Who Welcomes Who in Multicultural Australia?


As Tony Abbott makes further gains in the polls, and amidst more ‘terror’ raids in Melbourne this week and a violent racist attack on a woman on a train near Batman station, it’s increasingly clear that Islamophobia is seriously on the rise in Australia again.

In recent days, anecdotal evidence is emerging of some Muslim people being afraid to leave their houses and living in fear of attack and abuse when in public places. 

As Melburnian Jews, who are currently in the middle of the period of the High Holy Days, we are attending synagogues and community institutions with heightened security concerns. Security guards are posted at the entrances and sermons speak of a community under attack. But while antisemitism is certainly on the rise (particularly in Europe), and not something which is to be ignored, everyday violent forms of antisemitism are not mainstream. The same cannot be currently said for Islamophobia.

You only need to glance at recent covers of the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph, listen to talkback radio or tune in to a speech by Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison to realise that Islamophobia is so mainstream as to have become part of the norm of our political culture.

Unsurprisingly too, women’s bodies are forming a battleground, as members of the Government and the Palmer United Party pretend that the niqab and burka (which are not the same thing, despite what the ignorant rhetoric might suggest) are both a security threat and a threat to Muslim women’s independence.

As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously put it, this is a reproduction of the well-worn colonial trope of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’.  The structure of the debate reinstates a discourse of embattled whiteness, struggling to control who is considered legitimate and how ‘Others’ should be allowed to fit within the nation.

This discourse is part of a broader history of Australian racism. Indeed, the construction of minorities as ‘Other’ – and as needing to be controlled, reduced or conditionally included – has structured much of Australian history, from the initial moments of colonisation onwards.

Our own history as Jews with family members who came to this country carrying some of the scars of the Holocaust bears this out. Even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, boats coming to Australia from Europe had quotas for how many Jews were allowed on them. Those who came were viewed with suspicion and urged to assimilate.

Today there exists a different international context, as Muslim lives are routinely seen in the West as barely grievable, and often unintelligible. Despite claims by some that antisemitism and Islamophobia are dissimilar, what’s common to both is the racialisation of religious and cultural practices. Also common is the accusation of dual loyalties, the insinuation of an insufficient loyalty to the nation. Difference, in this case religious difference, is made pernicious. Different world-views, traditions, cultures and practices are not seen as an opportunity to learn, but rather as a source of crisis.

Jews and Muslims (and others) in Australia have a common stake in defending the multiculturalism of our society, but we need to be suspicious of a multiculturalism whose primary aim is to shore up the unity of the nation-state.

The statement put out by the Victoria Police Multi-Faith Council seems to have this aim, asking us to “remember the things which have made this state great” and noting that “The security of the Victorian community is everyone’s responsibility.”

This attention to ‘security’ and ‘law and order’, and a foregrounding of the role of the police, does little to construct safety. As we have just been reminded by the ‘counter-terror’ raids and the shooting of Numan Haider, the police and the security state are key to the Government’s creation of fear and division.

An official multiculturalism states: have your difference, but don’t overstep the boundaries, and always remember that we will decide the basis on which to accept and consume your difference. 

But how then can we make a real challenge to Islamophobia, and Australian racism more generally?

The left, so accustomed to debating the ‘worthiness’ and ‘genuineness’ and ‘legitimacy’ of asylum seekers coming to Australia over the past 15 years, in the name of anti-racism sometimes simply expounds alternate population management strategies.

At the anti-Islamophobia rally in City Square in Melbourne last Friday, one of the major chants of the rally – 'Muslims are welcome, racists are not' – made many uneasy.

Is this to become another moment where the substance of political struggle is a fight over which white people have the ability to ‘welcome’, ‘to decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’?

We hope that the 'left' response to the current wave of Islamophobia is able to exceed the limits of what Ghassan Hage called 'rituals of white empowerment': 'seasonal festivals where White Australians renew the belief in their possession of the power to talk and make decisions about Third World-looking Australians'.

As Mohamad Tabaa has similarly pointed out, much of the rhetoric of tolerance and multiculturalism represents only the flip side of bigotry rather than a challenge to racism’s underlying logic.

The real issues of a multicultural society are buried and distorted by a government and political culture based on fantasies of white domination and control. Multi-ethnic coalitions, built against fear and racism, and rejecting the false homogenising unity of the nation-state, now seem more necessary than ever.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.