(Image reproduced with permission from Ruby Jones @rubyalicerose)
Following the Christchurch massacre, Sydney PEN decided to make available the following President's Report ahead of the publication of the May issue of the bi-annual magazine.
I write this message mere days after the massacre of 51 people in two Christchurch mosques by an Australian terrorist, motivated by Islamophobia and white supremacism.
Sydney PEN is appalled by the viciousness of the attack and condemns violence in all its forms. We come together with the victims’ families, our sibling nation New Zealand, and Muslim communities around the world to mourn.
But we also acknowledge that this type of hatred has been given space to exist in Australian society and has even been encouraged by certain elements within the media and politics.
In recent times, we have seen our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, argue against providing detained refugees adequate medical care calling them potential pedophiles, rapists, and murderers.
Our Sudanese-Australian population has endured sustained harassment from members of our federal government and the Victorian Liberal Opposition who demonised them as part of a racist electoral strategy in the recent Victorian state election.
Then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed it had been a mistake to allow Lebanese Muslim refugees into the country. He also said Melburnians were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang” violence and that “illiterate and innumerate” asylum seekers would take local jobs or languish on the dole.
Senator Pauline Hanson described the Islamic religion as “a disease we need to vaccinate ourselves against”. Not long after that, she entered the Senate chamber wearing a burqa as part of a publicity stunt. Shortly afterwards, her dog-whistling “It’s okay to be white” motion was voted for by government senators.
This was shortly after another senator, whose name doesn’t deserve to be mentioned, called for a return to the White Australia Policy and invoked the Final Solution in a speech in parliament regarding how to treat immigrants. That same senator blamed the Christchurch massacre on Muslim migration.
One Path Network, a Muslim video production studio and media company in Sydney, conducted a report into how five Murdoch newspapers covered Islam in 2017: The Australian, Herald Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Courier Mail, and The Advertiser.
There were 152 front pages relating to Islam or Muslims in a negative way.
There were over 200 articles written about Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the Muslim-Australian writer who Tweeted on Anzac Day: “LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…).”
Thirty-eight per cent of Andrew Bolt’s 473 opinion pieces in 2017 were about Islam. This is the same man who in 2018 wrote a column headlined “The foreign invasion”, which claimed Australians were being swamped by a “tidal wave” of non-English speaking immigrants.
That same year, conservative politicians were arguing for amendments to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, claiming their free speech was threatened by the clause that prevented them from offending, insulting, humiliating or intimidating another person.
Within this discourse, state and federal police in Australia have become increasingly concerned by the rise of right-wing extremism.
It is clear our national conversation regarding immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims and migrants has become poisonous and deeply divisive. Discriminatory and racist language is becoming more common. Worse still, such language is no longer seen as taboo by some – particularly white – Australians.
We need to strike a balance between our value of free speech and our responsibilities as citizens to create a respectful space for public discourse and ensure all members of society can live without being subjected to racism, discrimination and harassment.
Free speech comes hand in hand with acknowledgement that all human beings are born free and equal and are entitled to dignity, respect and rights without distinction of any kind.
While our politicians publicly decry the vile and hateful Christchurch terrorist attack, their bipartisan policies persist regarding the indefinite detention of refugees on Manus Island. One such person is the Kurdish writer and PEN prisoner of conscience, Behrouz Boochani.
Although Behrouz has been detained on Manus Island for six years by the Australian government, he was recently awarded the headline and non-fiction prizes – the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction – and $125,000 prize money at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his poetic memoir, No Friend But The Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Behrouz for a Sydney PEN International event. He is passionate in his condemnation of those who manufactured this torturous regime and calls upon the Australian people to act.
I hope this award will bring international attention to Australia's barbarity in the lead up to this year’s federal election, and motivate both Labor and Coalition to end their cruel, dehumanising anti-asylum seeker policies on Nauru and Manus Island.
In the wake of the Christchurch massacre Sydney PEN encourages all elements of Australian society to contribute to a more respectful, balanced representation of Muslim members of our community.
Mark Isaacs is the President of Sydney PEN.