In the last decade and a half, the Muslim population in Australia has seen a noticeable growth through immigration and birth, making it the fastest growing and the third largest faith-based group in Australia.
This truism might give the impression that this has been made possible through Australia’s cultural sensitivities, tolerance, and benevolent ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage. The impression is one thing and the reality another. This is simplistic and the fact is that the situation is more complex and even nefarious.
Whilst Australian Muslims have witnessed a comparatively fast growth in their population in recent years, they have also at the same time experienced an increase in Islamophobia and racism and, based on the racialisation of Islam by the government, the media, and the broader Anglo-Celtic population, a sustained pattern of socio-cultural, economic, and political exclusion.
These two sets of rather dialectic experiences reflect an inherent tension in Australia between competing visions of an integrationist modern secular liberal Australia and a multicultural Australia.
Some suggest that the vestiges of anti-Muslim-Islamic sentiments that exist are confined to a small minority of older Anglo-Celtic Australians and by and large, the majority of Anglo-Celtic Australians who make up the Australian mainstream are Muslim-Islamic friendly, open-minded, and forbearing.
However, the reality at the coalface shows otherwise and seriously challenges the legitimacy of this acuity. The post-9/11 anti-Muslim-Islamic grandiloquence, racially motivated riots such as the Cronulla riots, the racially charged anti-immigrant political proclamations, and the Anglo-Celtic Liberal Party’s stance against multiculturalists and its mission to protecting the so-called core Australian values (Anglo-Celtic ethnicity, liberalism, and Christianity, to mention but a few) are strong testimonies clearly revealing Australia as an anti-Muslim-Islamic and racist society.
Multiculturalism, when initially formulated, meant the de facto recognition of the diversity of the Australian population. The policy supported the promotion of tolerance and acceptance of diverse cultures of Australian people and encouraged and assisted individuals, groups, organisations, and institutions to reflect the multicultural character of the country. It also meant that all members of the Australian society had the right to equal access to services, regardless of their ethnic background.
Immigrants were granted fundamental rights to live according to their own cultural values, yet, nevertheless were expected to integrate into Australian society. Ethnic and cultural diversity is encouraged, however, only to the extent that it does not undermine the values, customs, and institutions of the dominant Anglo-Celtic society and conformity is expected.
It was basically assumed that immigrants arriving in Australia would automatically adapt to the dominant Anglo-Celtic way and they would simply abandon their customs and habits. This became the distinctive Australian trajectory to full citizenship. Integration in essence then entailed participation in the key areas of society – namely labour, education, and housing; a pathway to fruitful existence for immigrants.
Failure to integrate would result in deprivation. In other words, cut off from the many benefits and privileges available to ordinary citizens. Equality did not mean similarity but a ‘plain field’ for all. The idea of a monocultural society was abandoned and cultural difference was celebrated and was no hindrance to integration.
However, if Australia is a multicultural society in which cultural diversity is celebrated then why is it that cultures are valued differently? As Michael Humphrey (2001: 37) asserts ‘The lexicon of multiculturalism differentiates and values cultures differently according to undeclared criteria’.
Why, for example, is the Islamic presence, the result of immigration, perceived to present a threat to the Australian national mosaic, or why are Islamic beliefs and practices considered to be in discord with the patterns of public life, or why is the application of sharia (Islamic law) and religious practices such as prayer and fasting seen to challenge the conformity of modern public sphere and its ideals?
The attitude towards Islam in Australia shows that, despite the formulation of multiculturalism as a public policy, the views of the dominant group predominate. Immigrants, particularly from more traditional societies from the Third World are expected to assimilate to secularism and individualism.
This ‘modernist’ view is founded on the premise of the diminishing significance of religion forcing it from the public sphere into the private domain. Thus there is the expectation that immigrants, perhaps the second-and third-generation, will eventually assimilate and become divorced from their ethnic and cultural roots.
In regards to Islam, Humphrey (2001) says that the dominant view is that it is a homogenous culture that is resistant to modernity. In the discourse of multiculturalism, the discussion about Islam often touches on the concerns regarding cultural resistance.
In Australia, Islamic organisations and culture have emerged from settlement and immigration processes connected in a complex way to working-class immigrants’ experience of social marginalisation and economic deprivation. For Muslims, this immigration experience has forced them to negotiate their Islamic identity with the Australian state and society. In relation to this, Humphrey argues that Islam in Australia is a reflection of the politics of multiculturalism that limits both pluralising and homogenising tendencies:
It is pluralising through the migration process that has generated local, ethnic community-based Islamic religious institutions which, in turn, helped decentre and localise the religious authority of tradition. It is homogenising through a multicultural politics of ‘re-traditionalisation’ – the essentialisation of culture as a defensive, as well as representational, strategy that tends to place ethnic culture in compartmentalised social space (2001: 35).
The negotiation by Muslims of their Islamic identity and the practice of their religious law in the context of Australian multiculturalism has left them relegated to the ‘Other’ in the national imagination, which is both defined by, and predominantly represents the culture of, the hegemonic group.
It incorporates Muslims in Australian society only insofar as they contribute to the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of the dominant group, and, therefore, merely as the ‘Other’. This aspect of multiculturalism is thus essentially a policy for the management of ethnic minorities.
According to Hage (1998) it involves strategies of exclusion alongside the rhetoric of inclusion. In a sense, then, this form of multiculturalism maintains the marginality and liminality of immigrants and their descendants.