Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Tuesday, September 05, 2006
An Islamic leader warned that the remarks could antagonize Muslims and lead to a repeat of incidents such as the rioting in a Sydney beachside suburb last December, when groups of youngsters -- described as having a Middle Eastern background -- fought with whites.
Prime Minister John Howard late last week said migrants should integrate into the way of life in their new country but that a minority of Muslims was opposed to accepting Australia's values.
"Fully integrating means accepting Australian values -- it means learning as rapidly as you can the English language if you don't already speak it," he said in a radio interview.
"People who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have got to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia."
Howard's remarks drew a swift and critical response from Muslim leaders.
Ameer Ali, chairman of an advisory group set up by the government to combat extremism in the 300,000-strong Muslim community, told a radio station the remarks could stoke violence.
"We have already witnessed one incident in Sydney recently in Cronulla," he said in reference to last December's riots. "I don't want these scenes to be repeated because when you antagonize the younger generation ... they are bound to react."
Other Muslim community representatives said the line adopted by Howard was encouraging racial tension.
But Howard stood by his position, denied he was singling out Muslims, and refused to apologize.
"No matter what the culture of the country from which they came might have been, Australia requires women to be treated fairly and decently and in the same fashion as men," he told reporters later.
"If any migrants coming to this country have a different view, they'd better get rid of that view pretty quickly."
Howard said while "99 percent" of Muslims in Australia had integrated, it was "self-evident" that a small section was unwilling to do so. "It's up to all of us to try and overcome that resistance."
He said the critical Muslim spokesmen were "missing the point."
Howard also addressed the issue in an op-ed piece published Saturday, in which he said those who reject integration viewed calls to integrate "as some kind of discrimination."
"It is not. It is commonsense and, importantly, it is also a powerful symbol of a new migrant's willingness and enthusiasm about becoming an Australian."
Howard's number two and possible successor, federal Treasurer Peter Costello, endorsed the prime minister's comments, and added some of his own.
Costello said in a television interview Sunday that Australia's successful integration of migrants was attributable to "the attitude that when you come to Australia, whatever arguments you might have had in the old country, we start again and we start again with a common set of values and a common language."
He also said Islamic leaders should be more public and unequivocal in denouncing terrorism being perpetrated "under the cover of religion."
They should also make it clear to prospective converts to Islam "that when you join this religion you do not join a radical political ideology," Costello added.
His comments brought additional condemnation from Muslim representatives, who said they would only further alientate the community.
Writing in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph, conservative columnist Piers Akerman denounced what he called "shrill cries of outrage from self-described leaders in Australia's Islamic community."
In Australia, he wrote, as was the case in the U.S. and Britain, "Muslim organizations have deliberately installed themselves as permanent aliens and adapted a culture of constant carping about the majority, from whom they maintain their isolation with such bitter determination."
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