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Martin Place terror belies quiet progress in relations between cultures

  • 16 December 2014

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