This article originally appeared on VICE Australia/New Zealand
In her maiden speech to Parliament, Pauline Hanson smugly announced she was back but "not alone." Now the results are in, and it appears she was right. According to a poll released by Essential Media this week, almost 50 percent of Australians—spread across the political spectrum—would support the idea of a ban on Muslim immigration.
Even with a generous 15 percent margin of error, these numbers are phenomenal.
But Hanson's return is hardly the whole story. She may be the country's loudest public expression of anti-Muslim rhetoric, but she didn't invent these ideas. Both the Labor Party and the Liberals have been trading on the same notions of integration and security, albeit less overtly, for at least the past 15 years. What is our refugee policy built on, if not a fear of being "swamped by Muslims"?
The Liberals have long pushed the envelope on racist rhetoric while the ALP plays catchup—either duplicating Coalition policy or, at best, saying nothing to check them —creating an environment that has allowed racism to slowly metastasise.
Perhaps the only thing more depressing than Hanson's return has been the trend in "progressive" responses. The fashionable position this season is that people have "genuine fears" that need to be aired (read: legitimised).
Peter Lewis, whose company Essential ran the recent poll, basically came to this same conclusion. "How do you tell half the population that they are wrong?" he asked in an opinion piece for The Guardian.
Lewis plays a common white progressive game: It's Not Really Racism. He has a circular theory which suggests 1) you can never directly challenge racist views you don't agree with, and 2) that we have to perform some kind of Freudian magic to get to the heart of people's "true" anxieties. Half the country can't just be overtly prejudiced towards a specific racial minority, right?
Except that Lewis' own research says exactly that. The top reasons given for people's fear of Muslims are entirely related to cultural impressions—economic factors are not mentioned.
What if it's that simple? What if it's not about jobs or economic insecurity, but just a good, old-fashioned sense of cultural superiority? Is it so hard to believe that 15 years of dedicated rhetoric about Islam as an existential threat to the West, combined with relentless media coverage of Muslim minorities inciting cultural non-conformity and terrorism could lead us here?
Progressives are no more immune to this discourse than anyone else. Just last night, Dr Kerryn Phelps was on ABC's The Drum speaking about those "genuine fears." This meant talking about "cultural compatibility," while reeling off a list of vague statements about "the subjugation of women" and "female genital mutilation" without a fact or statistic in sight.
As someone who is rightly opposed to a gay marriage plebiscite on the grounds that it would open up a tsunami of hate speech and prejudicial discussions aimed at the LGBTQIA+ community, Phelps had no qualms about calmly wading into a similarly damaging conversation about the inherent threats of some imaginary homogenous Muslim culture.
Peter Lewis warns us that talking about people's racism can only make them more racist. This idea—repeated by many during the backlash against Sonia Kruger—suggests that the main thing we need to do in these situations is ensure that the feelings of racists aren't hurt by a discussion of the actual problem. It seems like in Australia you should always call a spade a spade, but never ever call racism, well, racism.
Lewis claims he's come to this conclusion after "20 years" in politics. Given his experience, I'd like to ask him to name a single movement in history that's seen racial justice achieved by avoiding actual discussions about racism.
In the wake of Brexit, Donald Trump's rise to presidential candidacy, and Hanson's return, commentators have been scrambling to explain the apparent overnight success of particularly vicious, reactionary political platforms framed around race and xenophobia.
The narrative that this can all be blamed on disaffected poor people has finally unravelled in the US, as well as the UK. As this latest Essential poll shows, polite, middle class people are totally capable of subscribing to nasty ideas in large numbers.
In Australia, where over two thirds of the population have regularly supported putting refugees in offshore concentration camps, the idea half of them are suspicious of Muslims isn't hard to believe. And there's no simple, overnight answer to a problem that has been decades in the making.
But people not having the backbone to identify and challenge growing racism is how we got here in the first place—it's not the way out.
Aamer Rahman (the guy in the middle of the top image) is a Bangladeshi-Australian comic, practising Muslim, and one half of the comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet.
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