One of Sydney's daily newspapers risks being out-of-touch with a vibrant, multicultural community that deserves better.
Welcome to Lakemba – the seething hot-bed of radical Islam and anti-woman, anti-infidel hatred.
That’s the picture portrayed by Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair, in his divisive and offensive feelpinion titled “Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land”.
It’s an insidious emotive piece, instructive for its glaring factual omissions, which misrepresent a vibrant, multifaith and multicultural community.
Lakemba may be only 30 minutes from the centre of Sydney, yet it is remarkably distinct from the rest of the city. You can walk the length of crowded Haldon St and not hear a single phrase in English. On this main shopping strip the ethnic mix seems similar to what you’d find in any Arabic city. Australia may be multicultural, but Haldon St is a monoculture.
It goes on to depict an enclave teeming with malevolence and fundamentalism; a bricolage of things all just too decidedly foreign – yes, in Lakemba we have signs written in squiggle, women who walk round in bedsheets, and there are shops which sell burgers made from dromedaries.
“If I wanted to portray an entire community as angry, aggressive, radical Muslims, I’d certainly ignore the fact that the largest ethnic group within that community were Bangladeshis – the vast majority of whom follow a moderate, Sufist form of Islam. I’d certainly not mention the Christian Samoan community, or the Chinese, Indian or Greek shopkeepers running businesses on a street apparently only home to hate-peddling Islamic bookstores.”
While great credit should go to Mr Blair for having the courage and bravery to survive a full twenty-four hours in this anti-Anglo hot-bed, would it be nit-picking to suggest that a lot of what he wrote was wrong?
Let’s just presume that Mr Blair, the person subbing his column, and his editor all had justifiable reasons for shying away from the actual evidence that didn’t fit the story they were peddling – like the fact that one in two people in Lakemba aren’t Muslims; that one in four are Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Buddhists, Hindus or Anglicans; and that three in four people are proficient in English.
Why let facts – gleaned from made-up sources like the Australian Bureau of Statistics – get in the way, if they don’t suit your narrative of fear?
If I wanted to portray an entire community as angry, aggressive, radical Muslims, I’d certainly ignore the fact that the largest ethnic group within that community were Bangladeshis – the vast majority of whom follow a moderate, Sufist form of Islam. I’d certainly not mention the Christian Samoan community, or the Chinese, Indian or Greek shopkeepers running businesses on a street apparently only home to hate-peddling Islamic bookstores.
It’s remarkable that a newspaper that states “We're For Sydney” and only this year ran a “Fair Go For The West” campaign would so willingly misrepresent the people of that region. Greater Western Sydney is home to one in 11 Australians and more than 160 nations are represented among its population. Is The Daily Telegraph trying to alienate its own readership?
In fact, it’s striking how little resemblance Mr Blair’s cursory overview of Lakemba bears to the suburb I call home.
In my Lakemba, I walk to a cafe where the barista is an Algerian with a weathered face and dry sense of humour. Asked how he is, he assures me he ‘can’t complain’ in a voice that hints that should I scratch deeper, he’d happily share with me a litany of woes. Mention football though, and all that changes. His eye’s come alight – the Fennec Foxes (the Algerian national side) did all of Africa proud in the recent World Cup, pushing eventual champions Germany to extra-time. He regales me with stories of Porto’s 1987 European Cup winning side – and the night the mighty Bayern Munich succumbed to the sublime backheel of the great striker, Mustapha Rabah Madjer – also Algerian.
I compare Mr Blair’s dystopic nightmare of angry young radical Muslim men with the block of twelve units I live in. Next door is a softly-spoken young Jordanian guy studying nursing, and working nights in a kitchen to make ends meet.
“It’s remarkable that a newspaper that states “We're For Sydney” and only this year ran a “Fair Go For The West” campaign would so willingly misrepresent the people of that region. Greater Western Sydney is home to one in 11 Australians and more than 160 nations are represented among its population. Is The Daily Telegraph trying to alienate its own readership?”
Across the corridor is a Bangladeshi family. The father drives taxis, to get him through his Tafe course, and to provide for his three children. What are you studying, I ask one night. “Fashion design”. His family doesn’t have much, but during Ramadan one night he invites me over to break the fast, and to wolf down heavily fried Iftar snacks.
Downstairs lives a Greek woman – she works as a receptionist and raises her son by herself. Elsewhere in the building live an Indian family, a young Lebanese plumber, and Indonesian, Chinese and Filipino families.
Why is it that our pictures of Lakemba are so different, Mr Blair? What is the agenda that drives you to misrepresent this community?
I’d love to believe this was just lazy or sloppy journalism, but coming as it does from a vastly experienced, senior columnist, amid a climate of increasingly shrill anti-Islamic rhetoric, I have profound misgivings. So too does the Race Discrimination Commissioner.
Of course, a good way to understand people from different countries is to learn their language. A handful of Arabic and Bangla goes a long way to helping make my walk to Haldon St less terrifying.
But don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself. This Saturday is the annual Haldon St Festival. It's a wonderful celebration of this truly multicultural and multifaith community. There’s going to be African dancing and Korean food stalls. Lest that all gets too ethnic for you, Tim, there’s also that most English of traditions: a Punch and Judy show.
Just close your eyes and forget that we appropriated that particular tradition from the Italians.
Richard Parkin is a Sydney-based journalist with SBS World News and The Guardian Australia.