Culture

Malcolm Turnbull Defends Multicultural Australia As Anti-Islam Protests Gear Up

The PM's response after this week makes you thankful Tony Abbott's not Prime Minister anymore.

Australia’s experiment in multiculturalism has had a rough week. In the aftermath of the Parramatta Police Station shooting last Friday, elements looking to capitalise on people’s fear and distrust have grown bolder, more vocal and more virulent in their actions.

Far-right group the Party For Freedom is planning a rally outside Parramatta Mosque this afternoon, demanding the mosque refudiate terrorism and extremism (conveniently ignoring that the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, and Parramatta Mosque chairman Neil El-Kadomi, did exactly that this morning). Meanwhile, prominent NSW Muslims like state upper house MP Mehreen Faruqi have been receiving disturbing messages like these:

It’s not just in NSW where tensions are high. In Bendigo, where a proposed mosque has been the focal point of domestic and international anti-Islam groups for several years now, far-right groups and counter-protesters intent on opposing them are set to rally on the weekend.

Smelling opportunity, perennial fringe candidate Pauline Hanson has resurfaced on morning TV and online, calling for mosques to be shut down and halal food to be outlawed. Last night on Channel Nine’s new talk show The Verdict, former Labor leader Mark Latham claimed western Sydney has “a Muslim problem”.

But there is hope for cautious optimism in a growing boldness on the part of our political leadership to challenge and refute these ways of thinking. In an address this afternoon, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had harsh words for extremists of all kinds, giving a forceful defence of Australian multiculturalism and questioning the kind of narrow-mindedness that blames all Muslims over the actions of a few.

“Australia is the most successful and most harmonious multicultural society in the world. These is no comparable country with its citizens and residents born from outside its shores with such a diverse cultural mix of peoples,” Turnbull said.

“None of us, no one of us, can look in the mirror and say: ‘All Australians look like me’. Australians look like every race, like every culture, like every ethnic group in the world.

“How have we been able to be so successful? It is because of a fundamental Australian value, and that is mutual respect. I want to say to you that mutual respect is the glue that binds this very diverse country together. It is what enables us to be so successful. Mutual respect is fundamental to our harmony as a multicultural society, and it is fundamental to our success. It is fundamental to our future prosperity, it’s fundamental to our national security.

“Now, the key to that mutual respect is that it is a two-way street. Every religion, every faith, every moral doctrine, understands the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So if we want to be respected, if we want our faith, our cultural background to be respected, we have to respect others. That is a fundamental part of the Australian project.

“And it means, therefore, that every single one of us who wants Australia to be successful, who wants our great nation to prosper further in the future — and I have no doubt that almost every single Australian does — than we have to ask ourselves … are we teaching our young people, both by word and by deed, the values of mutual respect? Because if we are not, than we are not doing enough for Australia.”

Turnbull summed up his sentiments in a Facebook post earlier this afternoon, saying: “We have to call out the language, the examples of disrespect, the language of hatred wherever it is practised.”

Turnbull has been unapologetic in his defence of Australian multiculturalism and Islam before. In a Q&A appearance in 2011, Turnbull eloquently outlined the ways Islam has contributed to Western society, as well as the importance of values like tolerance and a willingness to embrace difference over the ostensibly “Australian” values of racial and sectarian division spruiked by anti-Islam groups.

“For heaven’s sake, much of our learning and culture came to us from the Muslims. Our whole system of numbers, and much of the learning of the ancient Greeks only survived because of the Arab and Islamic scholars. The idea that Islam is antithetical to learning or culture is absurd,” Turnbull said at the time.

“It is important for us that we promote and encourage Islamic traditions which are moderate; which support freedom; which support democracy; and support Australian values. Not in the sense of ‘Aussie values’, but in the sense of democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, freedom. They are universal values.”

Most importantly, though, Turnbull’s approach to the situation stands in marked contrast to that of his predecessor, Tony Abbott, who had a history of using divisive, militaristic language when referring to Australia’s Muslim communities. At one of his trademark excessively-flagged national security announcements, Abbott infamously said: “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a religion of peace. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.”

Whether or not Turnbull is willing to back up his laudable statements with action against the MPs in his own party who foster such division to their own political advantage remains to be seen. In the back end of that Q&A video, Turnbull shrugs off anti-Islam comments from Senator Cory Bernardi. Turnbull has also refused to acknowledge that his predecessor regularly engaged in the kind of rhetoric Turnbull decried this afternoon, while others have pointed out a Nauru-sized hole in the PM’s supposed commitment to mutual respect and dignity.

But having a Prime Minister actively seeking to quell people’s prejudices and fears, rather than stoke them, can only be a good thing at this stage. It will take a great deal of time and energy to undo the damage Abbott and his ilk have done in this area, but at least a start has been made today.