Sunday, April 01, 2012

Le Havre and Greg Sheridan: wonder and wormholes

I saw a movie last night where the main character is one of the most reviled archetypes in Australia: a people smuggler. The film was Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre and the character was Marcel Marx, a Frenchman who aides an African boy on the run from immigration authorities.

Though the tone, characters and their dress suggest the film could be set 50 years ago, the subject matter and its undertones bring us straight in to the issues of the present. There is a newspaper report that suggests the missing boy might have links to Al Qaeda, which has no foundation. He stowed away with others in a container ship from Libreville, Gabon and is trying to get to London to be with his mother. The plan goes awry at Le Havre port and he is taken by Marx, a former writer and now shoe shiner. The boy, Idrissa, is no more a terrorist than Marx is a people smuggler. They are both adapting their lot to a broken world magically realised in Kaurismaki’s fond vision.

I was reminded of this in an article I read in yesterday’s Weekend Australian by the execrable Greg Sheridan who masquerades as the paper’s foreign correspondent. Sheridan brought his right-wing culture war world view to the mass killer Mohamed Merah in his article “We must avoid fatal folly that helped create Europe’s leaderless jihad".

Sheridan sees Merah’s murders as part of a giant French Muslim conspiracy, or as he quotes from Le Figaro (he was actually quoting a selected translation from Euro Topics) “the creation of a suburban counter-culture that is alienated from our country's legal basis.” Sheridan claims Merah was a terrorist on a different scale to fellow mass murderers Norwegian Anders Behring Brevik and Afghan killer Staff Sgt. Robert Bales (whom he carefully avoids naming). The reason? Merah’s actions are “part of a huge wave of anti-Semitic violence, virtually all of it originating in France's Muslim community.”

Sheridan doesn’t offer a shred of evidence to back this bold claim up. On the contrary, he admits “the vast majority of France's six million or so Muslims do not engage in anti-Semitic violence” and are law abiding. But the minority “attracted to a jihadist interpretation is disturbingly large.” How big exactly? We don’t know, Sheridan doesn’t offer any facts to back up his disturbances. Instead he rushes on towards a fait accompli discussion of Islam as anti-western religion.

Sheridan’s “leaderless jihad” is a variation on the “faceless men” beloved of those which to show conspirators acting with great intent when there is no evidence to support the suggestion. The fault of the jihad belongs to the civil libertarians for not allowing police to work out in advance Merah’s intentions from his friends or his internet behaviour. There follows some breathtaking conclusions. Merah was a fundamentalist ergo Africans have failed to integrate in Europe as have Pakistanis in the UK.

The lesson therefore for Australia, says Sheridan chutzpah intact, that Australia’s “legal and orderly” process (mandatory detention, temporary protection visas and off-shore processing) for accepting refugees should not be changed. The fear is the dismantling of Howard’s Pacific Solution is that “16,000 people have arrived in Australia in unlawful boats, the majority of them Muslim and from countries with strong traditions of Islamic extremism.” Sheridan doesn’t name those countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, because it would inconvenience his argument to remind his readers why those 16,000 are on the run: long wars in their country which Australia has been involved in.

As Kaurismaki and his honest and engaging characters in Le Havre remind us, refugees are not fundamentalists. They are people simply trying to find a better life in a more prosperous and peaceful country. Marcel Marx has cleaned enough shoes in his time not to forget this and he never for a moment questions Idrissa’s motives. Le Havre is magical realism but more grounded in the facts of human migration than Sheridan’s ponderous and sinister diatribe. If the Weekend Australian is serious about promoting public debate in this country then they should offer its opinion pages to those open up that debate not close it down in anachronistic ideological wormholes.

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