‘Who?’ That was the response when I mentioned that Mamdouh Habib had won the right to sue the NSW Police for racism. He failed the pub test not once, but several times, once yielding a ‘was he that cleric guy?’ Always in the shadow of Australia’s other Guantanamo Bay detainee, it seems he’s now been completely eclipsed, falling off the edge of public consciousness.
David Hicks, on the other hand, has a fame that remains steadfast. Not long ago public figures were comparing him to George Orwell and Nelson Mandela, nominating him for Australian of the Year, dedicating their books to him. He was the subject of documentaries, theatrical works, and books, while his own autobiography was shortlisted for a major literary prize. At his first public appearance proper, at the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival, he received a lengthy standing ovation.
What did Mamdouh get? “A kind woman gave me a voucher to go to a seafood restaurant in Brighton”, he notes sadly in My Story: the tale of a terrorist who wasn’t, a book that was nominated for no awards. It’s amazing, thinking back, how quickly he became absent from the public eye: an interview on TV, a brief trot on the socialist pub night circuit, and then nothing. He did manage to be the subject of a play, Waiting for Mamdouh, but only by putting it on himself. It came second in the ‘Short and Sweet’ amateur theatre competition.
Habib’s rare appearances soon became little more than file footage fodder, him smoking on courtroom steps.
How did this happen? Yes, Habib was in Guantanamo Bay for a shorter period than Hicks. Yes, he seems to be an often difficult man who specialises in falling out with people, even his supporters. But these things alone can’t account for the huge accolade gap between Australian of the Year and dinner for two (for a limited time). The real reason is buried somewhere in the late years of the Howard ascendancy, and it’s not edifying.
It’s easy forget just how much of a witching time this period was for the Left in Australia. It was the end of a dismal, wooden spoon season, where their two most passionate causes, the conduct of the Iraq War and the plight of detainees in detention centres, quickly ran aground on Labor acquiescence and public indifference.
Things became close to hopeless. I once spoke with a refugee activist who had simply given up trying to get generate sympathy for asylum seekers, and instead was working on cats. Cats? “There are cats in detention centres, and people get upset when they find they’re in these places,” she said, “If we can get them to care about the cats, they’ll care more about the people”. It was, in other words, a time when many Australians considered detainees not just sub-human, but sub-feline.
It’s no accident that what finally broke the outrage drought was a white detainee, that the spokesmen who gained traction with the ‘mainstream’ were an Aussie dad and a military officer. The only time progressive and popular opinion overlapped was on an issue that fit perfectly into the prevailing ‘us and them’ framework of the war on terror. ‘David’ wasn’t really one of ‘them’, but one of ‘us’ who had accidentally put on the away strip. Larrikins do things like that. It quickly became impossible to separate Hicks the man from Hicks the anti-Howard, and to decry his abysmal treatment while questioning his actions was treated as equivalence. The gratitude was too pervasive. His supporters didn’t just welcome him back, they greeted him as a liberator.
Mamdouh Habib, on the other hand, went right on being ignored. He’s right when he says he’s been the victim of racism – he might have broken free from Guantanamo, but he’s never really gotten out of Camp Them. Enquiries have largely confirmed Habib’s version of events (which boils down to getting on the wrong bus), but he’s still treated with suspicion. Meanwhile, Hicks’s self-admitted enthusiasm for Lashkar e Taiba is written off as ‘adventurism’ (I’ve never understood why this is supposed to be ameliorative – to paraphrase Walter from The Big Lebowski: Dude, at least it’s an ethos). There’s something ugly in that, the same kind of ugliness playing out in America right now, where supposedly enlightened conversations about the morality of drone strikes fixate on the citizenship of the targets.
Anyone who might have been affected by Hicks’s actions (ruled curiously inadmissible in the court of received opinion) was also firmly confined to Camp Them. Few noted when Hicks was performing his ‘symbolic exchanges of fire’ alongside Lashkar e Taiba that one of the movement’s stated political aims was the destruction of all Hindus and Jews. Just months after his departure to Afghanistan, the group would pull off another potently ‘symbolic’ event, the attack on the Delhi parliament, which resulted in 800,000 Indian and Pakistani troops being deployed to the Kashmiri border. It’s perhaps the closest two nuclear powers have come to full flush war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2010, Hicks was still writing that LeT ‘had always rejected the ideology of terror’. I’m not exactly sure what kind of prize that deserves.
We’ve seen something like this before. At the tail-end of apartheid, when theatre audiences in South Africa began giving endless, rapturous standing ovations, the writer Nicholas Visser made a powerful observation: the applause wasn’t for the actors, or the play, but for the audience itself. “Those applauding so enthusiastically were responding to what they saw to be an affirmation of their own social and political positions and values”, he wrote, pointing out that the same predominately white, liberal Johannesburg audience had spent decades defining ‘legitimate’ opposition to apartheid in a way that ultimately helped reinforce it. Looking at the strange disappearance of Mamdouh Habib, I can’t shake the feeling we’ve been guilty of the same kind of self-congratulation.
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