Australia's immigration minister Peter Dutton accused of inciting racial hatred

Mr Dutton said the resettlement of refugees from the Lebanon war during the 1970s had been a mistake, and that 22 of 33 people charged with domestic terrorism offences in Australia were from the Lebanese Muslim community.
Mr Dutton said the resettlement of refugees from the Lebanon war during the 1970s had been a mistake, and that 22 of 33 people charged with domestic terrorism offences in Australia were from the Lebanese Muslim community.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Comments linking Lebanese migrants to terrorism spark fury, but he won't back down

Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton stoked controversy this week when he declared it a "mistake" to bring Lebanese Muslim migrants into the country during the 1970s because it had increased the threat of terrorism.

Following claims that he was inciting racial hatred, Mr Dutton stood by his comment and said he wanted an "honest discussion" about immigration.

"I'm not going to step back from this," he said during an interview on Thursday with a right-wing radio host on Sydney's 2GB Radio.

"I've spoken the truth."

Mr Dutton, a hardline conservative and Liberal MP, had claimed in a television interview last week that the resettlement of refugees during the 1970s had been a mistake. He was assumed by many to be referring to the Vietnamese boat people.

Asked to clarify his comments in Parliament, he said he was referring to refugees from the Lebanon war and added that 22 of 33 people charged with domestic terrorism offences in Australia were from the Lebanese Muslim community.

The comments have sparked furious responses. As Mr Dutton himself noted, those charged with terrorism offences were not migrants, but children and grandchildren of the original refugees.

Australia's first female Muslim MP, Dr Anne Aly, who was born in Egypt, said she had received death threats against her and her family following Mr Dutton's claims.

An Aboriginal MP, Mr Pat Dodson, said the comments were "stupid" and had incited racial hatred.

Mr Dutton's claims come amid a backlash against Muslim migration in Europe and the United States, where President-elect Donald Trump had proposed during his campaign to ban Muslim arrivals.

In Australia, such attacks have been led by right-wing firebrand MP Pauline Hanson, whose One Nation party has called for a ban on Muslim migration. She has garnered strong support in her and Mr Dutton's home state of Queensland.

As governments have embraced multiculturalism in recent years, attempts by mainstream Australian MPs to single out specific migrant communities for criticism have become increasingly rare.

Surprisingly, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, usually considered a progressive, staunchly defended Mr Dutton and described him as a "compassionate" minister.

Australia has about 200,000 Lebanese migrants, including Muslims and Christians, out of a total population of 24 million. Of the country's 500,000 Muslims, about 80,000 are believed to be from the Lebanese community, with other large Muslim migrant groups from Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Lebanese community has come under attack in recent years over the involvement of some members in organised crime gangs.

The Lebanese Muslim Association said the community was being treated as "political fodder".

The association's president, Mr Samier Dandan, said in a statement on video: "What Mr Dutton said was racist, what he implied was racist, and the lack of outrage in Parliament reflects on the racism underscoring much of how we talk about minorities in Australia."

Some security analysts said Mr Dutton's comments could jeopardise efforts to work on counter-terrorism programmes.

The head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Counter Terrorism Policy Centre, Ms Jacinta Carroll, said criminal gangs preyed on marginalised youths, who often come from recent-arrival communities. But, she said, the authorities should focus on working with migrant communities rather than blaming them.

A former Liberal party leader, Dr John Hewson, said the attack on the Lebanese refugee intake was "grossly irresponsible". He said Mr Dutton's comments implied that Australia's borders should be permanently closed because of the risk that future generations of migrants might one day commit crimes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2016, with the headline 'Aussie minister accused of inciting racial hatred'. Print Edition | Subscribe