The Limits Of Multiculturalism In Sydney

The protest in September by groups of Muslims in Sydney shows the limits of tolerant and liberal multiculturalism in Australia. Before an avid reader of Andrew Bolt becomes too excited, I warn the reader that what I am advocating is not a rejection of immigration and a promotion of cultural exclusivity. I argue instead that the recent demonstrations show that there are certain limits to multicultural tolerance, which allowed for an increase in the vilification of Muslims in both the media and in the wider society of Australia.

Most people in the Australian public tolerate different religious, cultural and ethnic groups – only as long as minority ethnic groups, such as Muslims, don’t encroach on the personal space of the wider community too much. As long as such groups of people remain obedient and keep to their own communities, without ‘harassing’ or ‘bothering’ the wider national community (through a loud and energetic protest in a central park in Sydney for example).

In many countries around the world, Muslims refused to stand idle and have their prophet vilified through an obscure short film, Innocence of Muslims, which was posted on YouTube. This lack of acceptance was overwhelmingly portrayed by the media in most western countries as an act of violence; an act which ‘over-stepped’ the tolerable horizon of the liberal and multicultural order.

Within Australia, Muslims are mostly accepted by the wider society only in so far as they silently accept the particular situation in which they find themselves on a daily basis. Their particular situation in the West can be described as one in which they are regularly associated with acts of violence (such as terrorism) in the media or disavowed through the rejection of their dress or religious-cultural customs (such as proposals to ban the Burqa, which many but not all Muslims choose to wear, or through the rejection of Islamic places of worship).

When their religion is vilified, Muslims are not meant to protest or ‘fight back’ against vilification, and if they do, they are ridiculed or labeled as violent fundamentalists. This is because they are not playing the role of the mere passive victim that they are designated within the dominant and tolerant multicultural order. Although liberals may concede that discrimination against Muslims does exist, and thus also promote the idea that all Australians should be more open to Islam, they still tend to argue that Muslims should not be ‘violent’ or vocal about their particular situation. Muslims are told that they should learn to direct their grievances through the proper legal channels instead.

The Muslim is not meant to appear on a liberal’s television screen with placards demanding respect nor retribution. A liberal may enjoy a day tour of their local Mosque or a taste of the odd piece of Baklava from their friendly Turkish neighbour every now and then, but never would the dominant liberal order accept a demanding, protesting nor defiant political Muslim – political in the sense that they are not necessarily passive victims and are active in voicing their particular opinions.

Muslims at the protest in Sydney were treated as ‘toxic’ subjects who disturbed the peace. A toxic subject is that which lies outside the dominant and tolerant multicultural order. Such a subject is not meant to speak out against their discrimination, as it encroaches on the personal space of others, within the proximity of the other’s cultural or ethnic ‘community’ and therefore ‘toxic’ Muslims are designated as subjects to be kept at somewhat of a distance from the mainstream, cultural order. Perhaps in a camp in Guantanamo bay for example.

An Islamic fundamentalist (not that the majority of the protestors in Sydney were from a fundamentalist background) is not tolerated as much as the Muslim in general is tolerated (the image of the friendly Turkish neighbour). Thus the fundamentalist is an example of the toxic subject which disturbs the peace of the liberal multicultural order. Unfortunately all of the Sydney protesters were treated by the media as Islamic fundamentalists; children, women and men alike.

This proved a challenge to the dominant ideology of multiculturalism in Australia, whereby the values of ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ associated with multiculturalism only exist in so far as cultural groups do not espouse radical political ideas or express political opinion through protests and civil disobedience. Multiculturalism is thus a form of ‘tolerance’ which only allows for the acceptance of one’s neighbor, without its ‘disturbing’ or ‘radical’ Otherness. Designating all of the protesters in Sydney as ‘fundamentalist’ and thus as ‘toxic subjects’ meant that all Muslims at the protest were outside of the tolerant, multicultural order and were thus made the target of  vilification in the Australian media.

Andrew Biskup

The author Andrew Biskup

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