Casual Racism

by Zoya Patel on Mar 13, 2012 • 12:30 PM

Zoya Patel

In my last column, I mentioned how I often forget that I’m Indian. I’ve always identified more strongly with Australian culture than my Indian heritage – I love pop culture, English literature, really bad American TV shows (let’s face it, Australian culture is actually just a mash-up of other Western cultures with a smattering of our very own quirks and customs). Bollywood is good for a laugh, but I never really engaged with Indian culture the way that I have with Western culture, and I doubt I ever will.

When you speak in an Australian accent, rarely spend time with Indians other than your family, and even think in English, it can be hard to remember that to other people, you may not look like you belong.

Luckily for me, there’s always a spot of casual racism to remind me what’s what.

I’ve written about casual racism a fair bit, and I think it’s important to distinguish between casual racism and racism proper. To me, casual racism is what happens when people base their actions and attitudes on assumptions about race that they may not be conscious of, or are not intended to be discriminatory, but that serve to propagate the same myths about other cultures that have caused levels of subjugation and oppression for centuries.

Racism proper is just prejudice in its most open and revolting form.

One thing that really gets me in general about racism is how little people are aware of it – and when I say ‘people’ I primarily mean white Australians. Like my many non-ethnic friends who often proclaim that ‘racism isn’t an issue’, based entirely on their own experiences.

I am in no way claiming that Caucasians can’t and don’t experience racism, but I do think that (particularly in Canberra, where I’m from), a sort of bubble exists that means that most Caucasians are unlikely to experience racism, or be present when someone else is.

It does exist though, and I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience with it.

One situation I often point to when it comes to casual racism is the conversation I regularly got stuck in when I used to work part-time at a pharmacy, run by a lovely Indian man who went by the Anglo-Saxon name of Bob.

The conversation went something like this:

Customer: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Me: “No, no I’m not.”
C: *look of deep surprise* “Really?!? I really thought he was your dad.”
M: “Nope, we’re both just Indian.”
C: *awkward silence*
M: “… Would you like a bag for that…?”

Now, you probably don’t think this is a big deal, and at first it didn’t bother me. Until the following started happening:

C: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
M: “No.”
C: “Well, you can see why we would think that.”

Um, actually, no I can’t see why you would think that. Maybe because I’m being deliberately obtuse, or maybe because assuming that I am related to whatever Indian is in the closest vicinity makes the assumption that all Indians look the same, or that all Indians must be related.

This is factually incorrect, and culturally ignorant. Or, as I like to put it, casually racist.

I can safely say that at each of my various other jobs, none of the Caucasian employees have been asked if they were related to the multiple Caucasian bosses that we worked for. And before you protest that it’s ‘different’, or that it’s easier to tell the difference between two white people, let me point out a few reasons why I think this is an issue:

1. The assumption that I was related to my boss, simply because we’re both Indian is based on the idea that all Indians, and indeed all migrant groups, are homogenous entities with no individual traits to help discern them from each other.

2. It suggests that all Indians really do look the same. What, our skin colour makes us melt into a brown blob, identical to all the other blobs around us? Despite the fact that we have brown skin, we do still have completely different skin tones, features and individual looks. We are still human.

3. It ignores the fact that, much like Caucasians, south-east Asians can have similar physical features (i.e. skin colour), and still be from entirely different countries. I am from Fiji. Bob is from South Africa. We don’t even speak the same language.

4. Worst of all, the way in which people asked me suggests that they thought it was such an obvious assumption, that I was being deliberately difficult by getting offended.

I can pretty safely say that not all of the 1.21 billion people who are currently living in India are related to each other. Prreeetty sure about that.

This kind of casual racism is the worst kind, because it’s considered to be entirely reasonable, and it tends to slip under the radar. Yet, it is just as damaging and insidious as any other form of racism.

Viewing racial groups as homogenous entities is what leads to racial discrimination in the first place – and even though no one means anything nasty by asking if I’m related to Bob, the fact remains that people implicitly assume that all Indians, or Asians or Arabs in a two-block radius of each other are related – because we’re obviously the Other, and hence are more likely to be connected to each other than any of the Anglo-Saxons around us.

Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, or maybe people honestly aren’t aware of how offensive it is. But even if it is just a case of a storm in a chai cup, it still says a lot about our attitudes towards different races.

Casual racism will always fascinate me, because it’s so much more integrated into our psyches than overt displays of racism. When someone is actually just being openly racist, I assume that they’re quintessentially a dickhead and move on with my life.

But when someone makes an innocuous assumption, or asks a seemingly casual question, it raises a lot of questions about societal views of race and multiculturalism.

Because, although there certainly are more Caucasians than Indians in Australia, that’s just not a good enough reason to discriminate between us in what is a globalised world.

But I guess that’s just one ‘curry-munchers’ opinion.

The Coconut Chronicles


Life in a public mental ward – enough to drive you insane

Catherine Jones
March 15, 2012

An unhealthy system … there are drugs that don’t cause horrendous weight gain – but you won’t be getting them in a public ward.

The state psychiatric system needs urgent reform.

Imagine for a moment that you are returning from the corner shop after buying milk one evening. At the end of your street, you can just make out the outline of two, big, burly police officers, waiting.

As you approach, they grab you, manhandle you, drag you terrified and screaming to the street corner, then violently hurl you into the back of their paddy wagon and race off at breakneck speed – to where, you have no idea.

You have never been dangerous or violent; you have never broken the law or committed any crime – in fact, three short months ago, you were the victim of a serious crime yourself, a violent sexual assault that you were lucky to have survived.

You are worried sick that your mother, who was waiting for you to return from the shop, will have no idea what happened to you and will be frantic that you disappeared into thin air, particularly given your recent history.

When the paddy wagon finally stops, you have arrived at the local public psychiatric hospital.

This is what it felt like to be ”scheduled” under the NSW Mental Health Act when I was 28 and my experiences with the NSW public mental health system only went downhill from there.

Allegedly designed to protect me, to help and heal me, it has done nothing but traumatise and brutalise me, destroy my career and steal great chunks of my life. I now have a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, on top of the bipolar disorder triggered by too many anti-depressants in the wake of my sexual assault. And my experience is far from uncommon.

Terrible abuses of human rights occur daily in our public psychiatric facilities but are known only to the victims’ families and close friends, because in essence, no one else cares about people with a mental illness.

The draconian NSW Mental Health Act is every bit as harsh as something you would see in Texas, one of the most backward states in the US, my American lawyer husband tells me. It gives police and doctors carte blanche to treat people scheduled under that act as they please.

I have been in a ward where electroconvulsive therapy was used as a threat; where a dirty look at a nurse could result in a ”code” being called, a bashing by hospital security and hours in a padded cell; where psychological abuse and verbal insults from nurses and doctors were par for the course.

I nearly died in one ward, where I was forced to take a drug that I was highly allergic to, despite my protestations to the doctor that it was causing brain seizures and anaphylaxis.

As an involuntary patient, I had no say in my treatment, even when it was killing me. My life was saved only because three good nurses witnessed a seizure and demanded the doctor change the medication.

The drugs I have been forced to take have seen me balloon from a healthy 62 kilograms in 1997 to my present obese 90kg. (There are drugs that don’t cause such dramatic and horrendous weight gain; I know because my private specialist uses them. But you won’t be getting them in a public ward.)

Even the reasonable hospitals are still glorified jails by another name, where everything, including your phone and wallet, and tea and coffee-making facilities, is locked up, and you are limited to just two phone calls a day.

Being imprisoned for being ill is horrendous enough, but recently in NSW, involuntary patients even lost their right to a timely legal challenge to their detention.

The wait was extended from two weeks to three or sometimes longer to save money, as an independent consultant’s report now reveals, despite two years of denials.

Only now is that being remedied, according to today’s report.

I have done everything I can over the past 14 years to protect myself from this system – I have insight into my illness; I am totally ”medication compliant”; I pay top private health cover to have access to a private psychiatrist and private hospitals. Yet nothing protects you from this public system once you have been in it: as I discovered last year, you can even be scheduled ”on your history” alone.

The public hospital psychiatric system and the Mental Health Act in NSW both need urgent reform. An excellent starting point would be with how people are ”scheduled” under the act. People with a mental illness are statistically no more violent than the rest of the population. So why are police involved in taking them forcibly to hospital?

For everyone else in our society who is ill, we call an ambulance.

Given that one in five of us will became mentally ill at some time in our lives, it could be your loved ones one day. Would you want to see them treated like this?


A history of marriage in Australia

ABC  The Drum
1 July 2011

Rodney Croome

Rodney Croome

Rodney Croome

On August 13, 2004, in a debate punctuated by rage and tears, the Senate passed a Howard government amendment to the Marriage Act banning same-sex marriages.


Rally in support of gay marriage rights (Getty Images: Luis Ascui)

Exactly 45 years earlier, on August 13, 1959, in the midst of debating Australia’s first national Marriage Act – the one Howard later amended – the House of Representatives erupted at the news an Aboriginal woman had been denied permission to marry.

