Although ‘multiculturalism’ is a term attributed to the 1970s and the Whitlam Government, the real origins of the term come from the 1960s. Mr Whitlam and Al Grassby, the relevant Minister, certainly established it in official language, and Mr Fraser built strongly on their work later. In the 1960s, ethnic groups in Canberra were being offered blocks of land on which they could build clubhouses, the assumption being that they would preserve in them some of what they had left behind in the country from which they had emigrated, while they got on with the business of becoming ‘Australian’. There were quite a few of these clubhouses, and most are still in place.
The doctrine at that time was one of ‘assimilation’. My sense of its purpose, at the time, was that while the Italian (Greek, Yugoslav etc) mother and father would never really become assimilated, their children would, and their grandchildren would all be dinky-di Aussies. Assimilation would take place through time: they would become like us. With ‘multiculturalism’ came the rival notion of ‘shared values’ — our Anglo-Celtic world-view would incorporate some new world-views: we would all adjust to each other, and the outcome would be different and better for everyone.
Half a century later I have the strong feeling that assimilation is actually what has happened, and that the widening of world-views, if that has occurred in any significant way, has been as much the result of increasing wealth, education and travel (not to mention of increasing globalisation and the Internet), as it has been the result of a significant multicultural policy. How different is Australia now in comparison to the 1960s, and what are the obvious signs of the effects of multiculturalism? Yes, soccer, or football, is now a nationally prominent game, and it hardly existed then. It was also, of course, the game favoured by the British migrants who came after World War II. Food? Yes, we have a much wider range of cuisines available to us, but the consumption of food in restaurants does not require much fraternisation. It is different if we eat in the homes of people from other cultures.
There has been a good deal of intermarriage, but that was not a formal part of multiculturalism — at least, I don’t think it was. Our primary schools are the seedbed of our future society, and since I have grandchildren and have visited a lot of schools in the past decade, it is plain to me that the kids treat each other in a friendly and inclusive way, and their friends are drawn from all over the ethnic map. My two teacher-daughters report the same. None of this looks problematic to me. There does seem to me to be a common culture, but it is not much different to the culture I grew up in.
Australian culture, then and now, is based on the common, law, the English language, parliamentary representation, a generally honest civil service, honesty in commercial transactions, the subordination of the military to our elected representatives, and a set of ‘values’ that have wide currency, even if not every person would adhere to them. I have in mind ‘a fair go’, responsibility for oneself, a social welfare safety net, voluntary activity in voluntary organisations, private property, the legal equality of women and men, and so on. As I see it, Australia is best seen as ‘multi-ethnic’ rather than multicultural.
I’m not wedded to the notion that all ethnic groups need spokespersons who have some kind of right to speak for all, when it is plain, again, that for the most part the spokespersons are largely self-elected. They serve as a convenient source of advice and comment for governments and the media, and no doubt they do some good work in alerting politicians to the needs of some people who might others be ignored. And that leads me to Islam, which is both a religion and a culture. There are somewhat fewer than half a million Muslims in Australia in a population of more than 24 million. They are from many countries, and include many sects, though most of Australia’s Muslims are Sunnis. A recent poll elicited the fact that on average Australians think the Muslim proportion is 18 per cent, and that this mismatch is characteristic of Western countries (there were very similar outcomes in the USA and Canada). Muslims and Islam are very much in our minds.
Why are Muslims so feared and, I am afraid, marginalised? There seem to me to be two obvious reasons. One is ‘terror’, going back to the 1990s, that is associated with extremist Muslim groups.The other is that orthodox Muslim women, in particular, are obvious, and the more veiled they are the more one is conscious that they are ‘different’. Obvious differences in public places cause comment, and can lead to xenophobia, if there are other reasons for dislike. There is another basic difference, for those Muslims who take their religion seriously, and that is that Islam is not just a religion but a way of life, with Sharia law being Allah’s law, superior to human laws. Australia is formally and informally a secular state, and does not accept — could not possibly accept — a legal defence that one was acting faithfully in response to a religious law superior to that of the State. For serious Muslims, therefore, being in a secular state like Australia forces accommodation that must be at least awkward, and therefore a source of tension.
Nonetheless a survey just a few days ago found that The majority of Australian Muslims in the study not only identified themselves as Australian but also felt a sense of belonging to Australia. An even larger substantial majority indicated that it was important for their children to get fully accepted as Australians [90 per cent]. What proportion of them are serious believers, who pray regularly and do those things that they should? I cannot find out, but the Islamic Network reports Sadly, many Muslims do not pray or fulfil the conditions of the prayer, despite its importance. It is worth reminding ourselves that ‘Islam’ in the largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, is not at all like that in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Malaysia too is largely Muslim, but Islam’s hold there is different too.
I do not wish to discount Islamic extremism, which has many causes and many manifestations, but it is worth noting that actual deaths from ‘Islamic terror’ here have been minuscule. There have been ten deaths since 1972 from terror (read ‘politically motivated violence’). If we discount Man Monis (the Martin Place hostage siege), who seems to have been insane, then there has been only one death caused through Islamic extremism, and one such terrorist killed by police. No doubt our intelligence agencies have been responsible for foiling one or more attacks. But in Canberra alone this year 11 people have been killed on the roads. ‘Climate change’, the great issue for this week and next, has not killed anyone here yet — or anywhere else that I can find.
I have written on this issue a couple of times before, for example, here, and there is no doubt that the issue is a tangled one. Perhaps Muslims are different to other immigrants. My gut feeling is that they are not, and that we should be careful not to marginalise them any further. What follows from what I have read, and the basic data, is that they too want to live normal lives, and bring up their children to be educated, hard-working, creative Australians like everyone else. Yes, I think it would be helpful for Islamic religious leaders in Australia to state firmly that the violence that we have seen with ISIL is not acceptable and that they are appalled by it.
But equally, I think it is a mistake for any of our own leaders, political and otherwise, to imply that all Muslims are somehow a threat or a source of trouble. That is not the path to follow.