Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sectarianism and citizenship in Australia

I HAVE some terrible news for anyone contemplating Australian citizenship. The Australian government has decided to introduce a special multiple choice test which all prospective citizens must pass. And believe it or not, the answers to some test questions are so obscure that even Australian-born citizens are getting the answers wrong.

The Melbourne Herald-Sun newspaper recently released a list of sample questions that are meant to test prospective citizens on Australian culture, institutions and values. One of these questions has caused particular consternation.

Question 15 asks:

Australia's values are based on the ...
a. Teachings of the Quran
b. The Judaeo-Christian tradition
c. Catholicism
d. Secularism

Believe it or not, the correct answer, according to the Australian government's Department of Immigration & Citizenship (DIAC) is option b. How so?

You'd expect option b's correctness would be obvious after even the most cursory reading of Australian history. Surely the Jewish and Anglican theology and culture of English settlers played a central role in building our colonial institutions.

Australia's first settlers were the indigenous peoples - Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders - who were known to have some interaction with Malay fishermen. Australia also appeared on some early Arab maps dating back as early as the 14th century.

In 1788, English settlers landed with shiploads of convicts in what was known as "the First Fleet". Australia's first few fleets had convicts of various faiths - Jews, Catholics, Muslims and a smattering of perhaps reluctant followers of the Church of England.

The so-called Judaeo-Christian culture wasn't exactly alive and well in England. Both colonists and convicts on the First Fleet would have been aware of the passing of the Jew Bill through the English Parliament in 1753, allowing Jews to be naturalised by a special application to Parliament. The current Australian government's ideological ancestors, the English Tories, opposed the Bill, claiming it involved an "abandonment of Christianity". Conservative protesters burnt effigies of Jews and carried placards reading "No Jews, no wooden shoes."

Jews were forbidden from attending university and practising law in England until the mid 19th century. One can only imagine the prejudice the 750-odd First Fleet Jewish convicts faced from English jailors brought up in such an anti-Semitic environment.

I'd like to see DIAC representatives telling Jewish historians about the "Judaeo-Christian tradition". The whole notion of Judaism playing a key role in the development of Western European culture seems strange considering it's only in the last 60 years, following the horrors of the Holocaust, that Western Christendom has finally faced up to the reality of anti-Semitism. If anything, the role of the "Judaeo" has tended to be that of cultural and political punching bag of the "Christian".

Life for their Muslim spiritual cousins in early Australia wasn't much better. Most were free men working as sailors, though quite a few were convicts. The crew on board The Endeavour, which left Port Jackson in 1795, included a large number of Muslim sailors. Meanwhile, at least eight convicts of Arab descent arrived in Australia.

Australian Muslim historian Bilal Cleland acknowledges in his definitive history of Muslims in Australia:

As Muslims and a subject people, despised for their race, they would have lived on the edge of society. Even Christians suffered persecution at that time if they were from the wrong sect.

It was not until the 1820s that legislation discriminating against the followers of non-Anglican Christian sects was repealed. Sectarian prejudice prevailed in Australia, largely focused on a large group of descendants of Irish convicts whose loyalty to a bishop in Rome was often regarded of greater than to Queen and Country.

My own family lived in South Asia and then North America for some 18 months during the mid-1970s. I returned to a state school in Mr Howard's electorate in 1977, the only kid in the class who managed to combine brown skin with a strange name and a thick New Jersey accent! I was frequently teased and bullied.

Then one day walking home, I noticed the bullies were picking on a boy from a different school. Strangely, this boy had blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. I wondered why he was being bullied by his own kind. The bullies provided a brief explanation: "He goes to Holy Spirit School!"

I went home and informed my mother of my discovery that you could get teased and bullied even if you were white. She responded by befriending all the Catholics in our neighbourhood. It was her way of showing solidarity with the oppressed!

With such a rich history of sectarianism, it's little wonder the Catholic religion is excluded from our "Judaeo-Christian" heritage. And as Australian journalist Laura Tingle told the ABC Compass programme on 1 April 2007:

The polling I think on both sides of politics is showing that particularly in NSW and particularly in the outer metropolitan seats in Sydney anti-Islamic feeling is now really white hot. And there's therefore a big dilemma for both sides of politics about the extent to which they exploit that.

Sectarian feelings are being exploited by both politicians and clergy, including by clergy of faiths excluded from the list. Australian Catholic Cardinal Pell can challenge Muslims as much as he likes, but the Howard Government's proposed citizenship test clearly suggests that Catholicism and the "Judaeo-Christian heritage" are mutually exclusive categories.

And try telling Australian non-Christians that their values aren't the same as Australian values. I'd love to see John Howard telling a group of turban-wearing Aussie-Punjabi banana farmers from the NSW Central Coast town of Woolgoolga that Guru Nanak's monotheistic message has no relevance to Australian values.

Of course, all this doesn't mean spiritual values are irrelevant. After all, 160 years before the First Fleet arrived, Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros came across an island he presumed to be the "Great South Land", naming it La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo (Land of the Holy Spirit).

Then again, one wonders whether the views of a Portuguese Catholic would matter in 21st century Judaeo-Christian Australia!

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and associate editor of This article was first published in the Brunei Times on 29 May 2007. Another version also appeared on the Online Opinion portal on 30 May 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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© Irfan Yusuf 2007