First there’s the climate. Today its warm, tomorrow it might be cold. Yesterday was sunny, tomorrow it might rain. Last week the PM, said climate change was a fallacy and lie made up by feminist, gay, unemployed, tree hugging, lefty pinko, Marxists. This week he announces a bunch of projects that are supposed to cut green house gasses.


Six years ago there were boat loads of neo-fascist, terrorist sympathisers in boats trying to storm our northern borders. This year our Foreign Minister argues that more ‘skilled’ migrants should be allowed in without a bunch of red tape to get through.


Last week a Muslim cleric threw a few misguided words around and was duly reprimanded by many of his faith. Some years ago Tony Evans, from the far right Christian “men’s” movement Promise Keepers said, “. . . I believe that feminists of the more aggressive persuasion are frustrated women unable to find the proper male leadership”.


If you weren’t aware of who Promise Keepers are, they’re an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christian “men’s” movement, funded initially by James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” fame who also espouses an anti-women message. Dobson is recognised by many in the far right as being a guru on family relationships and parenting. However his “biblical values” approach demands that women be subservient to men, that children should be physically abused by smacking and that the real scourge of our age is homosexuality.


Joseph Wakim, writing in The Age reminds us that last month the Pope (a Nazi sympathiser) told an audience that Muslims were “bad and inhuman” and that the only way Muslims spread their faith is by “blood”. Wakim goes on to note that our PM responded to the Pope’s inflammatory words by dismissing them.


On the ABC’s LateLine program on September 19th Howard said, in his defence of the Pope’s speech, “I think we should all take a deep breath on these things and all have a sense of proportion. We seem to be living in a world where people have no sense of proportion. Okay, they don't like what was said, I'm sure that the Pope was not intending to attack Islam.”


Joseph Wakim goes on to note two things about Howard’s comments. Firstly that, “the Prime Minister selectively applies a voice of reason” and that, secondly, he does so because of his use of “dog whistle” politics. In other words, Howard wants to create an “us” and “them” mentality so that he can signal to certain groups who he considers to be with “us” and against “them”.


Wakim picks up very nicely the fact that Howard only ever refers to our Muslim brothers and sisters as part of “us” when their representatives agree with him and his world view. However, for most of the time, as far as Howard and his ilk are concerned, the Muslim community in Australia is to be referred to in the third person as either “they” or “them”.


By setting up this dichotomy Howard is able to send out various messages in the form of code words and phrases that, on first appearance, seem to mean one thing when really they are intended to mean something else for the audience he is targeting.


As has been made very clear in all the reputable media, the vast majority of Muslim community leaders who have spoken about the Mufti’s words, have condemned them as in no way representing the wider Muslim community’s views. I suggest that their comments can also be applied to the many Christians who took offence at what the Pope said about Islam and to what the Promise Keepers say about women.


I’ve said before that Howard’s time as Prime Minister will be looked back upon as one of the most divisive times in Australian history. His use of dog whistle politics has been the most hurtful and spiteful development in political rhetoric in my lifetime.


Marion Maddox in her extremely useful book “God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian politics” refers to US critic, Cynthia Burack’s explanation of the way in which the Christian right uses dog whistle politics. She notes, “Christian right leaders ‘practice small duplicities – such as apologies – in order to be misunderstood by the “major population”’ while simultaneously signalling a more extreme position to a right wing fringe”.


In the case of so much of the Howard governments way of doing business the flips and flops that Labor were accused of seem like the flipping and flopping of the little creatures that jump around when you remove the rock under which they hide.


Whether its the policy, speeches or statement on climate change, immigration and asylum seekers or the Muslim community among us, Howard is like an untethered ship in a storm, blown about by wind and always trying to find the right way up. Rather than being a leader, he is victim to the tide of public opinion his narrow minded world view dictates.


Maddox writes in the closing chapter of her book that, “by legislating to bring out our best rather than our worst in our interactions, governments can make us nicer. And they can make us nastier. By penalising some … by sponsoring show trials, … by draconian national security laws, … by dividing … Howard might keep winning elections but, in between, he has not entirely had his way with Australia’s soul”.


Joseph Wakim makes the point that perhaps Mufti Taj al-Din al-Hilali was set up by some within the Muslim community who wanted him out, “the reformers” he calls them. He also notes, with perhaps a sense of irony, that “perhaps the dog whistle was from these savvy reformers, the tail wagging the dog, knowing exactly what bite it would ultimately unleash. And perhaps our leader, John Howard, did not blow the first dog whistle, but played along to someone else’s tune.” 


I think he right. Howard was outflanked and as Maddox points out, Australian’s will not be fooled all the time. The policy vacillations, the increasing pressure being brought to bear by our international allies (such as Britain’s frustration over the policies on climate change) and the growing weariness of many in our community at the carping, bitching, scapegoating and finger pointing we call ‘politics’, bodes well for change. The question is, will we be there to bring it on?

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