Multiculturalism and Islam

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.



Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    A fair opinion, Don, but I I do not believe that young girls in school should be allowed to wear the hijab. I understand this is primarily a cultural, rather than a religious practice, and in Australian schools acts only to emphasise ‘difference’, and to promote the ‘unease’ about which you write. Furthermore, it is probably not a free choice on the part of the child.

    The following article in the Guardian makes a related point.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      These are details, and I have no objection to an insistence on facial recognition where that is important — in banks, for example. I have the same feeling about one’s having to take off hoodies, helmets and the like before entering a service station or convenience store at night. These things need to be negotiated, and it is occurring.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Don, young boys are not required to identify themselves as Muslim, whereas young girls are. The quickest way to quell your ‘unease’ is to allow schoolchildren to associate freely without labels upon which they can be diffderentiated, and suffer discrimination.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, good disarming argument. I’d mention one further conduit in the natural assimilation process, namely the transactional. Wherever a Syrian baker, Iranian lawyer or (in our case) Morroccan gate-fixer, does business, there is that usual badinage that accompanies the negotiations, part politeness, part simple good will and ebullience, part the trying-out of two parties to see if this is the business they want to buy or can sell. This is the everyday of assimilation, one hopes.
    I speak as an arrival here myself in 1966, for whom assimilation took about n hour.

  • Brad W says:

    I do admire you Don, for being prepared to open up various topics for discussion – good on you. From time to time I’ve had encounters with Muslim people without any difficulty, despite apparent cultural difficulties. Yet here at ground level whenever I’ve offered my hand in friendship to a Muslim woman she has refused to reciprocate, which I find insulting. One woman told me (back in 2010), when I asked her why she would not shake my hand in greeting, that she was forbidden any physical contact with male infidels (apparently that’s me!). I have to say that I was shocked to be so insulted in my own country, and have since come to realise that Muslims will assimilate on their own terms, not ours! So, on this topic and based on my real-life (not theoretical) experience I do not agree with your conclusions. There is a real problem and it’s not going away.

    • whyisitso says:

      Yes I agree with you, Brad, and I think that there are too many who are prepared to tolerate the intolerable.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Brad, if she were a strict Muslim she would be forbidden any physical contact with males outside her immediate family, not just with infidels. I learned that as a V-C — I was not able to shake hands with my new female students from Bangladesh. So I adopted the bow. Actually, shaking hands is largely an Anglo-Saxon ritual. Bowing is a common greeting in parts of Europe and in Asia as well. One didn’t shake hands with nuns when I was young, either.

      It takes three generations for immigrants to become part of the society. We should not be surprised that the first generation of Muslims have to struggle. So did the Yugoslavs.

      My message is that we should not demonise them. I would be surprised if most of them were regular attenders at the mosque. Someone may well have decent figures on this, but alas I don’t.

      • Brad W says:

        Thx fr yr reply Don. In the example that I referenced above, the woman concerned was indeed married (I know her husband) but Australian born. Shaking hands is our custom, in France they kiss. In NZ they touch noses. How can cultures co-mingle if even the basic greeting is declined, or disdained? If I go to France I kiss, and if I go to NZ I touch noses (Maori style). It is a simple act of respect and courtesy on the part of the visitor or guest, whether an immigrant or not. What would the Muslim do?

        So what we are really facing here is a form of cultural imperialism. Please explain to me why you were “not allowed” to practice your own custom and culture in your own country? Especially in your official capacity? When I was a student it would have been an honour to shake hands with the V-C!!!!

        And as an adult I’m sure any nun would shake hands with you. For children it was required out of respect to remain at a distance.

        You know I’ve worked with so many people in Australia who’ve migrated from all parts – and not one of them has ever had an issue with shaking my hand.

        I’m only using this example to demonstrate that there is a lot more to Islam than most of us are prepared to acknowledge. I’m afraid that some cultures simply are incompatible no matter how noble our ideals. This will all end very badly.

        • G van Rijswijk says:

          It is impolite to try to shake hand with a lady unless she offers her hand first. That solves the problem.

        • David says:

          Queen Elizabeth, does not tolerate people reaching out to shake her hand. And she is our head of State.

          • Brad W says:

            Yes, and another example of a cultural imperialist. If she ever refused to shake hands with me then I would be just as offended as if anyone else had refused.

          • David says:

            You are a sensitive sausage, Brad.

