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Harmony and religious freedom in anxious times

Race Race Discrimination

Speech to Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference – National Conference on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees

Australian Catholic University, Sydney

Someone once said to me that the vehicle of social progress is like a car on a steep incline. You have to keep your foot on the throttle to prevent yourself from rolling back down the slope.

We should be under no illusions about the task of maintaining our multicultural society today. We must keep our foot on the throttle of tolerance. We must not slide into discord and division.

These are difficult times. Community anxiety about the threat of terrorism is understandably high. There have been counter-terror raids in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. A teenager, suspected of possible extremism, was shot dead in suburban Melbourne after attacking police.

At the same time, there has been an increase in hate attacks against Muslim Australians. Victoria Police have arrested a woman who allegedly attacked a Muslim woman on a Melbourne train – in this case, bashing her head into the wall of the carriage and then pushing her off the train as it rolled into a station.[1]

Mosques have been defaced with anti-Islamic slogans.[2] In Sydney last week a man carrying a knife allegedly walked into an Islamic college and threatened staff and students.[3]

And then there is the abuse of Muslims on streets, at parks and in shops. According to the Islamophobia Register, a Facebook page set up earlier this month by members of the Muslim community to log episodes of hate attacks, there have been numerous reports of women in hijabs being abused and intimidated across the country. There have been other instances of violent threats made against Muslims – including to religious leaders.

There is every reason for us to have serious concerns. Muslim Australians are entitled to enjoy their basic freedoms. All Australians, whatever their religion, race or ethnicity, should be able to live their lives with an assurance they will be safe; with an assurance that they will be treated fairly as equals.

And the problem is by no means confined just to one group in our society. There are signs that anti-Muslim bigotry is now contaminating community harmony at large. This week Sikh Australians have said they are becoming targets of racial abuse. As happened following the attacks of September 11, innocent Sikh Australians are being mistaken for radical extremists because people are linking turbans to terrorism.[4]

Let us remember a few simple things. In a multicultural Australia, an attack on any community is an attack on the whole community. And an attack on any one faith is an attack on all faiths. We must stand in solidarity with each other. We must counter any threat of terrorism with absolute unity. We must not let fear, hate and division prevail.

Your conference theme is that of working towards a better world. As I’m sure you agree, we must redouble our efforts to achieve that goal. In my remarks this morning I wish to reflect on how Australian society today is placed to meet the challenge of cultural harmony and social cohesion. This involves a test for multicultural Australia – one we must take very seriously. But I believe we are well-placed to pass this examination of our values and tolerance.

This is because our multiculturalism has always been defined by citizenship. Yes, we recognise and celebrate diversity. Yet we do so guided by the things we have in common. At times of social division, it is only appropriate that we return to those things that unite us.

Multiculturalism, freedom of religion and the burqa

For some, speaking about diversity and unity seems contradictory. There has always been a segment of the Australian population who believe that multiculturalism is incompatible with a national identity. This has long been a criticism that has accompanied the term multiculturalism ever since it was introduced to our lexicon in the 1970s.

Early critics of multiculturalism, such as the historian Geoffrey Blainey, saw it as a recipe for Australia fracturing into a nation of tribes.[5] For a later critic like Pauline Hanson, it got in the way of letting migrants assimilate into an Australian way of life.[6] Very recently in a televised interview, former prime minister John Howard noted that multiculturalism was a confusing term – it may be one thing to say that Australia is multi-ethnic or multi-racial, but to say it was multicultural suggested that there was not a single Australian culture into which people could integrate.[7]

In my view, there is little that should be confusing about a multicultural Australia. We should not be afraid of Australian multiculturalism. The idea stands for a simple proposition. It says that everyone who comes here can be Australian. It says that everyone can be Australian and be relaxed and comfortable in their own skin.

