Australian Muslims seek political voice

Sydney, Austalia - Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib and a handful of other Muslims will stand for election on Saturday in Australia's most populous New South Wales state, hoping to secure the community a political voice.

Australia's small Muslim community says racism and Islamaphobia must be fought at the ballot box.

"One of the reasons we stepped forward is to confront racism head on and to confront Islamaphobia head on," said Kaysar Trad, spokesman for Sydney's Islamic Friendship Association.

"We owe it to this nation to stand up to racists and make a positive political stand," Trad told Reuters.

The Iraq war and comments about women, jihad and Jews by radical imams in Australia have inflamed tensions between Australia's small, mainly Sunni, Muslim community of some 280,000 people, and the rest of the country.

During the election campaign, Christian Democrat leader Reverend Fred Nile called for a 10-year ban on Muslim immigrants to give priority to Christians fleeing persecution. He also called for a study of the effects of Muslim immigration.

Habib, with his slick-back hair and ponytail, aviator sunglasses and chain smoking, admits he is a political novice and stands little chance of victory in the election to the New South Wales parliament.

But despite the odds stacked against him, Habib stands on the steps of a Sydney shopping mall, microphone in hand, campaigning emotionally against the Iraq war and for democracy.

"Why do we send people to war. People do not know the truth. Some one has to watch what the government is doing and I believe I can do that," Habib said.

Habib was released from Guantanamo Bay in January 2005 without charge, after being held for almost three years following his arrest as he crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan three weeks after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Habib was held on suspicion of helping al Qaeda, but U.S. authorities failed to find enough evidence to put him on trial.

Habib is contesting the seat of Auburn in southwestern Sydney, an area with a large Muslim community, along with Muslim converts Silma Ihram and Malikeh Michaels. A fourth Muslim is a candidate in a neighboring seat.


But none of the Muslim candidates represent major parties -- they are either independents or stand for minor parties.

"The major parties seem to be caught up too much in Islamaphobia and they seem to be too frightened to run a Muslim," said Trad.

"They are indirectly saying they have an Islamaphobic, racist constituency, and we want to prove them wrong. We want to prove to them that the people of Australia are not as racist as the politicians think they are," he said.

Ihram, who will run for the small Democrat party, says minorities in Australia struggle to gain a political voice.

"The many struggles that I have had to endure on behalf of an Australian minority and the difficulty I have found in obtaining a worthwhile political hearing has colored my attitude to politics," Ihram said.

Trad said that even if none of the Muslim candidates win a seat in the New South Wales parliament, he hopes more Muslims will stand at the national election expected later in 2007.

"It is in the hands of God, it is in the hands of the public. If we do not win this one, we will go to the federal (election), no big deal," said a smiling Habib.

Australia's Muslim leaders are working on forming an Islamic political party, but it will probably not be established in time for the next national election.

"We've been trying to encourage as many Muslims as possible to take an active interest in politics," Trad said. "Its not necessarily something that will result in a member of parliament in the short term. It may take a number of elections."