Arab-Australian business leaders call for balance
October 25, 2014, AFR, Tony Walker
Arab Australian business leaders all agree on the high stakes here of conflict caused by extreme ideologies far away. Some are more willing than others to say what Australia’s leaders should be doing.Talal Yassine assumes the accoutrements of a successful Australian businessman, dressed in a stylish grey suit, matching tie and white shirt. An Australian flag and an Aboriginal dot painting decorate his office in Sydney’s Circular Quay.
But given the upheaval in the Middle East and heightened security concerns at home, his background means he finds himself, as chairman of the Council for Australia-Arab Relations, caught between an advocacy role for his own community and wider concerns about terrorist threats.
The son of a poor tobacco farmer, Yassine, who arrived in Australia from Lebanon at age five in 1977 – on the day, as it happens, the Granville Bridge collapsed – does not downplay threats posed by home-grown Islamic extremists and the need for heightened surveillance.
Talal Yassin, chairman of the Council for Australia-Arab relations, says more should be done to reach out to young Muslims to counter a sense of alienation. Photo: Louie Douvis
But he believes in the need to get the balance right between heavy-handed policing of suspected militants and an allocation of resources required to counter extreme ideologies in the Australian community.
More can and should be done to reach out to young Muslims to counter a sense of alienation, he says.
“We’re not shying away from the problem,’’ he tells the AFR Weekend.
“After all, Australian Muslims have the biggest interest in trying to ensure that conflict in the Middle East does not cause problems here."
Yassine shares the frustrations – and concerns – of many fellow Australian Muslims that perceptions in the wider community have chilled, driven partly by sections of the media which have depicted Muslims negatively.
He mentions that his wife, who wears a hijab, or headscarf, has been made to feel awkward in public recently. He describes prejudice as “low level stuff" that has become more intrusive in recent months.
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“They’re trying to entrap people in a narrative," he says.
That narrative can be intimidating.
AFR Weekend encountered significant difficulties persuading successful business leaders with an Arab background to speak on the record about the situation. This included both Muslim and Christian Arabs.
The wealthy Shahin family of Palestinian Muslim origin declined to talk, as did the Abedians, Iranian Shias who have made a fortune in property development via their Sunland group.
Head of Australia Post Ahmed Fahour , who is of Lebanese origin, did not return phone calls. Jac Nasser , chairman of BHP, was unavailable.
A rapidly growing population
What the focus on Muslims in Australia and events in the Middle East have done in recent weeks is to highlight the fact that a significant – and rapidly growing – component of the Australian community is of Middle Eastern origin.
This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims, Kurds, Druze and the Alawites, Christians and a smattering of minorities such as the Yazidis.
A 2011 census found Muslims in Australia numbered 476,291 people, or 2.2 per cent of the population. That number now exceeds half a million. About half are of Turkish and Lebanese origin.
In the 30 years between 1981 (at the height of Lebanon’s civil war) and 2011, the country’s Muslim population grew by 438 per cent. Politically, Muslims are becoming increasingly important, concentrated as they are in the western suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney.
Labor’s heartland lies in those suburbs. Its MPs are sensitised to Middle Eastern issues, including those relating to the Arab-Israel dispute. This is adding to pressures on the Labor leadership to return to a Gough Whitlam -era, even-handed approach to the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yasser el-Ansary, a Muslim of Egyptian origin who is chief executive of a major financial services industry body (he did not want it to be named), sees the focus on religious extremism as a “test for how strong we are as a society".
“Most informed people out there know that sideline issues like banning the burqa are just distractions," el-Ansary says. “But the problem is the more oxygen you give to these issues, the more they become a dominant theme. It’s a bit like a fire: the best thing we can do is starve it of oxygen and it will put itself out fairly quickly.
“Most of us want to see a national conversation about things that really matter. I’d like to see more column inches devoted to that."
This means, as far as people such as el-Ansary and Yassine are concerned, more emphasis on trade and commerce to take advantage of vast opportunities across the Middle East.
Focus on trade
Yassine is behind efforts to establish an Australian-Arab dialogue, the inaugural meeting of which will most likely be held in the Gulf next year, drawing representatives from both business communities.
Among those interviewed for this story, Lebanese-born Roland Jabbour , head of the Jabbour Holding Group, which has interests in property, education and travel, proved to be the most outspoken critic of Australian government policy on issues such as the foreign fighters bill, which seeks to make some areas in the Middle East off limits to Australians.
“The whole issue of dealing with the threat of terrorism would have a lot more acceptance among sections of the community if it was more balanced and if it did not single out individuals or areas of conflict overseas," Jabbour says.
He questioned Australia’s decision to involve itself in another Middle East conflict, arguing it risks causing more problems than it’s worth.
“If the government wants to reduce the risk of terrorism it should not be taking part in wars, especially in areas where our national interests are not served,’’ he says.
On the issue of beheadings he says: “We should be horrified. It should be a wake-up call for us to contribute to humanity on a global scale rather than invest in wars and more despair."
Jabbour is a strong advocate of multiculturalism, warning that “if communities don’t effectively integrate within the mainstream of Australian values, we run the risk of being a nation of tribes in which certain groups will remain isolated".
He regards the federal government’s contribution to outreach programs to the Muslim community as miserly.
However, on the subject of the burqa, his views would be closer to PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie ’s than many of his fellow Arabs.
“We came to this country because we aspired to the values we stand for as Australians," he says.
“What we say to the broader Arab community is that if their views and beliefs are so contradictory to our values and beliefs, they are living in the wrong environment." https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/arab-australian-business-leaders-call-for-balance-20141025-11bm85