In spite of their name, Australia’s ruling “Liberal Party” is conservative. Since winning the 2001 election by manipulating public fears about asylum seekers and security concerns after 9/11, they have not hesitated to play the race card. John Howard is too clever to do this overtly, however. Instead he engages in what has been called dog whistle politics.
Perhaps the most insidious example is recent. John Howard’s views on Australian society and pluralism:
fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can the English language if you don’t already speak it…
He’s also intervened in schools, requiring that these Australian values be displayed on a plaque which includes a drawing of Simpson and his donkey, and working to get his approach to teaching history adopted.
The situation is more complex the further you explore. The Cronulla Race Riots provide an overheated microcosm of the situation. As much as multiculturalism has been extremely successful in Australia, the events at the beach on those few days exposed the fissures and racism which various groups, including the Liberal Party, are managing to exploit. The true situation did not come out in the press, but some delving at the time made apparent the following:
- Gangs of Muslim youth had been propositioning and threatening girls on the beach.
- The surfers, defending their turf and “their women” had begun to band together to retaliate. The result was a simmering gang based race war.
- An ultra-right organisation began circulating emails and text messages inciting vigilante action, and a right wing radio shock jock (who should have been charged over the matter) fanned the flames.
- After an attack on a lifeguard by a Muslim youth who had been asked to leave the beach, a rally was held to express multi-ethnic solidarity and calm the situation. Instead an alcohol fuelled section of the crowd of 5000, stirred up by the neo-nazis and radio talkback, went on the rampage attacking anyone who looked Muslim.
Angela Mitropoulos has a nuanced and detailed account of the social forces at play.
If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?
The uncovered meat is the problem.
If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.
John Howard need add nothing to that situation, and he contented himself with observing that
if Hilali is not stripped of his position as mufti, it will suggest that some of his views are supported.
The embarrassed Muslim community was able to insist that Hilali resign his position.
Australia’s excellent, functioning, multicultural society is under threat. Howard recently announced a $90 million plan to put clergy in government schools to provide pastoral care. In a country which is far less religious than the United States, but has no constitutional division between church and state, this is an attempt to enforce conservative values as much as to win the religious vote. But it also drives a wedge into the heart of an essentially pluralist culture.
Howard’s well aware of this, and I think he’s using racism and terrorism fears as a way of singling out the Muslim community in a way he could not do with the Vietnamese, Chinese, Aboriginal, Greek, or any other of Australia’s many ethnic and religious minorities.
The biggest problem is that he’s getting unintended help from the Muslim community itself. It’s not just one cleric – there is a problem with taking absolute ideas about women’s dress, behaviour and freedoms, and attempting to apply them in a pluralist society. Lebanese youths on the beach at Cronulla are caught in the disconnect of their elder’s values from Muslim society and the dress and behavioural codes of Australian surf culture. It’s no different than Christian Brethren youth having difficulty adjusting to the norms of a different subculture, except perhaps that race allows Lebanese youths to be stereotyped and targeted.
The Muslim community in Australia must deal with this problem head on. Other groups, especially the Federal Government, will neither make it easy nor fail to take advantage of any mistakes. Australian society does have a strong undercurrent of racism, but it also has a great deal of faith in, and respect for, its tolerant and pluralist ideals. Given the concerted attack on multiculturalism by John Howard, and his attempt use fear and xenophobia to political advantage, that tolerance must be emphasised and defended by all of us who have a stake in retaining Australia’s cultural diversity.