In other words, multiculturalism is something that is meant to strengthen Australian national identity rather than supersede it. In its earliest formulations during the 1970s, it was about expanding the family of the nation following the abolition of the White Australia policy. It meant that migrants should have the right to express their cultural and racial identity. The requirement was that this shouldn’t be at the expense of Australian society at large.[8]

It was in the 1980s that multiculturalism in its policy form became codified most explicitly in terms of the values of citizenship. All Australians have the right to express their own culture and beliefs. But there was also an obligation to offer an overriding commitment to Australia and its institutions. Any right to cultural identity was balanced by civic responsibility.[9]

The freedom to express one’s cultural identity and heritage is not absolute. It is also accompanied by duties. There must be a commitment to liberal democratic values – to parliamentary democracy, to the rule of law, to equality of the sexes, to freedom of speech, to freedom of religion.

Let me say a little more about this last freedom – freedom of religion. Because it is worth reminding ourselves about the terms of our social contract.

As incidents of hate attacks against Muslims demonstrate, not everyone is extending to every Australian a respect for freedom of religion. Concern about security should offer no excuse, however, for religious bigotry. Any law-abiding person is entitled to practise their faith without harassment or humiliation. This is about everyone enjoying a fair go.

And yet, there have been calls by some elected representatives for a ban of the burqa in the Federal parliament. There have been links drawn between the wearing of the burqa, national security and the introduction of sharia law. As is so often the case at times of community anxiety, different concerns can be joined. There can be more confusion than clarity.

But we should be clear about a number of things. Any multiculturalism does not sanction a form of cultural relativism. It does not give free rein to sharia law – in the same way that it does not give free rein to Jewish halacha law, or to Christian canon law. If the exercise of one’s religious commitments are to be in conflict with our liberal democratic values, our multiculturalism says that our liberal democratic values must prevail.[10]

As for banning the burqa, the proposal is baffling for a number of reasons. It seems odd because the burqa is not commonplace in Australia. Yes, some Muslim women wear the hijab or headscarf. Yes, there are some Muslim women who wear the niqab – a veil that covers a woman, leaving only a small opening for the eyes. But it is extremely rare to see someone wearing the burqa: a full veil covering the head and body, which has a grill that conceals the eyes. Whether the advocates have confused the burqa with the niqab, or perhaps even with the hijab, is perhaps unclear.

Also odd is the suggestion that the burqa represents a threat to safety in parliament. Those who have visited parliament will know that entry requires a person to pass through a security check: people must pass through a metal detector and subject their personal items to an x-ray examination. If someone wearing a burqa or niqab required a second look, or if there was a need to confirm identification, you would think that security could check this without too much drama, and with a bit of common sense. I have not to date come across any expert opinion or analysis indicating that the burqa represents an additional, special security threat.

Indeed a coercive ban may have the reverse effect to that intended. It may simply increase cultural tensions and social distrust. It may provide fuel for extremist propaganda and assist extremists in recruiting disillusioned young Australians to their cause.

It may also have the unedifying effect of inviting further biogtry against Muslims. About a decade ago, the acting Race Discrimination Commissioner William Jonas conducted a national consultation about anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice. One of his findings was that those most at risk of experiencing prejudice were Muslim women who wore traditional Islamic dress. Many reported restricting their movements because they were readily identifiable as Muslim.[11] Prohibiting the burqa may only serve to restrict the liberty of those who are already vulnerable.

Let’s not mince our words. The debate about banning the burqa is nothing but a dangerous diversion at what is an extremely testing time.

Race and religion

I turn now to the relationship between race and religion. It is troubling to find that in our public debate some have been justifying anti-Muslim bigotry by resorting to a distinction between race and religion.

Some say that they are perfectly entitled to direct scorn at Islam – or for that matter, any religion. Some say that this involves something fundamentally different to racial prejudice or discrimination: Islam, they will say, is a religion and not a race or ethnicity. The same logic, they say, applies to any other religion. We would not, for example, class bigotry against Christianity as racism. Therefore, it makes little sense to suggest that anti-Muslim sentiment is tantamount to racism.

