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Martin Place terror belies quiet progress in relations between cultures


Lindt chocolate shop seige

The siege at the Lindt chocolate shop in Sydney's Martin Place is frightening for all Australians. It also obscures that progress of relations between Muslims and Australians generally, feeding into a polarising 'us and them' mentality. It's important therefore to remind ourselves that our cultural diversity is largely what makes modern Australia the dynamic country it is.

To this end, I recall my visit to a friend's house the other day. He is an Australian of Chinese-Malaysian descent; I, an Australian of English and Scottish descent; the two of us using YouTube videos to work out the procedure behind that venerable Mediterranean tradition, cooking and preserving home-made tomato sauce.

What could be more typical of multicultural Australia? Yet at a time when some are questioning the ability of Australia’s Islamic communities to ‘fit in’, amidst news this year of anti-terror raids, and talk of a ban on burqas, we may need something deeper than pasta sauce to restore our confidence in the future of Australia.

We hear the word ‘multicultural’ thrown around, yet there is already extensive debate over what the term does or should precisely mean in terms of public policy. Does it mean simply welcoming people from many different cultures? Or does it also mean encouraging people to maintain their differences and distinctions, while promoting a kind of cultural neutrality in public institutions?

This debate is important, but there are other aspects of culture and multiculturalism that may shed light on contemporary problems. For example, we tend to forget that the etymology of ‘culture’ is related to cultivation in an agricultural context. Our culture encompasses the qualities and customs we have cultivated and wish to cultivate among our people. We wish to ‘grow’ qualities such as tolerance, friendliness, and care towards our neighbours regardless of their ethnic, religious or cultural background.

In this sense although we are a culturally diverse society, implicit in our approach to ‘multiculturalism’ is the establishment of an overarching ‘monoculture’ or ‘super-culture’ – a set of values, customs, and achievements we tend, wittingly and unwittingly, to cultivate across society. These range from the pragmatic shared literacies taught to new migrants on the basics of navigating daily life in this country, to the more abstract values we implicitly albeit haphazardly and sometimes inconsistently extol to all Australians, both old and new: tolerance naturally, but also self-improvement through education and training, openness to change, self-awareness, independence, individualism, and a kind of ‘no nonsense’ self-effacing humility.  Yet the contents of this super-culture are not set in stone, nor are they simply a reflection of government policy, or other contrived attempts at social engineering.  Perhaps they are best described as emergent – a layer of culture that necessarily develops out of and in response to the underlying heterogeneity.    

This cultural heterogeneity is not restricted to ethnic divisions; the dividing lines of multi-culture are diverse. Anyone who happens to live outside the predominant football and cricket cultures can attest that culture clash, exclusion, and alienation can be equally powerful within ethnic boundaries. It may seem petty to compare social and sporting interests to the divisions between different ethnicities, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of these phenomena. It is not hyperbole to refer to Australia’s drinking culture, barbecue culture, beach culture, business culture, consumer culture, and so on. We can quite often have more in common with people from different religious and ethnic groups than with people from our own ethnicity whose lifestyles and interests are totally divergent. 

What matters in the end is having something in common, even if the sole common point is the desire to understand one another. I have had warm, thoughtful, and engaging conversations with strangers from vastly different backgrounds: an Egyptian nurse, Coptic Christian, curious about the origins of my name; a Pakistani specialist, intrigued that I was studying philosophy, who extended the consultation so we could discuss the possible points of contact between Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics and the God of Abraham. But put me in a room full of AFL fans and you’ll start to wonder how well I have ‘assimilated’. Immerse me in the ‘systems’, ethos and cant of corporate culture and you’ll soon discover how intolerant I can be.

The ill-defined hope that Australian Muslims will learn to become 'more like us' belies the complexity of our cultural make-up. Which 'us' are they supposed to emulate? Which culture are they supposed to embrace? And who are we to decide what can and cannot be a legitimate expression of Australian culture? Sometimes it seems like the vast majority of Australians would be happy if new migrants just adopted footy culture on arrival. Yet this enthusiasm does not extend to the surprising adaptation of some young Muslim men to the unique culture of  motorcycle gangs.

