Anti-Muslim prejudice is racism – we need to name it and resist it

There’s no doubt the Essential Poll revealing that 49 percent of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration is shocking. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

Racism has been at the core of Australian politics and identity since invasion. From the genocidal wars waged against the Indigenous population to the siege mentality of a colonial outpost whose leaders whipped the population into a frenzy of hatred and fear against the “yellow peril”, racist demagoguery is a core ideological element on which the nation was built.

Of course hate coexisted with assimilation and integration. As waves of immigrants from Europe were replaced with new ones, first from Asia, later from the Middle East, the specific targets of racist hate shifted. Even the most rabid racists, like Pauline Hanson, see the sense in keeping their prejudice up to date. This is why we are told we are being swamped by Muslims today, not by Asians like 20 years ago.

And the language of racism has changed. Whereas once racial prejudice could be declared openly, now almost every racist indignantly denies being one. If it were possible to declare a national euphemism, ours would be “I’m not a racist, but …”.

Because Islam is a religion as well as a marker for race, Muslims are the perfect target for this modern racism. The right can proclaim, with a conviction in their own cleverness that gives the impression they think they have just split the atom, that “Islam is not a race”. But while liberals sneer at such stupidity and proudly declare that they have nothing against “good” Muslims, the policies that the mainstream political establishment embrace are no better than the worst practices of the White Australia policy.

Muslim kids are subject to police raids and locked up for thought crimes that in most cases are no more than the expression of entirely justified outrage at the policies of the government. Muslim refugees are detained indefinitely in concentration camps because they might be terrorists. Newspapers run hysterical headlines about jihadis and the threat of sharia law that are every bit as racist as the anti-Jewish headlines those same papers and their predecessors published in the 1930s, or the anti-Japanese propaganda they ran in the 1940s.

In the week since the Essential Poll came out, which also coincided with Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech as a senator, the liberal press has been falling over itself to try to explain how such a horrific degree of open racism could exist in Australia. After all, the elements of the political establishment they represent might go along with every new “anti-terror”law and accept the basic prejudices that lead to anti-Muslim hate, but half the population expressing the decidedly illiberal view that followers of a particular religion should be banned from entering the country is enough to shake even the most comfortable from their complacency.

But the answers they give are not answers at all. The most prominent line of argument, that taken by Peter Lewis, executive director of Essential Polling, is that economic insecurity is what has driven people to racist scapegoating. This doesn’t stand up to the most elemental scrutiny. First of all, the biggest concentration of anti-Muslim racism is to be found among the well off. Sixty percent of Liberal voters – a group overwhelmingly made up of the middle class and the rich – back a ban on Muslim immigration. Racism in Australia becomes more intense the higher up the income scale you go.

The next most well-off section of the population is Greens voters – and 34 percent of them are for banning more Muslims from entering the country, in spite of the admirable stance taken on the issue by the Greens parliamentarians.

And then there are Labor voters, 40 percent of whom backed a ban. Labor voters represent the biggest concentration of working class votes of all the parties. And while things are not easy for workers in Australia today, there has been nothing like the devastating collapse in living standards over the last few years that has occurred in the US or Europe.

Economic insecurity and the general alienation that results from the warped reality of modern capitalism are of course underlying reasons that people done over by the system can take up racist ideas. But in the current debate, this point is being distorted to apologise for racism, to resist demands to name it for what it is and take it on, and to distract from the real reasons that racist ideas have such a hold.

The basic explanation for such prejudice is simple. There has been a 15-year long propaganda offensive that has terrified the population into believing that “Islamic extremism”poses an existential threat to Western society. This war – and it has been a war of bombs and tanks as well as of newspaper headlines, policies and prisons – has been waged by Liberal and Labor politicians alike, by the Murdoch and Fairfax press, by commercial television and by the ABC.

In the past 18 months the rise of ISIS and the terror attacks in Europe and the US have added a new intensity to the hysteria. But the script has hardly changed. The right blame all Muslims, the liberal media blame some – and the two wings of mainstream opinion rail at each other about their differences, which in reality are little more than those of emphasis. Either way, the message to the public has been crystal clear: Muslims are a threat that must be stopped.

It has been particularly offensive, in the wake of this poll and of Hanson’s vile speech, to read articles calling on us to “understand” where racists views come from.

Sure, the left understands that racist views have material roots. We have been saying that for years – and it is also part of the reason we put so much effort into building a movement that understands the real enemy of the mass of people is the super-rich, not the wretched of the earth fleeing wars our government helped start on the other side of the world.

But the main issue now is to understand the concerns of racists? Not to defend Muslims from these latest horrific demonstrations of the deep-seated prejudice against them that exists across Australian society? Not to stand up and make it clear that at least some people are prepared to speak out against racism?

It is an abomination. And particularly so in a context where so much of liberal opinion is determinedly and rightly trying to avoid a plebiscite on marriage equality because of the psychological impact it may have on LGBTI people. Muslims, it seems, deserve no such protection or support. They have been so vilified, so dehumanised, that not only do one in two people support banning them from entering the country, even many of those who reject such open racism don’t consider Muslims human enough to think that solidarising with them against the racists should be the first response to such an outrage.

This poll and the response should be a wake-up call. Those people who want to take a stand against racism – and despite everything there are many of us – need to get together and start taking that stand right now.