In Darwin the protector of Aborigines had refused Gladys Namagu permission to marry her white fiance, Mick Daly. In response to questions from the opposition, the Menzies government promised such discrimination would never be written into Australian marriage law.

This coincidence highlights the direct link between the way Aborigines were once denied freedom to marry the partner of their choice and how gay and lesbian Australians are denied the same freedom today.

Yet the link runs deeper than infringing the principle of individual autonomy.

In an article published in the latest edition of Overland, I argue Australian governments have a shameful history of manipulating who ordinary people marry in order to engineer broader visions of what Australian society should be. This history goes back to the earliest times.

In convict Australia the government assumed control over who the majority of white Australians married and used this control for overt ideological purposes. Governor Philip wanted to create a native Australian yeomanry and rewarded those convicts who exhibited appropriate traits with permission to marry.

Forty years later, governor Arthur sought to inculcate convicts with industrial rather than agrarian values and gave the reward of permission to marry to convicts who conformed. There was resistance to these controls from convicts who insisted on marrying for the sake of love or children, from women convicts who married to escape the convict system and become “free subjects”, and of course from the anti-transportationists who despised this kind of governmental intervention in personal life and brought it, and convictism, to an end in the 1850s and 1860s.

But Australian governments had not lost their weakness for infringing freedom to marry. Into the 20th century women had to fight hard for the right to marry who they wished and conduct those marriages free of laws against contraception, abortion and divorce.

Because of the White Australia Policy servicemen in occupied Japan were refused permission to local Japanese women or, if they married anyway, were unable to return to Australia with their Japanese wives.

Infringement of Aboriginal freedom to marry was most notorious of all. Beginning in the 1860s in Victoria and culminating in the 1930s in West Australia and Queensland, authorities assumed ever more control of who Indigenous people married.

In Queensland the purpose was to prevent miscegenation by preventing black/white marriages. In WA it was to absorb blacks into the white population by preventing black/black unions.

The adverse effect on Indigenous people was always the same, and, as with convicts, some Aborigines resisted control. Women deliberately fell pregnant to their forbidden fiancés, couples escaped to states without marriage controls, and in 1935 the “half-caste women of Broome” petitioned the WA Parliament declaring:

Sometimes we have the chance to marry a man of our own choice… therefore we ask for our Freedom so that when the chance comes along we can rule our lives and make ourselves true and good citizens.

Aboriginal advocates in Sydney and Melbourne were slower to pick up on the issue. But when they did – as a way to prick the conscience of an Australia increasingly concerned about “Hitlerism” – the right to marry the partner of one’s choice shot to the top of Aboriginal Australia’s list of demands above land rights and equal pay, and second only to the right to vote.

When the case of Gladys and Mick hit the headlines across the world, thanks in part to an appeal to the UN Secretary General, it helped end the entire rotten system of Aboriginal protection laws and propelled the nation towards overwhelming endorsement of Aboriginal citizenship in 1967.

Many white Australian’s have forgotten how important freedom to marry was, but not so Indigenous people like lawyer, Tammy Williams. When the issue of same-sex marriage was raised during the recent national human rights consultation she said, “I couldn’t help but think about my family, when you talked about the right to choose your partner… In my family, it’s only one generation ago that we were prevented from choosing our chosen partner to marry – not because of sexual orientation, but simply because of our race, our Aboriginality.

The denial to gay and lesbian Australians of our freedom to marry follows the historical pattern I have outlined.

The decision to form a lifelong legal union with one other person is one of the most important decisions most of us is ever called on to make. To rob an entire group of citizens of the legal right to make that decision sends the message that they are not fully adults, fully citizens or fully human. This was the burden convicts and Aborigines carried in their day and it is the burden gay and lesbian Australians carry today.

As it was in the past, today’s infringement of the freedom to marry is part of a broader ideological vision imposed by government. That vision is a theocratic one which sees the subtle re-introduction of Biblical values back into civil law following their removal in the second half of the 20th century.

Most importantly, the success of today’s freedom to marry movement will, like the movements before it, have consequences far beyond those directly affected. It will mean a re-affirmation of equity, impartiality and humanity as the values that govern Australian law. It will mean marriage is no longer manipulated to discriminatory, ideological ends and is instead what it should be, an affirmation of love, a commitment to fidelity, a source of security and a font of personal happiness.

Routine violations of the freedom to marry seem to well up from the bedrock of Australia’s history. But so do challenges to these abuses. As a result, when these challenges succeed, Australian society matures quickly and profoundly.

Rodney Croome AM, is an honorary lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania.


Pride and prejudice

Daily Life

February 29, 2012 – 9:26AM

Alyena Mohummadally

Pakistani-born lawyer and social justice activist Alyena Mohummadally on the challenge of reconciling religion and sexuality.

Alyena Mohummadally ... proud queer Muslim

I was raised in a Muslim household where we were encouraged to ask questions and seek answers. But for a long time, all I knew about sexuality and Islam was that heterosexuality was celebrated once married, and that homosexuality – a word used to describe men who have sex with men – was forbidden. Lesbians didn’t even get a look in.

I had known I was attracted to women since I was in my early teens. I remember watching German Figure Skater Katarina Witt in the Winter Olympics and thinking she was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

I first ‘came out’ to my parents when I was at Uni, but I went back into the closet when I saw the emotional chaos it caused for my family. My father didn’t want to speak about it and my little sister felt like I was tearing our family apart. I ended up denying my sexuality and living a double life, and hating myself for it.
Advertisement: Story continues below

In 2000, I entered my first same-sex relationship, and then suddenly it dawned on me that maybe I was no longer Muslim. When I decided to renounce my faith, I was miserable but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t want a life with a woman. Strict interpretations say that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. So I felt I couldn’t be queer as well as Muslim, and I was consumed by confusion. I even spent a year lying to my parents and saying I was “Women’s Officer” at Uni when I was the “Queer Officer”.

Eventually, I moved interstate and found the courage to explore both sides of my identity and discovered I could not deny my sexuality nor my spirituality. I could be both Muslim and queer since I believed Allah created me this way, and being a good person was enough for me to call myself Muslim. I am not a cleric nor religious scholar but I studied the religion and found my own way home. There are 99 names for God in Islam, and 97 of them are words like gentle, merciful, forgiver – this is the God that made me.

Until a few years ago, there were no online support groups for queer Muslims in Australia. I made a promise to myself that is I was ever comfortable enough with my reconciling faith and sexuality, then I would do something to help people find a voice when I for so long believe I had none. In 2005, I founded an online support group “Queer Muslims in Australia” to provide people like me with a safe space to connect.

We have just over 100 members so the group is small by today’s standards but I think of it as over a hundred brave people who are on a journey not dissimilar to my own. It still makes me extremely sad to read of people searching for “sham weddings” because it is not safe to come out. But I also do not think anyone should come out if there is a risk that they might be harmed or hurt – and this is a real risk for many people.

It has been a long and difficult road for my family to come to accept my sexual identity, but it’s worth it. I am now in a happy, committed and secure relationship with a non-Muslim woman, with whom I have a young son. We are raising our child to be Muslim because it just feels right. Although my parents have said that they still wonder why Allah created me differently, they accept my partner, and love her and my son. This is what matters to me.

Ultimately, I identify as a “queer Muslim”. But I am also a mother, partner, sister and daughter, a lawyer and a social justice activist. And I have found that I cannot be happy if I choose one world over the others. I’ve had countless people say to me, ‘You can’t be queer and Muslim – it just doesn’t exist in Islam.” To this, I simply say, “I exist. So it must be possible.”


Should we name and shame online racists?

Tory Shepherd

by Tory Shepherd

18 Jan 05:50am


The interwebs are a cesspit of bigotry, bullying and racism, hate and snuff porn, and all things dark and evil, right?

Does anonymity breed hate? Pic: AP

Right. But, being a human place, they’re also full of wit and wisdom and things of beauty.

It’s hard to tell who’s winning, but there’s a bloody interesting skirmish going on. Twitter user @lizsinnott tweeted a screenshot from a Facebook page on which a bunch of racist nongs had posted racist rubbish about an ad for indigenous education.

Pig ignorant, superficial, uneducated, poorly composed, petty, nasty crap like:

God! Look at that boonga nose! Disgusting! Maybe if they stopped pretending to be Australian dancing animals who beat sticks and think it’s music and started being humans who dont live off the doll they’d get somewhere in life.

Disgusting indeed.

Another Twitter user, @swearycat, posted the screenshot on their blog. It spread through social media. And then people started tracking down the racist clowns, figuring out where they worked, and reporting them to their employers.

Modern medium, classic name and shame.

I won’t repeat the names here, because the people who are now involved in the exposé are redacting the names as people apologise, so I’ll leave the list in their capable hands.

The broader question is: Is naming and shaming an effective tactic against people being dickwads, and worse?

It certainly got Marieke Hardy in trouble. Hardy joined in a shaming exercise under the hashtag #mencallmethings, pointing to a blog post she’d written about the author of “ranting, violent” online attacks against her – but got the name wrong, and was forced to apologise.

