VIEW: A tale of cricket and terror —Saleem H Ali
The consequences of this relatively small skirmish have indeed gone beyond cricket. The burning of effigies of the Australian umpire in Pakistan on the one hand, and stereotyping of the Pakistanis as cheats by some of the Australian media is bringing out the worst in sport
For the last two months I have been enjoying a mild Austral winter with my family while researching the environmental impact of coalmining in Queensland. The relationship between Pakistan and Australia has come under much scrutiny recently and merits some analysis. First we have the melodrama of the match in London that has spilled over from Europe to Asia to the land down under. Australian umpire Darrel Hair’s decision to reprimand the Pakistani team for alleged ball-tampering and the resultant convulsions of the protest have tarnished tenuous relations across cultures.
In Australia, the press was initially supportive of the umpire, but became increasingly critical of the tone and terms of Hair’s behaviour towards the Pakistani team. In the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Peter Roebuck referred to the umpire as “a dinosaur in a delicatessen” who “chose the path of confrontation, throwing his weight around, without much thought about the consequences”. While Australian commentators have also criticised Pakistan for throwing a tantrum rather than contesting the issue through proper channels, they have at least been willing to criticise a compatriot.
The consequences of this relatively small skirmish have indeed gone beyond cricket. The burning of effigies of the Australian umpire in Pakistan on the one hand, and stereotyping of the Pakistanis as cheats by some of the Australian media is bringing out the worst in sport. Instead of being a force of camaraderie between cultures and traditions as exemplified by India’s series in Pakistan, sport is being used by both sides as an excuse for voicing racist sentiments.
The situation in Australia is further complicated by the sentencing this week of a Pakistani in Sydney for allegedly planning a terrorist attack on the Australian electrical grid. Faheem Khalid Lodhi, an architect who moved from Pakistan to Sydney in 1998, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, based largely on circumstantial evidence on charges he firmly denies. A hand-written Urdu manual for assembling bombs was found in his possession along with maps of Sydney’s electric grid. In passing his verdict, the Australian judge was careful to state that the “violent jihad” on which Lodhi was fixated was “not representative of the true nature of his Islamic religion”.
However, in an awkward twist for the Australian judiciary, only a week earlier another man who had been convicted under the same new terrorism laws was acquitted by the Victoria court of appeals in Melbourne. In that case the accused was a white Australian convert to Islam. Joseph Thomas, nicknamed Jihad Jack by the Australian media, was released when the court ruled that some of the evidence used at his trial was not admissible because it had been acquired in Pakistan. Thomas, a taxi driver from Melbourne, had previously been found guilty of receiving money and a plane ticket from an Al Qaeda agent, after training with the group in Afghanistan in 2001. The suggestion that evidence acquired in Pakistan was inadmissible implied that his Pakistani incarceration had been under unsuitable conditions. Also, since the interrogation in Pakistan had been conducted by Australian officials, the dismissal of his case in contrast to the harsh sentence imposed on Lodhi leaves behind questions of consistency in justice.
Then there is the case of the third Australian charged in a terrorism case, another white convert, David Hicks, who is languishing in Guantanomo Bay. While the government of Prime Minister John Howard has not been able to convince the Americans to release him, there is active sympathy for his cause, as he is still perceived to be an Aussie boy gone wild. Only last week Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock suggested that he would seek David Hicks’ return if the US did not proceed quickly to lay substantive new charges and that he would not be charged under Australian law.
In another striking contrast, another Australian of Egyptian origin, Mamdouh Habib, was released without charge from Guantanamo last year but is still considered a threat by the Australian government. In January 2005, a special plane was chartered by the Australian government for approximately $500,000 to fly Habib to Sydney from Cuba because the Americans would not allow him to travel on an ordinary commercial flight. However, Australian officials have revoked his passport and say he remains under suspicion and will be constantly monitored to ensure he does not become a security threat.
Episodes such as the cricket debacle and the perception of racial inconsistency in terrorism convictions are likely to leave deep scars. Clearly racial prejudice exists in Australia just as it does in Pakistan: both countries have shown contempt or condescension for minority communities. In Australia, the Native Title Act for Aboriginal communities was further weakened this week by legislative amendments leading to a greater sense of despair among the country’s original inhabitants. In Pakistan, discrimination against the Christian minority forced a notable bishop from Gujranwala, Dr Major (r) Timotheous Nasir, to surrender his Pakistani nationality. In a letter addressed to President Pervez Musharraf, the bishop wrote that he had made this tough decision because he could no longer live with “the false hope or promise of equal rights for Christians of Pakistan” and ignore “wilful silence of the government”.
We are living in highly polarised times and every opportunity to quell discord, despair and cynicism about our respective identities must be pursued. Australia and Pakistan, despite being divided in so many other ways, can show how a common pursuit of justice, tempered by community relations to defy a clash of civilisations.
Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a visiting scholar at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com