My migrant parents taught me the values to live by in Australia

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been discussing an issue that has a vast impact on the lives of ordinary Australians – the topic of Australian values. He has, along with his conservative colleagues, been playing the Trumpian ‘Australia First’ card by promoting a vision of social cohesion – called Australian values. When asked exactly what those values were, Turnbull struggled to compose an agreed list of them.

There are a number of reasons Turnbull has started this discussion – to boost his sagging ratings in the opinion polls; to stop the hemorraghing of votes to the other ultra-right anti-immigrant parties such as One Nation; and to distract attention from the growing income inequality in Australia. Turnbull, no doubt inspired by the electoral success of Trump in the United States (and the anti-immigrant xenophobia that was a crucial part of the Tory Brexit campaign in the UK), has forged the campaign around ‘Australian values’ as a political weapon of exclusion, rather than an instrument for social inclusion and cohesion.

There are many aspects to this issue of Australian values, and reams of articles have been written. Rather than go into all the permutations of this debate, let us focus on one core assumption of the right-wing brigade –  that migrants are unaware of Australian values, or that migrants have values that are completely at odds with living in Australia. In fact, it is the conservative side of politics that more than not, responds with the ugly trademark of Australian racism – ‘go back to where you come from’.

The refrain of the ignorant bigot, and the constant slogan of the Australian conservative, is the phrase above, which I have written about previously. Antoun Issa, senior editor of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, has written a perceptive article about this obnoxious feature of Australian racism. Emboldened by the rise of ultra-rightist anti-immigrant forces in Europe and America, blasting Australians of non-Anglo-Celtic background has become almost a sporting pastime, and has gained greater legitimacy in the mainstream media. The hounding of Yasmin Abdel-Magied is a case in point. After sustaining a campaign of vitriol and hatred against her, she is relocating to England.

As Antoun Issa explained in his article:

For some, Australia’s democracy and freedoms are reserved for Anglo-Celtics only. The vulgar retort “go back to where you come from” has been an ugly trademark of Australian racism dating back decades, as my Guardian column last year discussed. It is the standard rebuke for racists in this country when non-Anglo Australians dare attempt to participate in democracy on an equal footing, and question core assumptions of our socio-economic and political foundations.

The assertion of ultra-rightist white anti-immigrant xenophobia is nothing exclusive to Australia, or particularly new. What is different this time is the degree of normalisation that such hate speech has achieved, particularly in this age of the internet and social media. The occurrence of patriotic trolling, as Carly Nyst puts it in her article, is currently something quite new, and is sweeping all those countries where critics raise their voices against the rich and powerful. Social media outlets have become a new space for hate mobs to vent their vitriol. In a way, they are the inheritors of the legacy of all the old angry lynch mobs of racist whites that confronted the African American and civil rights protesters of the 1960s.

Unpronounceable names and fitting in

There is no desire on my part to be unreasonable or stubborn. So, look, I understand one basic fact of life in Australia – by Anglo-Celtic standards, I have an unpronounceable name. It is easy for me, and it rolls off my tongue. It is no challenge for other Armenians. But yes, for people from an English-speaking background, coming across what is for them a ‘foreign’ name is a challenge. I have had my name butchered by teachers during roll-call in school, mispronounced by baristas when picking up my order from the coffee shop, and mangled by sales people and postal staff when using their services.

I can relate to the experiences of Mariam Veiszadeh, who wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘The beauty of unpronounceable names is that we all eventually learn them’. Look, I understand – the average Anglo-Celtic person in Sydney is confronted by a bewildering array of migrants from all over the world – Armenians, Lebanese, Chinese, Tamils, Indians, Vietnamese, Afghans – each of us jabbering in our own languages, cooking our strange exotic foods, and making our first meagre efforts to understand Australian English – if you can call it English.

Understanding and pronouncing a person’s name is the first step towards accepting a core part of their identity as a person. I can create a video, and upload it to YouTube, in which I pronounce my name, and you can listen to it as often as needs be. When you mispronounce my name time and time again, and still tell me to ‘go back to where I come from’, it is a direct assault on not only my identity, but an exclusionary move to deliberately place me outside the pale of society. Ironically, the same ultra-rightist bigots who demand that migrants should immediately assimilate, are also the loudest voices in promoting moral panic about Australia being ‘swamped’ by hordes of migrants. When examining the data, they tell a different story.

Another person with a similarly unpronounceable name is Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner. He made a reasonable and viable suggestion to improve the quality of life for all Australians – that the media should contain more voices from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Greater multicultural diversity in the media would promote more awareness and acceptance among all sectors of Australian society, according to Soutphommasane. The predictable and obnoxious response from the conservative media to Soutphommasane’s remarks – ‘go back to where you come from’.

