There have only been a few times in my life when I haven’t felt proud to be Australian. The most notable was during the Cronulla riots. They stood for everything I had always thought was unAustralian – racial hatred, intolerance -, and watching them for the first time I wasn’t sure I was in the majority. Are we a racist country? Nearly a year on now, I still don’t know for sure. I don’t believe so. There are people living here with those attitudes (as there are in every country), but I don’t think they represent the majority of Australians. Cronulla was as much about the age of fear we live in now as it was pure racism.
What the riots illustrated to me, though, was how poorly integrated our society really is – something which seems to have come up again recently. Mufti Sheikh Taj Din al-Halali’s comments comparing immodestly dressed women to “uncovered meat left outside” are disturbing and unacceptable not only because he is the leading Islamic cleric in Australia, but because at a time when we need to be bringing communities closer together, his words can only be divisive.
It’s why John Howard and other politicians have been more noticeable recently in urging the Muslim community to accept Australian values. They know that the tensions that caused the Cronulla riots on both sides are still there, under the surface, and there’s always the risk of those tensions escalating again. The answer (they say) is a process of evolving into one community, of introducing people to mateship and “growing” the Australian fabric of life. In theory they’re probably right, but I find something a bit strange about this government talking about mateship and giving people a “fair go” when they still have asylum children locked in detention centres.
Still, Australia prides itself on multiculturalism, so it makes sense that people who want to live here should consent to those values. But I think that should go for all of us. It’s not fair to point solely at the Muslim community, when really we’re the ones who have ostracized them since 9/11. And it was the white population that started the Cronulla riots. The only way to achieve acceptance and integration is to educate people further about different cultures, and we don’t see enough of that.
I guess all this is on my mind right now because of the G20 protests in Melbourne. The scenes remind me so much of the Cronulla riots, and even though it’s most likely an isolated group causing trouble here, it still illustrates a similar problem. There’s an undercurrent of violence in our society that nobody wants to admit exists, and we’ll never overcome it while we still have that attitude. It shows that almost a year on from Cronulla we still haven’t come that much further, and that’s unacceptable.