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Australia: A community says no to racist burqa bans

The audience was diverse, with a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds represented. Photo by Robert Alcock.

By Peter Boyle, Sydney

November 26, 2010 -- All around the Western world, far-right groups (some with neo-Nazi orgins and links) are gaining political ground through an orchestrated campaign against Muslim communities. By spreading fear and hatred against recent immigrant communities from Muslim countries these groups have tapped into well-resourced post-9/11 war propaganda campaigns initiated by rulers of the world’s richest and most powerful states.

One of the favourite tactics of these anti-Muslim hate campaigners is to push laws banning the burqa, the fully veiled dress style used by a tiny minority of Muslim women. In Australia, the ultra-conservative Reverend Fred Nile, leader of the Christian Democratic Party and a member of the NSW Legislative Council, and Liberal senator Cori Bernardi from South Australia, have unsuccessfully tried to move private member's bills to ban the burqa.

The burqa ban issue became a local controversy in the Sydney’s cosmopolitan inner-west suburbs when Sergio Redegalli, a glass sculptor and gallery owner, painted a stark “Say no to burqas” mural on the wall of his studio in Newtown.

Two local residents, Amanda Perkins (a union organiser) and Pip Hinman (prominent anti-war campaigner, community activist and Socialist Alliance election candidate in several local, state and federal elections) organised a public meeting in the Erskineville Town Hall on November 24 to bring the debate into the open.

Presentations by Sally McManus, Australian Services Union state secretary; Aisha Chaabou, a student activist from the University of Western Sydney; Father Dave Smith, Holy Trinity Church; and Pip Hinman kicked off the debate. Several members of the audience spoke for and against banning the burqa. Redegalli, the painter of the anti-burqa mural, also spoke.

Redegalli is slippery about his motives. He claims he just wanted to “start a discussion” but his anti-Muslim prejudice was clear. He told the meeting he’d love to have a discussion with Muslim women about the issue — prompting a Muslim woman at the meeting to remark that having such a mural on his wall was not exactly “inviting”!

Some people think he maybe just looking for free publicity for his business but he’s playing with some nasty far-right forces. On the far-right Australian Identity website (which describes itself as an “Independent patriotic forum”), Redegalli was first applauded (some forum members said they rushed to have their photo taken in front of it) and identified as a great opening. Some suggested buying Xmas presents from his gallery to show support. But when Redegalli amended the mural to replace the clear image of a woman in a burqa with an outline, one member of the forum wrote: “Well, this was predictable.  The gutless dago has removed it…”

Perhaps the Italian-born Redegalli ought to reflect on this.

Sally McManus addresses the meeting. Photo by Robert Alcock.

“We were encouraged that many people, including lots of local residents, had a chance to have their say. An overwhelming majority of attendees did not support calls to ban the burqa”, said Perkins after the meeting. At the end of a wide-ranging, passionate but civil debate, Hinman moved the following motion, which was supported by two-thirds of the people at the meeting:

This Town Hall meeting is against any ban on the burqa.

Calls to ban the burqa tap into racist campaigns against people of Islamic background.

Calls to ban the burqa do not assist those women who do not want to wear the burqa. Rather they penalise and stigmatise a small number of women, and make it hard for them to leave their home.

For these and other reasons, supporters of women’s rights and human rights should resist calls to ban the burqa.

Two commercial television stations, Channel 7 and Channel 9, filmed the entire meeting but in their news items broadcast the following night focussed solely on the small pro-burqa ban minority. OK, many readers will not find that too surprising perhaps but they may find it a little shocking that these two TV stations were actually promoting and projecting to a mass audience an orchestrated media stunt by the far-right Australian Protectionist Party. The APP split off from another far-right party called Australia First (a group headed by the notorious open Nazi supporter Jim Saleam) in 2007, and hopes to advance in electoral politics on a model borrowed from the British National Party. In March this year, Nick Chance a visiting speaker from BNP coached APP members on how they could advance by using anti-Islamic propaganda and by shedding connections with anti-Semites and overt neo-Nazi types. Alas for the APP, its members and supporters find it hard to hide their racism as a perusal of its Facebook site quickly reveals.

Members of the APP, and another far-right group called the “Southern Cross Soldiers”, came to the Erskineville meeting with prepared scripts and a male APP member, Robert Hunt, dressed in a black burqa. With the TV cameras focused on him, Hunt strode to the front to address the meeting and then theatrically whipped off his mask and said: “No one has raised the issue of security yet. I’m a male!”

Far-right APP member Robert Hunt in his burqa was promoted by the commerical TV stations present. From Channel 7 news coverage.

For extra emphasis, Hunt added, that he could have gone into the female toilets! Later, boasting on his Facebook page, Hunt wrote:

“Yes it was me! … and the sound of the vaginas closing in the front… I had never heard so many squeeks as to what I did when I said I could have gone into the female dunnies.”

Another wild-eyed APP member, Jack Zedee, said he was a former soldier who lives in Lakemba (a Sydney suburb with a big middle-eastern community) and that he was sick of being abused and spat at by burqa-clad Muslim women in the street and fearful of “Sharia law” being imposed in Australia!

Another speaker, who seemed costumed and primed with a crude script, was a woman who a gave her name as “Skye Patch” and claimed to be a “concerned resident”. She declared herself to be from “Generation X” and argued for her right “as a proud Australian woman” to wear a sleeveless dress, make-up, high heels and be free from “political correctness”. She was very Pauline Hansonesque in her language and played to the TV cameras.

It was a weird argument. There is no move to “impose Sharia law” in Australia and there is no move to ban any dress apart from the burqa, but allowing Muslim women wear a burqa is the “thin edge of the wedge” and next thing we know we’ll all be under Sharia law! It’s the sort of wild leap of no-logic that you would think the white supremacist far-right (born again as anti-Muslim hate campaigners today) would struggle to get a mountain goat to chance. But perhaps not if they get a little help from powerful rich friends with TV stations.

Channel 7 distorted this overwhelmingly anti-racist, anti-burqa ban meeting into what will undoubtedly serve as a propaganda film by the APP and other far-right groups. A Channel 7 reporter later admitted to one of the meeting organisers that he had lined it up with the APP. You can watch it here.

Fortunately, a local resident filmed the entire meeting and this will be posted to Youtube soon and made available off the Green Left Weekly website.

With such hatred and racism being spread by the big business media, it is all the more important to keep alive the alternative media like Green Left Weekly.

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University of Western Sydney student Aisha Chaabou. Photo by Robert Alcock.

Father Dave Smith, Holy Trinity Church. Photo by Robert Alcock.

Pip Hinman, Sydney Stop The War Coalition founding member, Socialist Alliance and community activist. Photo by Robert Alcock.

Organiser and chairperson Amanda Perkins (foreground). Speaking: Sergio Redegalli, who painted the "Say no to burqas" mural. Photo by Robert Alcock.

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