Values cannot be reduced to a simple shopping list of commodities that can be ticked once they have been consumed. Yes, we are all aware of some contenders for the category of Australian values – mateship, larrikinism, respect for law, commitment to democracy, etc. These are values that migrants actually understand and bring to Australia. The collection of allegedly Australian values are quite average and understandable to the migrant – there is nothing particularly unique or extraordinary about Australian values.

My migrant parents taught me values to live by and contribute to Australia – compassion, generosity, solidarity, and resilience in the face of obstacles. My late father kept the Shahada in the living room – and he was secular. He displayed the Shahada out of respect to his fellow Egyptians who were of the Islamic faith. He gave of himself to the cause of the Palestinians, as an expression of cross-cultural and anti-imperialist solidarity. No, my late father never advocated beheading people. He never promoted female genital mutilation, suicide bombings, or spousal abuse. If anything, there was domestic violence in the homes of the Anglo-Celtic families in our neighbourhood. I am a red-diaper baby – the child of socialist-minded parents. Standing up for the downtrodden and the oppressed is a crucial value I learned from my migrant parents.

Those values sound perfectly commendable to me.

Iraqi Christians who supported Trump now face prospect of deportation

Throughout June 2017, hundreds of Iraqi Christian nationals, residing mainly in Detroit, Michigan, were rounded up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. The Iraqi residents are Chaldeans, ethnic Assyrian Christians who practice the Catholic faith. What is distinctive about this particular deportation order is that Middle Eastern Christians form a generally supportive constituency for the Republican Trump.

The detained Iraqis have been transported to immigration detention centres in Arizona. The stories regarding the arrest and imprisonment of the targeted Iraqi Chaldean nationals makes for heart-rending reading. Families that have lived in the US for decades are now being torn apart. Some of these people arrived in the United States with unclear immigration statuses, or committed minor crimes and served sentences prior to gaining citizenship. Now they are being caught in the Trumpian deportation dragnet.

The Chaldeans have been targeted by Islamic State (IS) for persecution back in Iraq. While Trump, during the 2016 election campaign, was blasting illegal immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, pledged to protect Christian minority groups from the Middle East. Trump, and current Vice President Mike Pence, loudly proclaimed that Christians were the most persecuted minority in the Muslim-majority countries. A bold claim – we will examine that later in the article.

Be that as it may, the Iraqi Chaldeans were given seemingly ironclad pledges of protection by the incoming Trump administration. The fact that Middle Eastern Christians vote Republican is nothing new – Syriac Christians have also been generally supportive of the conservative and Christian Republican party. The Iraqi Christian community threw their weight behind the Trump election campaign.

Currently, with the unanimous passage of the revised anti-Islamic travel ban, the Iraqi Chaldeans face an uncertain future. They face persecution should they be returned to Iraq, the latter still being a war zone where American troops (among others) are actively engaged in combat. As the Iraqi Christians were being rounded up, airstrikes and battles were continuing in Mosul, Tal Afar, and other cities.

The deportees do not want to be returned to Iraq, and there have been protests by the Iraqi Christian community against what they perceive as Trump’s betrayal of their cause. It is interesting to note that Mosul, currently under attack by Coalition forces, was one of the main historic centres of Eastern Rite Catholicism and Eastern Christianity. Chaldeans, descendants of the ancient Assyrians, practice their version of Catholicism. Deportation to Iraq in these circumstances is tantamount to a death sentence for the Iraqi Christian nationals.

Let us be clear – there is no joy or solace to be derived from the suffering of others. We must resist the temptation to denounce the Trump-supporting voters from the Iraqi Chaldean-Assyrian community as idiots or deserving of their plight. There are idiots in every ethnic community – my own tribe, the Sydney-based Armenians, are no strangers to chaotic imbecility. Every community has examples of embarrassing idiocy. The Iraqi Chaldeans have the right to apply for asylum, and should remain in the United States. The anti-Muslim travel bans must be repealed, and a person’s application for refuge should be based on their own merits, regardless of ethnic origin, race, creed or gender.

The plight of the Iraqi Christians is nothing to be trifled with, or to be treated in a frivolous way. However, let us also stop using the phrase “Christian genocide” when referring to the killings in Iraq or Syria. That phrase is false and misleading – there is no “Christian genocide” occurring. What is occurring is a systematic campaign of persecution, murder and expulsion of all those who oppose IS-brand of fanaticism. Christians are being murdered in Iraq – that is absolutely true.

Those Sunni Muslims who oppose IS are also being killed in huge numbers. Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians – IS targets any group that does not conform to its particular perverted notion of religious fundamentalism. In early July, IS captured and killed 200 Turkmen civilians attempting to flee the city of Tal Afar. There is no suggestion that one group of victims are more ‘worthy’ of solidarity than others. We must examine the war in Iraq as a humanitarian tragedy that has swept up all its people in this ongoing, sectarian strife.

