Wednesday, 28 February 2007
I am here to discuss one of the most important issues facing Australia in the early 21st century, an issue that gives rise to questions of identity, values and strength of will: the question of who we are as a nation, the question of what we believe as a people and the question of whether those who sow the intellectual seeds of terrorism should be opposed or appeased. In other words, should our Australia of 2007 tolerate the intolerable in the hope of striking a bargain with evil?
The concept of multiculturalism looks really good on paper. Immigrants to Australia would be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural identities, and in response these newcomers would pledge their allegiance to the principles of Westminster democracy. But, since September 11 2001, multiculturalism has taken a beating, both at home and abroad. In Britain, the emergence of home-grown terrorism has caused a serious push for the re-evaluation of that policy. The British government for many years adopted a hands-off form of multiculturalism that allowed Muslim extremism to flourish throughout Britain.
This official attitude of ‘anything goes’ allowed an influx of fugitive radical Islamic holy warriors who were given asylum and refuge. The notorious Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad claimed that he lived in the United Kingdom under a ‘covenant of security’ that allowed him to pursue his radical activities as long as he did not promote violence on British soil. Until his arrest in 2004, Abu Hamza al-Masri openly preached holy war against the West from the pulpit of north London’s Finsbury Park mosque. But, after the 7-7 London bombings, Scotland Yard found clear links between word and deed at Finsbury Park. In addition to thousands of jihadi propaganda videos, police discovered a cache of weapons and forged passports in the mosque basement. The BBC reported that intelligence agencies believed al-Masri was linked to ‘dozens of terrorist plots around Europe and beyond’.
The British attempt to combat terrorism with tolerance quite literally blew up in their faces on the morning of 7 July 2005. But here it was all supposed to be different. The Australian brand of multiculturalism was intended to maintain a fine balance between sectarian rights and societal responsibilities. Minority groups would be free to follow their creeds as long as they did not contravene the values of Aussie democracy. In the event of such a conflict, the tenets of Australian multiculturalism mandated that individual rights, religious freedom and gender equity would reign supreme, but in practice this principle has eroded under the dual abrasives of political correctness and partisan calculation.
A case in point is Islamic firebrand Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, whose penchant for radical rabblerousing keeps getting him into trouble with the press. Twenty years ago, the hard men of ALP politics in New South Wales thought that al-Hilali could deliver the ethnic vote in south-west Sydney. As former Hawke immigration minister Chris Hurford describes it, they ‘believed that this would have some political influence in the particular electorates at the New South Wales state election’, so the Hawke government decided to overlook Hilali’s sordid history of incitement to racial hatred. The sheikh was granted permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship. And now we are stuck with him, just as we are stuck with Mohammad Omran, a bin Laden groupie from Melbourne who openly teaches that 9-11 was a US conspiracy against Islam. The pied pipers of global jihad have come to Australia where they proceed upon their merry way.
Such policy mishaps, both foreign and domestic, have inflicted a major haemorrhage of popular support for multiculturalism in Australia. There is a wide public sense that this policy is losing the battle for Muslim hearts and minds to the siren song of radicalism and resentment. That belief is only reinforced by the sight of establishment Islamic leaders convening last year in Canberra to petition the Prime Minister on behalf of Hezbollah.
It is said that in politics perception is reality. The key to the clarity of any public policy is the words used to describe it, and therein lies the problem. At its core, the term ‘multiculturalism’ implicitly elevates ethnic tribalism over national commonality. It makes express reference to factionalism, without specific mention of the unifying factors that it purports to promote. It sends the message that diversity is an end unto itself, rather than just the means to an end for a better Australia. Never having read the fine print, the average Aussie punter bases his outlook on the impression created by the title of the program. Thus, this definitional ambiguity between what multiculturalism is supposed to mean and what it really means is a recipe for confusion and disharmony.
The amorphous references to the ‘rule of law’ that feature large in government policy statements on multiculturalism are equally unsatisfactory. The real question facing Western democracies is not the rule of law but rather: which law is to rule? In several European nations, Muslim leaders have begun to press for the application of sharia law to local Islamic communities. And, because sharia constitutes a distinct legal code, there is nothing in the strict definition of Australian multiculturalism that would preclude such a demand in Brunswick in Victoria or Lakemba in New South Wales. In fact, that is precisely what the radical Muslim Hizb ut-Tahrir movement did last month at its annual conference when it called for a Taliban style Islamic caliphate in Australia. I categorically reject such moral relativism. I make no apologies for my belief that one wife is better than four, and I have no hesitation about declaring that the amputation of limbs for petty theft is pure barbarism. Australian democracy is the direct descendant of the English common-law system and I unapologetically assert that Westminsterism is ethically superior to Wahhabism.
As a member of parliament I am constantly surrounded by unmemorable rhetoric and words that will not withstand the test of history. But sometimes—just sometimes—ideas can have lasting real-world consequences. We see this in the confusion that has arisen from the conceptual shortcomings of Australian multiculturalism. In the popular mind, this policy has bungled one of the pre-eminent social challenges of our era: the rise of radical Islam in our midst. If there is to be any chance of salvaging the positive elements of this program, then it must be, in my view, rebranded, repackaged and reformulated.
We must set aside the terminology of multiculturalism that has been compromised by fecklessness, cowardice and ineptitude. In its stead we should adopt a national compact whose title explicitly emphasises the primacy of national obligation over separatist privilege. We need a uniquely Australian compact—a compact that will clarify the standards of behaviour that are mandated by our democratic polity; a compact that will cast aside the nebulous generalities of multiculturalism; a compact that will use specific language to establish clear societal expectations, as well as penalties for their violation. A properly conceived Australian compact will constitute an important means of preventing the sort of interethnic strife that is now engulfing parts of Europe. It is the great cultural imperative of our time.