Our politicians are struggling to explain just what has brought us to the point where counter-terrorism control orders must be applied to children as young as 14. They are convulsed by the recent slaying in Parramatta of police accountant Curtis Cheng by a teenage gunman. How to explain what is going on in our society without being accused of mongering fear or race hatred?
But bending over backwards to avoid offending or upsetting people is getting the pollies nowhere. Speculating that Farhad Jabar was motivated by politics rather than religion, or that his lone attack should be thought of as a gun crime rather than terrorism, is foolish. The issue we have to face is the changing impact of Islam on contemporary Australia.
We know Muslims comprise just 2.2 per cent of the population — around 476,00 in the 2011 census — and we know just a small portion of that poses a serious threat. These are not big numbers in the scheme of things, and, for the most part, Muslims are well-integrated in Australia, enjoying life in a society that is broadly very supportive of multiculturalism.
But instead of Muslim community leaders sharing their concern with the broader community and addressing the problem, they are pre-occupied with what the majority of the population allegedly thinks about Islam. They have convinced themselves the real problem is racism and Islamophobia rather than the threat to our society posed by the seductive allure of – dare I say it? – the ‘death cult’ of Isis.
We know the Australian multicultural project has been one of the most successful in the world. We have a long history of successfully integrating new migrants and of tolerating religious and cultural differences, forging a society built around a series of core institutions and values. Most of us agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia.
But a new report on Australian attitudes to immigration released by the Australian Institute for Progress suggests our enthusiasm for multiculturalism is waning. While most voters continue to support high levels of immigration in general, the report found that increased immigration from Muslim countries is provoking new levels of concern in the community, with 48 per cent of respondents opposed.
It won’t do just to dismiss almost one in two respondents as bigots or racists and hope the issue goes away. The report found anxiety about Muslim immigration is driven by real concerns that: Islam is antagonistic to western culture, Islamic and western values do not coincide, and it is very hard for Muslims to integrate into Australian society. Concerns about suspected differences in the conception of citizenship or the willingness of Muslim migrants to integrate with mainstream culture are held sincerely; but the extent to which they are actually borne out by evidence — that is, the extent to which they are true — has yet to be tested.
The report also leaves to future enquiry just how important the factor of Islam is to the identity of migrants. Nonetheless, the survey suggests the Australian multicultural project is in danger of veering off course. Muslim leaders need to understand why this is happening; they also need to understand why the Australian public is demanding more from Islamic leadership than is currently being offered. Sadly, there is little indication of any forthcoming change either in understanding or in action on the part of Muslim leaders. For a start, they have condemned the Turnbull government’s move to allow security agencies to monitor terrorism suspects who are school children. Extending control orders to 14 year olds, they say, will serve only to alienate young people even further and do nothing to keep Australia safe. Sydney-based school chaplain Sheik Wesam Charkawi says the proposed measures will be ‘counter-productive’ and that the government needs ‘to start from a completely different perspective’.
But the Parramatta assassin was aged just 15, so it surely makes sense for security agencies to seek to monitor the activities of teenagers. After all, you don’t find Jewish or Christian or Hindu kids gunning down people on our streets.
And when Charkawi spoke on Q&A recently, he dismissed the wider community’s concern about Muslims as ‘paranoia’. But paranoia is a delusional disorder; there is nothing delusional about the community’s response to Curtis Cheng’s murder. Rather, it is a rational, well-founded fear that a small proportion of a small minority group is now posing the deadliest of threats to society.
It is in the interests of all Australians to ensure multiculturalism remains a story of success. This can’t, however, be the ‘hard’ multiculturalism pre-occupied with promoting diversity and cultural difference in the name of tolerance and anti-racism. It has, instead, to be the ‘soft’ multiculturalism that refuses to treat the nation as a collection of separate ethnic groups, yet insists on the peaceful co-existence of all citizens within a single political culture.
Such peaceful co-existence within a unitary political culture has long been the backdrop to Australia’s social reality: that people from different backgrounds assimilate into our society in their own way and at their own pace while respecting our political, cultural and legal conventions. The leaders of Australia’s Muslims need to get serious in showing the rest of society they grasp this fundamental point.
If they persist in blaming governments, in dismissing the concerns of non-Muslim neighbours, or in perpetuating the myth that Muslims are always victims of the intolerance and bigotry of others — whether it’s the police, the press, or the public — Australians will stop listening. For the issue is not what the bulk of Australians think about Muslims; it’s what a segment of the population, who are capable of perpetrating real harm, think of us.
There is a lot of goodwill towards the Australian Muslim community. Jewish and Christian leaders are spearheading efforts to strengthen ties and minimise misunderstanding between different faith groups, thereby helping to build a common life within which cultural diversity, grounded in the norms and values of modern Australian society, is not only accepted but respected. None of us want to live in a divided, fractious and fearful country.
But while Muslim leaders demand tolerance and understanding from non-Muslims in the name of multiculturalism, they will be disappointed and frustrated unless they can show themselves capable of addressing the allegiances and pathologies of a small but significant portion of the Muslim population.
Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
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