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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 122

Senator TCHEN (8:58 PM) —Tonight I wish to speak about the Australian Arabic Council and some of its activities. According to its website, the formation of the Australian Arabic Council was prompted by racism experienced by the Australian Arabic community during the first Gulf War. As a proactive response, the AAC was formed in 1992 to focus on the relationship between the Australian Arabic community and the wider Australian community. The purpose of the AAC is, therefore, in common with many other community groups representing Australia’s diverse migrant communities, to raise awareness about issues of concern to them—in this case Arabic issues—and to foster better recognition of the contributions made by people of Arabic origin to the cultural, economic and social fabric of Australia.

Perhaps at this point I should add that it seems to me that, for the majority of Australians, the terms ‘Arabic’ and ‘Muslim’ are largely interchangeable—quite incorrectly. One describes a group of people who share a common ethnic, linguistic and cultural tradition; the other describes various groups of people united by one religious faith. Although Islam gave foundation to and shaped the greatness of the Arabic civilisation that dominated the Western world between the seventh and the 13th centuries, and Arabic is still a common language for all Muslims for the study of the Koran, the majority of today’s followers of the teaching of the prophet Mohammed are not of Arabic origin. In fact, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria are the most populous Muslim nations. Conversely, not all people of Arabic origin are Muslim—the Christian Lebanese, for example. This interchangeability is, of course, one of the problems of perception that the AAC must overcome.

To achieve this purpose, in addition to the more general efforts to promote a better understanding of Arabic history and culture by other Australians, and to engage in a common campaign against racism by addressing its causes, symptoms and solutions, the AAC sees that one of its main tasks is to campaign for more accurate media representation of Arabic issues. Thus, the AAC established the AAC Media Award with the aim—to quote from the chairman’s message from the 2004 award—‘to raise awareness of the role the media plays in shaping public perception and the effects of media stereotyping on the fabric of a multicultural Australia’. The annual award was inaugurated in 1995, and the 2004 award was celebrated at the Sidney Myer Asia Centre in Melbourne on 26 November 2004. I was pleased to be invited to attend, and certainly found it an interesting experience, not least because of the number of small surprises that kept coming up—perhaps not what the AAC would have intended but nevertheless thought-provoking.

I want to congratulate the Chair of the AAC, Roland Jabbour, and other members of the council; award coordinator Nabil Sulaiman and other committee members; the judges of the award—Dr Ray Jureidini, Ms Farah Farouque, Mr Peter Manning and Ms Mary Kostakidis; the award winner and the other short-listed journalists. It was an event of thoughtful concept and high-quality presentation, and it was well executed and generously supported by sponsors. I should also inform the Senate that the AAC’s work on public education continues apace. Tomorrow night at 6.30 p.m., it will be hosting a free public lecture in the Sidney Myer Asia Centre, to be presented by Professor Peter Manning, Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, entitled ‘The war on terror: Australian media representations of Arabs and Muslims’. I have no doubt it will be another informative occasion.

Let me now return to the 2004 AAC Media Award. The guest of honour and keynote speaker was Mr Jon Faine, a Melbourne based ABC radio presenter of some note. Mr Faine was an unusual but outstanding choice by the AAC for this role. Firstly, he is Jewish. Secondly, he is all but unique amongst ABC political presenters in that, if you switch on his program and do not know who he is interviewing, you would not be able to tell from his manner and his comments what political party his subject represents—notwithstanding the fact that he is, or was, a self-acknowledged Labor Party member. Either of these attributes would have set Mr Faine apart from his ABC colleagues, and it is certainly to his credit that he carries off both.

None of these were the surprises that I spoke of earlier. For me, the first surprise came in the subject of Mr Faine’s speech. He spoke of his recent experience attending an international conference overseas—in the UK, I think—where he made acquaintance with the representatives of the independent Arabic television service al-Jazeera, who were ostracised by the BBC because of al-Jazeera’s controversial airing of the beheading of a number of hostages. That was the first surprise—not that Mr Faine would befriend the members of the Arabic network, but that the BBC would take offence at al-Jazeera’s coverage, considering that its own reporters were reportedly on the verge of being banned by the British forces, who were angered by what they considered to be biased reporting.

Mr Faine recounted that he found the professionalism of the al-Jazeera journalists above reproach. He later had the opportunity to visit the network’s operations centre in the Gulf, and again was impressed by their professionalism and integrity. So, after he returned to Australia, he undertook the task of canvassing opportunities for contact between Australian media and al-Jazeera, in the interest of fair reporting. To Mr Faine’s surprise—though not to mine—the reaction he had ranged from total apathy to outright hostility, including amongst his colleagues in the ABC. I think he thought the Australian media were immune from the mob mentality and biased values. I too was surprised, not by what he found but that he was surprised by what he found. So what Mr Faine offered was a salutary lesson on media behaviour and a cautionary tale that a harmonious multicultural society is something that requires constant nurturing for it to flourish, with a touch of holier-than-thou-ness, which unfortunately he then proceeded to discard.

A few weeks earlier, an Islamic school, the Ilim College in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, was burnt down by an unknown arsonist. In his conclusion to the award evening, Mr Faine alluded to this as an example of the malice and intolerance which we must guard against. A reasonable line to take, one would have thought, except that, the weekend before, I attended the Festival of Eid ul-Fitr in Broadmeadows—also attended by Maria Vamvakinou, the member for Calwell, and Commissioner Mick Keelty of the Federal Police—at which the principal of Ilim College, Mr Ibrahim Dellal, with great enthusiasm and thanksgiving told the gathering about the planned rebuilding of the school and referred with forgiveness to the perpetrator of the fire, who was drunk at the time and who had already been arrested. There was no racial overtone. But there might have been, and Mr Faine could not resist the temptation of an easy conclusion. Et tu, Brute? Indeed!

We then went on to the announcement of the 2004 AAC Media Award. There were nine short-listed news reports. These ranged in content from reports of life in the suburbs of Sydney to the analysis of Middle East politics and diplomacy. And here was the real surprise of the evening. Madam Acting Deputy President, I have something like five or six more minutes of my speech and I see I have only one minute of time left. Instead of detaining the Senate, I will merge the remainder of my speech into a speech tomorrow night on a similar subject.