But what if you get it right, and can literally shame people into realising the error of their ways?

The best outcome would be that you might force people to realise they let the crazy free-for-all hatefest of the internet go to their heads. They might just take a good hard look at themselves. It might make them think about what they say, and stop feeding the beast.

It might just make them stop spreading hate speech on Facebook, and turn to forums where it’s easier to stay anonymous. Anonymity gives people great freedom to voice their most horrid thoughts, to give free reign to foul ideas and to become world wide bullies.

It could, conceivably, encourage people to pose as others and post hateful things in order to discredit their enemies.

It could encourage cyber vigilantes.

I still reckon it’s worth a go. Like it or not, the internet is a frontier town. It’s close to lawless – and that’s part of its beauty. Censorship is not the answer; neither is removing the cloak of anonymity that allows people to speak without fear of retribution.

But where bad ideas fester, and hate speech flourishes, the best weapon against it is fresh air and sunlight, and the ridicule of the cyberworld.

And if you’re stupid enoughto be racist, and to put your own name to your racism, well you’ve already done the naming and shaming part yourself.



Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today (Australian version)

Originally published by John Scalzi


Today I don’t have to think about those who hear “terrorist” when I speak my faith.
Today I don’t have to think about men who don’t believe no means no.
Today I don’t have to think about how the world is made for people who move differently than I do.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m married or in a relationship, depending on what gender my spouse is
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m going to hail a cab after midnight.

Today I don’t have to think about whether store security is tailing me.
Today I don’t have to think about the look on the face of the person about to sit next to me on a plane.
Today I don’t have to think about eyes going to my chest first.
Today I don’t have to think about what people might think if they knew the medicines I took.
Today I don’t have to think about getting stared at in a shopping mall when I kiss my beloved hello.

Today I don’t have to think about if it’s safe to hold my beloved’s hand.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m being pulled over for anything other than speeding.
Today I don’t have to think about being classified as one of “those people.”
Today I don’t have to think about making less than someone else for the same job at the same place.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who stare, or the people who pretend I don’t exist.

Today I don’t have to think about managing pain that never goes away.
Today I don’t have to think about whether a stranger’s opinion of me would change if I showed them a picture of who I love.
Today I don’t have to think about the chance a shop assistant will ignore me to help someone else.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who’d consider torching my house of worship a patriotic act.
Today I don’t have to think about a pharmacist giving me a look of disapproval while filling my prescription.

Today I don’t have to think about being asked if I’m bleeding when I’m just having a bad day.
Today I don’t have to think about whether the one drug that lets me live my life will be taken off the market.
Today I don’t have to think about the odds of getting hit on at the pub I like to go to..
Today I don’t have to think about turning on the news to see people planning to burn my holy book.

Today I don’t have to think about others demanding I apologise for hateful people who have nothing to do with me.
Today I don’t have to think about my child being seen as a detriment to my career.
Today I don’t have to think about the irony of people thinking I’m lucky because I can park close to the door.
Today I don’t have to think about memories of being bullied in high school.
Today I don’t have to think about being told to relax, it was just a joke.

Today I don’t have to think about those who view me an unfit parent because of whom I love.
Today I don’t have to think about being told my kind don’t assimilate.
Today I don’t have to think about people blind to the intolerance of their belief lecturing me about my own.
Today I don’t have to think about my body as a political football.
Today I don’t have to think about how much my own needs wear on those I love.

Today I don’t have to think about explaining to others “what happened to me.”
Today I don’t have to think about politicians saying bigoted things about me to win votes.
Today I don’t have to think about those worried that one day people like me will be the majority.
Today I don’t have to think about someone using the name of my religion as a slur.
Today I don’t have to think about so many of the words for me controlling my own life being negatives.

Today I don’t have to think about still not being equal.
Today I don’t have to think about what it takes to keep going.
Today I don’t have to think about how much I still have to hide.
Today I don’t have to think about how much prejudice keeps hold.
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m meant to be grateful that people tolerate my kind.

Today I don’t have to think about all the things I don’t have to think about.

But today I will.

*If you are a young, white, able-bodied, straight Australian male of Christian background with no psychiatric illness or learning disabilities then you need not read this because it isn’t about you. But maybe you should, because it is about everyone else.

Underarm stink also underhand

SMH National Times
Waleed Aly
January 13, 2012


Ranting racist

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Teresa Gambaro’s wrong-headed remarks about migrants are symbolic of a wider problem with Coalition attitudes.

How did Teresa Gambaro’s father smell? Let us survey the evidence. His first Australian job was as a farmhand in the hot, sweaty climes of north Queensland. It’s unclear how long he stuck at this, but it must have been quite some time because it gave him enough savings to buy a small fish store, which rapidly grew into an impressive seafood business.

From this, I am apparently to deduce that he stank. Not simply because of his obviously stench-filled path from farm labourer to fishmonger. Mainly because he migrated to Australia from a war-ravaged Italy. This indicates his personal hygiene was not up to Australian standards, and more specifically, that he was insufficiently acquainted with the virtues of deodorant. On this I cite no less pertinent an authority than his own daughter, Teresa, who so infamously declared this week that migrants need to be taught such things if they are to integrate. You smell! What began as a schoolyard insult suddenly became public policy formulation.

Public outrage was swift and loud, and Gambaro’s apology inevitable and ”unreserved”. She regrets ”any offence that may have been taken”. So, that’s that, then. Case closed. ”Let’s move on,” pleads acting Opposition Leader Warren Truss.

Not so fast. Certainly, there is little point expounding further on the myriad ways in which Gambaro’s remarks were wrong-headed. So plain is the error, and so pervasive the retorts that further substantive analysis is now redundant. But this doesn’t mean we should simply press on as though nothing has happened. Something has happened. Something that keeps happening. Something telling about the Coalition’s approach to the politics of culture.

You’ll remember that patch from around 2005 when Coalition MPs, then in government, seemed to be competing with each other to demonstrate belligerence on the issue of migration and integration. Mostly (and predictably given world events) this was directed towards Muslims. Bronwyn Bishop demanded that we ban headscarves in schools because they made women subservient, then when confronted with the fact that many headscarved women felt perfectly free, said they were like Nazis who felt free in Nazi Germany. Brendan Nelson told Muslims who didn’t know the story of Simpson and his donkey to ”clear off”. More recently Cory Bernardi declared that ”Islam itself is the problem”, describing it as ”an ideology that is mired in 6th-century brutality”.

But this invective is not confined to Muslims. Recall Kevin Andrews’ pledge to cut the immigration intake from Africa in 2007 because Africans fail to integrate. And this in response to the murder of a young Sudanese refugee by young white men; an impressive victim-blaming manoeuvre.

Such outbursts may not be Coalition policy, but they express a certain political logic that Coalition policy does express, just in more moderated tones. The individual who goes too far (like Gambaro) is transgressing only in degree, not in essence.

A day before Gambaro opined about stench, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison attacked the government’s multiculturalism policies as mere ”symbolism”. This is a familiar Coalition theme. It is the reason John Howard gave for refusing to apologise to the stolen generations. In its own narrative, the Coalition doesn’t do gestures. It does commonsense, practical things. None of that ”mushy, misguided multiculturalism” Peter Costello so abhorred.

Just tell migrants how to act, what to value and what to spray on their armpits; it’s direct action for wogs.

But there’s a deceit here. Far from being baldly practical, the Coalition’s cultural politics are every bit as symbolic as Labor’s. To see this, we need only recall the citizenship test initiative of 2006. The headline message was clear: tougher citizenship requirements to make sure only the worthy get admitted. But the practical effects of the policy were far less hairy-chested. The test was hardly taxing, and for most categories of migrant, the changes meant they could become citizens sooner – after four years’ residence rather than five.

Meanwhile, government literature banged on with slogans such as ”Australian citizenship is a privilege, not a right” and sample questions emerged evoking Bradman and Phar Lap. This was naked iconography. And the government was sure to announce the policy several times: first in the form of a discussion paper, then as a confirmed policy position, then as a budget item deserving of its own specific press release.

This was clearly something the Howard government wanted to talk about. Much as it liked to talk about the importance of migrants learning English while it was cheerfully slashing funding for English-language tuition. Clearly, the rhetoric demanding integration mattered more than the resources that might encourage it.

What little I know of Mr Gambaro’s work history I learned from his daughter’s maiden speech to Parliament. In the present context it makes particularly interesting reading because of the warmth it expresses towards Italian migrants and the way it celebrates Chinatown (located in Gambaro’s seat of Brisbane) and doesn’t once complain about the smell. But the symbolic order of a party is rarely set by maiden speeches. And here we must recognise the symbolism that pretends to be practical. To refuse to apologise to the stolen generations is a symbolic gesture in its own right. To declare that migrants disproportionately have a deodorant problem, citing no more evidence than ”you hear reports” of these things, is deeply symbolic. Symbolism is not confined to feel-good politics. Prejudice needs its symbols, too.

