Muslims fear being used as scapegoats in Australian election

Islamic leaders believe the Federal Government will use the community as scapegoats in next year’s federal election campaign. Their fears are heightened by the Government’s failure to release the report of Prime Minister John Howard’s hand-picked Muslim advisory group examining how to tackle extremism, terrorism and other issues facing the Muslim community.

Muslim Reference Group member Yasser Soliman said the Government was holding back the group’s report while sending critical messages to the wider community, and “some people can read between the lines”.

Mr Soliman, the past president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said he was baffled at the delay. “It is commonly said, and not only by Muslims, that the reason is, they want to position the Muslim community as refusing to integrate and not contributing to the nation, and this report might challenge a few of those perceptions,” he said.

Another reference group member, Yasmin Khan from Queensland, questioned whether the Government-appointed group had been a “charade”. “You wonder whether it highlights everything the (Muslim) community has been saying about the group, that we were the PM’s hand-picked Muslims, chosen as a rubber stamp.”

Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Aly said Muslims were certain they would have a major, though involuntary, role in the 2007 election. “Not only do Muslims have a suspicion that they will be pawns in the next election campaign, they now almost assume they will be. To them, it’s just a statement of fact.”

Reference group chairman Ameer Ali said he could not guess why the report had been withheld, but he was constantly reminding the parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs, Andrew Robb, of community anger. “More than 60 people made up the committees (that produced the report) and more than 100 imams came to the conference. We expected this to be published quickly.”

Members of the now-defunct group regard the report, based on a year of consultations among Muslims by 60 leaders and submitted nearly three months ago, as vital unfinished business. The report discusses ways to tackle extremism and issues such as education, youth, women, unemployment and integration.

Mr Soliman said the group now had no idea what the Government planned and was under attack from their own communities. “The message politicians give is that Muslims don’t want to integrate or contribute to a better future, and that’s not the case at all,” he said.

Lebanese Muslim Association president Tom Zreika said Mr Robb was a “top bloke” but he expected Muslims to be attacked during the election to distract voters from real problems the Government faced.

A spokesman for Mr Robb said the report would be released soon, though he could not say when. But he said 42 of the 48 recommendations had already been approved and funded. He said Mr Robb’s experience in the portfolio was that the broader Muslim communities supported what the Government was trying to do and he denied any hidden motives.

The Age, 14 December 2006