          • Brad W says:

            Well yes David
            , you got that right. But my comment was intended to convey that I’m not blind to the harm that English imperialism has inflicted upon the planet. Interestingly, a fox got among my chooks this morning 🙁
            It wouldn’t shake my hand either!!

  • don coyote says:

    I think we are seeing something quite unique for both Islam
    and the West. Due to the combined religious/political structure of Islam,
    Muslims have been discouraged or even banned from living in non-Islamic
    societies. Historical forces have not always allowed this, ie India, but the
    cultural equality of the remainder of society has not been considered.

    Over the past 70 years there has been increasing voluntary
    Muslim migration to the West. This is surely acceptance of the superiority at
    least of important aspects of the Western state, ie it is a breakdown of the traditional
    combined religious/political concept of Islamic belief.

    The first generation of migrants obviously tries to maintain
    as much of the old tradition as possible, but convincing the “kids” is
    difficult when they are evidence of its decline.

    Is the Islamic Reformation already underway?

  • BoyfromTottenham says:

    Hi Don, another excellent and thought-provoking article. I try to keep an open mind about Australian immigration, partly because I was a “Ten Pound Pom” myself, and partly because in my late 60s I have seen quite a few waves of immigrants come to Australia, and have seen them integrate to a greater or lesser extent.
    My concern with the the more “Islamic” immigrants is that in order to integrate with our culture, they have to give up so much that is unique to their culture. First of course is their language (i.e. Arabic, with which spoken and written English has little in common), then (in no special order) Sharia law (including the lack of separation of Church and State, the prohibition against and severe punishment for apostasty, and the prohibition on charging and paying interest on loans, which obviously affects many personal and business transactions), diet (including Halal butchery, aversion to pork, etc.), the treatment of female children and unmarried women that you referred to above, and last but not least the religion itself, including the practice of prayers at fixed times throughout the day, and its associated rituals such as washing / purification, and of course the naming of non-Muslims as “infidels” and “dhimmi” (aka “inferiors”) and so on.
    I could go on, but I believe that, unlike most if not all of the previous waves of immigrants to this great country, the more stringent adherents to Islam have very far to go if they are to ever successfully assimilate into Australian society. (Brad W’s comment about the refusal of an adherent to refuse to take an offered hand is but one example.) I personally am not confident that many are willing to give up so much of their culture, and that this should be openly recognised by those who “hope” that such folk come to this country with the intention to assimilate.
    The important question here is “what will be the long-term effect on our society of the influx of significant numbers of such “Islamics”? Would we be required to adapt our culture to suit them (rather than vice-versa0, and if so, where would this adaptation end?
    Merry Christmas, all!

  • sfw says:

    I was a member of Victoria Police, there have been a couple of muslim women join, one wears the scarf while working for religious reasons. I asked a recruiting officer if at interview they put the following question “You are so devout as to wear the scarf, what would you do at an incident where a muslim male tells you his doing as the Koran says when he beats his wife?” He told me they don’t ask questions like that.
    Now a truly devout muslim must accept that the Koran is gods word verbatim and therefore gods word must take precedence over secular law, they can do no other. You seem to think that the muslims who are here and not causing trouble have walked away from the essential heart of the Koran. Most haven’t, in their hearts they believe the Koran to be true and must be followed, when the more devout go and kill people in jihad they look the other way. That’s why the mufti and all the local Islamic mouthpieces fudge their comments, I can’t recall outright condemnation of jihadists from any prominent muslim.
    I hate to use this analogy but it seems apt. In Nazi Germany the bulk of the population knew what was going on, they didn’t say or do anything for two reasons. One, they were scared of reprisals and two in their hearts they believed that what was going on needed to be done. Same here, the moderate muslims are the problem, they know the Koran and cannot unequivocally condemn jihad.
    I cannot see how anything other than a very small number of muslims can be imported into western society without endless troubles and accommodations and in the end surrender to sharia. Wishing it were otherwise is just fantasy.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    It’s so tricky, isn’t it. Searching for data on observance I cam across this piece form an essay on On Line Opinion:

    ‘Of the five million Muslims in France, statistics show 60% are “non-observant”; and only 25% attend Friday prayers. Of the 40% who are “observant” Muslims only a small majority of women wear the hijab, 81% accept women should have equal rights in divorce, and 38% support the right to abortion. Australian figures will be similar, and a broad survey will confirm that.’

    I hope he’s right. I simply don’t have the data.

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