There is in fact no single Australian culture, and indeed, no single religious or ethnic culture from which each set of new migrants must transition. The growth, development, and emergence of cultures within our society is dynamic and unpredictable. Furthermore we all lack true self-awareness of the cultures which shape us and in which we take part as individuals, such that the cultural expectations we project onto new arrivals are neither accurate nor realistic. To ‘assimilate’ is, after all, a very un-Australian quality compared to the prized values of stubbornness, self-belief, and doing things our own way.

Without putting a gloss on it, the most likely outcome for Australia’s Islamic communities is that their own mix of cultures will change and develop in interaction with the complex of cultures already present in Australia. Just as the English, Irish, and Scottish arrivals changed and developed in this new environment, so too will all new migrants inevitably change. Within the intricate composition of our multicultural landscape, the real question is which values, ideals, virtues and achievements we wish to cultivate across our whole society.

Even so, it’s not enough to simply ‘wish’. We need to actually embody in our own lives the values we would like to see shared by all Australians. My Muslim doctor was so keen to impress upon me his faith's respect for Jesus and the Virgin Mary, he read out the relevant passages of the Virgin Birth from a Koran app on his smartphone. As Christmas approaches I can't help but wonder: does this count for him or against him in our increasingly secular Christmas culture?

Zac Alstin headshot

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer and PhD student in Philosophy of Religion who lives in Adelaide. He blogs at zacalstin.com

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, multiculturalism, Islam, diversity, Muslim, terrorism, burqa, migration



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Existing comments

The only thing that scares me is hysteria like this. Australia has been doing some really disgusting tyrannical muslim bashing since 2001 with impunity yet get hysterical at the sight of a flag in a window. What if the flag was American or Australian, the situation would rightly be ho hum without every man and his dog needing a say in it.

Marilyn | 15 December 2014  

A little bit disturbing to see this article up on the Eureka Street website while the siege in Martin Place is still going on. Perhaps we should pause at this time before making assumptions. Let the discussion start when more details are known.

Maureen O'Brien | 15 December 2014  

Brilliant, Zac!

Gordon Williams | 15 December 2014  

Surely the authorities have engaged Muslim leaders to take part in negotiations with the gunman

John Wotherspoon | 15 December 2014  

Multicultural development is a two way street as Zac points out. But it must be based on a respect for the rule of law, including tne processes by which it is made and maintained.

Dick Danckert | 16 December 2014  

Good article pertinent to the situation. A radical, mental person who happened to finally loose the plot. So sad.

Ross | 16 December 2014  

All these lofty ideals about the quality of the mixture of cultures and ideals are all very fine in a pure and abstracted world, and in theory. However, the world today is racked by many challenges and divisions. There is a power struggle between the ideals of democracy and theocracy, and totalitarianism. Also, Islam is a Trojan Horse, seemingly just another "religion" but it's also a legal, political and social system, and has many contradictions with our living standards, freedoms we assume, and power structures. Not having a single Australian culture is something to be questioned, as solidarity comes from unity, and strong like-minded communities rather than the celebrated "diversity"!

VivKay | 16 December 2014  

An insightful and very challenging reflection. Thanks Zac!

Tim Collier | 16 December 2014  

From media reports, the man holed up in the Lindt coffee shop is Iranian and probably Shi'ite and therefore on ISIS's "to annihilate" list. He also seems to be "eccentric" (to say the least) and has a few legal cases pending including one to do with sexual assault. Not a very savoury person. By and large Australians seem to be a pretty tolerant and longsuffering lot. As the son of British parents who "stayed on" for a while after Indian Independence I spent my early years in what was then Bombay: a delightfully tolerant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural (in having multiple living and cross fertilising cultures) and multi-religious society. It has become less tolerant due to the assertion by the local Marathi speaking people claiming it as "their" place and enforcing this through their political party. I hope this sort of thing doesn't happen here. The Muslim community, by and large, have come on board regarding ISIS and terror. BTW Zac, do you remember Keith Dunstan and "The Anti-Football League" in Melbourne? There are always Australians, like Keith and Barry Humphries, around to send things up when they get dreadfully over-serious. Thank God!