Waleed Aly is a broadcaster and a politics lecturer at Monash University.


Refugee student scores top marks for uni entry


The West Australian Updated December 30, 2011, 3:00 am

Iranian refugee Arash ArabshahiAn Iranian refugee who started school in Australia just three years ago speaking almost no English was among 15 WA students to achieve the highest possible university admission rank of 99.95.

Arash Arabshahi, 19, who worked nights at a fast-food outlet so he could buy textbooks, attended the intensive English centre at Cyril Jackson Senior Campus for a year before going on to complete Years 11 and 12.

Pushing him every step of the way was older brother Amir, 20, who also did Year 12 this year and achieved a stellar Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of 97.05.

After leaving Iran, the brothers spent four years in Turkey with their mother Maasoumeh Tanabi before being accepted into Australia. They live in Bentley.

Ms Tanabi, who lectured in nursing in Iran, said they had to flee because of her involvement in human rights activities. She was reluctant to give details.

The boys’ father, a teacher, remained in Iran.

Arash said he was “really happy” when he found out his results at 12.30am yesterday because he had not expected to do so well.

He studied two maths courses, physics, chemistry and English and said it had been difficult to adapt to learning in a new language and education system.

“But I think with hard work you can do anything,” he said.

The brothers hope to study medicine at the University of WA.

Cyril Jackson principal Karen Woods said Arash had been dux of the school and his perfect score was an amazing achievement.

“What we find with our refugee students is they are highly aspirational and they work very hard,” she said.

“And they’re very interested in the caring professions because they want to give back.”

Among other students to achieve a perfect ATAR was Rossmoyne Senior High School’s Norris Lan, who plans to study law, and Christ Church Grammar School’s Harald Breidhal

Kalamunda Senior High School student Marisa Duong, on holiday overseas, also overcame great odds to make the top 15.

The international student arrived from Vietnam four years ago with only a basic grasp of English but went on to become dux of her school. She hopes to become a biomedical engineer.

Also holidaying overseas is St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School student Thisuri Jayawardena, who continued a family tradition of academic excellence by achieving the top rank.
Her brother Binu won the Beazley medal as top student in 2008.



Leadership Australia – A New Generation

Refugees make their mark after hard slog

Asian migration a tour de force

You’re in Australia: Speak English!

Google and ilk can’t shirk responsibility for ranters

Sydney Morning Herald

December 30, 2011



Welcome to the world of hate blogging. A reported defamation payout of $13,000 by the TV book show celebrity Marieke Hardy gives us an inkling of the dark side of the blogosphere.

Marieke Hardy

Marieke Hardy ... victim of poisonous blog posts. Photo: Damian Bennett

Hardy has been the victim of some poisonous blog posts for more than five years by someone assuming the name of ”James Vincent McKenzie”.

It’s distressing stuff and naturally Hardy is offended. Her error was accusing, in one of her own blog posts, the wrong person as being the author of these ”ranting, violent” attacks.

Under a naming and shaming exercise with the Twitter hashtag of #mencallmethings she pointed to her own blog, which said Joshua Meggitt was the person responsible.

Meggitt had posted critical remarks about the First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV, where Hardy is a regular member of the panel, but he was not the author of the extraordinarily nasty ”James Vincent McKenzie” blog.

Hence, the payout and apology to Meggitt.

So who is James Vincent McKenzie? The comments on his blog make all sorts of helpful speculations – Kyle Sandilands, a jilted lover, Jack Marx, even Hardy herself.

The blog appears recently to have changed URLs, which adds to the trickiness of the enterprise.

Presumably, if McKenzie’s true identity could be revealed, Hardy might be on her way to getting back her $13,000. After all, she is just as much a victim as Meggitt.

What is alarming is the propensity for hateful and anonymous blogs to continue publishing after the online host would be aware of the content.

How safe can the identity of McKenzie remain? The site which he uses is operated by Google, based in California and registered in Delaware. It requires a Google account and gmail address.

One person posted an online comment about this yesterday, saying they had tried to report the McKenzie blog to Google which replied that it is not responsible for any allegedly defamatory content and it does not remove defamatory, insulting, negative or distasteful material from US domains. It claims that under US law internet services, such as the blogger site, are republishers and not the publisher.

That’s all very well, but increasingly Google finds it cannot hide behind these waivers of responsibility. In this country, republishers can be liable for defamation when they have notice that what they are republishing is actionable.

If she had the time, a small fortune and determination, Hardy could apply to bring discovery proceedings in a US court.

McKenzie is in breach of the blogspot terms and conditions, which require compliance with the laws of the country in which the blogging takes place. In any third-party proceedings, the offender also would be required to indemnify Google.

Proceedings overseas may not be necessary. In October, the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered Google Australia to cough-up the details of the identity behind a blog that called a Gold Coast self-help guru a ”thieving scumbag”.

Last year, a judge in Ireland gave permission to the Irish Red Cross to start proceedings against Google in California in order to obtain the identity of an anonymous blogger who had posted what the charity claimed was ”distorted confidential” material. Italian and French courts have held Google liable for defamations that arose from ”autocomplete” search requests.

In England, the Demon internet service provider was found to be liable for defamation after a judge held that the ”innocent disseminator” defence didn’t wash once an ISP had notice of the offensive content.

The principles of the Demon case got an airing in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in Ives v Lim. There, the material under consideration was published on a blog site owned somewhere in the Russian Federation. Justice Rene Le Miere said: ”In principle, a person who creates a website that hosts an interactive blog may be liable for defamatory material posted by third parties.”

Further, courts have ordered the identity be revealed of people who have made unpleasant comments on newspaper websites or on internet travel sites.

It may not be a real identity but at least the IP addresses of the computers used to post the comments can be located.

The NSW Supreme Court judge Robert Hulme in October found that Google and other global publishers, such as Facebook and Wikipedia, were not out of reach as far as internet take-down orders were concerned, in relation to a pending criminal trial.

In the Gutnick case, the High Court decided a defamation by an offshoot of The Wall Street Journal occurred where it was read, Melbourne, not where it was uploaded.

Despite the internet looking like a game of Twister, Hardy is not without a remedy. However, at the end of the rainbow she may find ”James Vincent McKenzie” doesn’t have a cracker to bless himself.


Muslims, multiculturalism and moral panic

by Waleed Aly      ABC Religion and Ethics

Updated 10 Oct 2011 (First posted 6 Oct 2011)


So much contemporary railing against multiculturalism and the threat of Islam is the product of deeper identity politics that ultimately have little to do with Muslims themselves.

Fictional news stories ought to be exceedingly rare. But they are not – and where Muslims are concerned, they represent something of an emerging genre.

British journalists Peter Oborne and James Jones catalogue several examples of such stories, drawing on a study performed by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Here are a couple of examples from an edited summary published in The Independent:

“Get off my bus I need to pray” – The Sun, 28 March 2008. This was the story of a Muslim bus driver ordering his passengers off his bus so that he could pray. The Sun story, along with footage of the bus driver praying, was widely circulated around right-wing blogs. Dhimmi Watch, the right-wing blog on the site Jihad Watch that catalogues perceived outrages committed by Muslims, even included The Sun story in their ‘ever-expanding You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file’. Well, actually, you can. The bus had been delayed, so in order to maintain frequency the bus company had ordered the driver to stop his bus and allow passengers to board the bus behind. Tickets and CCTV evidence show that all the passengers were on that bus within a minute. The so-called witness, a 21-year-old plumber, who recorded the bus driver praying, had not been on the bus, and had arrived after the incident to find a small crowd outside a bus.

“The crescent and the canteen” – The Economist, 19 October 2006. There was no truth in the article’s suggestion that Leicester University had banned pork on campus. In actual fact, the university Student Union had made just one out of the numerous cafes on campus halal, in a decision which had as much to do with economic factors as cultural sensitivity as Leicester has a large number of Muslim students. The other 26 cafes on the campus, including the main canteen, were still serving pork as usual.

Other examples could be cited in this connection that hold Muslims falsely responsible for an impressive range of social crimes from banning Christmas to risking the lives of hospital patients with unprofessional hygiene standards and mob violence against returned British soldiers.

The connecting thread barely needs to be spelled out: Muslim minorities constitute a threat to the Western way of life by seeking aggressively to impose their norms onto the majority, and displace Western (in these cases, British) culture in the process.

Of course, intensified scrutiny of Western Muslims is understanding in the post-September 11 era, and especially after the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, whose perpetrators were raised in Britain.

Nevertheless this begs a simple question: if Muslims are so obviously threatening, why the need to make things up about them?

Ultimately it is a matter of narrative. These fictional stories exist because a particular conspiratorial worldview, present among some commentators and newspaper editors, demands they do.

Terrorism may have triggered and even legitimised the paranoia associated with this vision, but these narratives transcend issues of political violence and physical security. Terrorism is only one of a range of news events conscripted into the service of a cultural discourse.

