Recent remarks made by Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan illustrate the importance of not using vulnerable communities as “exhibits” or to single them out when addressing political or social problems that have nothing to do with them.
Sadly, the decision of politicians such as Anning and One Nation’s Pauline Hansen to make blatantly insensitive and Islamophobic remarks, has become all too familiar in the lived experience of many Australian Muslims. Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslims living in the West have been relentlessly securitised, demonised, misunderstood, and blamed for the actions of a tiny minority.
But while it is generally understood that Islamophobic incitement is a common tactic among the far-right, as a rule left-leaning politicians have generally proven to be more sensitive and nuanced in their understanding of and advocacy for the Australian Muslim community.
It therefore came as an unwelcome surprise last week when Western Australia’s Labour Premier Mark McGowan casually drew a comparison between the behaviour of militant anti-vaccination extremists and “Islamic fundamentalism” while addressing alleged threats of beheading directed against him and his family. “All this stuff is concerning”, he said on Tuesday. “You can’t say it’s not, it’s the sort of stuff that Islamic fundamentalists do. It’s Syria. It’s not the Australian way.”
Many in the West Australian Muslim community were understandably perplexed by this remark and questioned the relevance and appropriateness of the comparison made by Premier McGowan, not least because the two men charged over the threats are not Muslim and have no known ties to Islamic fundamentalism. McGowan’s insinuation, deliberate or not, seemed to imply that violence and barbaric threats emerging from domestic anti-vaccination movements were analogous to fundamentalist — not militant jihadist — interpretations of Islam. Concerns expressed by the community have led McGowan to issue an apology for the language he used on 26 November; he reassured Muslims that it was not his intention to cause offence and reiterated the desire for continued positive relations with the Muslim Community in Western Australia.
This incident has served to illustrate the importance of not using vulnerable communities as “exhibits” or to single them out when addressing political or social problems that have nothing to do with them. Such inferences trade on existing prejudices and divert attention from the genuine threat posed by domestic extremism. Portraying threats of extreme violence as better suited to “Islamic fundamentalists” in Syria ignores and distracts from the particular characteristics of extremism within the wider Australian community.
It is clear from the recent protests and angry demonstrations against vaccine mandates and lockdown powers in capital cities across Australia — including Perth — that the influence of white supremist and alt-right groups (such as the Base) is growing. Anti-government movements brought together by conspiratorial thinking have become incubators for extremist ideologies and ideas.
Within such a chaotic social milieu, it is critical that the public language used by political leaders be precise. In his annual threat assessment, Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), drew attention to the need for such precision when he stressed, “Our language needs to evolve to match the evolving threat environment.”
We are right to expect our political leaders — especially the ones who enjoy a high level of popularity — to be scrupulous with the language they use in times of particular uncertainty, anxiety, and fractious social disagreement. Through his impressive political leadership since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark McGowan has secured an impressive store of social trust from of many Western Australians, and he needs to use the political capital that comes with that trust to promote unity among his diverse constituents. Many Western Australian Muslims have taken the Premier’s apology and his expression of non-malign intent at face value. Time will tell if this experience leaves him with a greater appreciation of the weight of his own words.