Edward Fido | 16 December 2014  

My gardener of many years is a Muslim. He has lived here for 25years and his children were all born here. He is a lovable man but sometimes angers me greatly This usually arises because he speaks and understands English poorly. He is difficult to contact because his wife who speaks virtually no English doesn't answer the phone, and when she does, can't convey a message. The lack of understanding English means that he sometimes does the opposite of what I ask and e.g. chops down the wrong tree of shrub. But I would never sack him - he is a good worker and as I said quite lovable and good man. No doubt there are those who would say that my problem would be responsibly solved if I learnt to speak Arabic rather than my gardener learn to speak English and thus I would become truly multicultural which is the new age Australian signature. Language is the unifier of culture and Australian culture is English speaking. Tribalism is also a great unifier and religious adherence is the over-riding tribal glue. Tribes should be allowed to practice their religion otherwise war results. It is time the Australian Muslim community practised its religion and respected everyone else's which many Muslim's do not do. This morning I gave my gardener a present for Christmas. He wished me a happy Easter and a happy New Year. It would be fantastic if our country were united under one language, then understanding would come more easily - then multiculturalism would flourish in a united community..

john frawley | 16 December 2014  

Well, Marliyn, unfortunately the Australian flag has also been tanished/misappropriated in a similar fashion during the Cronulla riots - and subsequent drunken loutish Australia Day binges accompanies by racist thuggery. It's not the Islamic or Australian flag that creates the fear - it's the gun or the fist or the slurs behind it.

AURELIUS | 16 December 2014  

@John Frawley. What if my tribe's religion contains such precepts as killing apostates, stoning adulterers, amputating the hands of thieves? What if it believes violence is divinely sanctioned to force others to accept its religion alone. 'The Messenger of Allah said: "I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and they establish prayer and pay zakat." ' (Sahih Muslim 1.33) Zac Alstin hit the nail on the head when he asked about which "values, ideals, virtues and achievements we wish to cultivate across our whole society." The plain fact is that for some Muslims western society's liberal, secular democracy and mores are an affront to all they hold sacred. They will never assimilate or tolerate having the laws of our land imposed on them. Do we have the courage to uphold our own laws, however imperfect they may be, believing they are the best possible expression of personal freedom? Or are we going to indulge in a useless bout of cultural relativism and self-hatred? John Frawley, I also wish that all Muslims would tolerate others' religions but as you note yourself, many do not and they make it plain that they never will.

Marg | 16 December 2014  

An article on multiculturalism and progress in good relations between non-Muslim and Muslim Australians is always welcome. That this article began with a reference to the siege taking place in Martin Place was unfortunate. From what we know now, the armed hostage-taker was a deranged individual, a convicted criminal, accused of other crimes, and a self-styled 'cleric' with no links to terrorist groups. His actions resulted in the tragic deaths of two of his hostages and the suffering of all involved. Attempts, on the part of many, to link his actions with wider issues were indeed unfortunate in the extreme.

Maureen O'Brien | 16 December 2014  

Thanks Zac for a thought provoking & insightful article!

Tess | 16 December 2014  

A man with possible mental health and legal problems who could possibly end in his going to prison. He may have used religion but he was a criminal. I sincerely hope Mr Abbott & Co don't 'use this' to further his national security invasive crackdown. The data security is necessary for Corporate American Unfree Free Trade Deal. Not sure, just ask Japan.

