At some point this year, possibly earlier, politicians across Europe, the US, and Australia dropped the well-worn tactic of dog-whistling in favour of outright, explicit racism.
And so, as someone whose Lebanese and Syrian parents came to Sydney in 1977, I knew immediately that when immigration minister Peter Dutton said last Friday that Malcolm Fraser “made mistakes over migrants”, he was talking about me and my family.
Sure enough, Dutton, prodded for an explanation by opposition leader Bill Shorten on Monday, singled out the Lebanese Muslim community, saying 22 of the 33 Australians charged with terror related offences were the children or grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim immigrants.
In any other time, this statement would be staggering. To invalidate the existence of hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens because a sum total of 22 of them were charged – charged mind you, not convicted – with serious criminal offences is beyond any reasonable argument.
But we are long past the age of reason. This is the time of proposed Muslim bans and national registries, and Islamophobes in the Senate. It is the time of Manus and Nauru and the Australian Border Force.
In a political climate where populist parties are gaining favour on the back of a vehemently anti-Muslim platform, these words don’t come as a shock. But they should.
They should because no one should be demonised and dehumanised in this way. If citizenship means anything at all, it should mean that third generation Australians are not referred to as migrant grandchildren. Talk about spelling it out loud and clear: you are not one of us, you never were, and you never will be.
What other racial demographics have their background held against them like this? Would Dutton consider it sensible immigration policy to rifle through the family tree of drunk white men who kill each other with a single blow to the head, and conclude that English or Scottish or Irish immigration was a mistake? Of course not, because by now we all know that being from a white European background is what makes a “real Australian,” that their inclusion is automatic while ours is forever on probation.
This is where I had intended to give you some statistics on how Lebanese immigrants have indeed “successfully integrated” in every country they have landed in – often reaching the highest echelons of government and business. I was going to devote several paragraphs to my own family tree and what my parents had to sacrifice in order to give their children a life that didn’t involve snipers and bombs and the risk of being snatched off the street and never seen again. I was even going to implore you to consider the many tens of thousands of Lebanese Australians who have enriched this society we live in; a society we like to describe as a vibrant tapestry but which now appears as dirty and threadbare as an old kitchen rag.
But I am through trying to convince people of my humanity. For all of my school years and throughout my 20s I was ashamed to be Lebanese. Not because Lebanese people themselves had done anything to make me feel ashamed, but because Australian society demanded that shame through its attacks on my language, my culture, my looks, and even my name.
And so I went from Ruba to the much more acceptable Ruby. And so I spent hours trying to comb my uncooperative curls sleek and straight. And so I stopped reading, writing, and speaking Arabic; this poetic gift of my ancestors is now largely lost to me and I grieve it every day.
It has taken me more than a decade to lose that shame, to embrace my heritage and accept myself, my family, and to wear all of it like the badge of honour it is. And there is nothing the likes of Peter Dutton or Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump can say that will induce that shame again.
Nor will I be cajoled into being a silent supplicant who never rocks the boat because I should be “grateful” just to be here.
As Mostafa Rochwani wrote so eloquently yesterday, it is the hostility and dehumanisation white Australia has meted out to generations of immigrants that pushes some of them to “seek worth elsewhere. Whether it is expressed in gang violence or in foreign fighters, these people are inherently just seeking what society was unwilling to provide them: their humanity, their worth being recognised.”
What Rochwani did not mention is the long process of colonisation and invasion of the Middle East by western powers – including Australia – that has led to the kinds of catastrophic wars and sectarian violence that continue to create refugees.
But that is what all this is really about isn’t it? Retroactively demonising Lebanese refugees from 40 years ago to justify the abhorrent treatment of refugees today. To perhaps lay the groundwork permitting the government to renege on its responsibility to house Syrian refugees.
Of the terrible things he has said and done in his tenure presiding over our offshore detention centres, Dutton’s latest comments may seem comparatively mild. But, as writer Amy Gray wrote on Facebook, “This is how conservatives send out their canary.”
How low will we let them go?
This is untenable. An elected representative cannot be allowed to collectively blame more than 200,000 of his fellow citizens. And while this petition drawn up last night is seeking Dutton’s censure from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (who, at the time of writing, is yet to comment), the truth is we have long passed the point of mere apologies and denunciations.
If we are to ever claw our way out of this hole of our own making it has to start now. This demands Dutton’s resignation from the immigration portfolio and from the front bench. Others have gone down for less.
I keep hearing people say that we have been here before. That every wave of immigrants is treated with suspicion and anger before finally gaining acceptance.
They are wrong. We have not been here before. Because for Muslims – and in Australia, specifically Lebanese Muslims – the invective hurled at us is worse than it has ever been. In all of my family’s close to four decades here, I have never felt so hated or feared or fearful. I have never experienced such uncertainty and despair.
No, I don’t have to prove my humanity to you, but Australia has to demonstrate it has some humanity left: Australia has to #SackDutton.