The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


There’s a group of 17 Indonesian academics currently studying English at Massey University. Five of the seven women in the group (see picture below) wear jilbab, the Islamic headscarf.

Before leaving their homeland they worried about discrimination. Their fears were based on reports of attacks on Muslims in Australia. Though sporadic these assaults get a good run in the Indonesian media.

The women, who have been in Wellington for more than a month, report no hostility. Like the 3,000 Indonesians now living in NZ they are discovering that although this country does have pockets of racism it doesn’t have the Australian hang-ups about Indonesia and Islam.

It would be warming to think we are a more tolerant society, but the reason for our acceptance may have more to do with geography and history than a generosity of spirit.

Indonesia is Australia’s big nation next door, 240 million people in an overcrowded archipelago with porous borders where democracy is still struggling after more than three decades of repressive military rule.

Australians have long considered Hindu Bali their backyard cheap exotic holiday destination, like Kiwis favor the Pacific islands. But few tourists venture into adjacent Java where Islam dominates, and where they might learn more about their neighbours. The Bali bombers, who killed 88 Australians in 2002, were Muslim fanatics from Java and their crimes have not been forgotten. Three Kiwis also died in the blasts but we’ve moved on.

Deep in the psyche of Australia is the fear of the ‘yellow peril’, millions tumbling out of Asia into the vast empty and loosely defended resource-rich continent below. ‘They’ were up there and it was obvious that gravity, if not poverty and envy, would force them Down Under.

This simpleton’s view was nurtured during the late 19th and early 20th century by a virulent anti-Chinese media campaign. The ‘White Australia’ immigration policy didn’t officially end till 1973; some Asians think it’s still in place..

The demons are no longer Chinese, but Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and others, particularly ethnic Hazaras who follow the minority Shi’ite branch of Islam. Many have been genuine asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution – a few have been economic refugees seeking a better life.

After paying people smugglers huge amounts they’ve been shepherded through the Indonesian islands where poor fishermen will ferry cargoes of humans across the Timor Sea. People smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia; it is in Australia.

Losing their boats and freedom is no great deterrent to the fishermen. Their families already have the up-front fees from the smugglers, and life in an Australian prison with good health care and wholesome meals is often better than the breadline existence in a coarse-life coastal village.

Until the authorities woke up, many fishermen were getting a free flight home at the end of their discounted sentences with their wallets stuffed with cash garnered in gaol. Though only a few dollars a day were given to buy necessities in return for doing basic jobs, the sums were vast when compared with earnings in their heavily plundered seas.

The previous Liberal government claimed its tough line against people smugglers reduced the flow, but changes in the law under Labor are said by the Opposition to be encouraging the risk-takers.

Previously the asylum seekers, (‘illegals’ in the tabloid press, ‘unlawful non-citizens’ to the bureaucrats), were sent to Nauru under the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’.

Those who made it to the mainland were sometimes given TPVs – temporary protection visas. These did not allow relatives to join the refugees who could be deported once Australian authorities decided the dangers they faced in their homelands had abated. Some who were rejected by Australia were accepted by NZ.

Now the TPVs have been dumped. The boat people are taken to a detention camp on tiny Christmas Island, Australian territory 500 km south of Jakarta. Here claims for asylum are processed. The island has been excised from Australia’s migration zone.

The boat that last week was allegedly fire bombed killing five and putting scores in hospital, has again roused national ire about Islam and Indonesia – a debate that’s seldom heard in this nation.

There are about 360,000 Muslims in Australia, ten times more than in NZ, and they’ve built mosques in most big cities. Well-reported conflicts with local communities over the establishment of Islamic schools, and occasional extremist comments by radical imam have kept the fire stoked.

Australian politicians claim thousands are mustering in Indonesia waiting to make the perilous sea journey in rickety boats. Some arrested by Indonesian authorities have told reporters they ‘loved Australia’ and its ‘good and kind government which would help them solve all their problems’.

Clearly they hadn’t heard the rabid Australian talkback radio comments where the ‘queue jumpers’ have stirred the old fears about ‘the threat from the north’. The fact that there’s no orderly queue for refugees seeking entry to Australia hasn’t dented the myth.

Not have they hearkened PM Kevin Rudd’s claim that his policy is ‘hardline, tough (and) targeted’.

New Zealand, with the huge barrier of arid Australia to the northwest, the vast Pacific to the north and only penguins below has no such concerns. Even if Fiji Frank becomes more ruthless it’s unlikely that flotillas of little boats crammed with the oppressed will set sail for NZ across 2,000 km of empty ocean.

In short, border protection is not a major public issue in NZ, making this country a more welcoming nation to Muslims refugees, migrants and students. As the Indonesian academics in Wellington are now discovering, Islamophobia has yet to cross the ditch.

(First published in Scoop 22 April 2009)