It is not that Muslims are necessarily terrorists (though the theme is never far away). It is that they, at least to the extent they are newsworthy, are a kind of cultural cancer: a foreign body whose presence in the host organ may fatally undermine it.

A Cardiff University study is instructive in this connection. It found that the number of reports in the British print news media concerning the religious and cultural issues associated with Muslims had now overtaken the number about terrorism. Such culture-based stories were a comparatively insignificant component of the British print media landscape as recently as 2002. It is a growth area, reflective of a growing discourse.

I’m not meaning to suggest that every such news report is imagined or exaggerated. Many are not. But the social discourses that feast so gleefully on this news have now gained such momentum that they generate their own grist. Such fabrications and distortions then, are ultimately symptomatic of a polemical social mood.

Here, we can observe the textbook definition of a moral panic manifesting itself. Consider Stanley Cohen’s classic description:

“A condition, episode, person or group of person emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values or interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions … Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself.”

As Cohen’s schema makes clear, no moral panic is possible without its “folk devils”: those held responsible for deviant behaviour, who emerge into the public space cast involuntarily in a villainous role. They are, in Sean Hier’s phrase, “stripped of all positive characteristics and endowed with pejorative evaluations.”

Of course, the identity of these devils varies naturally with time and place. We have long been familiar with this phenomenon. Whether it be Asian immigrants, welfare cheats, uncontrollable delinquent youth, or, once upon a time, Catholics, folk devils are a constant of public life. Their presence seems the necessary lubricant for public debate.

So today’s moral panic surrounds the Muslim folk devil. Note how a relatively trivial event is magnified to the point of front-page tabloid outrage. In this terrain, the normal rules of media prioritisation seem suspended: truly sensational news defers to the apparently trivial; foreign stories trump local ones.

Why? Because the narratives that surround the story are more sensational and localised than the stories they appropriate. Newsworthiness resides, not in the literal copy, but in its constructed context.

Allow the cabbies of Minnesota to demonstrate. The Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport is serviced by 900 taxi drivers, around three quarters of whom are Somali Muslims. In October 2006 The Australian reported that these drivers had “declared jihad on duty-free, refusing to carry passengers who are carrying alcohol.”

It is difficult to assess the genuine significance of the story. On one hand, an airport spokesman explained that these refusals had “slowly grown over the years to the point that it’s become a significant customer service issue for us.” On the other, airport commission statistics showed that of the 120,000 taxi rides from the airport in a two-month period, there were some 27 refusals – about 0.02%.

Whatever the case, the story was of limited gravity to an Australian audience, taken in isolation. The same could not be said for the story that broke only two days prior, that a bullet was fired into a Perth mosque while 400 people were worshipping, narrowly missing women and children. That was both local and sensational.

The Australian failed to report the mosque shooting. Yet it found the Minnesotan story sufficiently significant to warrant both front page exposure and an editorial. And it is in the editorial, that the reason for its prominence was made plain:

“What is happening at the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul is just as much of an indictment of multiculturalism as other incidences of self-censorship and self-flagellation that occur on a near-daily basis among Westerners seeking to avoid or atone for offending the most prudish or outlandish of Islamic sensibilities. And it shows what can happen when a culture allows immigrants to behave as conquerors, instead of politely but firmly suggesting that newcomers who wish to impose their theocratic ways on a secular community try their luck elsewhere.”

An attempt to cause grievous bodily harm to Muslims in prayer simply does not feed an established media narrative. It remains an isolated incident of no enduring relevance or concern.

But when a cluster of Somali taxi drivers refuse to transport alcohol for clients, a prevalent discourse is reactivated. It becomes another instalment in a series of “incidences of self-censorship and self-flagellation” on the part of Westerners who are over-tolerant of the restrictive idiosyncrasies of Muslim migrants. It is, above all, an “indictment of multiculturalism.”

And indeed, The Australian has expended impressive energy running the prosecution. Only three weeks later, it editorialised even more forthrightly on the “veiled conceit of multiculturalism” in the following terms:

“Many Britons are concerned that multicultural policies that have discouraged assimilation have divided their society and created what one commentator called a ‘voluntary apartheid’ … While tolerance is certainly a positive virtue that should be strived for, it cannot be a cultural suicide pact. A culture that is tolerant of those who are intolerant of its freedoms is ripe for destruction, and bit by bit will see all it [sic] values eroded. And radical Islam knows this.”

This paper is not principally concerned with matters of media malpractice, but with the socio-political narratives that proceed from them: narratives of a Western culture besieged by the descending Muslim hordes, who exploit the “cultural suicide pact” of multiculturalism – that is to say, the most recent and popular incarnation of anti-multiculturalist discourse, which has asserted itself most energetically in the aftermath of the London bombings.

As I will demonstrate, it is a discourse steeped in mythology. We might expect Muslims to be the subject of this mythology, but as Hier reminds us:

“… although moral panics centre on a particular folk devil, the locus of the panic is not the object of its symbolic resonances, not the folk devil itself. Rather, folk devils serve as the ideological embodiment of deeper anxieties, perceived of as ‘a problem’ only in and through social definition and construction.”

This suggests that to the extent it follows the logic of moral panic, contemporary railing against multiculturalism is a product of deeper identity politics that ultimately have little to do with Muslims themselves.

If so, we may predict that any associated myth-making is not only about Muslims, but about the culture ostensibly being defended against them. While anti-multiculturalism condemns a policy that it perceives has been raised disastrously to the level of a political ideology, it produces a political ideology of its own: monoculturalism.

The popular anti-multiculturalist narrative

It is possible to object to multiculturalism on a range of diverse grounds. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, criticises it on essentially cosmopolitan grounds, arguing that it offers only “negative” rather than “positive” recognition; that is basic tolerance, rather than equal participation.

Johann Hari objects to it on the basis (among others) that it artificially deems minority cultures to be monolithic, static artefacts in a manner that denies people their individual agency. This is quite different from criticising multiculturalism as an assault on the majority.

In short, the fact that someone opposes multiculturalism does not immediately reveal their political orientations or their reasoning. There is not one single anti-multicultural narrative. There are several, with varying degrees of overlap.

But it is a fair assumption that the media performances encountered above outline the basic thrust of the most dominant, popular expression of anti-multiculturalism, certainly in Australia and probably throughout the Western world. To be sure, a comprehensive survey of objections to multiculturalism is beyond the size constraints of this paper. Accordingly, for present purposes it should suffice to engage with a broadly representative version of this popular anti-multiculturalist narrative.

That narrative has been introduced above in short form. But it deserves to be rendered in more detail here, so we can more subtly appreciate its key characteristics. And here, perhaps quintessentially, stands Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan.

Although Phillips’ focus is on Britain, many of her arguments are replicated by Australia’s most strident anti-multiculturalists, often in precise terms. In fact, Londonistan represents probably the fullest expression of popular anti-multiculturalism found in Australia.

Phillips devotes an entire chapter of the book to the emphatic excoriation of multiculturalism, which she defines as

“the doctrine that … holds that Britain is now made up of many cultures that are all equal and therefore have to be treated in an identical fashion, and that any attempt to impose the majority culture over those of minorities is by definition racist.”

Her basic argument is frankly apocalyptic: through multiculturalism, British culture has completely surrendered itself to the politics of minority separateness that has nurtured nothing less than radical Islamism.

Britain, then, is “paralysed by a multicultural threat it cannot even bring itself to name.” Its very survival is precarious both physically and culturally, and multiculturalism is to blame.

For Phillips, the twin scourges of relativism and post-modernism laid the foundation for this. Together with the collapse of the British Empire and post-colonial guilt, they conspired to reduce British culture to a nullity. In its place emerged the “revolutionary ideology of the left” during the 1960s and 70s which shattered the moral assumptions of society. Hippies destroyed Britain.

The alleged result was a cultural vacuum into which marched assertive, corrosive minorities. “Muticulturalism and antiracism were now the weapons with which minorities were equipped to beat the majority,” Phillips asserts, making plain what she means in the following passage:

“Britain … has effectively allowed itself to be taken hostage by militant gays, feminists or ‘anti-racists’ who used weapons such as public vilification, moral blackmail and threats to people’s livelihoods to force the majority to give in to their demands. And those demands were identical to those made by the Islamists: not merely to tolerate their values as minority rights but to replace normative values altogether and subordinate the values of the majority to the minority, because majority values set up a hierarchy that is deemed to be innately discriminatory. So when Muslims refused to accept minority status and insisted instead that their values must trump those of the majority, Britain had no answer.”

The point for Phillips is that minorities – specifically migrants and especially Muslims – need to be told how to behave. Left to their own devices – or worse, invited to retain their cultural identities – they will proceed disastrously to inflict their backward cultures on the majority.

So, says Phillips, Muslims commenced “campaigning for public recognition of their religious agenda by the state.” They sought to establish their own schools, and demanded halal meat in others. They sought separate education for girls, and burned copies of The Satanic Verses to coerce the British government into banning Salman Rushdie’s book.

