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'Clash of civilisations' rhetoric distorts cultural differences

  • 30 October 2006

A perturbing public discourse referring to amorphous Australian values is driving contemporary politics.

The Howard Government has argued that it has no need to apologise for telling Muslims that they need to embrace Australian values. This so-called cultural war against foreign or alien influences has the intention of elevating an unwavering set of distinctive Aussie values. Yet the government's preoccupation with the "Australian way" has based itself in a binary form of identity politics. Declarations of allegiance to a unique set of Australian norms and standards reinforce a message that growing social tensions will be the result of a titanic clash of cultures.

In recent years, Australia has been recalculating its "national interest" with newfound intensity. The protection of home-grown values has become a rallying cry for those wishing to hawk their patriotic credentials.

As a result of a campaign to promote Australian values, anti-Muslim hostility is increasingly being accepted as normal. The government's determination to attack "mushy, misguided" multiculturalism is intertwined, in part, with the wider strategic culture of white Australia—past historical and social experiences grounded in the "tyranny of distance" and a concomitant sense of isolation. It can be argued that Australia has always been a "frightened" country. The underlying dynamic of the government's agenda also appears to be strongly linked to a wider preoccupation with the grossly underdeveloped "clash of civilisations" thesis.

In 1993, author Samuel Huntington predicted increasing hostility between different cultures, particularly between the West and Islam. He claimed that the fundamental source of conflict in a post-Cold War world would not be ideological, but cultural. Culture would emerge to be the great divider among peoples. Islam was seen as a single bloc, aggressive and unresponsive to new realities.

While Huntington's interpretation did acknowledge some of the emerging political, social and cultural dynamics in today's world, his notion of a clash of mutually dichotomous cultures contained a number of fundamental deficiencies and biases.

Firstly, culture cannot be viewed as monolithic. Huntington's analysis presents an ahistorical and unduly simplified conception of culture.

Internal tensions are simply overlooked. Divergence exists not only between nations, but also within nations. Muslims or Catholics or Hindus, for example, do not speak with one unified voice nor do they share a single unequivocal ideology. Within any one civilisation there are often significant differences and extensive debate.

Cultural differences continue to be important, but they cannot be usefully understood through one-dimensional stereotypes.