I want to question this view. In the first place, there is little to commend about militant hostility towards faith. A civilised society must not celebrate barbarian values. We should all be capable of respecting others’ beliefs, even if we may disagree. This isn’t to say that certain beliefs or practices must be immune from scrutiny. Where beliefs and practices breach our civic compact, they should rightly be repudiated and criticised. But this is a different thing altogether to vilification or inflamed animosity.

Second, the dividing line between race and religion may not always be clear. To be sure, one can make a distinction. We may regard race in terms of colour or ethnic background – as immutable qualities of the person, which none of us can change. We may understand religion as being about spiritual matters of belief and doctrine.

Yet not everyone will understand religious differences to involve just religious differences. That is to say, religious differences can often be understood as concerning matters of culture. Perhaps more often they can be racialised.

It is no accident, for example, that when Dr Jonas and the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted its national consultation, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, the focus was on Muslim-Australians and Arab-Australians. What may appear to concern only Muslims and Islam can spillover into other groups. Religious hostility can reveal itself in racial profiling.

Sociologists have written extensively about the overlap of race and culture, of culture and religion.[12] Racism today can involve a belief that a particular culture is incompatible with a mainstream way of life or national identity. The relationship with race is this: what counts as a culture frequently coincides with race.

In the case of anti-Muslim sentiment, what we frequently see is an expression of racialised cultural hostility. Often we are talking about negative stereotypes that are directed particularly at people who come from the Middle East. The stereotype may be one about the incompatibility of Muslim identity and practices with an Australian way of life.

In terms of the stereotype, consider one recent episode of SBS’s Living with the Enemy program, a documentary series which asks people to live with others whose lifestyles and beliefs directly contradict their own. One recent episode involved a Muslim couple, Ahmed and Lydia, spending time with Ben, an Anglo-Australian who believes Islam is a dangerous religion. For much of the episode Ben was confounded by the experience of discovering he had more in common with Ahmed and Lydia than expected. Yet his views remain unchanged. Ben remained unchanged in his view that there was no such thing as a moderate Muslim. Ahmed and Lydia may have been Muslims but there was no way, in Ben’s view, that they could be representative of Islam.[13]

Consider as well some of the recent commentary about the suburb of Lakemba, which is home to some of Sydney’s Muslim communities. One newspaper in August featured a two-page spread about the suburb titled, “Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land”. It was declared at the top of the article that the correspondent had spent 24 hours in a place “where a pervasive monoculture has erased the traditional Aussie way of life”.[14] In the piece itself, the correspondent would observe that the suburb had an ethnic mix “similar to what you’d find in any Arabic city”.[15] In the space of a few sentences, then, we see the conflation of Muslim and Arab – of religion quickly expanding into something more cultural, ethnic, and arguably racial.

Here, I think, is where we should recognise that anti-Muslim sentiment can indeed involve racialised cultural hostility. Anyone who may look like a Muslim will be presumed to be a bearer of a certain culture that is incompatible with Australian culture. But what determines whether someone looks like they are Muslim will necessarily draw upon race and ethnicity. Not everyone will be necessarily aware of, say, the difference between a Lebanese-Australian Muslim or an Egyptian-Australian Coptic. To those who may rehearse negative stereotypes about Muslims, such distinctions may not be obvious.

Leadership and dialogue

In the weeks and months to come, there will be further debate about national security. Already we have seen some ill-judged statements that have inflamed sentiments about Muslims and Islam. We must avoid doing anything that unnecessarily creates panic.

There is a special responsibility for our elected representatives to set an example. Leadership matters; how our leaders talk about communities matters. Now must be a time for calm and proportion. There can be no room for reckless rhetoric. Unfortunately, we have been let down by some of our parliamentarians.

One message in particular must get through: Let's not judge entire communities by the actions of extremist minorities.

