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A matter of education

MISUNDERSTANDING is the cause of voters' fear of Muslim migrants, writes national affairs editor Mike Steketee.

Basic misunderstandings run deep but, provided people can be engaged, they can be easily corrected.

Spelled out in precise numbers, the antagonism of typical Australians towards Muslims is arresting, if not completely surprising.

A third of those in a Newspoll survey of 1400 people think Muslims make Australia a worse place to live, more than twice as many as those who believe they make it better.

Thirty-five per cent believe Muslims threaten to change the Australian way of life, culture and values, although 51 per cent disagree. Close to half think they have a negative effect both on national security and on how people in Australia get along together.

The findings are backed up by the comments of those worried about Muslims interfering with the way we live. "They're trying to change us rather than adapt to us," said one. "They will try to change the Australian culture, like take Christmas away, things like that," said another.

The results of what is some of the most comprehensive research conducted on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims explain why politicians have succumbed so easily, particularly during election campaigns, to the temptation to exploit these fears.

They also present the political parties, together with the rest of the community, with a challenge: do we respond with restrictions on immigration, increased surveillance or even banning certain forms of dress?

This might generate an increased feeling of security and comfort among mainstream Australians but the risk is further isolating and alienating Muslims.

Or can leadership by governments and by Muslim and non-Muslim communities themselves, together with education and more social and cultural interaction on both sides, bridge the divide?

At least part of the answer comes in the second leg of the survey findings, which measure how attitudes changed when people were given an opportunity to learn more about the issues involved.

Often it simply can be a matter of correcting basic misunderstandings: only 29 per cent in the initial poll knew that the Muslim proportion of the population was less than 5 per cent, but this rose to 95 per cent in the second round.

The actual figure, according to the results of the 2006 Census, released since the polling was conducted, is 1.7 per cent of the population, or 340,000 people.

The results of the surveys have been compiled in a thick report to be released next week by political psychologist Pamela Ryan, head of Issues Deliberation Australia, the non-profit organisation that conducts deliberative polls to inform the public and policy debate.

The one on Muslim and non-Muslim relations, which The Australian helped sponsor, involved an initial poll in February in which 1400 representative Australians were asked 42 questions, allowing attitudes to be measured in much greater detail than most surveys.

Then a subset of 329 of this sample met in Old Parliament House in Canberra in March for a weekend of discussions with experts, advocates on both sides of the debate and their fellow participants.

At the end of the deliberations they were asked the same questions again. Though there were some variations from the initial results because of the smaller sample, the broad picture remained the same.

Those who thought Muslims made Australia a worse place to live fell from 28 per cent to 8 per cent. The 35per cent who believed Muslims threatened to change the Australian way of life and values dropped to 21 per cent.\

And those who thought they had a negative impact on national security halved to 23 per cent.

On the causes of terrorism, the view did not change significantly about the importance of issues such as extremists advancing their political agenda (83 per cent), Western nations interfering in other countries' affairs (68per cent) and conflict between Israel and Arab countries (64 per cent).

But those who thought incompatibility between Muslim and Western values contributed a lot to terrorism fell by more than half to 22 per cent, while those who said it contributed only a little rose by almost as much to 54 per cent. Among the most striking differences in the "before" group were those based on political allegiance.

But in many areas these narrowed significantly as the participants became better informed.

The 39 per cent of Coalition supporters who thought it important that immigrants dressed like other Australians fell to 11 per cent, compared with a drop from 16 per cent to 6 per cent among Labor supporters.

The differences also shrank on issues that people regarded as more important, such as migrants being committed to the Australian way of life and Muslim immigrants blending into society.

Of course, not every Australian can take part in such a process. The initiatives that participants mainly suggested should carry the work of the deliberative poll forward were increased education, particularly on different religions and cultures, more opportunities for interaction and discussion, and more support and job opportunities for the unemployed.

There is one issue that Ryan regards as urgent. Her work included focus group discussions with Muslim Australians, and one of the themes that came through is how adamant they were about their Australian identity.

