Friday, January 26, 2007

REFLECTION: Cheers to our cultural diversity

AUSTRALIA Day is traditionally a day for the Australian patriot. Certainly we have much to be patriotic about. In a short time compared with other Western countries, we've become a wealthier and more cohesive bunch than most nations this side of the galaxy.

We also have a proud history. When many parts of Europe were burdened with collective anti-Semitism, our ancestors had little trouble appointing Sir Isaac Isaacs as the first Australian-born governor-general.

Within decades of getting walloped by the Turks at Gallipoli, we were good-natured enough to open our doors to Turkish workers. It's little wonder businessman John Ilhan, the nephew of Ottoman troops, can tell metropolitan tabloids:
I am the proud son of Turkish parents. I missed being born in Australia by a few years, but each day I thank my lucky stars that I came to this country I had relatives who fought against the Anzacs yet today, if there was another world war, I would fight for Australia without hesitation.
It hasn't always been a bed of roses. Few Muslims would disagree with Ilhan's assessment of some radical Muslim leaders in Australia, who pretend to speak for the faith, but instead promote intolerance and hatred.

During the Christmas break, my partner and I found ourselves driving through the federation town of Tenterfield, just south of the Queensland border. We visited the Tenterfield Federation Museum and saw relics of our federation fathers.

Here, on October 24, 1889, Sir Henry Parkes, then premier of NSW, made a speech said to mark the beginning of Australia's political journey towards federation. The tone was of inclusion, of ensuring that the interests of the peoples of all colonies be given appropriate measure.

The museum also displayed an uglier side to that era the racial riots directed at Chinese migrant workers. It didn't show the institutionalised disadvantage and discrimination against indigenous peoples. We saw its results at night when we found young indigenous children in varying states of inebriation on the lawns outside the town hall.

Perhaps a certain opposition leader inherited some of the anti-Chinese feeling when he said in August 1988 that it " would be in our immediate term interest and supportive of social cohesion if [Asian migration] were slowed down a little, so that the capacity of the community to absorb was greater." Why would someone say that after serving as treasurer in a conservative government that introduced a kind of muted multiculturalism a decade before?

Writing in the The Age on May 25, 2004, conservative columnist and former Howard staffer Gerard Henderson described the
... one significant blot on [Howard's] record in public life a certain lack of empathy in dealing with individuals with whom he does not identify at a personal level: for example, Asian Australians in the late 1980s and asylum-seekers in the early 21st century.
Australian multiculturalism has never been an end in itself. It's always been a means to an end, the end being the development of a uniquely Australian culture that recognises the reality that ours is a nation of migrants. Even when it wasn't a specific government policy, cultural diversity always existed on the ground as a social reality.

Decades ago, monocultural rhetoric focused on Asians (specifically Indo-Chinese). Today, it focuses on 360,000 Australians from more than 60 different countries who tick the word Muslim on their census forms.

On the eve of Australia Day, John Ilhan could write:
My Muslim faith qualifies me to strongly denounce any racist and inflammatory comments made by any Muslim leaders because they perpetuate a stereotype that is unhelpful and dangerous.
Ilhan showed a degree of self-critique common in his faith-community. Sadly, many monoculturalists could not engage in a similar degree of self-critique when it comes to the ugly actions of some people.

Allow me to inject some multimedia. Grab your laptops and go to the YouTube website. Type in "Cronulla riots" and view some of the videos appearing. You'll find ugly recordings glorifying the riots and the reprisal attacks. Some glorify the white-pride sentiments of the rioters, while others glorify the brutality of a small band of Lebanese thugs who engaged in reprisal attacks.

So who is responsible for these disgraceful anonymous videos? In the past few days, tabloid newspapers have been running hard on the trail of one set of videos linked to a Western Sydney high school. Before any firm conclusion had been reached, the Prime Minister had already made up his mind:
It's a reminder that there is undoubtedly within a section, a small section, of the Lebanese Muslim community, a group of people who are antagonistic to the values and the way of life in this country.
Why say that? Maybe the PM had information about those responsible for the video which even the NSW Police and the NSW Education Minister didn't have. Fair enough.

But why not issue similar condemnation of white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites which praised the Cronulla rioters? Then again, wasn't this the same Prime Minister who spoke of the rioters' "genuine grievances"?

One problem I have with our multiculturalism is that it's based on the myth that we are just a nation of migrants. Too often we have overlooked and ignored the history and culture of indigenous communities.

I'm no expert on New Zealand history, but I believe our cousins across the Tasman have been far more open to asylum-seekers because their nation was built on a treaty with their indigenous peoples. The historical and cultural tang of Waitangi has ensured even the most conservative New Zealand government couldn't take on monoculturalism as a long-term political strategy.

Anyway, enough pontificating. Have a wonderful Australia Day. Put a halal shrimp on the barbie. And have an extra beer on my behalf!

First published in the Canberra Times on Australia Day, Friday 26 January 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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