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Don’t fear difficult debates on Q&A


Q&A is in trouble again, following an unscripted intervention by a certain Zaky Mallah. In response to a comment by Coalition MP Steven Ciobo, Mallah – convicted of threatening to kill ASIO officials but acquitted of terrorism charges – declared:

The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIS because of ministers like him.

Tony Jones immediately called the remark “out of order” and no-one on the panel dignified it with a response. But the damage was done. Cue the anti-ABC chorus over at The Australian, and calls for everything short of stripping Jones of his citizenship. Mallah was a security risk, it was suggested by some. He could have blown them all up, for God’s sake!

The ABC ordered a review of the circumstances around the incident, and issued a statement apologising for:

… an error in judgement in allowing Zaky Mallah to join the audience and ask a question.

I get as enraged as the next person when I see an apologist for the deeply offensive beliefs of Islamic extremism being given airtime on national TV. We wouldn’t welcome on to Q&A a guy with a swastika on his arm denouncing Australia for its “Naziphobia” and lamenting our failure to understand that Hitler had hijacked genuine Aryanism, would we? I see very little difference ideologically between national socialism and extreme Islam.

But as a democrat, and a believer in free and independent media enabled to stage debates on the most pressing and difficult issues of our time, I also think that someone like Mallah should have a voice somewhere in the public sphere – and why not on Q&A? Like it or not, he symbolises the problem that any changes in citizenship laws will be designed to address, and it is important that the Australian public gets a chance to look him in the eye.

Mallah didn’t say anything remotely persuasive, but at least we got a glimpse of the mindset. Know thy enemy is always good advice.

The flipside of this coin is that we who oppose radical Islamism have the right to take it on in public. Mallah takes advantage of a liberal democratic media culture – which exists in no Middle Eastern Islamic country, and certainly not in the Islamic State – to denounce liberalism, and indeed the Liberal Party, whom he blames for Australians going to fight for IS, apparently.

Q&A is at the heart of that liberalism in the Australian context. For all that the spectacle of such apologetics on primetime free-to-air TV can be hard to take, it is a symbol of Australia’s democratic health – not weakness – that such an exchange can take place.

As Ciobo said, Mallah does not speak for the average Australian Muslim, even though he claimed to. Those Muslims should be as outraged as the rest of us at the things said in their name. Maybe this display will remind them of why they, too, need to join the debate and have their voices heard.