The case of nine Australians detained in Malaysia for stripping down to bathers emblazoned with the Malaysian flag has received a lot of coverage. The men violated the country’s conservative laws and were seen as disrespectful to the nation’s modest sensibility and patriotism.
While Malaysia’s laws are reactionary, the men’s actions were those of privileged Westerners who showed no regard for local customs and an idiotic disregard for the views of the people around them.
In contrast to Australian hype around Malaysia, politicians and media outlets have been awfully quiet about Israel detaining 13 women for attempting to break the siege of Gaza. This is despite the fact that the boat’s captain is an Australian citizen and other women on board included a Nobel peace laureate, New Zealand, Swedish and Algerian parliamentarians, an Olympic volleyball player and a US ex-diplomat.
The men in Malaysia were detained for a stupid illegal act. By contrast, the women were detained by the Israeli army in an illegal act of piracy and kidnapping in international waters.
So why is there no spotlight on Israel’s actions and a lot of focus on Malaysia detaining idiots? Simple racism is no doubt one factor. The fact that the men are all white with Western-sounding last names no doubt made their story easier to sell than the story of a woman whose family is Egyptian and who carries the last name Habib. The fact that one of the men involved was a staffer for Liberal minister Christopher Pyne also probably helped.
But the main reason why “the nine” are so much more popular is because they fit the narrative of men standing up to reactionary/conservative Islam. By contrast, the story of the women’s boat to Gaza is the story of women standing up to the apartheid Israeli government, which has received bipartisan support from Australian governments and “oppositions” since it was founded in 1948.
Since withdrawing settlers in 2005 (relocating many of them to illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank), the Israeli government has tried to claim that Gaza is no longer occupied. This is despite the fact that Israel (with Egypt) controls Gaza’s borders (land, sea and air), making it a giant open air prison.
The fact that it is impossible to enter Gaza via international waters without being arrested by Israel shows that Gaza remains occupied.
As New Zealand prime minister John Key pointed out, “This isn’t the first flotilla that has gone into Gaza, and they have all ended pretty much the same way”. While Key had his facts wrong (the boat didn’t make it to Gaza), the right wing leader was right to point out that the continued arrests were a “less than perfect look” for countries that want to maintain relations with Israel. No wonder some Australians would rather ignore it.