Amid all this talk about visa restrictions, citizenship tests, and “Australian values,” it seems the federal government is forgetting the slogan that has driven Australia’s immigration policy since the 1970s, when ‘White Australia’ ostensibly gave way to multiculturalism.
Unity in diversity. Or as Telstra marketed it: we are one, but we are many.
My family were beneficiaries of this sharp turn in policy, having fled the Lebanese civil war in 1977. Had we not come here, we may well have left Tripoli for my mother’s homeland of Syria, only to then experience the even more calamitous war engulfing that country. Spared this fate, we settled in Australia where we could safely be ourselves.
Or could we?
Truthfully, I’m struggling to get up in arms about the government’s latest dog-whistle effort because one of the things this job has taught me is how racism can be inflicted on you even more devastatingly by people who smile at you than by those who scowl. By those who want to “save” you than by those who seek to ban you.
The past few months have been among the more surreal of my working life, as I find myself repeatedly informed by white men (some of them converts to Islam) – with utmost authority – that I am essentially unqualified to talk about Muslim or even Arab issues because I am obviously “westernised” and, at best, “Muslim-adjacent”.
What they mean, of course, is that I don’t look and act in a way that they accept as “authentically” Muslim. We all know what “Australian values” is code for, but it seems that even “unity in diversity” comes with its own set of conditions. To be Muslim in this country is to be pigeonholed into something very specific and easily identifiable; fly free and get shot down.
My family is Muslim, but you’d never know that by looking at them. People assume that my lack of hijab is a result of my own professed non-religiosity, but what they don’t realise is that the clothing worn by adherents to the dominant Islamic traditions is simply not a part of ours. This leaves the most devout of us just as vulnerable as the least to being dismissed – by other Muslims and by white society – as “not really Muslim”.
Too Muslim for some, not Muslim enough for others. If this seems contradictory in a society that supposedly values diversity, academics Jon Stratton and Ien Ang explain that it is diversity itself that can act as a form of forced assimilation because, in emphasising the differences between cultures, multiculturalism “suppresses the heterogeneities existing within each culture”.
In other words, while some expect minorities to assimilate into white Australian culture, others demand we conform to whatever white society imagines our own culture to be. This is usually something as exotically different to themselves as possible.
And if we fail to conform to these expectations? Our identity is taken away. We are assumed to have fully “assimilated”.
What, for instance, is the first thing you think of when you hear the term “Muslim woman”? Perhaps, like Alicia Keys, you picture a woman in a niqab.
Keys recently tweeted an image of a niqabi who was, oddly, revealing a bare leg clad in a ballet slipper (to indicate the West presumably), with a caption that would make any government policy writer proud:
Our strength is in our differences. Our power is in our diversity… When we see each other we see ourselves.
Keys is not alone in using the niqab as a symbol of Islam. Rare is the media story about Muslims that does not feature an image of one. But women who wear niqabs belong to a particular Islamic tradition (the most conservative form of Sunni Islam), and, as such, are only one thread in the vast tapestry that is the “Muslim world”. Moreover, as Keys discovered the hard way, not only would niqabis themselves be offended by this image, many liberal Sunnis and non-Sunni Muslims alike warily regard it as a symbol of encroaching fundamentalism.
But, in the West, where overt anti-Muslim bigotry makes genuine critique more and more difficult, any objection to the niqab, even on Islamic grounds, is dismissed as Islamophobia.
The irony is, of course, that dismissing the perspectives of Muslims if they don’t happen to correspond with the dominant Western viewpoint, is in itself classic Islamophobia. While the term is now (mis)used to indicate any fear of Muslims, Islamophobia has less to do with theology and more to do with the patronising way the West has long regarded the Muslim and Arab world, reducing all its varied communities, its cultural practices and its secular as well as religious tendencies to a collection of static images as far removed from the West as possible.
Bloodthirsty dictators. Bellydancers. Oppressed victims. Terrorists. Women in niqabs.
Something is wrong in a society that still cannot seem to comprehend a complex multiculturalism that confounds rather than meets prejudiced expectations. Islam has a rich history of scientific as well as religious inquiry, intellectual interrogation, and dissent, that is at risk of being lost as more and more people seem to accept that only its loudest, most visible forms are authentically Muslim.
I grew up in a small Muslim community that long ago discarded external rituals in favour of a private spiritual practice that incorporates aspects of Christianity and other faiths. My father insisted we attend the local Sunday School because, “to know Islam you have to know the Bible”.
These characteristics developed, not in the West, but within Islamic society and are as Muslim as any other. These are Muslim values. To deny this not only promotes an outdated view of Islam as the West’s eternal binary opposite, but also recalls a long traumatic history of persecution in which fundamentalists, scandalised by our syncretism and relative liberalism have marginalised and threatened us with death for “heresy”.
It is ironic that my family has escaped this history only to find here, it is in the name of “diversity” that their identity is denied.
It’s easy to spot the bigotry of those who, without a trace of irony or self-awareness, can ignore this country’s domestic violence statistics to claim that a man who does not strike his partner is exhibiting “Australian values”.
A more profound introspection is to admit that those who take it upon themselves to assess Muslims’ cultural authenticity according to how “Other” we present as also belong to this fearful majority. In the name of a version of “diversity” that nevertheless maintains the white status quo, they are unwilling to relinquish their dominance or their certainty that they know us better than we can ever know ourselves.