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Islamic ticket sends all the wrong messages

Muslim candidates will distract attention from legitimate concerns

THE reported plan by Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali to endorse Muslim candidates (possibly including himself) for the NSW state election in March appears more like an attempt to shore up his flagging support among Sydney Muslims than a serious desire to enter parliament.

As more and more of his erstwhile supporters distance themselves from his increasingly peculiar public statements, Hilali seems to be calculating that by generating a confrontation between himself and unpopular state politicians, he will provoke a situation in which he can yet again assume the role of victim. This tactic has worked well for him in the past. A significant number of Muslims who disagreed with his opinions nonetheless felt compelled to come to his defence when he was seen as coming under attack from external figures who were hostile to Muslims in general.

The sheik's electoral influence is limited. His support base is confined to Sydney and to Muslims of Lebanese background. Despite his highly contested title of Mufti of Australia, he is of little relevance to Muslims of Turkish, Indian or Bosnian extraction. And there is scant evidence to suggest that even in his Lakemba heartland many people will look to him for guidance as to how to vote.

Yet his intervention is still damaging, adding to perceptions that Muslim participation in Australian politics is about pursuing a Muslim agenda rather than about contributing to Australian society as a whole.

Of course, religiously endorsed political candidates and parties are not new in Australian politics. A generation of Catholic voters were urged by their clergy to vote for the Democratic Labor Party. The Family First party has a close relationship with the Assemblies of God church.

Muslims also have the same entitlement as anyone else to pursue religiously identified politics. However, particularly in the present social climate, this would be self-destructive, generating further distrust of Muslims. Australians are suspicious of religious politics in general and much more fearful of Muslim political agendas than of Christian ones. They will wonder what special interests a Hilali-endorsed candidate might pursue and why these interests could not be tackled through the usual political channels.

Hilali may claim that he would seek "a sincere, honest, candidate whose loyalty is totally to Australia". But voters would be entitled to query whether candidates handpicked by a sheik because of their Muslim identity really intend to place the needs of all constituents on an equal footing. This suspicion could then spill over into a fear of all political participation by Muslims, so that any Muslim candidate, however low-key their religious affiliation, would be seen as representing Muslims first and foremost. Muslims with serious political ambitions will not thank the sheik for this.

It is possible for politicians to tap into the sense of political alienation among many Muslims. But such politicians do not necessarily have to be Muslim. Take the emergence of George Galloway's Respect coalition in Britain. Galloway is an old-style socialist, not a Muslim, and his personal lifestyle is very far from reflecting commonly held Islamic social values.

But after his expulsion from the Tony Blair's Labour Party, he was able to harness enough support to win his strongly Muslim electorate in London's Tower Hamlets because of his stance on particular political issues, most notably the war in Iraq. Galloway attempts to accommodate conservative religious sensibilities (despite a notorious appearance on Celebrity Big Brother) by courting Islamic organisations and downplaying his previously progressive views on issues such as gay rights and drugs.

His main appeal lies, however, not in any appearance of piety, but in the fact that he articulates a political position that reflects the preoccupations of many Muslim voters, on foreign policy issues such as Iraq, Palestine and Kashmir, as well as on domestic issues such as policing and civil liberties.

These issues also preoccupy Australian Muslims, although they tend to feel somewhat less politically stranded than their British counterparts because, unlike the Blair Government, the Australian Labor Party did not support sending troops to Iraq. It is notable that such issues are not exclusively Muslim, although Muslims may tend to have stronger opinions about them.

On some issues, Iraq being the most obvious example, mainstream political thought is moving closer to the position held by many Muslims.

On others, particularly regarding counter-terrorism, the middle ground of Australian public opinion may be diverging from that of Australian Muslims.

However, all of these issues can be discussed without particular emphasis on Muslim interests. It does not benefit Australian Muslims for their legitimate concerns to become labelled as sectarian-based bandwagons, thus confining them to the political margins.

By talking of running Muslim candidates, as though being Muslim defines a particular political agenda that is somehow different to that of non-Muslims, Hilali and his spokesman Kayser Trad are not furthering the interests of Australian Muslims. Rather, they are consigning them to the wilderness.

Hilali is a divisive figure among Muslims, let alone in the general community. For any candidate seeking to run for one of the main parties, an endorsement from him would be the kiss of political death. Independent candidates, too, need to draw the majority of their support from non-Muslims, even in southwestern Sydney seats where there is a large Muslim population.

Given the intensely negative reaction to Hilali's recent utterances, no candidate strongly associated with him could hope to win. They could perhaps reap some favours through preference deals, but again the main political contenders would be most reluctant to be seen doing political deals with Hilali after the past few months.

It is right and proper that Muslims should be among those Australians who stand for political office. But they cannot afford to be seen as exclusivist, as placing their religious identity above all else.

That does not mean that they must lay aside that identity altogether. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are guided by their Christian identity, but it has led them in radically different political directions. There is at least as great a diversity of political opinion among Muslims, despite a shared interest in certain issues.

Those issues need to be debated among Australians of all political and religious affiliations, not corralled into a campaign for candidates of one religious identity.

Shakira Hussein is editor of Shalom, Pax, Salam, an inter-faith online magazine. She is working on a PhD at the Australian National University on the interaction between Western and Muslim feminism.

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