In May I posted an essay here on Australia’s open opposition toward accepting Muslim refugees. It included a reference to The New York Times management deciding to assign a staff correspondent to Australia. My post was headlined: “Will we be seeing more about Muslim immigration ‘down under’ in The New York Times?”
I can now report that the answer to my question is affirmative -- though you might not know it because the religious identity of the majority of the refugees seeking asylum in Australia covered in this new Times story went unmentioned.
Other than this not-so-minor oversight, the original Manus Island piece -- focused on Australia’s attempt to close a refugee holding camp it established in neighboring Papua New Guinea (the refugees had refused to leave; Here’s an update to the story on the now concluded situation.) -- was both well-written and nicely produced (online, at least). It offered an assortment of accompanying dramatic photographs.
Anyone with any understanding of Muslim names and nations, will find the the oversight curiously obvious.
Could it be that the Times is testing our knowledge of the Muslim world? Is this a test-run for the next step in participatory journalism? You know -- match a name with a religion.
Just joking. Clearly, it's an oversight, deliberate or not.
By way of background, here’s the link to a Times opinion piece, not a news report, that caught my eye and led to my May post:
SYDNEY, Australia -- Like many Western countries, Australia has agreed to resettle refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq. Unlike other countries, Australia explicitly favors Christians, even though they are a minority of those seeking refuge.
The Australian experience is a case study for Europeans grappling with an influx of refugees and for Americans considering the long-term implications of the Trump presidency: When Muslims are demonized, state-directed prejudice is more likely.
Data I obtained through Australia’s freedom of information law shows that 78 percent of the approximately 18,563 refugees from Syria and Iraq granted entry from July 1, 2015, to Jan. 6 of this year identified themselves as Christian.
This figure is significantly out of proportion to Christians’ presence among the region’s displaced peoples. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the number of registered Christian refugees from Iraq at around 15 percent. The figure for Syria is just under 1 percent.
Australia’s conservative coalition government has never denied that religion is an important factor in choosing who will be admitted from Syria and Iraq. The favoritism is justified by the claim that Christians are more at risk from the Islamic State and other groups that engage in indiscriminate murder.
Click here for some more background from the BBC on Australia’s attitude toward asylum-seekers. Note it also excludes any mention of Muslims or Islam.
But it does include this:
Australia's two leading political parties, the ruling Liberal-National coalition and the Labor opposition, both support tough asylum policies.
They say the journey the asylum seekers make is dangerous and controlled by criminal gangs, and they have a duty to stop it.
The coalition government made Australia's asylum policy even tougher when it took power in 2013, introducing Operation Sovereign Borders, which put the military in control of asylum operations.
Under this policy military vessels patrol Australian waters and intercept migrant boats, towing them back to Indonesia or sending asylum seekers back in inflatable dinghies or lifeboats.
The government says its policies have restored the integrity of its borders, and helped prevent deaths at sea. However, critics say opposition to asylum is often racially motivated and is damaging Australia's reputation.
A story from Britain's The Guardian notes that the Australian government even sought to pay refugee Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to return home -- despite the severe religious and ethnic persecution currently directed against them by Myanmar’s Buddhist government.
Is that tone deaf or what, Canberra?
Speaking of tone deaf, or a least deaf, Australians seem not to hear -- or more likely just don't care -- what their center-left religious leaders have to say about the entire refugee issue.
For example, Pope Francis who this week is visiting Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, where Rohinga Muslims are seeking safety, has spoken out repeatedly in support of immigrants, Muslim and otherwise. Here’s one such time and here’s another.
So what is the latest faith group in Australia? Roman Catholics, of course. They comprise almost 23 percent of the population, according to a 2016 census.
But perhaps that's not as significant a statistic as these two: Almost a third of all Australians say they have no religion and only 14 percent of Australian Catholics report they attend Mass weekly -- that last figure’s from 2006; I'd bet the percentage is even lower today.
So here’s an ongoing story reminder.
Why is it that liberal-left religious hierarchies (as is the Australian Catholic Church, as opposed to, say, Poland’s Catholic Church) appear to hold little sway over national agendas?
Is it because when it comes to immigration issues, predominantly white Christian nations care far more about earthly demographic concerns than they do about their aspirations for where they spend eternity?
Or are liberal faith groups simply out of touch with the fears and concerns of congregants psychologically drowning in the myriad stories of terrorist atrocities carried out by self-identified Muslims? If so, this goes a long way toward explaining the right-wing populist backlashes occurring in many Western nations.
How much of this is connected to the secularization of nations rooted in Western Christian culture, such as Western Europe, Canada and the United States? Why listen to religious leaders if you don't accept their theological explanations?
Lots of deep-dive questions await continued serious journalistic inquiry.