This leads us to an important set of questions – why do not the Iraqi Chaldeans wish to return to Iraq? Why do they not feel safe there? Why do they are regard life in Iraq as one with no future? This leads us to examine the impact of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. That invasion, a criminal undertaking pursued by a predatory imperialist power, was motivated by the need for economic and military expansion. The decision to send Iraqi Chaldean refugees back to Iraq demolishes the underlying rationale for that war – the lie of ‘humanitarian intervention’. The claim that Trump, or any US administration for that matter, is motivated by humanitarian concerns is preposterous in the extreme.

Since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States has established a political system that rewards sectarian patronage at the expense of Arab and Iraqi nationalism. Each ethnic group is pitted against the other, and voting patterns are encouraged along narrow sectarian-based lines. This is not to suggest that different ethnic and religious groups are condemned to live in eternal hostility – far from it. In the 1970s and 1980s, under the control of the Ba’ath Party, Iraqis of all ethnic minorities lived and worked side-by-side. The Chaldean Christians were left to worship and practice their religion as they saw fit. Political disloyalty however, was harshly punished, regardless of ethnic background or religious affiliation.

The situation of ethnic minorities since the 2003 invasion has deteriorated significantly. From a high point of 1.5 million, the total population of Iraq’s Christians has falled to 400 000. Churches and Christian places of worship are regularly bombed and attacked in the new post-US invasion Iraq. Christian communities continue to live and worship in Baghdad, but always under conditions of fear, never knowing when the next attack will come.

Actually, Iraq’s plight as a unified nation began, not in 2003, but in 1990-91, with the first American assault on that country. The savage aerial aggression against Iraq, rationalised as it was as a ‘humanitarian gesture’ to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation, was the beginning of a series of continued assaults intended to break down Iraqi society. The direct military attack of Operation Desert Storm was followed by years of sanctions that crippled the once-functioning and stable Iraqi economy.

Lance Selfa, writing in the International Socialist Review in 1999, stated that:

But the biggest victims of Desert Storm remain the Iraqi people. Desert Storm left behind the greatest human-made catastrophe in modern times. By UN estimates, the war and the continuing economic sanctions have reduced a country which was once on par with the economic development of Greece to the economic level of Mali. The only word which captures the impact of the sanctions is “genocide.” The mind-numbing statistics–7,000 children dying a month, 1.5 million Iraqis killed since 1990, ordinary Iraqis receiving only 34 percent of the daily caloric minimum–don’t adequately convey the destruction of an entire people.

We must take note of the reasoning of Amrou Al-Kadhi, the latter a gay man from Iraq. He wrote in The Independent magazine of the homophobic killings and violence directed at LGBTQI persons in Iraq. What has his situation got to do with the Iraqi Chaldeans? Do not worry – we are coming to the point. Denouncing the assassination of Iraqi actor Karar Nushi, who was rumoured to be homosexual, Al-Kadhi forthrightly attacks the 2003 American invasion for breaking down Iraqi society, making such killings all-the-more frequent.

Al-Kadhi, while blasting the homophobia of IS, makes clear the terrible consequences of the American invasion for LGBTQI persons in Iraq:

Violence against LGBTQI+ people in Iraq has escalated dramatically since the Western invasion in 2003, and it’s not a coincidence. Just as the far right use LGBTQI+ rights as a way to brew racism, Isis exploit LGBTQI+ people as a tool to fuel anti-Western hatred. Disdain for the West is potent on Iraqi soil – what did we expect after destroying a civilisation for no actual reason? And homosexuality has become imaged as a Western export.

Note that Al-Kadhi is not engaging in simplistic and ritual denunciations of Islam and Muslims, or recycling clichés about savagely backward people in the Middle East. He is examining the targeting of LGBTQI persons in the context of the social impact of the imperialist bombardment of his nation.

It is high time for the Iraqi Christians who voted for Trump – and their similarly conservative counterparts in Australia – to re-evaluate the reasons why they voted the way they did. Trump and Pence, after making grandiose claims to be the ‘protector’ of Christians, have now shown their true colours. That the Iraqi Chaldeans wish to practice their religion is not controversial – worship the way you think is appropriate. The Christians of the Trump-Pence variety are agents of corporate pillage and plunder, and they have no allegiance – except of course to the almighty dollar.

There are Christians in the United States who understand and denounce the predatory militarism of their ruling elite, and who fight against it. The Christians that descend from the political lineage of the late great Reverend Dr Martin Luther King are the most reliable allies in any social or political struggle. Dr King was not just an avuncular, nice guy who gave speeches around the country – important though they were. He was also a radical critique of his government and its imperialistic foreign policy. It is the example of D King and his political followers from whom practising Christians can draw inspiration. Dr King, linking the struggle against imperialist war overseas with social justice at home, called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He was right back then in 1967 – and he is right until today.