Brett Mason: Nation must get precedence over ethnicity
Sheik Hilali's outbursts point to what's wrong with multiculturalism, and a policy change is overdue
January 16, 2007
IT looked really good on paper. Immigrants would be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural identities on condition that they subscribed to the tenets of Westminster democracy.
But since September 11, multiculturalism has been taking a beating at home and abroad. In Britain the emergence of home-grown Islamic terrorism has caused a serious re-evaluation of that policy. The British Government for many years adopted a hands-off multicultural policy that allowed Muslim extremism to flourish throughout England without impediment. 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. And this official attitude of anything goes facilitated an influx of fugitive jihadis into Britain that caused its capital city to become known in intelligence circles as Londonistan. At Finsbury Park, Scotland Yard was astonished to find a clear links between word and deed. In addition to thousands of jihadi propaganda videos, police found a cache of weapons and forged passports in the mosque basement. The BBC reported that intelligence agencies believed al-Masri and his acolytes were "linked to dozens of terrorist plots around Europe and beyond". Over here it was all supposed to be different. The Australian brand of multiculturalism intended to maintain a fine balance between sectarian rights and mainstream responsibilities. Minority groups would be free to follow their creeds as long as they did not contravene the values of democracy. And in the event of such a conflict, the tenets of Australian multiculturalism mandated that individual rights, gender equality and religious freedom would always reign supreme. However, in practice this principle has gradually been eroded by the sordid abrasives of political correctness and calculation. Case in point: Islamic firebrand cleric Taj Din al-Hilali, who once again made the news by claiming on Egyptian television that by rights Australia should be a Muslim country. But because ALP heavies thought that Hilali could deliver votes in Sydney's southwest, they pressured the Department of Immigration and Multicultural And Indigenous Affairs to overlook his history of incitement to racial hatred. Needless to say, Hilali got his permanent residency and citizenship. And Osama bin Laden groupie Mohammed Omran has suffered no repercussions for selling jihadi literature at his Melbourne bookstore or teaching that 9/11 was a US conspiracy against Islam. Such policy mishaps, foreign and domestic, have inflicted a major haemorrhage on popular support for Australian multiculturalism. 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. And the sight of establishment Islamic leaders last year convening in Canberra to petition the Prime Minister on behalf of Hezbollah only served to reinforce that belief. It is said that in politics perception is reality. And the key to the clarity of any political program is the words that are used to describe it. And herein lies the problem. At its core, the word multiculturalism implicitly elevates ethnic tribalism over national commonality. The term makes express reference to factionalism without specific mention of the unifying factors that are supposed to be the pride of this policy. It sends the message that diversity is an end in itself, rather than merely a means to the end of a better Australia. Having never read the fine print of government policy statements, most Australians base their outlook on the impression created by the nomenclature of the program. And this ambiguity between what the word multiculturalism purports to mean and what it really does signify is a recipe for confusion and disharmony. Similarly unsatisfactory are the amorphous references to the rule of law that feature in government policy statements on multiculturalism. The real question facing Western democracies is not 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 their 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 or Lakemba. In fact, that is precisely what the radical Muslim Hizb ut-Tahrir movement is doing when it calls for a Taliban-style Islamic caliphate in Australia. But I categorically reject such moral relativism. I make no apologies for my belief that one wife is better than four, or that the amputation of limbs for petty theft is pure barbarism. Australian democracy is the direct ideological descendant of the English common law system, and I contend that Westminsterism is ethically superior to Wahabism. At times ideas can have real-world consequences. And the conceptual shortcomings that mar the core of Australian multiculturalism have spawned hesitancy and confusion in its application. 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 any chance of salvaging the positive elements of this program, then it must be comprehensively repackaged and rebranded. We must set aside the terminology of multiculturalism that has been compromised by fecklessness and ineptitude. And in its stead we should adopt a national compact whose title explicitly emphasises the primacy of national obligations over separatist privileges. An Australian Compact would achieve this end by clarifying the standards of behaviour that are mandated by our democratic polity. Rather than nebulous generalities, the compact should employ specific language that will establish detailed behavioural expectations as well as penalties for their violation. Properly conceived, an Australian Compact will constitute an important tool in our effort to avoid the sort of inter-ethnic strife that is now engulfing parts of Europe. It is the cultural imperative of our time.
Brett Mason is a Liberal senator from Queensland.
(SEE MY PREVIOUS POST: ETHNIC VIOLENCE IN AUSTRALIA.)