After hearing reports of Australian Islamists being detained in Lebanon, Prime Minister Howard must be kicking his shins. His tenor at the helm of Australian politics has witnessed an uneasy and often tense relationship with Australia's 450,000-strong Lebanese community. Under his leadership, the "Lebanese" label has carried a criminal connotation. It has become the Howard Government's greatest punching bag.
Australia has a deep history with its Lebanese community pre-dating federation. The major influxes occurred post-World War I and II, which saw a wave of mainly Christian Lebanese migrate to the new and empty continent. The third and latest great wave came during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the majority of them being Sunni and Alawite Muslims. Today, the Lebanese-Australian community is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians.
Australia's Lebanese mostly originate from the rural and impoverished regions of North Lebanon. It wasn't by mere coincidence that they all happily chose Australia as a final destination. Australian forces serving in World War II were largely deployed in North Lebanon. Following the pleasant interaction between the locals and visiting Australian troops, many Northern Lebanese began choosing English over French as a preferred second language, and began dreaming of the Great Southern Land.
Little problems arose from the Lebanese community, apart from the odd gangs, which were quite common to most ethnic groups. Several Australians of Lebanese heritage have risen to prominence in the country, including the modern-day Premier of Victoria Steve Bracks, and author David Malouf.
The rosy Lebanese-Australian interaction quickly began to change post-9/11. With the staunchly conservative and pro-Israeli Howard Government in charge, the Lebanese community, particularly the Muslims, proved an easy scapegoat. Indeed, the Lebanese community has appalling statistics. They have one of the highest unemployment, jail and crime rates in the country. In 2002, the nation erupted in uproar over the news of gangs of Lebanese Muslim youth pack-raping white Australian girls in Sydney's outer west.
Gang-rapes had not been new to Australia. In 2004, several rugby players from the Canterbury Bulldogs were investigated for allegedly gang-raping a woman. On that occasion, the media highlighted male-bonding and sport culture as the motivation for group sex. Dating back a bit earlier to 2001, a story came to light of a large number of male youths from an exclusive Sydney Anglican boarding school raping and torturing two victims, only it was the bullying culture that was pinpointed as the main motivating factor. When it was made known that Lebanese Muslims had been responsible for gang-raping white Australian girls, of course, it became a racial issue.
It is without doubt that there are problems within the Lebanese Australian community. A plethora of organised Lebanese gangs run around Sydney's West causing mayhem, although not much different from the underground white, biker, Chinese, Vietnamese or Italian gangs. Yet Australia still remains festive at Chinese New Year, and during the yearly Italian festivals. No sweeping generalisations there.
More trouble for the Lebanese came in 2005 when Australia's intelligence apparatus, ASIO, made a sweeping raid on an Islamist terror cell in Sydney and Melbourne, arresting 18 men, most of whom were of Lebanese origin.
Then the story that reached headlines around the world, the race riots of Cronulla, Sydney. Following the racist comments of right-wing hawk radio host, Alan Jones, for "biker gangs" to descend upon Cronulla beach to beat the "Lebanese thugs", hundreds of white supremacists flocked to the beach and did exactly that. Any person of Middle Eastern appearance, regardless of gender or age or even ethnicity (a Greek man was beaten), was attacked by the neo-Nazi mob. Lebanese Muslim gangs in Sydney's West were up in arms, and great fears of a racially-motivated gang-war led to swift intervention by Australia's politicians. Never before in Australia's short history has the country witnessed US-like racial street conflict. Alan Jones was criticised by Australia's broadcasting authority, but had found stern support among Australia's top politicians, including the Prime Minister and Opposition leader.
Many other incidents throughout the past six years have also added to the tense climate between the Australian government and its sizeable Lebanese community, including the recent controversy surrounding firebrand former Sunni Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hamid Hilali. The cleric came under fire for reportedly claiming women invited rape by dressing scantily. Intense pressure from Australia's politicians led the Lebanese Muslim Association to find a replacement mufti.
The image of Lebanese in Australia has deteriorated to its lowest point during Howard's reign. The ugly plague of racism has resurfaced in Australian society, and the notion of multi-culturalism all but swept under the carpet. Making sweeping cultural generalisations has only added salt to the wound. Lebanese Muslim youths are embracing their "Muslim" identity, not as a result of greater religious instruction, but as a consequence of their feeling of exclusion. The Howard Government has not extended a welcoming hand to the community, but instead fought it with a battering, right-wing stick. In addition to backing hawkish racist media presenters, the neocon government vigorously backed Israel during its onslaught of Lebanon in 2006, deepened its relations with Australia's powerful Jewish lobby, and has also encouraged the activity of right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups.
On the other side of the coin are the extremist Islamic leaders who are benefiting from the Australian government's actions. As Howard keeps saying 'no' to Lebanese Muslim integration, the youth of this community turn to the arms of Islamic extremism. Islamic radicalism struggles daily in Western society to prevent Muslim migrants from assimilating and integrating in Western life for fear that they will lose their Islamic identity and lead secular lifestyles. This struggle has become easier as governments continue to isolate and alienate Muslim youths, as has been done by the Howard Government.
A thorough examination of the social problems plaguing the Lebanese Muslim community is required in order to find a solution. It is not in Australia's interests if a community of 450,000 is feeling alienated in society. The Government needs to address the issues of high unemployment and crime culture without adding racial and religious stereotypes. Perhaps then, it will understand why Lebanese-Australian men were found last week in Lebanon engaged in Islamist activities.
The young Lebanese Muslim youths, most of whom have never been to Lebanon or know of it, are stuck in an identity crisis. Both the Howard Government and Al-Qaida have indirectly come to an agreement in solving this crisis ... they're not Australian, they're radical Muslims. However, both are wrong. These youths would feel just as alienated in Lebanon, a country and culture foreign to them. Almost all Lebanese-Australian youth were born and bred in Australia and English is their native language. Hardly any have a Lebanese citizenship. The majority will more than likely spend the rest of their lives and raise their families in our Great Southern Land. This is their true homeland, this is their true identity, and so long as they are going to be told otherwise, the more Lebanese gangs and Islamist terror cells there will be in our neighbourhoods.
Racism has ugly consequences for everyone.