It seems ironic that the current concern with defining the Australian national identity has come at the very time that national identity in many places is coming under threat both from above and below. Globalising forces impose top-down cultural and economic hegemony while bottom-up efforts assert the importance of sub-national collective identities.
Yet it may be that this erosion of national distinctiveness is in part responsible for a backlash of resurgent national pride. This backlash is accompanied by renewed anxiety over the place of ethnic and cultural minorities within multicultural societies and over border control and restrictions as to who can be allowed to be Australian.
Public discourse in Australia and across the West is increasingly positioning Muslims as the “other” or the “enemy within” despite the fact the vast majority of Western followers of the Islamic faith, whether practising or not, are integral members of multicultural societies.
An examination of mainstream Australian media over the last five years has shown that much of Australia’s rich heritage of ethnic diversity is being stifled under the weight of a simplifying practice which has resulted in the creation of the idea of a singular group, now known as Muslim-Australians.
But what does this mean for those citizens and residents who are being ascribed this identity label whether they choose it or not? This is particularly critical for young people who are in the process of finding and establishing their own identities and social roles.
It has been argued that one of the longest-standing Muslim self-definitions is through belonging to a global community of believers. But for members of Australia’s Turkish community - and perhaps for members of other ethnicities whose Muslim identity is subordinate to national, cultural and ethnic affiliations - networks of family and friends based around shared language, history, culture and descent override the importance of religion that is attributed to them by outsiders, in their view of their own place in the world.
This ongoing role of the media in contributing to the construction of identity-based groups is both overt and subtle. Hybrid, or hyphenated identity terms are increasingly being used, yet the messy reality of most people’s cultural, ethnic, national, religious and linguistic background makes even a hyphenated identity tag problematic. Moreover, an umbrella term which lumps all Australian followers of Islam into a single subset of all Australians ignores the complex diversity of Muslims in Australia.
Recent local and global events have cast the spotlight on the followers of Islam in a sudden, sharp and mostly unlooked for way. But mainstream public media discourse in the west, including Australia, has tended to use the terms Islam and Muslim as if they were unproblematic and described in some sense “real” or bounded social or ethnic groups.
The Turkish migrants who had begun arriving in Australia in the late 1960s, were the first major wave of Muslim immigrants into this country. The next major Islamic group to arrive were the Lebanese in the later part of the 1970’s fleeing the civil war in their homeland. Lebanese migrants and their descendants now make up the biggest Muslim ethnic group in Australia.
In contrast to the Turks, the Lebanese were more likely to settle in Sydney than in Melbourne and much of what passes for discussion of Islam in Australia really only refers to the experiences of the Muslim Lebanese. Other Muslim immigrants who have arrived more recently come from Bosnia, Somalia, Indonesia and Malaysia. Like the Turks, these groups are frequently conflated with the Arabic Lebanese in an undifferentiated mass known as Muslim-Australians.
The increase in global population movements through international migration has broken down some of the old imagined congruence of national and cultural identities.
Although our national identity has traditionally been shaped by certain geographical spaces, international air travel and the development of new media like the Internet and satellite broadcasting are changing the role that these spaces and places play.
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