No doubt the lynch-mob behaviour of these last protests were irredeemably contemptible, as was that which surrounded the Danish cartoon imbroglio of 2006. But why should this be lumped together with a desire for halal meat in schools or Islamic private schools as some kind of cultural invasion? There is nothing in the majority British culture Phillips so venerates that precludes the consumption of halal meat. Its impact on majority culture is little to none.

Similarly, non-Muslim (and especially Christian) faith schools are common in Britain. Where is Phillips’ rage towards Britain’s Jewish schools? Or does she deny they exist? After all, she makes plain that British Jews are an exceptional minority because they were always considered too privileged to be allowed to benefit from multicultural largesse. Presumably, then, they never campaigned for “public recognition of their religious agenda by the state.”

Are we to conclude that they never sought to establish their own schools? Or is that only an act of cultural aggression when Muslims do it?

It surely cannot be that Britain’s Jewish schools are necessarily more demographically inclusive. Certainly, some are spectacularly so, like Birmingham’s King David School, about half of whose students are Muslims. (How confounding it must be for Phillips to discover Muslim students – whose mothers mostly wear the hijab and are reportedly devout – who learn modern Hebrew, celebrate Israeli Independence Day and recite Jewish prayers!)

But if this is Phillips’ reasoning, will she similarly condemn the Jewish school that refused to admit a child because his mother was not born a Jew? It doesn’t particularly concern me, but then, I don’t consider the establishment of religious private schools by minorities a form of cultural invasion.

Or perhaps Phillips’ complaints are ultimately about terrorism. After all, the logical extension of this is that “multiculturalism has unwittingly fomented Islamic radicalism in the sacred cause of ‘diversity’.”

So maybe the difference is that Jews don’t detonate bombs on London public transport. True. But then again, neither do all but four British Muslims, none of whom attended a British Islamic school. In fact, it is difficult to identify even a single Western Muslim terrorist who attended an Islamic private school in the West.

Typically the story of radicalisation has been one that climaxes around the age of tertiary education and has nothing to do with secondary-school brainwashing. Most who turn to violence have a comparatively shallow history of religiosity. Their teen years are more likely to have been substantially irreligious.

Such double standards seem to be a regular feature of popular anti-multiculturalism, a fact exposed in Australia with the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren. The Howard Government had been sceptical of what it termed “zealous multiculturalism.” It famously dropped the phrase “multicultural affairs” from the relevant government department. It instituted citizenship tests to require migrants to learn the English language, Australian history and Australian values.

Indeed, as Prime Minister, John Howard had an unabashed emphasis on values: Muslims were often commanded to integrate, which “means accepting Australian values” such as “the equality of men and women.”

The Exclusive Brethren confounded this. News reports depicted this Christian sect shunning democracy to the extent that it forbade voting. It shunned non-believers, requiring its members to avoid conversation with them, and was prepared to separate children from parents if necessary. It shunned university education. It protected men who were convicted of sexually abusing young girls, and vandalised the homes of those bringing the charges. Its women were commanded to wear long, loose-fitting clothes. It flouted court orders.

In short, it rejected such well rehearsed Australian values as democracy, the rule of law, gender equality and tolerance, and it certainly rejected integration. Yet, the values-promoting Prime Minister not only refrained from lecturing this sect on integration, he repeatedly met with its members, while his party benefited from Exclusive Brethren donations.

When pressed on this, John Howard remarked that “it’s a free country … and they were not breaking the law” – which is as true for the Exclusive Brethren is it is for Muslims, whether they speak English or not.

There are several curious features of Phillips’ anti-multicultural analysis that render it ambiguous, even incongruous. “Muslims regard Western values as an assault on Islamic principles,” she declares, echoing the assumption popular among Western politicians that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of the Western way of life.

Yet Phillips has just finished making the case that Western values have been sacrificed to the cult of multiculturalism, relativised out of meaningful existence. “Britain,” she bemoans, “has become a largely post-Christian society, where traditional morality has been systematically undermined and replaced by an ‘anything goes’ culture.”

Precisely which “Western values,” then, do Muslims regard as under “assault”? Or do they take umbrage at the post-modern absence of values in the West? If so, Phillips might consider joining them.

There is something vaguely paradoxical at work here. If recalcitrant minorities fume violently at values that allegedly no longer exist, the solution, it seems, is to enforce conformity with shared values in the defence of liberal democracy. It is a mind-bending prescription.

An inescapable implication of liberalism is the individual’s freedom of thought. That means nothing if it does not permit the individual to subscribe to dissenting value systems that may even be repugnant to the majority, just as freedom of speech means nothing without the freedom to offend.

The liberal democratic state may well reflect one set of cultural norms over another – through its use of an official language and its marking of particular national days, for instance – but it does not seek to prescribe or determine the personal values of its citizens.

Its values are primarily institutional: the rule of law, freedom of speech and conscience. It has no interest in intervening until the law is breached, and it does not use the law as a means of implementing mass culture.

That is, it potentially leads us to something like the position John Howard articulated with regard to the Exclusive Brethren. Until the law turns to something like legalising behaviour that harms other individuals, such as honour killings – which it simply will never do – there should be no existential crisis for liberal democracy.

Yet many anti-multiculturalists too easily resort to a kind of groupism, prosecuting an identity politics of collectivism. Muslims and other minorities are clustered together and judged on the basis of their group membership.

Generalisations are made about their values and attitudes quite inconsistently with liberalism’s axiomatic individualism. Simultaneously, a majority group is constructed whose values are determined for it by the declaration of an elite.

As we have seen, Phillips is anxious that minorities know their place; that they understand they are minorities and behave as such. That reveals a collectivist instinct. Should she not be apprehending them as individual citizens?

As Geoffrey Brahm Levey observes, multiculturalism in Australia has proceeded from the assumptions of liberalism:

“Australian multicultural policy is highly individualistic … It is each individual who enjoys the rights (such as those to cultural identity and respect, and access to equity) and bears the responsibilities (of abiding by Australia’s liberal democratic institutions) under the policy. Lest there be any ambiguity, the National Agenda goes on to state that: ‘Fundamentally, multiculturalism is about the rights of the individual’.”

This does not mean multiculturalism is liberalism’s necessary logical extension. Certainly, liberalism should have no quibble with the presence of several cultures within a single society, but it may quite plausibly object to a state policy of multiculturalism on the ground that the state should engage with citizens as individuals, rather than as members of a cultural group.

The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen mounts precisely this argument: “it’s time for our political leaders to stop engaging with Muslims as Muslims,” she writes. “They are citizens; no special rules apply.” Yet she applauds when they engage with Muslims – specifically and exclusively so – where that engagement takes the form of outlining for them which personal values they must accept.

Of course, it is true that values are critically important to society, for it could scarcely exist without them. But if values are to be promoted within the framework of liberalism, they are not the stuff of government declaration and should not be articulated in group terms.

This government performance Albrechtsen so admires is ultimately an illiberal one. It is not one whereby the government stresses Muslims’ standing in society as individuals – which seems at best to be her starting point. It is not demanding Muslims think of themselves civicly as individuals. It is doing the opposite: addressing and conceiving of them as a collective for the purpose of demanding conformity with a collective majority.

So the groupist orientation of much anti-multiculturalist discourse, often from those who champion liberalism, presents an intriguing tension. It suggests there might be something more at play than the dispassionate application of a political philosophy.

Such double standards also point to something of a parochial streak. There are plenty of non-Muslim Australians whose personal values are affronting to the majority. Often they form religious or political groups. Yet they are rarely chosen for some kind of public, group-based values education – or even values education at all.

In this narrative there are, ultimately, those who belong and those who do not, and in any such dynamic, the rhetorical field is vulnerable to a substantial dose of mythology. Indeed, the examples already canvassed of media fabrication and distortion indicate that the myth-making process, at least to the extent it concerns Muslims, is well under way.

Anti-multiculturalism and the mythical Muslim

Implicit in much of the above is a conflation. Discrete issues – such as faith-based schooling and terrorism – become rhetorically fused in a single, groupist narrative. This is presented as if there is no conceptual difference between the Muslim requesting halal catering and the one who aims to bomb Britain into an Islamic pseudo-theocracy.

To the extent these social menaces differ, they differ only in degree. One adopts a more violent methodology than the other but both are presented as though they are vanguards of the same cause: a cultural war determined to displace the dominant culture by whatever means are available.

In this way, the trivial story is projected hysterically onto the largest available screen, often the front page. Sometimes these reports are simply fabricated, but this is not necessary. It is sufficient that that they fit the narrative being constructed.

So at our breakfast tables in Australia we are invited to bristle at a handful of taxi drivers in Minnesota, in the belief that they signify an existential threat. The fact that Western societies have precisely nothing to fear from, say, halal or similarly kosher food being served in school cafeterias is completely submerged by a discourse of cultural panic.

The associated vision of Muslims is, quite obviously, an unflattering one. Here, Muslims are monolithic, belong to unchanging cultures, and are intolerant of pluralism and dispute. They subjugate women. They use their faith mainly for political purposes and for strategic and military advantage, and have made no meaningful contributions to debates on Western liberalism, modernity or secularism. Islam itself is a successor to Nazism and communism.

