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Our great Judeo-Christian tradition

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Wednesday, 30 May 2007

On May 29, 2004, Treasurer Peter Costello addressed a crowd of Pentecostal Christians at Scots Church in Melbourne.

Costello provided his audience with a lesson in Australia’s colonial history. “If the Arab traders that brought Islam to Australia, had … settled or spread their faith among the Indigenous population, our country today would be vastly different. Our laws, our institutions, our economy would be vastly different.

“But that did not happen. Our society was founded by British colonists. And the single most decisive feature that determined the way it developed was the Judeo-Christian-Western tradition. As a society, we are who we are because of that tradition … one founded on that faith and one that draws on the Judeo-Christian tradition.”


Two years later, Costello’s sentiments seem to have made their way into a sample multiple choice question of the proposed Citizenship Test. New citizens could be asked which of the following mutually exclusive sources form the basis of “Australian values”:

  • teachings of the Koran;
  • the Judeo-Christian tradition;
  • Catholicism; and
  • secularism.

You’d expect the second option’s correctness would be obvious after even the most cursory reading of our history. Surely the Jewish and Anglican theology and culture of English settlers played a central role in building our colonial institutions.

Costello’s 2004 speech suggests only the traditions of British colonists mattered. Australia’s first few fleets consisted of a handful of English free settlers accompanying shiploads of convicts of various faiths - Jews, Catholics, Muslims and a smattering of perhaps reluctant followers of the Church of England.

Costello’s much touted Judeo-Christian culture wasn’t exactly alive and well in England. Both colonists and convicts would have been aware of the passing of the Jew Bill through the English Parliament in 1753, allowing Jews to be naturalised by application to Parliament. Mr Costello’s ideological ancestors, the Tories, opposed the Bill, claiming it involved an “abandonment of Christianity”. Conservative protesters burnt effigies of Jews and carried placards reading “No Jews, no wooden shoes”.

Jews were forbidden from attending university and practising law in England until the mid 19th century. One can only imagine the prejudice the 750-odd First Fleet Jewish convicts faced from English jailors brought up in such an anti-Semitic environment.


Life for Muslims wasn’t much better. Most were free men working as sailors, though quite a few were convicts. The crew on board The Endeavour, which left Port Jackson in 1795, included a large number of Muslim sailors. Meanwhile, at least eight convicts of Arab descent arrived in Australia.

Melbourne Muslim Bilal Cleland acknowledges in his definitive history of Muslims in Australia: “As Muslims and a subject people, despised for their race, they would have lived on the edge of society. Even Christians suffered persecution at that time if they were from the wrong sect.”

It was not until the 1820’s that legislation discriminating against the followers of non-Anglican Christian sects was repealed. Sectarian prejudice prevailed in Australia, largely focused on a large group of descendants of Irish convicts whose loyalty to a bishop in Rome was often greater than to Queen and Country.

My own family lived in South Asia and then North America for about 18 months during the mid-1970’s. I returned to a state school in Mr Howard’s electorate in 1977, the only kid in the class who managed to combine brown skin with a strange name and a New Jersey accent. I was frequently teased and bullied.

Then one day walking home, I noticed the bullies were picking on a boy from a different school. Strangely, this boy had blond hair, blue eyes and white skin. I wondered why he was being bullied by his own kind. The bullies provided a brief explanation: “He goes to Holy Spirit School!”

I went home and informed my mother of this discovery. She responded by befriending all the Catholics in the street. It was her way of showing solidarity with other oppressed peoples!

With such a rich history of sectarianism, it’s little wonder the Catholic religion is excluded from our “Judeo-Christian” heritage. And as Laura Tingle told the ABC Compass program on April Fools Day: “The polling I think on both sides of politics is showing that particularly in NSW and particularly in the outer metropolitan seats in Sydney anti Islamic feeling is now really white hot. And there’s therefore a big dilemma for both sides of politics about the extent to which they exploit that.”

Sectarian feelings are being exploited by both politicians and clergy, including by clergy of faiths excluded from the list. Cardinal Pell can challenge Muslims as much as he likes, but the Howard Government has clearly suggested that Catholicism and the “Judeo-Christian heritage” are mutually exclusive categories.

And try telling Australian non-Christians that their values aren’t the same as Australian values. I’d love to see Peter Costello telling a group of turban-wearing National Party-voting bi-lingual banana farmers from the New South Wales Central Coast town of Woolgoolga that Guru Nanak’s monotheistic message has no relevance to Australian values.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean spiritual values are irrelevant. After all, 160 years before the First Fleet arrived, Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós came across an island he presumed to be the “Great South Land”, naming it La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo (Land of the Holy Spirit).

Then again, what would a Portuguese Catholic know about Australian values!

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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