There is racism, and then there is the glory of multiculturalism

The government is in trouble in the polls and the Prime Minister claims there’s no rabbits in the hat. Maybe, but I’m skeptical. Both history and early policy signs – the reduction of benefits available to new migrants, the Federal government’s consideration of a ban on HIV positive migrants – suggests that as polling day draws closer, there will be rabbits. The same ones that have been stewed before.

The multicultural “wedge” is all about the so-called Howard Battlers, the economically liberal, socially conservative swing voters shamelessly courted by both major parties. Its existence reminds us how easy it is to divide Australians over multiculturalism, though the real question is why.

It would be silly to deny that fear of difference amongst segments of the population, and its kissing cousin racism, play a role. But a perception of unaddressed weaknesses in the multicultural credo may also be to blame.

At the heart of multiculturalism is an assertion about the positive nature of difference and the benefits that homogenous societies gain by accepting different religions, ethnic, racial, cultural, and linguistic groups, and assisting them to maintain and share their knowledge, perspectives and cultures. Behind such claims is the unarticulated presumption that the only apects of culture that migrants seek to preserve, and to share with the wider community, are those Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently described as sentimental language, music, culinary traditions and cultural and religious rituals.

Australians opposed to the intake of non-Anglo migrants and the respect afforded to such sentimental differences by cultural institutions like schools and governments – the yearly outcry against crèches that celebrate multiple religious festivals in December rather than just Christmas is the classic – appear to be motivated by nothing more lofty than racism, prejudice based on stereotype, ignorance, fear and xenophobia. This makes the short shrift supporters of multiculturalism have given their concerns understandable and justified.

But events here and overseas have shown that some religious and cultural minorities in western countries like Australia – recent migrants and denizens of longer lineage – have sought to maintain more than the sentimental aspects of their culture. Most confronting has been the home-grown terrorists motivated by fanatical misogynist theocratic values brought from other lands. The London bombers, the 17 men arrested for conspiring to storm the Canadian parliament and bomb power plants in Ontario, the group of Sydney and Melbourne men charged with terrorism-related offences and Mohammed Bouyeri, the second generation Dutch man who murdered progressive filmmaker Theo van Gogh all appeared to be motivated by a parallel set of values fundamentally at odds with those central to western democratic societies. Values they felt strongly enough about to kill.

Ali, the Somali-born critic of Islam who was Bouyeri’s next intended target, argues that western citizens cannot afford to tolerate sub-groups in the community with militant values that reject democracy and the rule of law, and privilege group entitlements and solidarity over individual rights. Tolerance of the intolerable, she suggests, leads to the grievous oppression of women and puts them, and the community as a whole, at risk of violence.

Her comments, made recently at the Commonwealth Club in California, were about migrant communities, but they seem no less true when applied to cultural and religious sub-groups with Anglo roots or long lineages in Australia. If migrant groups are rightly prohibited from mutilating the genitals of their girls in the name of culture and religion, why should the refusal of non- migrant religious groups to hire women for leadership positions because they are women or as teachers in their schools because they are unmarried – both clear violations of state and federal anti-discrimination law – be allowed to stand? If we rail against the misogynist violence-condoning theology preached by migrant religious leaders like Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, why should we turn a blind a eye to the misogynist cant streaming from some fundamentalist Christian and Jewish pulpits?

The preservation by religious, ethnic and cultural minorities of their unique language, music, food, cultural and religious rituals – and the sharing of these differences with the wider community – has enriched, enlivened and enlarged Australian society. It is the positive fruits of Australian multiculturalism of which we may feel justifiably proud.

But when minority groups preserve and seek to disseminate a parallel set of deep values that preach – and lead to the practice of – oppression or violence against Australians within the group and outside of it, we have a problem. It doesn’t matter if those preaching oppression and violence have an Anglo, or a long, lineage in Australia, of if they just arrived. What matters is the threat they pose to our security and the capacity of every one of us, regardless of their gender or age, to exercise rights and freedoms guaranteed by law.

So where does this leave the rabbits, and those who wish to defend them, as electoral hunting season nears?

Not, I believe, without ammunition or a warren to defend. Racism is unacceptable and the preservation and celebration of sentimental differences between peoples in democratic pluralist societies has and will continue to be a key source of their vibrancy and success. These truths are the foundation stones of multiculturalism.

The multicultural project is a sound one. We just need to know where to draw the line.

Publication history

There is racism, and then there is the glory of multiculturalism  The Age