Moreover, Phillips boldly generalises this dystopian portrait, insisting that all of the “assertions about Muslims in this list are without exception true, at least in part.” Meanwhile, Only a “small minority in Britain are horrified” by all of these attitudes, while “a troubling number … subscribe to all of them and the majority subscribe to at least some.” She demonstrates none of this, of course. Phillips merely asserts it as unimpeachable fact, warning that any denial of its truth “displays a spectacular proclivity towards national suicide.”

Thus does Phillips see a marauding aggressive minority which, like its medieval forebears, is bent on conquest. For her, this is apparently some kind of coordinated scheme for cultural and political domination: “jihadi Islamism … has become today the dominant strain within the Islamic world,” she asserts without any empirical evidence to support such a startling claim.

She estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of British Muslims – from a population nearing 2 million – “lead law-abiding lives and merely want to prosper and raise their families in peace”. That is to say a majority do not.

On this score, Phillips probably goes further than most of her fellow anti-multiculturalists who deploy safer caveats about a “moderate” majority. But her general characterisation of the Muslim minority has broader support:

“The attempt to establish this separate Muslim identity is growing more and more intense, with persistent pressure for official recognition of Islamic family law, the rise of a de facto parallel Islamic legal system not recognised by the state, demands for highly politicised Islamic dress codes, prayer meetings or halal food to be provided by schools and other institutions, and so on. No other minority attempts to impose its values on the host society like this.”

Really? Official recognition of a parallel religious legal system governing areas of family law (and commercial matters) is what British Jews already have in the form of the Beth Din – which is backed by no less than an Act of Parliament.

Perhaps other minorities have not attempted to secure “prayer meetings” (whatever that means), but we do know that Jewish students have demanded – perfectly reasonably – that exams be shifted so they can observe the Sabbath, even being prepared to resort to legal action to ensure it.

Phillips does not make clear precisely what she means by “highly politicised Islamic dress codes,” but if she is referring to various forms of veiling, it is an absurd argument. Partly this is because Phillips has simply deemed veiling to be politicised when there is no reason this must necessarily be the case – and little evidence that it is for most British Muslim women.

It is, at bottom, a religious mode of dress, and Muslims are far from alone in seeking the right to wear religious items in schools. For example, a Sikh girl in Wales took her school to the High Court for suspending her because she wore a religious bangle. Some 25 years previously, a Sikh boy took similar action against a school that tried to force him to cut his hair and remove his turban.

And precisely how consistently does Phillips maintain that Muslims are the most aggressively imposing minority? What about the militant gays, feminists and “anti-racists” whose demands, you will recall, “were identical to those made by the Islamists”?

It is apparent that Phillips views Muslims, and “multicultural” British society generally, through thoroughly jaundiced lenses. For her, multicultural relativism has so completely eviscerated British values and identity, so unremittingly sanctified minority cultures beyond censure, that it is no longer possible to criticise Muslims:

“Multiculturalism … forbade criticism of Muslim practices such as forced marriages or polygamy … Even to draw attention to such practices was to be labelled a racist. After all, were not these customs now said to be morally equal to British traditions, such as equal rights for women and the protection of children’s educational interests?”

The suggestion that Muslims are now above criticism because of a multicultural orthodoxy that prevails “throughout all the institutions of British public life” is not merely a wild overstatement. It is among the more perverse fantasies circulating in the mainstream Western public conversation.

The Cardiff University study referred to earlier identified that 69% of stories about Muslims in the British press since 2000 represent Muslims as a “source of problems or in opposition to traditional British culture,” while only 5% of stories “were based on attacks on or problems for British Muslims.”

The trend is echoed in the findings of a 2007 study that of all the articles about Muslims in a news week chosen at random, 4% “positive,” 5% were “neutral,” and a staggering 91% were “negative.”

Even if we assume – perhaps charitably – that none of these articles was in any way fabricated, distorted or exaggerated and that all were entirely newsworthy, it is clear that most of these “institutions of British public life” feel no reluctance at all to “draw attention” to negative aspects of Muslim behaviour.

Indeed, as Peter Oborne and James Jones have observed, the preparedness to criticise Muslims and Islam proudly is alive and well across the political spectrum. After noting rather forthright examples from a range of British commentators and novelists, they conclude that the record demonstrates “the power of Islamophobia to unite public culture at every level. It is not just confined to so-called tabloid newspapers. It is to be found in the broadsheets as well.”

Perhaps the most startling example they cite comes from Polly Toynbee, “normally regarded as a model of political correctness” who declares “I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it.” Not much multicultural reticence there.

Perhaps Phillips is right to assume some will deem Toynbee racist. Toynbee herself assumes the same. But that fact, on its own, is of unclear significance. Many others will either cheer her on or say nothing.

It is utterly implausible to argue anti-Muslim rhetoric is being silenced. Toynbee remains one of The Guardian’s most prominent and influential columnists. The same is true of Phillips and The Daily Mail. Indeed, several of the Western world’s most prominent (and promoted) writers and columnists are of a similar view: Mark Steyn, Robert Spencer and Oriana Fallaci are but a few. This is some strange brand of censorship.

Still, this is only half the story. There is some truth to the observation that myth-making about Islam and Muslims has a long Western history of which today’s mythology is the latest instalment. But the popular anti-multiculturalist narrative leaves us clues that suggest a broader rhetorical game.

Phillips’ argument, for example, traverses extraordinary breadth, much of which has nothing directly to do with Muslims: internationalism and human rights law are similarly lashed. A similar tendency is visible in The Australian‘s criticisms of “inner-city post-modernists and progressives” in editorialising in the area.

This places us squarely in the culture wars, in which Muslims are largely rhetorical pawns. This suggests that, at the very deepest level, the debate about multiculturalism is not about Muslims, even if it seems unhealthily preoccupied with them. Rather, it is about the dominant culture. This observation has a symmetry about it that makes perfect intuitive sense. To construct an ideal outsider is in fact to construct one’s self. The relationship is symbiotic.

This is perfectly consistent with Hier’s observations about the role of the folk devil. It exists not merely for its own sake, but as a means of allowing us to engage with deeper anxieties. If it is true that much popular anti-multiculturalist discourse fashions a mythical Muslim, then the corollary is that it generates a similar mythology about the besieged dominant culture.

Making the mythical “Us”

In any essentialised criticism of a social out-group there is another unstated message being communicated: that those criticisms do not apply to us. To berate Muslims for intolerance, militancy or misogyny is simultaneously to celebrate the majority’s tolerance, peacefulness and gender equity. It is both an admonition and an exoneration.

Understanding this helps explain why, in James Button’s words, “responses to Islam confound old distinctions of left and right. A conservative Dutch Government is insisting that would-be Muslim migrants recognise the Netherlands’ commitment to feminism and gay rights before they come.”

Indeed, it is precisely in the interests of a conservative politician to do so. In appropriating these causes they can celebrate them as achievements, rather than as ongoing struggles. This leaves them complete such that the conservative need take no further action.

As long as Muslims remain central, villainous characters in the values conversation, any progressive attack is blunted. The conservative politician can retort compellingly: “we are not misogynists and homophobes – they are!” It has become a common rhetorical feature. Said John Howard:

“… in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women, the societies that some people have left were not as contemporary and as progressive as ours is. And I think people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia. That men and women do have equality and they’re each entitled to full respect.”

In what other context would Howard celebrate the idea that Australia is “contemporary and progressive”? And who, in this context, can disagree?

No doubt, many feminists will contest the assertion that “men and women do have equality” in Australia, but when the conversation is shifted to a relative one juxtaposing Muslims, any such argument is unsustainable and therefore lost.

And so a heroic self-image is gradually constructed – an ideal self where all vice has been exported onto a demonic other. The constructed foe, then, depends on who we need ourselves to be. The welfare cheat affirms us as honest and hard-working. The uncontrollable adolescent reassures us of the competence of our own parenting.

So, as Meyda Yegenoglu observes, the veiled Muslim woman was once an untamed seductress, drawing animalistic, lustful men into grave sin. That was the view of a virtuous, sexually proper Europe. Today she is a symbol of oppression for a free West, or even a symbol of violent radicalism for a West that is peace-loving (since its many wars are without exception noble and unavoidable rather than self-interested and plundering). This cloth is a flexible symbol indeed.

The self need never be engaged critically in this process. It is simply venerated. This is self-affirmation by declaration. Its relationship to history can, of course, be casual. Thus it becomes entirely possible even for German politicians to talk to its minorities as if the Holocaust never happened.

Recall the case of Ashkan Dejegah, a footballer who plays for Germany but also holds an Iranian passport. Dejegah refused to travel with the team to play against Israel, not as a matter of ideological conviction, but for fear that he would be barred entry to Iran in future. German outrage was understandably palpable, but Christian Democrats general secretary Ronald Pofalla’s choice of words was instructively poor: “Whoever represents Germany, whether he be a native German or an immigrant, has to identify with the history and culture of our society.” Given the “history and culture” of twentieth-century Germany, this is the darkest of ironies.

