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Multiculturalism in Australia works

By Waleed Aly - posted Wednesday, 27 July 2005

The people of London did not deserve this. They were ordinary people going about their business, making their way to work. Infamously, bombs went off on public transport all around the city killing over 50 people, injuring hundreds. These were innocent people.

But so was 48-year-old Pakistani man Kamal Raza Butt. Three days after the London bombings he was just visiting a friend in Nottingham where he had been staying for the past six weeks. As he left a neighbourhood shop he was viciously assaulted. He fell unconscious and collapsed, before being taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Police are investigating the incident as a racist attack.

His story is only one in a wave of 300 estimated hate crimes in Britain since the London atrocities. Not all the innocent victims, it seems, were claimed in the blasts.


Unfortunately, the backlash was not confined to Britain. In Indiana, criminals threw a rock through the window of the Islamic Centre of Bloomington. They then poured liquid accelerant through the window and set the building alight. The Bloomington police and fire departments are working with the FBI to apprehend those responsible.

And Muslims in central, south and west Auckland awoke to find six mosques systematically vandalised with graffiti reading “Londoners RIP”. One mosque, in Otahuhu was attacked twice in three days. Police have seen the need to increase patrols of Auckland mosques.

These are the sorts of incidents that have become commonplace in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on Western soil. Even in Australia, arsonists have attacked mosques and people have been assaulted in recent years. It was reasonable that some would be fearful of a similar backlash in the face of fresh attacks in London.

But in Australia, unlike Britain, the United States and New Zealand, there have been no assaults in the last fortnight. There has been no vandalism. Bar a handful of abusive phone calls and e-mails, there has been no significant backlash at all. It is a contrast of which we should all be proud.

The backlash in Britain is of course easy to explain: the raw fear and anger inspired by bombings in one’s own backyard can easily become a justification for an individual's criminal prejudices. In the United States, too, emotions would be intense. After experiencing September 11, Americans would relate to the London bombings in a way that is more direct, more real than Australians.

Of course, none of this excuses any of these hate-crimes, which deserve to be condemned. But it might explain the difference between the reactions of the Australian public and their American and British counterparts.


But New Zealand? That country’s experience of terrorism is certainly no greater than our own. Why would there be a greater backlash there than here?

I suspect it is a tribute to the success of our (admittedly imperfect) multiculturalism. There are only about 40,000 Muslims in New Zealand, less than half the number in Melbourne alone. Such a small population of Muslims is likely to remain alien in the imagination of the majority. These are the very dynamics that underlie guilt by association, which in turn is the essence of so much thoughtless backlash.

But in Australia, Muslims have a more significant presence in society. They have worked extremely hard in the years since September 11 to build bridges with other faith communities as well as wider Australia. The Muslim population base is large enough to ensure their lives are enmeshed with those of mainstream Australia. They feel perfectly comfortable being both Muslims and Australians. For most Australian Muslims, integration is already a fact of life. Despite the protestations of those who regularly attack or deride it, our multiculturalism is quietly working effectively in mainstream Australia.

And so, the wider Australian community understand that when some criminals kill innocent people in London, that is no reason to attack innocent people in Australia. We understand that the ideology of division and targeting the innocent that drives terrorism is the same ideology, though clearly more extreme, that drives the retaliations. Australia's multicultural success story is that we have overcome this by recognising that there is more we have in common than there is that divides us.

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First published in The Herald Sun on July 21, 2005.

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About the Author

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria executive. He is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash Univeristy. His book, People Like Us (Picador), will be published in September.

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