In her article, “Islam and Australia’s immigration laws” (News Weekly, March 19, 2011), Babette Francis questions to what extent Australia’s immigration laws, at the height of the Cold War, prevented communists from being able to enter our country.
I have a small tale to tell in that connection. During 1968 and 1969, I was a base-grade clerk in the Commonwealth Public Service Board Office located in Canberra House, London, a stone’s throw from Australia House in the Strand. Most of the work of the office was recruiting professionals (engineers, geologists, architects, etc.) to work in the Commonwealth Public Service in Australia, and as such they were subject to security checks.
The story concerns an engineer who, with wife and children, had been recruited to work in South Australia (if I remember correctly). The wife’s elderly widowed father had applied to join them but had been refused entry, with no reason given. The husband, distressed for his wife, sought our help in discovering the grounds, perhaps to rectify an error.
As insiders, we were able to ascertain that he had been banned by ASIO because he had been a member of the Communist Party for a few years in the 1940s, during World War II when Russia was England’s ally, but we were not permitted to pass on this information. The father, of course, was not a candidate for employment by the Commonwealth.
As an Australian citizen, I was highly indignant at this intervention by ASIO. One of my earliest childhood political memories was of a “Vote No” slogan painted on a bridge near my home in Brisbane — it was the time of the Menzies Government’s 1951 referendum on banning the Communist Party in Australia, which was subsequently lost. ASIO had no right, I thought, to debar someone from entering Australia for being a communist (let alone being one 25 years ago) against the people’s decision.
The end of it was that the wife felt she had to return to England with the children, to be with her father. The new public servant had lost his family because of ASIO’s illegal determination.
There is an addendum to the story. The incident stayed with me over the years as the problem pending of a political wrong that I should oppose if an opportunity of influence ever arose — which it didn’t.
However, some 20 years later, it was resolved. At a public dinner, in conversation I happened to mention to my chance neighbour my concern at ASIO’s action which, for all I knew, was still current policy. “Not any more!” he responded vigorously — he had himself been refused a job in the CPS on the same grounds, but he had successfully challenged the ruling.
I should add that at the time I was pretty much unaware of the level of disruption created by communist activity in the unions, though my father, who was active at grass-roots level in the League of Nations between the wars, had commented that it was hopeless setting up any sort of groups as communists always saturated them and then everyone else departed.
Formidable though the communist threat was to Australian democracy at the time, it cannot, I think, be considered as acute as that posed by terrorist Islamists today. Communist goals of overthrow were very long-term, giving ample time for democratic repulse, while terrorism can be close to instant in its deadly effect, and this must inform our response to the just claim that most Muslims are not Islamist terrorists.
When I was 18 or 19, I felt that I should get to know something about world religions other than Christianity, and I began by setting out to read the Koran. I found it so horrible that I soon stopped, repulsed by its brutality. It did indeed seem to be “a book of hate” which could scarcely be more different in the social aspects of its religious teaching from the universal loving kindness enjoined by the Gospels.
However, it has to be admitted that Christian peoples and leaders have for substantial periods of history not lived up to Christianity’s moral and social principles; and similarly Muslim peoples and rulers have not constantly and continuously, in all countries and eras, treated their own believers and infidels as the Koran recommends. I am currently reading Gibbon’s account of the Crusades, and there is little to chose between Christians and Arabs for brutality and bigotry, but also in occasional respect and magnanimity towards each other.
Our policies towards Muslims in general, as immigrants and in other contexts, should not take their scripture at face value, any more than the Old Testament can be taken as a guide to Christian and Jewish customs today.
There is religious freedom in Australia, but not freedom for dissidents to threaten or make violent attacks on citizens or the military as their version of exercising it. Clearly we need to look at actions as well as words. Because terrorism is a reality today, and because it is strongly associated with both Islam and Middle Eastern background, it is appropriate and rational to treat potential immigrants of these origins with special caution.
Requiring all Muslims to sign a document affirming their peaceful commitment to Australian and Western values, as Babette Francis suggests, is instructional but probably not enough, for terrorists and those who will in other ways take violent action if culturally offended are the very people who will lie about such matters without compunction.
We may need a policy of investigating all Muslim applicants for past association with, or active participation in, terrorist organisations and radical groups espousing civil violence with a view to prohibiting entry, just as communist associations were made grounds for prohibition in the past.
The best indication of commitment by Muslim immigrants to the protection and support of the values of the society they wish to join is that, both as a community and as individuals, they accept willingly and cooperatively the need for such investigation, and do not cry discrimination and invasion of rights.
To object, even though innocent, is to put oneself above and before the society one wishes to join.
Dr Lucy Sullivan has written widely on literature, cultural matters, family, taxation and poverty.