In the case of Islamic extremism, let’s remember ISIL and its supporters are not representative of Islam. While a small number subscribe to their abhorrent ideology, the overwhelming majority of Muslim Australians do not. There is little reason for the overwhelming majority of Muslim Australians to do so. Not when of the lives claimed by ISIL's cultish aggression in Iraq and Syria, the majority have been Muslim. And not when ISIL's aims are incompatible with Muslim Australians getting on with their lives.

There must be proportion in the manner we respond to this issue. It makes little sense to define the many by the actions of a fanatical few. It's not only misguided, it's also deeply unhelpful. It does nothing to aid the efforts of moderate Muslim community leaders to stamp out the embers of radicalism.

The challenges of combating radicalism are significant. Terrorist organisations such as ISIL have become more adept at using the global media to spread their messages of hate. They are using social media, in particular, as a tool of recruitment in Western countries – targeting those who are socially isolated and marginalised. While there is no perfect defence against radicalisation, we must do all we can to prevent extremism getting a foothold in Australia.

We must remain vigilant as well of our values. Muslim Australians are entitled to a fair go. They are entitled to being treated decently as equal members of our society. The vast majority are law-abiding citizens who are committed to this country, who are proud to be Australians. It is sometimes forgotten that almost 40 per cent of Muslims who live in Australia are Australian-born. For these Muslims, in particular, there can be no question of “going back to where they came from”.

But vigilance alone is not enough. Now must also be a time for dialogue. Not long ago, Pope Francis observed the following:

The only way for individuals, families and societies to grow, the only way for the life of peoples to progress, is via the culture of encounter, a culture in which all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return. Others always have something to give me, if we know how to approach them in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. This open spirit, without prejudice, I would describe as “social humility”, which is what favors dialogue. Only in this way can understanding grow between cultures and religions, mutual esteem without needless preconceptions, in a climate that is respectful of the rights of everyone. Today, either we take the risk of dialogue, we risk the culture of encounter, or we all fall; this is the path that will bear fruit.[16]

I take from Pope Francis’s remarks this. Harmony is never organic. It is always the result of effort. Right now, there is a special premium on harmony. Our security and stability depend on it. But we must all continually work to ensure that our lives together indeed involve a culture of encounter. We must all be humble enough to take the risk of dialogue. And we must all be humble enough to recognise that we can all do better.


[1] N Bucci, ‘Woman’s head bashed in racial attack on train’, The Age, 29 September 2014 at… (viewed 1 October 2014); ‘Woman assaulted, racially abused at Batman train station in Melbourne’s north’, ABC News, 29 September 2014 at… (viewed 1 October 2014).
[2] ‘“Evil” painted on Qld mosque’, SBS News, 19 September 2014 at (viewed 1 October 2014).
[3] ‘Man charged over Sydney Islamic School knife incident’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 2014 at… (viewed 1 October 2014).
[4] J Calixto, ‘Turbans target of racial abuse’, SBS News, 28 September 2014 at… (viewed 1 October 2014).
[5] See, eg, G Blainey, All For Australia (1984).
[6] P Hanson, Maiden Speech in the House of Representatives, 10 September 1996 at… (viewed 1 October 2014).
[7] See, J Albrechtsen, ‘John Howard: I lost my nerve’, Channel 7, 21 September 2014 at… (viewed 1 October 2014).
[8] Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services to Migrants, Chairman F Galbally, Migrant Services and Programs, AGPS, Canberra (1978), p 4.
[9] Commonwealth of Australia, National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, AGPS, Canberra (1989).
[10] T Soutphommasane, Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From (2012), p 66.
[11] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Ismaع – Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians (2003) pgs 3 and 45.
[12] See, eg, J Stratton, Race Daze: Australia Identity Crisis (1998).
[13] ‘Living with the Enemy, Episode 4: Islam’, SBS, 24 September 2014, at… (viewed 1 October 2014).
[14] T Blair, ‘Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land’, The Daily Telegraph, 18 August 2014. 
[15] Ibid. 
[16] See, Selected Quotes of Pope Francis by Subject (2013) at (viewed 1 October 2014).

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner