A small but vocal group of bigots can congratulate themselves for successfully hijacking a much-needed national discussion on multicultural service provision, writes Dr Chloe Patton.
THE Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s report on its two-year inquiry into multiculturalism released last week is the most significant statement on multiculturalism in Australia since the Government’s 2011 “People of Australia” statement.
The Australian reported that the inquiry has been overwhelmed by concern about Muslim integration, leading its bipartisan Committee to declare that it “does not support legal pluralism”. Of the 512 submissions the inquiry received, 212 directly raised questions about Islam.
What The Australian omitted to mention, however, was that none of these submissions directly addressed the inquiry’s terms of reference, and were therefore about as relevant to the task at hand as 212 musings on last night’s episode of Master Chef. The joint Standing Committee on Migration called for submissions from the public to help it report on issues surrounding migrant settlement, the effects of globalisation on social inclusion, and the contribution of migration to the nation’s productive capacity.
More than forty per cent of what it received, instead, demanded that Australia abandon its policy of multiculturalism because Muslims are said to be:
- taking over;
- not assimilating;
- having too many wives;
- having too many children;
- marrying off their daughters too young;
- killing their wives;
- forming ghettos;
- ruining Christmas;
- establishing Islamic schools;
- refusing to work;
- building too many mosques;
- taking offence too easily;
- demanding Shariah courts;
- plotting to kill non-Muslims;
- bringing their families over;
- wanting to live in the seventh century;
- hating democracy;
- not speaking English;
- watching too much Arabic news on satellite TV;
- wearing burqas;
- eating halal food;
- mutilating genitals;
- wrecking Europe;
- hampering access to suburban public swimming pools;
and so on.
These submissions paint such a detailed and disturbing picture of the Islamophobic attitudes held by some Australians that it is worthwhile considering whether they are representative of broader public opinion.
The answer? Not exactly.
Fundamentalist Christians were significantly over-represented among the voices heard. The inquiry’s final report notes that around eighty per cent of the submissions declared that Australia is a Christian country and should not accommodate other value systems. Many of the anonymous individual submission authors identified themselves as Christian. A number of unfounded claims cited in the report’s chapter on Islam – for instance, that 15 per cent of Australian Muslims hold fundamentalist views – were attributed to a Christian organisation called the Salt Shakers, whose website indicates they strongly support the political views of Geert Wilders. Two Christian anti-abortion lobby groups, the Family Council of Victoria and the Endeavour Forum, are also cited in the report.
A further two extreme-right racist groups round out the views of organisations included among the Islamophobic submissions. The Australia Defence League is a small local chapter of the neo-Nazi street groups more common in Europe, while the Q Society of Australia received national notoriety recently for bringing Wilders to these shores.
While much of the rhetoric espoused before the inquiry can be dismissed as the ramblings of fringe-dwelling tinfoil-hat wearers, it is worth recognising that a significant number of Australians have problems accepting Islam as a legitimate part of the Australian social landscape. As the inquiry’s report notes, in 2012 the Scanlan Foundation found that one in four Australians hold negative feelings about Islam. Fifty-six per cent of respondents to a 2011 Essential Research poll said they were concerned about the number of Muslims living in Australia, with roughly half saying they felt ‘very concerned’. A quarter of the overall sample polled said that Muslims should be excluded from Australia’s migrant intake.
Interestingly, 65 per cent of respondents to the latter poll believed that the proportion of the Australian population that identifies as Muslim is higher than it is. When informed of the correct figure (1.7 per cent), a significant number of respondents reassessed their views. In light of this apparent mutability of Islamophobic views, the Committee’s painstaking efforts to debunk the misconceptions about Islam and Muslims in its report are commendable.
The report’s statement about legal pluralism was only part of one of the recommendations made in its chapter on Islam. The Committee also recommends that the Australian Government continue to support programs promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding in Australian universities, institutions and the community sector. It recommends the institution of regular interfaith and intercultural dialogues involving the broader community leadership to better target settlement services and foster wider inter-community understanding.
I would suggest that in addition to investing in feel-good interfaith activities, the Government gets as tough on Islamophobic extremism as it is on Islamic extremism. Perhaps it’s high time the narrative of concern over extremism in this country is re-worked — let’s replace the young Muslim with the average Australian as the stereotypical vulnerable object of extremist ideology.