At first glance the riots in Sydney seemed simply out of place. No Australian had made this crappy film, and it was not being shown here. It wasn’t even a Hollywood film, but an almost nil-budget, badly-acted piece of propaganda. It’s not even clear in whose interest the film was made.
There were two separate protests, on the face of it. The first was a public demonstration of anger and distress on the part of a religious group at what its members saw as a grossly offensive insult to the cornerstone of their belief. The second seems to have been an opportunity taken by a small group of extreme antagonists within the Australian Muslim community to imitate the riotous behaviour of Muslims in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and thereby show the world that Australian Muslims were no less exercised about the insult.
Many will feel helpless at these events. What is Australia coming to? Well, I think there will be more of them, and we should be prepared. Our world is a global one, and the ease and speed of communications do mean that an event in another country can very quickly have repercussions here, even when there might seem little reason for this to happen. The majority of Muslims in Australia are recent arrivals, and still finding their way. The Cronulla riots and the more recent objections to the building of mosques are hardly signs that Muslims in general have been warmly welcomed here. So of course they feel marginalised, and unloved, and they are likely to cling together when one of them – or in this case their religion – seems under attack. Surely that is not hard to understand.
What they may not understand, and perhaps not even agree with, is the notion that in a secular society like ours one is allowed to criticise, poke fun at, and generally take scant notice of, the sensitivities of others. In return, we have to be able to accept it when others do the same to us. In our world, these incidents are not matters of honour that require reprisal. They once were, of course, but that was long ago, and somewhere else.
What can we do about it? To me the answer is plain: we go on doing what we have been doing. That is two-fold. First, we all do our best to make clear to any Muslims who we encounter that we welcome them here. The diversity of our society is one of its sources of energy, and it is important that we go on building what I have called ‘the Australian project’ – the attempt to create under the Southern Cross a society that is as free as possible of the tensions and cleavages that we can see elsewhere in the world, those that come from religion, race, caste and class. Over two hundred years we have done a good job. We should not put it on hold, whatever the apparent provocation.
We should remember that it can take a generation or two for new arrivals to become part of the broader body politic. I liked Tony Abbott’s antithesis – that we do not ask new arrivals to abandon their heritage, only their hatreds. And if our society welcomes new arrivals, then their children and especially their grandchildren will add their talents and energies to the great pool in the most constructive fashion. Look at what has happened since the great influx of immigrants began in the 1940s!
Second, and it irks me to have to say it, we need to know more about those who are committed to jihad, and have no interest in the building of a better Australia. We have our share of them, and I want no imitation of 9/11 in Australia. I do wonder whether or not today’s ASIO is any more efficient and useful now than it was when it was looking for reds under the bed, but I have to concede that it needs to be, and even that we need it, or something like it.
Immigration is always a long-term matter, one that (for us, anyway) starts, rather than finishes, when the migrant arrives in the new country. I expect that the great majority of Muslims will come to terms with their new society, happily accept its advantages, and cope with its disadvantages. If their children are accepted at school, if they feel safe when out in public, if they are asked to be part of community activities, then their need to cling to their religion, and to calls for sharia law – and to join protests like the recent one – will be reduced.
We have a long way to go, but we have done well over the past century. Let’s keep doing so.