THE recent protests by Muslim youths in Sydney have rightly shocked just about all of us. In many respects, the episode parallels the Cronulla riots of December 2005. Both events deserved unqualified condemnation. There is no place for organised mob violence in our democratic society.
No one, of course, would have said the Cronulla rioting represented the authoritative face of Australian society. In its aftermath, then prime minister John Howard went even further, stressing ”there is no underlying racism in Australian society”.
And yet, some observers have been pointing to recent events as conclusive evidence of systemic cultural discord. Commentator Greg Sheridan was quick to diagnose ”a crisis for Australian multiculturalism”. Gerard Henderson has intoned that, ”whatever the response of Muslims, the incident provides yet more evidence that multiculturalism – after a promising start – has failed”.
Let’s get some things straight. The riot two weekends ago was the act of a fringe element that is emulating protests overseas.
The now infamous proclamations about beheading those who insult Muhammad reflect an interpretation of Islam that is incompatible with our liberal democracy. We do not behead people in Australia. We handle our disagreements as democratic citizens – not as religious zealots.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Australia do not believe that a small band of violent youths speak for them. Muslim community leaders have provided an unambiguous response of condemnation. They have worked hard with police to prevent further disturbances. They have affirmed that multiculturalism doesn’t supersede the law of the land.
That a debate has nonetheless reignited around multiculturalism is revealing. The very phrase exists as a Rorschach test of political ideology. It is a word onto which many people project their own preconceptions of diversity.
Some conceptual precision helps. There is a difference, naturally, between multiculturalism understood as a social reality and understood as a public policy.
As social reality, multiculturalism simply describes cultural diversity as it exists in society. As public policy, however, it describes a set of approaches to settlement and integration for immigrants. It reflects the view that a society is better off taking active steps to welcome immigrants as future citizens, and accepting that a national identity will evolve over time.
It is multiculturalism as policy that is most contentious.
Conservatives such as Sheridan and Henderson provide interesting examples of how centre-right opinion on the issue has shifted during the past decade or so. Once prominent defenders of multiculturalism during the rise of Hansonism, Sheridan and Henderson now repudiate it. They have suggested that the European experience with Muslim immigrants highlights the need for a more assertive approach to affirming democratic rights.
But let’s look at what multicultural policy in Australia has actually meant. Contrary to some suggestions, the policy has been clearly defined for many decades. Australia and Canada have long been considered leading examples of a successful citizenship model of integration.
The central idea is this. While we shouldn’t demand new arrivals discard their cultural heritage, we should expect they become Australian citizens over time.
But any right to express one’s cultural identity comes with the responsibility to accept our parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, equality of the sexes, freedom of religion, and English as the national language.
This has been made clear, time and time again, in official statements of policy. Go to the evidence. Multiculturalism has been a muscular expression of nation-building. It is lazy or disingenuous to suggest it has been wishy-washy relativism.
The social achievement of multiculturalism has depended, in no small degree, on the policy dimension. Compare our experience to those countries that have resisted cultural diversity.
Part of the reason Europe has struggled with integration is that it has tended to consider immigrants as mere guest workers (as in the historic case of Germany) or to consider cultural difference as something to be expressed only in private (as in the case of France). Our model avoids these pitfalls.
It has also been a virtue of Australian multicultural policy that it has traditionally enjoyed support from all sides of politics. Admittedly, there have been some question marks about the federal Coalition’s commitment ever since the Howard years. But last week, speaking at the Australian Multicultural Council inaugural lecture, Tony Abbott showed signs of a renewed bipartisanship.
Offering ”a personal confession”, the Opposition Leader noted: ”With Geoffrey Blainey, I used to worry that multiculturalism could leave us a nation of tribes. But I was wrong and I’ve changed my mind.”
It is evidence that conversions on this matter can happen in both directions. Indeed, conservatives should have little to fear from an official multiculturalism: it is, if anything, the best antidote to extremism and fragmentation. For the aim of multiculturalism has always been to ensure that any cultural diversity remains consistent with an Australian civic culture.
Some might even say the idea sounds rather conservative.