Review: Ali Abdul v The King by Hanifa Deen

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   Hanifa Deen
Ali Abdul v The King
University of Western Australia Press, 164 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

It is probably not controversial to suggest that, historically, Australia has not always treated migrants with overwhelming generosity. Indeed, Australia's treatment of its own indigenous population has not always been especially benevolent. A writer who decides to wade through the archives researching Australia's past treatment of those with dark skin, or who pray to a different God, then, is unlikely to find a dearth of material. And should that writer decide to commit his or her findings to paper, any WASP-ish reviewer of such writings is guaranteed an uncomfortable experience. It seems that the level of discomfit for the reviewer is likely to be proportionate to the talent of the writer - unfortunately for this reviewer, Ms Deen is very talented.

Foreshadowing the discomfit early, the cover of Ali Abdul v The King proclaims the book to contain 'Muslim stories from the dark days of White Australia'. What follows are tales of injustice, racism, violence and death. Hanifa Deen follows a theme common to a number of her previous works, that of issues facing Muslims in Australian society, and does so with characteristic clarity. A previous book of Ms Deen's, The Jihad Seminar, was more contemporary and focussed on a complicated and protracted legal dispute between Christian and Muslim groups. Ali Abdul and the King takes a more historical view of relationships between Muslims and everyday Australians.

Unsurprisingly, the book does not reflect well on the Australia of the time - one chapter describes a tragic incident in which an Afghan man was shot and killed by a local. The response from the public and the criminal justice system to the incident, while largely predictable, is worthy of a book in itself. It should be remembered that, as Ms Deen is at pains to point out, attitudes of racism and prejudice were not endemic to all Australians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period in which this book tells its stories. Some enlightened souls wrote articulately in support of Afghans to the newspapers of the day, but far more critical letters to the editor abounded as well, threatening to drown out the Afghan's proponents. By modern standards, such writings bordered on vilification - and more than occasionally crossed the border.

To be fair, well over a hundred years has passed since then and now. The optimistic side of me thinks that, sure, maybe Australia was not especially enlightened back then, and foreigners were treated quite poorly, but things are different now. The era of 'White Australia' is one that we can all look back on now in dismay, and promise ourselves that this could never happen again. As Ms Deen argues, Australia has a racist past, but is not a racist society today. Although, the more cynical part of me looks at the way in which contemporary Australia treats refugees, and wonders just how much of a change has really occurred.

In a way, Ali Abdul v The King acts as somewhat of a cautionary tale. It examines how resentment and fear of the unknown can manifest itself into prejudice, which itself can give way to inequality, injustice, violence and death. It makes the case that while aesthetic differences can overwhelmingly and negatively govern the way in which people interact with and respond to each other, it is by understanding the past that leads to less hostile and more enlightened attitudes in the future.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 2, 2011 8:46 PM.

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