Jude Silber | 16 December 2014  

" implicit in our approach to ‘multiculturalism’ is the establishment of an overarching ‘monoculture’ or ‘super-culture’ – a set of values, customs, and achievements we tend, wittingly and unwittingly, to cultivate across society". An obstacle to this 'super culture' is the fact that our head of state, to whom they will often be required to show some sort of deference, is not only not one of 'us' but also is the head of a Country and a Religion that has a long history of discrimination and even persecution of Muslims. Also, despite our constitution, most of our public holidays reflect and promote allegiance to one particular religion, even though their religious significance is being eroded in favour of Mammon.

Robert Liddy | 16 December 2014  

Australia's concept of multiculturalism is enshrined in the description of the 1989 Agenda for a Multicultural Australia document with the accompanying principles, accepted in a parliamentary statement by both sides of parliament.

Des Cahill | 16 December 2014  

I have great faith in people: alas, my fear is that politicians will allow themselves to be 'spooked' into draconian legislation.

Declan Foley | 16 December 2014  

The Koran contains some horrendous passages, and most Muslims ignore them. The Talmud and the Bible contain some horrendous passages, and most Jews and Christians ignore them. There is no single sharia law. Each Muslim country has its own. Every great body of thought has had horrendous things done under its name and contrary to its precepts. Any society of any appreciable size whose members have ready access to a wide range of ideas will be multicultural. That does not mean that it cannot have some commonly agreed precepts that allow it to remain stable. But such cultures are not static, and a lot of care and good will is necessary to keep them stable.

Graeme Lindenmayer | 16 December 2014  

What must we do? Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; and abstain from every form of evil. Then we shall hear the angel’s greeting: "Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace to men of good will".

Bernstein | 17 December 2014  

Far from Martin place, Muslim tea lady cum hijab serves bedridden priests morning tea. I greet her daily with "As-salamu alaykum"[peace upon you], and she responds Wa ‘alaykum al-salaam[and upon you] [A microcosm of multicultural exchange] Though years back, in visiting Lakemba Mosque, a group of Muslim youth involved me in discussion on confession [ "a heavy" suggested understandably that I move on, I retrieved my shoes and exited[being unworthy of the privilege of martyrdom!] I thereafter Ilimited my apostolate to western suburb's Islamic coffee shops on my weekly free day of yore.

Father John George | 17 December 2014  

We have to update our so called "secular education " system from the 1870's to a system that has an objective curriculum that includes an appreciation of the multicultural nature of our society

john ozanne | 17 December 2014  

On the matter of Australian cultural identity we might be better off asking "in a genuine democracy, who else can decide but us?" Of course this also implies having a leader to represent "us". I find I am more frequently echoing the sentiments (more so to myself) of a former PM astute enough to recognise this as one of the most important issues that Australia faces. One of those sentiments is that it is the responsibility of a government to protect its people from prejudice. Hence allowing the virus of prejudice and racism to propagate itself under some guise of "stopping the boats", "free speech" or some other ridiculous "us verses them"/"Team Australia" nationalistic rhetoric is a monumental act of incompetence. The other sentiment pertains to a fundamental issue, which is that Australia has to psychologically become less nostalgic for the "anglosphere" and accept the reality that our economic and strategic interests lie in the Asia-Pacific. This former PM talked about the need to know when to "strike out on your own" and "map your own prerogatives". This current PM's very first action was to re-institute knighthoods and damehoods. The contrast is as stark as it is exasperating.

Matthew | 18 December 2014  

It could have been one of any religion who committed this unacceptable act.

Bev Smith | 18 December 2014  

Bev not Hari Khrishnas surely? Then again Swami Bhaktipada, a leader of Krishnas was expelled from the organization in 1987 for various deviations, and pleaded guilty before his 1996 retrial to one count of racketeering and after serving 8 years of a 20-year prison sentence was subsequently released in 2004. Previously in 1991 the jury found him innocent on charges of conspiracy to commit the murders-for-hire of two devotees, but found him guilty of racketeering and mail fraud.

Father John George | 23 December 2014  

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