As one of them put it, "if you didn't look at me, if you only heard me, I am as dinky-di Aussie as meat pie -- it is as simple as that".

But often their Australian identity is questioned. The report says many Australian Muslims have experienced racist comments and behaviour, ranging from rude looks to comments such as "tea-towel head", "rapist" and "go home to your own country".

For some, the benefits of social, religious and cultural freedom in Australia far outweighed the negatives, but others, particularly younger Muslims, felt more discouraged. With the media and politicians emphasising the differences between Muslims and other Australians, young Muslims were becoming increasingly frustrated and alienated.

"They cannot help but turn towards the 'others' with whom they have something in common, even if only the alienation and frustration," said the report.

Ryan added: "My concern is that the messages that they will hear are more radical and that they start to feel that this country is not where they belong."

She said there needed to be a joint effort from the Muslim community and the Australian mainstream to bridge the divide, including through community centres, youth centres and schools.

Public awareness campaigns and initiatives similar to the interfaith youth corps, an American project that had spread to other countries, could play a part. Given the depth of hostility to Muslims, it is not surprising that many Australians aresceptical about the deliberative poll, with the suspicion that gullible people have been conned by smooth-talking Muslims.

But participants had the chance to hear from a vast range of experts and advocates, ranging from Sydney Catholic archbishop George Pell to controversial Melbourne Sheik Mohammed Omran; from Australians Against Further Immigration's Denis McCormack, an advocate for white Australia, to Muslim hardline political group Hizb ut-Tahrir's Wassim Doureihi, who favours an Islamic caliphate, as well as many others in between.

Discussion groups were conducted by trained facilitators who prompted debate but did not intrude with their own opinions.

It was only to be expected that talking through issues with experts would move people's thinking beyond impressions and preconceptions.

Average Australians got to meet and mix with real Muslims, including the 47 randomly selected from more than 200 who took part in separate focus group discussions.

A typical reaction was surprise that people in Islamic dress spoke with Australian accents (about 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born here) and that they talked and thought in similar ways to other Australians.

Basic misunderstandings run deep but, provided people can be engaged, they can be easily corrected

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This article from the weekend Australian was based on that 'Deliberative Conference' in Canberra back in March -- which many sensible political commentators panned at the time as a useless waste and propaganda exercise. It brought a group of 'average Joes and Jennies' to Canberra where they met the likes of Sheik Omran and Wassim Doueihi (that young virulent fire-brand Hizb ut-Tahrir representative) and others. After a weekend of meeting with them and sharing meals and cups of tea etc. (and the photo in the Australian shows a smiling Omran sharing a cup of tea with Cardinell Pell, and Doueihi speaking), some of the naive attendees, who probably felt flattered to be invited to their first ever conference, came away feeling 'much more reassured about Islam'. Amazing! Really! Did they ever know enough to challenge the crap they were hearing? In Summary: a group of useful idiots with no political education meet with extremist Muslims and some come away feeling better. Gee whiz! Had they met with Hitler they would no doubt have thought: "He has ten fingers and toes just like me, so he must be a good chap!" Instead of educating our populace to be able to counter radical Islam, people are being placated and lulled into a false sense of acceptance and safety. Dangerous! What utter drivel !!-- and it shows the danger of unaware people meeting with, and being exposed to Muslim propagandists and having the wool pulled even further over their eyes than thought possible. It gave the extremists further credibility. Worst of all, the Australian sponsored this blatantly stupid initiative in March and tries to promote its value whenever it can. It needs some sharp responses, but it's unlikely they will get published.

Posted by Mary on 2007-09-16 11:13:59 GMT

Oh, brother! Who would have thougt, that Mike Steketee, normally reasonably avuncular and far from gullible journo, could be so willing to let both his legs pulled at the same time. Anatomical feat, no doubt, but opens him to the charge of having no feet to stand upon.

Posted by Michael Galak on 2007-09-16 09:38:32 GMT