Too Laid Back about Immigration

The Immigration Museum in Melbourne is housed in a splendid Victorian in the heart of the city. The exhibition is informative, gripping at times and to a newcomer like me, refreshing.

It is puzzling why on a Sunday morning it is practically empty--in contrast to the casino at the Crown Hotel just a block away, which teems with people whose ancestors' hard lives are chronicled in this museum.

Or maybe the multi-ethnic crowds I see at the casino are only tourists from Asia and Europe who see in this museum no shrine or symbol of their heritage.

In Melbourne it is not only the casino that is crowded, it is also the stadiums. For the first time in my life I went to see an Aussie rules game (Collingwood v Carlton) and a rugby union match, between the Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks. The crowds in both stadiums are almost all white. I detect only a few heads that are Asian and maybe African.

In a week my partner and I travel from NSW to Queensland to Victoria to Western Australia. The country is less populated than, say, America or its mother nation, Britain, and more homogeneous by colour--most people here are white. In Sydney and Melbourne I see a few Muslim women. I can tell that because of their attire: stylish headscarves combined with jeans and make-up; jilbabs and, yes, even one or two burkas.

It will be less easy to assimilate immigrants whose culture is not only different but who may actually reject the Australian way of life.

In Perth, at an event held in the school, I am chastised by a Muslim woman. But she is a convert. There are two Somali women in jilbabs who nod and clap when she is done scolding me. I wonder why they do not get a chance to express their views. Is it because the moderator avoided them? Or is it because they don't speak enough English to defend their faith against critics such as me?When I ask about the question of the assimilation of Muslims into Australia, most people I talk to tell me: "In Australia we are laid-back."

This implies that most Australian Muslims are well assimilated in that they have jobs, are law-abiding and conform to Australian norms. A few even play Aussie rules. I am reassured by this laid-back attitude. Except, of course, that it doesn't apply to the boatpeople.

Who are the boatpeople? I wonder. That elicits many different answers. They are "asylum-seekers", "refugees", "people who jumped the line". They are "Afghans". But almost no one I spoke to said they are "Muslims".

At an event organised in Sydney by the Centre for Independent Studies, I am one of the speakers. The other is Janet Albrechtsen, brilliant and a passionate defender of free speech and a journalist of this paper. Why, if all is laid-back in Australia, is a seminar on free speech necessary?

Albrechtsen lists the many tricks that are applied effectively to silence people in Australia with an unconventional view: the language police, the sticks and carrots of (government) bureaucrats in promotions, demotions and the firing of people; the cold-shouldering of individuals by groups. The taboo subject used to be the indigenous people of Australia. Nowadays it is Islam.

A couple tells me about the latest convention-demonstration of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation). This is an international radical Islamic group with an agenda to promote sharia-based legislation in the West. In Britain it is banned; in most European countries the various law-enforcement officials closely scrutinise its members' movements, financial transactions and propaganda activities.

In Australia it is a legally recognised organisation that can hold conventions and demonstrations.

The pair who tell the story are angry that even though the mainstream media reported the demonstration, it received little critical comment. They are baffled by the fact that so few Australians seem to recognise the threat that groups like this one represent for Australia. Having attended the Hizb ut-Tahrir convention and having heard the anti-democratic propaganda of the Muslim organisation, they left feeling queasy.

Perhaps, on Islam, Australia is too laid-back for its own good.

The debate on immigration in Australia is between two groups of people who are pro-immigration (humanitarians and business groups) and three groups who are anti-immigration (unions, ecologists and anti-Islam groups):

Humanitarians: These are activists who see Australia as a sanctuary. They argue that a rich country like theirs has a moral obligation to meet international humanitarian commitments towards refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced peoples.

For them, this is not merely an obligation that must be weighed against other needs of Australians. It is a priority. The humanitarians have more in common with activists from rich Western countries than with the average Australian.

Business:. For instance, the booming Australian mining industry, is in desperate need of skilled labour to meet the Asian demand for iron ore, nickel, gold and other minerals. Not only the miners but all growing industries would like to be freed from restrictive measures on immigration.

Labour unions and their members: Opposed to immigration because cheap labour undermines their wage levels and hard-won entitlements such as pensions, health insurance, paid holidays and maternity leave. The question of why immigrant workers can't simply be taken into the fold of the unions is more complex than meets the eye. The biggest obstacle is the cultural difference between oldtimers and newcomers.

The Greens: In principle they do not oppose immigration but in the hierarchy of their priorities, ecology comes first. Australia must remain small above all because it is running out of water, but also to keep the overall Australian carbon footprint among the smallest in Asia. The Greens also oppose the kinds of investment in transport infrastructure that would be necessary to accommodate a much larger population.

Anti-Islamists: There is a fifth group that is difficult to label in the sense that the four other groups have an articulated common interest. These are people opposed to immigration on cultural grounds. They would heartily welcome a Brit or a Kiwi, be indifferent to the arrival of, say, an East European or South American, but reject an Afghan. It is inaccurate to label this group xenophobes or racists. They have a fear of Muslim immigrants as a potential threat to their Western way of life.

