Hewson's view: Time to demonstrate the strength of our multicultural asset

Marginalised: Muslim women hug before the funerals for some of the 50 victims of the mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch. Picture: Jason South
Marginalised: Muslim women hug before the funerals for some of the 50 victims of the mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch. Picture: Jason South

The recent horrific and senseless slaughter of 50 Muslims while they prayed in two of their mosques in Christchurch has again focused community and political attention on the extent and significance of Islamophobia in Australia, that is on the distrust of, and intolerance and hostility towards, Muslims, Islam, and those perceived as following the religion.

As much as many don't like to admit it, there is little doubt that it is still a perception around the globe, as evidenced in some global press comment on the Christchurch slaughter, that Australia is Islamophobic. It certainly didn't help this perception that the lone gunman was a deranged (as distinct from a terrorist) Australian citizen, simply residing more recently in New Zealand. Nor did some of the subsequent remarks in this country by some of our politicians and commentators. Old images and perceptions die hard. Although the last remnants of the White Australia Policy, which did restrict Muslim immigration from 1901, were finally removed in the mid 1970s, many believe that such discrimination still exists, but maybe not so explicitly.

Incidents such as Christchurch therefore feed, or are taken to validate, this belief. As have some of our domestic reactions over more recent years to events relating to the first Gulf War, halal certification, proposals to build mosques, financial support for Islamic schools, the application of Sharia Law, rallies, sudden decisions to move our Israeli embassy, and so on.

Indeed, I have been struck by how many occasions I have been challenged personally about our "White Australian" bias while travelling, and not just in Asia. Even just last week while speaking in Indonesia I was surprised by student questions about "white supremacists".

Unfortunately, it has been so easy for some in our country, including in the media, to stereotype Muslims as "violent, uncivilised and extreme" which can then so easily lead on to marginalisation, discrimination and exclusion.

This offends me enormously. I firmly believe that our greatest success as a nation since World War II has been our creation of the world's leading, most tolerant and effective, multicultural, multiracial, and multi-religious society - nearly 50 per cent of Australians were either born overseas, or have at least one parent who were born overseas, and approaching 25 per cent speak a language other than English at home.

Of course, none of this "success" can be taken for granted - our multicultural society is, and always will be, a work in progress.

In recent years, I have worked fairly closely with the Muslim communities on a number of initiatives, and I have been forced to recognise the extent to which many Muslims indeed have been sensitive and concerned about Islamophobia.

To just cite one definitive example, I was embarrassed to learn that while the recent census suggests that there are some 600,000 Muslims in Australia, the actual number is probably somewhat more than double that - they are that concerned about the possible reaction to even admitting it.

Of course, they are concerned about being tagged, and discriminated against. While they readily admit to the existence of some Islamic extremists and fanatics, they are at pains to point out that it is a small minority, and to emphasise their embarrassment about that, but also their fear that more broadly based ignorance across our society so easily sees them, and their families, cast in the same light.

Like most of the rest of our society, they are predominately focussed on raising and educating their kids, with secure employment, housing, etc. They mostly came to Australia for our lifestyle and freedoms (including religious freedoms), our rule of law, political stability, and so on.

One of the most disturbing features of our politics in recent decades has been the willingness of some of our politicians, including at times leaders, to "play the race card", to score a short-term point by attacking/identifying some particular ethnic group, attempting to create "fear" and "anxiety" in relation to their existence and activities.

Sometimes this is explicit - such as statement over the years about Asian or Muslim immigration, terrorism, and so on - and sometimes not so explicit, more like "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" you know what I mean, say no more, when I want to cut immigration, or attack multiculturalism.

We in Australia are better than this - at least we definitely should be!

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

Our multicultural society is, and always will be, a work in progress.