The fiction of the perfect pre-multicultural society

Watching Melbourne’s Moomba Parade 2001 Credit: AAP.

In any criticism of a social out-group such as Muslims in Australia there is another unstated message being communicated: that those criticisms do not apply to us.

To berate Muslims for intolerance, militancy or misogyny is simultaneously to celebrate the majority’s tolerance, peacefulness and gender equity. It is both an admonition and an exoneration.

Understanding this helps explain why, in James Button’s words, “responses to Islam confound old distinctions of left and right. A conservative Dutch Government is insisting that would-be Muslim migrants recognise the Netherlands’ commitment to feminism and gay rights before they come.” Indeed it is precisely in the interests of a conservative politician to do so. In appropriating these causes they can celebrate them as achievements, rather than as ongoing struggles.

This leaves them complete such that the conservative need take no further action. As long as Muslims remain central, villainous characters in the values conversation, any progressive attack is blunted. The conservative politician can retort compellingly: ‘we are not misogynists and homophobes—they are!’ It has become a common rhetorical feature.

Said John Howard:

“…in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women, the societies that some people have left were not as contemporary and as progressive as ours is. And I think people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia. That men and women do have equality and they’re each entitled to full respect.”

In what other context would Howard celebrate the idea that Australia is ‘contemporary and progressive’? And who, in this context, can disagree?

No doubt, many feminists will contest the assertion that ‘men and women do have equality’ in Australia, but when the conversation is shifted to a relative one juxtaposing Muslims, any such argument is unsustainable and therefore lost. And so a heroic self-image is gradually constructed: an ideal self where all vice has been exported onto a demonic other.

The constructed foe, then, depends on who we need ourselves to be. The welfare cheat affirms us as honest and hardworking. The uncontrollable adolescent reassures us of the competence of our own parenting. So, as Meyda Yegenoglu observes, the veiled Muslim woman was once an untamed seductress, drawing animalistic, lustful men into grave sin. That was the view of a virtuous, sexually proper Europe. Today she is a symbol of oppression for a free West, or even a symbol of violent radicalism for a West that is peace-loving (since its many wars are without exception noble and unavoidable rather than self-interested and plundering). This cloth is a flexible symbol indeed.

The self need never be engaged critically in this process. It is simply venerated. This is self-affirmation by declaration. Its relationship to history can, of course, be casual. Thus it becomes entirely possible even for German politicians to talk to its minorities as if the Holocaust never happened. Recall the case of Ashkan Dejegah, a footballer who plays for Germany but also holds an Iranian passport. Dejegah refused to travel with the team to play against Israel, not as a matter of ideological conviction, but for fear that he would be barred entry to Iran in future.

German outrage was understandably palpable, but Christian Democrats general secretary Ronald Pofalla’s choice of words was instructively poor: “Whoever represents Germany, whether he be a native German or an immigrant, has to identify with the history and culture of our society”. Given the ‘history and culture’ of twentieth-century Germany, this is the darkest of ironies.

The invocation of history in this context is far from exceptional. Indeed much popular anti-multiculturalism relies on presenting the besieged majority as the guardians of history and tradition. The sub-text is hardly subtle: that it is Muslims (or migrants generally) who have brought these vices with them. Hence their exceptionalism. There is something unique about their presence that threatens an unprecedented cultural fracture. The past was certain, confident and good.

Much is invested in this foundational Judeo-Christian heritage by anti-multiculturalists. The Australian Government makes special note of it in its information booklet for prospective citizens. The Howard Government spruiked it regularly. It is invoked as a historical anchor, yet the entire concept of a Judeo-Christian heritage to connote a harmoniously shared culture and values system, is a remarkable rewriting of history.

The idea that Jews and Christians share values or beliefs does not appear until probably the 1930s, and the mere suggestion of it will have been anathema to many Christians until after World War II (the Jews, after all, were guilty of the most heinous of crimes: deicide). We forget that the attacks of militant Zionism against the British proceeded in part from Menachem Begin’s belief in the incurable anti-Semitism of Christian Europe, including the British, whom he accused of “determinedly shut[ting] their ears to the cry of Jewish blood dyeing the rivers of Europe” because they “very eagerly wanted the Jews not to be saved”.

In theological terms, the construction of a Judeo- Christian tradition is similarly incoherent. Certainly, Jews and Christians partially share scripture. But they interpret it in fundamentally different ways, evidenced by the fact that no Jewish theologian could have imagined the Trinity. Indeed of the great monotheistic faiths, Christianity contributes the greatest theological departures. Islamic and Judaic monotheism have far more in common. Their legal traditions more closely converge. If there is an odd one out in this triumvirate, it is Christianity.

The forging of a Judeo-Christian tradition as a historical basis for Western civilisation is more a political act than a historical fact. Indeed the term’s very creation was an attempt to resist the fascistic, anti-Semitic discourse of those who promoted the exclusively protestant identity of America. To that end, it was a noble piece of linguistic innovation, quite at odds with the contemporary tendency to use it as a statement of exclusion.

This is how we create new cultures, new histories, new objects of veneration while pretending it was ever thus. The Judeo-Christian example provides a neat illustration of how national narratives can change. The simple fact is that nation-states are artificial creations often sustained by mythical narratives, coercion and violence. We must dismiss the nostalgic fiction of an ossified national culture that has ever been thus until multiculturalism and cultural relativism uprooted it. Cultures are always contested and dynamic.

This is an extract from the chapter Monoculturalism, Muslims and Myth Making in the forthcoming book Muslims and Multiculturalism published by Text Publishing