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Dear migrants, letís reclaim the flag as a symbol of unity

By Saeed Khan - posted Tuesday, 24 January 2017


For many years now there has been much debate about our national identity. The debate seems to heat up each year around Australia Day.  This year is no different.

Last week the United Patriots Front, a far-right racist group targeted a Victorian Australia Day billboard that carried two five year old hijab-wearing Muslim girls waving Australian flags. The followers of this xenophobic group see such billboards as an attempt to redefine the nation and gradually erase white Australian identity. While they manage to intimidate the ad company responsible into removing the billboard, a wider community backlash against such thuggery has followed. A social media fundraising campaign by Dee Madigan has already raised in excess of $150,000 to reinstate the billboard and many full page ads placed in major newspapers across Australia.

The question of national identity and Australian values has often been used by the politicians and far right, with varying level of xenophobia, to marginalise the non-white minorities. Needless to say singling out Australian Muslims and emerging migrant communities has become a norm in recent years. 

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What is one’s national identity anyway?  The Oxford Dictionary says, “A sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture, and language”

While Wikipedia says that national identity is one's identity or sense of belonging to one state or to one nation. It is the sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture, language and politics.

It seems to me that contemporary definitions of national identity are yet to catch up with the changing face of a global world we live in. Personally, I like the Wiki’ definition that includes belonging and politics.

Indeed it is politics that makes or breaks a nation’s identity. In the Hawk and Keating era our national diversity was a cause for celebration. Inclusion and compassion were a political norm. As a migrant myself, I remember the national flag as an important symbol of national unity.

The seeds of antagonism towards our diverse national identity were sowed during the Howard years. In the post 9/11 world, 2005 Cronulla Riots let the racist genie out of the bottle. Worse still John Howard refused to condemn the use of our national flag by racist thugs and we allowed a xenophobic minority to hijack the key symbol of our unity as nation. 

As a result many in the wider community started to see our national flag somewhat as an expression of racism, hate and exclusion. When it comes to the use of the Australian flag on Australia day, the Invasion Day dynamic also complicates the feelings of so many who would rather get rid of the flag and its Union Jack, a reminder of atrocities against our indigenous communities.

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I still remember the excitement when I first became an Australian citizen nearly 20 years ago. A group of us, as diverse as the United Nations, was filled with a sense of joy, pride and belonging, attending the citizenship ceremony at Marrickville Council. I still keep that picture receiving my citizenship certificate from Mayor Barry Cotter as a special memory. Mayor Cotter, standing in front of an Australian flag, gave an impassioned speech about what it meant to be Australian and why we must engage in public life to add to local diversity. Little did he know that six years later I would be elected to Marrickville Council to help end his hold on the Mayoralty, but that is another story.  

As a Councillor, I attended many citizenship ceremonies including Australia Day, with new Australians holding the flag and singing the national anthem with elation.  Seeing the excitement and delight on their faces was always a joy to behold. State and federal governments could learn a lot from local councils. In my experience, despite all its faults, local government has kept together communities despite a rapidly changing outlook. This is in the face of rising state and federal populism.

Past research has suggested that the Australian flag has retained its symbolic value as a unifier through inclusive identities constructed by migrants. Despite continuing efforts of right wing lunatics to hijack the flag, many migrants don’t see the flag as symbol of division and racism.

Those young girls from Melbourne have reminded us that there is no other symbol that embodies our national unity like the flag. Dear migrants, let’s reclaim the flag from racist thugs and xenophobes this Australia Day. Display it with pride. It’s your way of celebrating your new homeland in unity with all Australians regardless of their colour, class, creed or culture. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to look, dress or speak in a certain way to be a true Australian. We are a multicultural society and you are as much a part of its shared future as the person next door. 

I will be proudly displaying a flag on my car this Australia Day. We all should. We owe it to those two five year old girls from Melbourne!

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About the Author

Saeed Khan is a writer, diversity advocate, a former Deputy Chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW and a former Treasures of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA). Twitter @saeedahmedkhan

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