Multiculturalism: if the Aussies 'get it’, why don't we?
When a government is not politically correct and multiculturalism is allowed to mature naturally with all its ups and downs, and not thrust down people’s throats or used as a political tool, people will just learn to get along.
As I was leaving for my first visit to Australia last week, friends told me two things: one, Aussies aren’t particularly politically correct, and two, their English is funny. I noticed both characteristics right away.
A third characteristic which I liked, in many ways linked to the first, is that they say it as-it-is and are not afraid to criticize what they see as problematic in their society; conversations were frank and scintillating.
I was invited to Adelaide by AHISA (Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia), to address school principals from across the country about cultural diversity in schools – its strengths and challenges.
In my workshops I drew from my experience with Canadian schools where I find teachers are rather confused about how to deal with diversity because they’re getting mixed messages.
I’ll give you an example that many Brits will be familiar with too. In Canada, some schools are not allowed to make Christmas a school wide celebration while other faith festivals are fully highlighted. Similarly, the Lord’s Prayer has been nixed in public schools while other prayers are given special accommodation.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that although instructed from the top down, many principals in Australia take independent decisions on how to deal with multi-ethnic, multi-faith issues.
Most of the schools are Catholic or Anglican and some principals said that they inform immigrant parents, as soon as they come for admission, about what to expect so that they’re not caught off guard by co-education, religious education and chapel.
Parents have a choice to accept the rules, or find another school. In some cases special accommodation is made but it’s up to individuals and accommodation is not a school-wide policy.
Despite the diversity of students, including aboriginal and immigrant populations, there were fewer problems than I've encountered in schools elsewhere and educators are much more pragmatic about dealing with issues. Crucially, they draw a distinct line between reasonable and unreasonable accommodation.
From Adelaide I flew to Sydney as a guest of Ida Lichter, a psychologist who is the author of a book titled ‘Muslim Women Reformers’. She arranged for me to speak at The Sydney Institute where the topic suggested was: Sharia – is it a reality in the West?
I was a bit nervous as this was a totally new audience for me. However, the audience was very well informed and open to a discussion of issues without PC.
I had explained the difference between sharia as a moral and ethical guideline and sharia as it’s become today in most Muslim societies; that is, a man-made law, and a tool for Islamists.
There was respectful dialogue and critique of imposition of religion in the public realm, accepting a 2-tier legal system or excessive accommodation in the name of religious freedom.
My Australian audience were also open to solutions and didn’t mind me giving them a bit of a wake-up call to be better informed about the difference between Islam and Islamism, to condemn racism and hatred unequivocally, to reject racist and violent politics of any group and to stand up for their liberty and freedom with respect and dignity.
In my mind, this attitude is prevalent ‘down-under’ because multiculturalism is not yet a top-down government policy, so Aussies are well aware of its insidious appeal as an excuse to push subversive agendas or to turn a blind eye to human rights abuse in the name of pluralism and cultural relativism.
The government also seems to be somewhat in sync with the strengths and challenges of diversity and open immigration policies. Australia faces challenges within its own indigenous aboriginal population and refugees, but they are open to suggestions and reform in their current policies.
My second presentation was the UUSC (Union, University & Schools Club of Sydney) where there was a mixed Christian-Jewish audience of lawyers, retired judges, business people and academics.
In my talk I touched upon the challenges faced by Muslim women activists especially lack of support from Western feminist groups. The Aussies actually got it!
I had hardly finished the Q & A, when a high profile businesswoman approached me and said “I`ve already enlisted other people here and we’ve decided that we are going to build you a mosque for women and you’re coming to the opening!”
No joke – this was serious stuff. Needless to say I was dumbfounded but it also showed me the tenacity of the Australians and that they mean business in wanting to bring about change.
They stayed after lunch, grouped in the club, and kept me talking till 9pm discussing issues of freedom, liberty and equality – something we are passionate about in Canada and elsewhere but often lacking the drive to do anything about it due to vested political agendas.
By end of day they had figured out which politicians to critique, who to lobby and what issues to keep on the front burner.
I also spent time there speaking with Muslims. There were some old friends who have lived in Sydney for some two decades and find it the best place on earth.
I engaged in enlightening conversation with a Muslim taxi driver from Pakistan. I prodded him to tell me tales of racism and discrimination which we hear in the media but none were forthcoming. He touched upon the Cronulla riots as a one-off incident which was hugely hyped, but said that largely Australians believe in live and let live.
He said “if we are honest and forthcoming with them and respect them, then they respect us. I’ve been here 17 years and never had a problem. But there are areas of Sydney where Muslims don’t mix and want their own set of laws, so obviously there is resistance to this kind of ghettoization and I too am against it”.
It`s thought provoking to realise that when a government is not politically correct and multiculturalism is allowed to mature naturally with all its ups and downs, and not thrust down people’s throats or used as a political tool, people will just learn to get along.
Perhaps it’s time we tried this approach in the Northern Hemisphere.
Raheel Raza is the author of 'Their Jihad - Not My Jihad'. You can visit her website at www.raheelraza.com
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