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The silence of Australia's Imams on the Gulf States and refugees

The silence of Australia's Imams on the Gulf States and refugees

As I wrote the other week, the Arab world, and the Gulf States in particular, have been happy to bat away any criticism of their complete refusal to resettle any refugees from Syria while leaving the West to deal with the tide of human misery.

Protests have been held in Europe debating the pros and cons of refugee policy. But not a single protest concerning the need to resettle refugees has been held in the Gulf. That's because Gulf citizens would appear to think that their governments' refusal to resettle any refugees is an appropriate response.

But there has at least been an acknowledgment that there is criticism, even if the response has been somewhat Orwellian. The Saudi-owned al-Arabiya station quoted a Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying the reason they didn't treat Syrians as refugees was to '. . . ensure their dignity and safety' and that it has been doing a lot behind the scenes but '. . . didn't want to boast about its efforts'.

I would have thought that when you don't resettle a single refugee then it obviously makes it somewhat difficult to boast about it. But there you have it. Of course, generosity is all in the eye of the beholder. Refugees in the West expect permanent resettlement and citizenship. When the Gulf States talk refugees, they speak of 'hosting' and 'residence permits' but never, ever, citizenship. They are there temporarily.

As another Syrian who was quoted in the Saudi English-language paper The Arab News said of the Saudi generosity 'This will be a great help to my fellow Syrian visitors.' And the UAE is quick to point out how many Syrians they have given temporary residence to, but they are unable to point to how many they have resettled - because it's zero.

So what can be done to pressure the Gulf States to resettle refugees? [fold]

Certainly Western media pressure isn't making a difference. Amnesty International and UNHCR's pleas fall on deaf ears and Western governments are likely too scared of losing valuable contracts or basing rights if they are seen to question the humanitarian nature of the Arab states.

Western Muslim communities however offer a unique lobby group that could perhaps cut through the refusal of Arab Gulf states to resettle refugees. And that push could start from Australian Muslim organisations. The Arab world holds Islam as very much a core element of their identity. Public criticism from parts of the wider Islamic community of believers could hold the prospect of 'shaming' the Gulf States into action by questioning their commitment to Islamic principles through their refusal to resettle a single refugee.

Australians like to think of ourselves as egalitarian and straight talkers. Hence it would be in line with our national character for Australian Muslim community leaders to adopt a lobbying pathway that is not available to non-Muslim Australians. Imagine the impact an open letter from Australian Muslim community leaders in major Arabic-language newspapers calling on Muslim Arab states to resettle refugees. Or of a series of interviews on Arab satellite TV doing the same. Imagine the powerful imagery of Australian Muslims protesting outside Gulf embassies in Canberra, condemning Gulf Governments' selfish refusal to resettle refugees, in contrast to Australia's long history in this field.

Imagine if Western Muslims could coordinate a global campaign of open letter-writing and demonstrations outside Gulf embassies that could really place pressure on these states to change their policy towards refugee resettlement.

The Grand Mufti and the National Imams Council were eager to tell the public in a press release that the Syrian crisis would not have been so severe had the international community (naming only Australia) '. . . fulfilled its obligations towards the plight of the Syrian people.' No mention of the Arab world's refusal to resettle a single Syrian person. The Lebanese Muslim Association issued a press release and held a press conference, but the Gulf States somehow missed out on criticism again.

Lots of talk warning Australia not to adopt a discriminatory policy towards accepting refugees based on religious identity, but not a word about states that pride themselves on their Islamic identity refusing to accept any refugees. It's an opportunity lost for Australia's Islamic leaders.

(Photo by Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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