These five groups sometimes overlap and interact. They cut through the Left-Right divide (that is why labelling anti-Islamist groups right-wing is not useful and obscures more than it illuminates); they cut through income and education; are multiracial; rural and urban; Christian and secular; and include ex or lapsed Muslims. The pattern is in fact very similar in most of the Western world.

In the election campaign there has been talk about the need for a sustainable population as opposed to a Big Australia, about the need of immigrants for a growing economy and about the boatpeople in relation to the 1951 Geneva Convention, of which Australia is a signatory. But the rival candidates have sometimes seemed to be talking in code.

As a supporter of free enterprise, Tony Abbott argues that immigrants are welcome into Australia, but only if they first have a job. He favours reducing the annual intake of immigrants, but only in line with a decline already projected to happen. Julia Gillard implies that a sustainable population would reduce congestion on the roads in marginal NSW constituencies. She seems to want less immigration than her predecessor but is worried that the ruthless people-smugglers that are now on Australian waters might simply drown the boatpeople if the government fails to act--hence her proposal for an offshore processing centre in East Timor.

All this amounts to systematic evasion of the key issue facing Australia. That issue is the integration of a new kind of immigrant into Australian society.

Compared with Europe, Australia is a very fortunate country. It is familiar with the challenges of immigration. It has been absorbing people from far away from the times of the settlers and convicts from Britain to the era of mass exoduses after World War II. And it has natural borders that can be relatively easily controlled. All of this may lead Australians to feel they know how to handle immigration. But such complacency could be dangerous.

The first challenge is to acknowledge and appreciate what is actually going on in the supply of immigration. When in 1951 the Geneva Convention was drafted, the UN reported that about a million people, mostly from Europe, were displaced, seeking asylum or qualified for a refugee status. Today the number is 40 million, mostly from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Second, the culture of these potential immigrants is of utmost relevance when it comes to assimilating those welcomed into host nations like Australia. In the 1940s and 50s, Australia was essentially admitting Europeans, nearly all of them Christian. The Indo-Chinese who came later were also assimilated, even though they were sometimes subjected to harsh discrimination. But it will be less easy to assimilate immigrants whose culture is not only different but who may actually reject the Australian way of life.

About 70 per cent of the 40 million displaced peoples, asylum-seekers and refugees are Muslim.

Nor do Muslims come to Australia only as refugees. People from Britain have long been the single largest group of settlers coming to Australia. But the most recent data for all permanent additions to the population by country of birth shows that people from predominantly Muslim countries account for a larger share: 12.5 per cent of new settlers, compared with 11.9 per cent from Britain.

Unlike other migrant groups, Muslims are often targets for their radical brethren. Financed with oil money, agents of Islamism set up indoctrination centres called madrassas in refugee camps. Their teachings are fundamentally incompatible with Australian values. They preach submission to Allah before individual freedom.

Women are groomed to be submissive baby machines; gay people are deemed unfit to live; a worldview is cultivated that obliges the Muslim to distance himself from the unbeliever and never to copy the ways of the infidel.

If assimilation programs have the ambition of integrating the first generation and fully assimilating the second, then Australian policy-makers and citizens must be aware of this reality. Europeans underestimated it.

The result is that the Islamists have been able to establish enclaves and networks in some of the continent's biggest cities. Finally there is the issue of national security and national interest. Australia is a staunch ally of the US and has supported America's war on terror in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There remains a serious threat of retaliation from the worldwide web of Islamists.

Their methods are subtle: sleeper cells, the transfer of moneys to charities that aid or abet terrorism, the support of the gradual Islamisation of Australia, the setting up of institutions of dawa (persuasion, activation of passive or lapsed Muslims, conversion of non-Muslims); the rejection of democratic values and particularly the abuse of the welfare state.

A serious immigration debate needs to acknowledge these alarming realities. This time really is different. So what should Australia's immigration policy be?

Australia is a booming economy that clearly needs to and will increase its population.

Higher fertility alone is not a sufficient answer. Creating policies that help Australian women find a balance between work and the care of children is also necessary but not sufficient. An immigration policy is needed that serves the economic needs of Australia while at the same time maintaining social cohesion. National security at a time of terrorism that transcends borders and peoples must be the other key criterion in determining who gets to be an Australian visitor or resident and who qualifies for citizenship.

An asylum-seeker from Pakistan who is idling his hours away in a refugee camp might be the right person that a miner in Kalgoorlie can train. But given Afghanistan and Pakistan's problems with Islamism, it is reasonable to ask questions about more than just his engineering degree.

How much schooling in madrassas has he had? How loyal is he to the creed of martyrdom? Is he willing to reject the political and social dimensions of Islam? Is he willing to learn the language, values, customs and convictions (in short the Australian way of life)? Will he promise to abide by the law--Australian, not sharia?

Such questions can and should be asked of whoever is seeking admission into Australia. Merely to be fleeing a failed state or a civil war is not sufficient.

Nor can it be enough simply to have a family member already resident in Australia. Even a proven skill of use to the Australian economy is not a sufficient qualification. Australians have a right to be reassured those wishing to join their society will respect their traditions and principles.

It is abundantly clear from my visit to the Museum of Immigration that previous generations of immigrants were more than ready to sign up for those principles. But the world has changed--and Australia's immigration policy must change with it.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/knape

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