Recent negative comments towards Muslims and Chinese highlight lasting legacy of ‘White Australia’ policy.
Despite diversity being an entrenched part of Australia’s social reality (one in four Australians was born overseas), the problematisation of multiculturalism persists.
Since September 11, however, it is the Muslim question that has undeniably inflected debates about national identity and belonging, bearing out Ibrahim Kalin’s argument that in western societies multiculturalism has reached its limits in the current debate over Muslims.
Last year was ripe with scenarios which demonstrated that Australian Muslims are at the forefront of public debates around multiculturalism.
Early in the year, the “right to be a bigot” was championed by Australia’s attorney general in defence of a proposed repealing of legislative protections against hate speech. The changes were subsequently abandoned because they apparently undermined support from Australian Muslims for new counterterrorism laws.
Antithesis of ‘liberal values’
The political manoeuvre created the impression that “free speech” was being traded for Muslim appeasement in order to achieve “national security”. Muslims were thus framed as the antithesis of “liberal values”, and national security was supposedly being held hostage by Muslims.
Fears about “homegrown terrorism”, radicalisation and beheading plots on Australian soil coalesced around the image of the son of an Australian holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier, and consultation meetings between the prime minister and Australian Muslim leaders reinforced the link between terrorism and Muslims.
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The largest counterterror raids in Australia emboldened Islamophobes, resulting in increasing attacks on Muslims and an intensification of anti-multiculturalism rhetoric on social media and among right-wing commentators.
The totalising media discourse regarding the raids invested Muslims with meanings that positioned them as violent and the antagonists of “Australian values”.
The spectacle of the dawn raids – splashed across television screens like an episode of Homeland – fed into this wider narrative.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s declaration that people should not migrate to Australia unless they were prepared to join “Team Australia” was clearly directed at Muslims and served to reinforce a version of multiculturalism which positions a benevolent Anglo majority host (the team leader) as the manager of a minority Muslim guest (the potential team member).
Using the concept of Team Australia as a terror prevention strategy deployed the discourse of nationalism and Australian identity (code for Anglo-Celtic) as a coded discussion of who belongs and who does not.
Limits of religious freedom
The limits of religious freedom were tested with yet another burqa/niqab debate (what would a year be without one?), resulting in an extraordinary proposal, subsequently abandoned, that Muslim women wearing a face-veil and visiting parliament would be required to sit in glass enclosures segregated from the public gallery.
The year ended with a siege by a lone gunman on a Sydney cafe, which metamorphosed into a “terrorist attack” when hostages were forced to wave what was thought to be an ISIL flag. Predictably, there were elements in the Australian community and media who exploited the tragedy to further their Islamophobic agendas.
Unlike the aftermath of the terror raids three months earlier, Australians overwhelmingly rallied together to drown out such voices. To combat the fear of attack among some veiled Muslim women, an #illridewithyou campaign was launched, quickly going viral.
But unlike the aftermath of the terror raids three months earlier, Australians overwhelmingly rallied together to drown out such voices. To combat the fear of attack among some veiled Muslim women, an #illridewithyou campaign was launched, quickly going viral.
What does all of this tell us about multiculturalism in Australia? For one thing, debates about “problem minorities” (Muslims at this particular juncture in time), reveals how firmly entrenched Australia’s structures of white/Anglo privilege are.
Indeed, those who nobly and kindly offered to “protect” Muslim women on public transport could only do so because of their privileged position vis-a-vis their fellow Muslim citizens. The campaign was necessary because racism exists, rather than necessary to prove it doesn’t.
Who worries about multiculturalism speaks to the issue of racism and nationalism more than anything else. Consider, for example, that in April 2014 the State Library of New South Wales, seemingly incognisant of the irony, hosted an all-white panel to discuss the topic “Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?”
Anthropologist Ghassan Hage’s work in this regard is compelling. For multiculturalism when deployed as a political issue, remains a story about so-called embattled “whiteness”, fought between two classes; white worriers (and commentators I would add) and Third World-looking problems.
In recent times, those Third World-looking problems are Muslims who have been relegated to the position of national objects to be governed by the perennially worried and opinionated white national subject.
It is overwhelmingly white males in the media and in the corridors of power who enjoy the privilege to pontificate and sermonise about the evils of multiculturalism. When called on to comment in the mainstream media, Muslims respond to debates, rather than participate in setting the terms and parameters.
Muslims are required to redeem multiculturalism for the benefit of wider Australia, providing assurances that they will not challenge the status quo. And so, Muslims are reduced to either condemning terrorism or engaging in performances that prove their “moderate” credentials. Such performances are then hailed as proof of multiculturalism’s success.
The white worrier
The litany of worries consuming the white worrier opposed to multiculturalism is long – multiculturalism is divisive; it presents an existential crisis for liberal democracy; it promotes cultural and moral relativism.
The irony is that white privilege is a foundational principle of those who oppose multiculturalism and in many cases, those who support it.
Those for whom multiculturalism is proof of a progressive, cosmopolitan and liberal Australia advocate a multiculturalism which is inflected by the conditional, valuable insofar as it enriches and embellishes the core Anglo culture, “Australian values” (ie so-called Anglo values) remaining hegemonic.
Only when the multicultural project becomes one in which the dominant culture does not try to manage, overwhelm or proselytise the minority can Australians of diverse backgrounds fulfil their potential as equal citizens.
This requires a commitment to dismantling the structural racism that shores up white privilege and enables the systemic, shameful racism that persists against our indigenous population to continue. It requires a complete shift in the “war on terror” narrative and a commitment to opposing Islamophobia.
Ultimately, it requires that we reimagine multiculturalism on the basis of shared civic values rather than racial or cultural ones.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning author, former lawyer and current doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University, researching Islamophobia in Australia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.