The invocation of history in this context is far from exceptional. Indeed much popular anti-multiculturalism relies on presenting the besieged majority has the guardians of history and tradition.

The sub-text is hardly subtle: that it is Muslims (or migrants generally) who have brought these vices with them. Hence their exceptionalism. There is something unique about their presence that threatens an unprecedented cultural fracture. The past was certain, confident and good.

Which brings us back to Phillips. A key assumption of her analysis is that Britain’s traditional policy of assimilation, expressed and emerged from a “robust sense of pride in its national culture and history.” Multiculturalism is therefore the product of “a series of developments [that] shattered Britain’s confidence in its own integrity and, deeper still, its very sense of what the nation was.”

This necessarily implies – though Phillips says it explicitly – that “[u]ntil about forty years ago, British society had been relatively homogeneous … British national identity centred upon a set of traditions, laws and customs arising out of its Christian heritage”.

It is a crutch on which Phillips regularly leans. “Judaism and Christianity,” she writes, are “the creeds that formed the bedrock of Western civilisation.” Accordingly, what is so problematic about Muslim migrants, unlike their Jewish predecessors, is that they are “foreign to the Judeo-Christian Western heritage.”

Much is invested in this foundational Judeo-Christian heritage by anti-multiculturalists. The Australian Government makes special note of it in its information booklet for prospective citizens. The Howard Government spruiked it regularly.

It is invoked as a historical anchor, yet the entire concept of a Judeo-Christian heritage, at least as used by Phillips to connote a harmoniously shared culture and values system, is a remarkable re-writing of history.

The idea of that Jews and Christians share values or beliefs does not appear until probably the 1930s, and the mere suggestion of it will have been anathema to many Christians until after World War II (the Jews, after all, were guilty of the most heinous of crimes: deicide).

Moreover this is a historical legacy that cannot be rendered exclusively Catholic, and from which Britain cannot claim to be unproblematically exempt. We forget that the attacks of militant Zionism against the British proceeded in part from Menachem Begin’s belief in the incurable anti-Semitism of Christian Europe, including the British, whom he accused of “determinedly shut[ting] their ears to the cry of Jewish blood dyeing the rivers of Europe” because they “very eagerly wanted the Jews not to be saved”.

In theological terms, the construction of a Judeo-Christian tradition is similarly incoherent. Certainly, Jews and Christians partially share scripture. But they interpret it in fundamentally different ways, evidenced by the fact that no Jewish theologian could have imagined the Trinity.

Indeed, of the great monotheistic faiths, Christianity constitutes the greatest theological departure. Islamic and Judaic monotheism have far more in common. Their legal traditions more closely converge. If there is an odd one out in this triumvirate, it is Christianity.

The forging of a Judeo-Christian tradition as a historical basis for Western civilisation is more a political act than a historical fact. Indeed the term’s very creation was an attempt to resist the fascistic, anti-Semitic discourse of those who promoted the exclusively protestant identity of America. To that end, it was a noble piece of linguistic innovation, quite at odds with the contemporary tendency to use it as a statement of exclusion.

This is how we create new cultures, new histories, new objects of veneration while pretending it was ever thus. The effect is to convey a heightened sense of cultural assault, in spite of the fact that some banks had chosen to cease using them without violating national heritage regulations.

Similarly were we introduced to “the long-enshrined legal principle that taxis are a public conveyance open to all” so undermined in Minnesota. Perhaps it really is a long-enshrined legal principle. We’re unlikely to know because it is hardly a point of law that draws our regular admiration or figures in our daily conversations. It is not the Magna Carta. But there is a message being conveyed in the gravity of the language here.

The Judeo-Christian example provides a nice illustration of how national narratives can change. The outcast, often brutalised Jew in time becomes the ontological insider. When Phillips speaks of a certain, stable British identity, her time horizons are vast: “for around one thousand years, [Britain’s] demographic profile remained remarkably stable,” she writes as though this implies an uncontested British identity.

It is a gloss that might have bemused many Welshmen and especially Scots over the centuries, who have quite clearly identified differently. Even (or especially) today, local identities are threatening to undermine the British union to the extent that The Daily Telegraph saw fit to launch a wonderfully blunt “Call Yourself British” campaign.

The simple fact is that nation states are artificial creations often sustained by mythical narratives, coercion and violence. Phillips writes as though they are divine truths, threatened by the immigration of those who, in the natural order, belong elsewhere.

Here we have the nostalgic fiction of an ossified national culture that has ever been thus until multiculturalism and cultural relativism uprooted it. She assumes, indeed celebrates, a pre-existing monoculture. The main weakness of this portrait of course is that it fails to account for the fact that cultures are always contested and dynamic.

Here we find the residue of the groupist mindset earlier identified. As minorities are essentialised, so too are the majority. Each belongs to a group with a distinct, unchanging culture. This leaves only one option for anti-multiculturalists: to ensure that minorities are pulled into line with their dominant hosts. There is no room for mutual evolution. One must yield to the other.

And yet Australia in particular is a compelling example of the fluidity of culture and identity. “Anglo-Australian culture,” writes Levey, has “been changed in various ways by successive waves of migrants, from the rise of soccer as a popular sport, to so-called ‘new Australian cuisine’, to the now national preference for coffee over tea and wine over beer.”

Such cultural accretions are an inevitable consequence of human interaction. Values and identity are similarly dynamic. This is, after all, a nation that once saw itself in thoroughly British terms, as a colonial outpost with a specific racial composition – that once denied its indigenous population a civic existence in accordance this self-imagination. Human societies are inescapably responsive to their changing surroundings. Would Australian values now include environmentalism?

Naturally, this does not render culture entirely relative. Cultures differ, as anyone who has attempted to conduct business internationally can confirm. There are different boundaries of propriety, norms of formality, and yes, contrasting values systems. We should not be hesitant in acknowledging this.

Moreover, it is true that Australia quite obviously has predominantly a British cultural inheritance. Our government follows the Westminster system. Our courts are populated with barristers, not “trial lawyers” or inquisitorial judges. We continue to play cricket.

Note, however, that these are only broad observations. Beyond this lies the rich terrain of dynamism and contestation; of culture and subculture; of current and counter-current.

Do not the value systems of artists regularly challenge those of the political elite? Have not the values of environmentalists long been at odds with those of big business, and if this is changing, is that not spectacular dynamism? Was not the Howard Government’s WorkChoices policy an affront to the values of a significant portion of the electorate?

Such questions, and the associated arguments, could continue ad infinitum. We could unpack every value articulated in official government literature by assessing it in the light of government action if we wished. How is “compassion for those in need” expressed in the policy of the mandatory detention of children? Was the invasion of Iraq a manifestation of our “peacefulness”?

The problem with these questions is that in attempting to flesh out the meaning of Australian values, they simply end up articulating a contested political position. That is the nature of such intangibles. Any attempt at precise definition quickly becomes a subjective political orientation masquerading as a national consensus.

* * *

Folk devils are useful servants. They at once justify righteous rage and provide us the opportunity to articulate who we are through identifying who we are not. Predictably, more than any other minority in the post-September 11 era, Western Muslims have found themselves conscripted into this service.

Whether it be through the discourse of politicians, or through media reporting and commentary, they have become the central protagonists in a refreshed rhetorical attack on multiculturalism throughout much of the Western world.

Those attacks are diverse, but in contemplating the most popular anti-multiculturalist narrative, we can observe the mythologies surrounding a moral panic in action. Obviously, much of this myth-making concerns Muslims, centred especially on the potentially disastrous threat they pose to an overly-tolerant cultural majority. But equally important is the myth-making concerning that majority.

“As a descriptor, multicultural fits nicely,” writes Albrechtsen on the basis that Australia has integrated millions of migrants. “But once the ‘ism’ was added to multicultural, an accurate adjective morphed into a philosophy.” And it is this “philosophy” to which she objects.

Yet when popular anti-multiculturalists take it upon themselves to defend Western values from multicultural assault, their account of Western culture is by no means merely descriptive. It is ideologically active in its own right – or in Albrechtsen’s terms, philosophical. That is to say it promulgates no less an “ism” than the one they construct as so culturally suicidal.

This newly created “ism” is not liberalism, for as we have seen, it strays too far into collectivist areas to be an untainted expression of liberal ideology.

But consider the mythology that lies at the heart of popular anti-multiculturalist rhetoric: the remaking of history, the ossification of culture, and the attempt to reformulate one’s political orientation as a statement of traditionally shared values. That can only properly be described as “monoculturalism.”

Waleed Aly is a lecturer in politics at Monash University, where he also works within the Global Terrorism Research Centre. He is the author of People Like Us (Picador, 2007). An earlier version of this article was published in Essays on Muslims and Multiculturalism, edited by Raimond Gaita (Text Publishing, 2011).


Blog at