How should we talk about multi-ethnic democracy?

muslim-girl-397952_640Listening to the discussions on Q&A last week, and observing Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra meeting with Muslim community leaders, it became clear that the public discourse around Islamic extremism in Australia has undergone a major shift, which is to say a major elevation. ‘Team Australia’ is now conspicuous by its absence, while Tony Abbott’s ‘they’re coming to get us’ shtick feels as old hat as it was self-satirising. It is now over two weeks since 15-year-old Farhad Jabar shot dead Curtis Cheng outside the Parramatta police headquarters and was shot dead in his turn by special constables protecting the station. Notwithstanding the antics of a few musclebound morons and the fulminations of a handful of journalists, the conversation about and around that tragedy has been sober, sombre and, above all, reflective.

Nevertheless, the way we think and talk about multiculturalism is not without its problems, and it is worth asking whether that public discourse might itself play a role in the twin predicaments of the radicalisation of Muslim youth and the rise of a number of far-right groups in Australia. Most Australians wish to defend the ideal of a multi-ethnic democracy. But could it be that the way in which we conceive of that ideal is responsible for some of the problems with it, or the pressures it is currently under?

In essence multiculturalism as it is currently constituted in liberal democracies such as Australia conceives of the social space as a site of negotiation between different groups defined by race, nationality and/or religion (or ‘ethnicity’ for short). These different groups are assumed to have ‘leaders’ – unelected and often unaccountable – with whom, and through whom, the government speaks. In the days after the Parramatta shooting, Malcolm Turnbull followed precisely this prescription, talking to Multicultural NSW, the Australian Kurdish Association, the Australian Iraqi Muslim Society, the Iraqi Islamic Councils of Australia, the Islamic Council NSW, the United Muslim Women Association, the Lebanese Muslim Association, and prominent community leader Jamal Rifi in an effort to engage ‘the Muslim community’ in the fight against Islamic extremism. In Canberra last week he continued that campaign, joining hands with Bill Shorten and Richard di Natale and meeting with representatives from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist communities as part of the ‘Day of Unity’.

Central to this multicultural vision is the notion of an ethnic ‘community’ living within a wider one – part of the wider society, yes, but in some vague and unarticulated way separable from it. In one sense a deeply conservative notion, it tends nevertheless to be associated with the progressive side of politics, and was indeed conceived as a way to break with the assimilationist policies of post-imperial societies such as France and the United Kingdom. A key figure in its development was the British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins who in 1966 called time on the strategy of national and cultural assimilation by which immigrants were absorbed into the dominant culture. Jenkins hoped to usher in an era of ‘cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’. New immigrants were not to be dictated to; they would be equal partners in a shared social space.

There is no doubt that this was a huge step forward. But one unintended consequence of this policy is that certain communities became increasingly cut off from ‘mainstream’ society. It wasn’t the only factor that led to this development. There were also the dynamics of ‘chain migration’, by which immigrants encouraged friends and family members to follow them into the same communities; and, of course, there was the galvanising effect of native racial prejudice. (Is it any wonder that communities subject to racial or religious prejudice begin to think of themselves as racial or religious entities?) But there is no doubt that this ‘hands off’ multicultural model (which can perhaps be more accurately described as ‘plural monoculturalism’) is in key ways profoundly limited and limiting.

Perhaps the biggest problem with it, however, is that it has the potential to sanction the views of both the extremists and the racists. By putting the Muslim community in the front line against radicalisation, Turnbull hopes to demonstrate his belief that the great majority of Muslims are religious moderates and committed Australians. But in doing so he also sanctions the idea of Muslims as a discrete community that is, in some sense, peculiarly responsible for confronting acts of political/religious terrorism. The danger – and it’s far from a theoretical one – is that this plays straight into the hands of those who would characterise the Muslim community as responsible for those terroristic acts (after all it’s a short step from saying that the Muslim community has to ‘own’ the problem of Islamic extremism to saying that the problem of Islamic extremism is reducible to the Muslim community itself), while also giving a ‘narrative’ to those who would try to convince young Muslims that they are in some way less Australian than other groups within the society. It should go without saying that both of these groups relentlessly feed each other’s prejudices.

One point that comes up time and again in the debate about Islamic radicalisation is the sense many young Muslim Australians have of being cut off from the rest of Australia. It might be time to consider whether the ‘inclusive’ language we employ when trying to deal with this issue might itself be part of the problem.

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First published at Online Opinion on 21 October 2015