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Mistaken diagnosis for terror

By Geoffrey Brahm Levey - posted Thursday, 4 August 2005

Blaming multiculturalism for the radical Muslim attacks on the London Underground was predictable and is understandable. It is also misguided. It was predictable because our public commentators invariably return to their stock positions and pet hates. Islamic militants plough two passenger jets into the World Trade Centre in 2001 and John Stone, Frank Devine, Janet Albrechtsen and others, indict multiculturalism. Four bombs are detonated on London transport this July and Piers Ackerman, John Stone, Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen indict multiculturalism.

Blaming multiculturalism is understandable, as people will naturally reach for quick explanations in the face of provocation. Thus two notable small-l liberals, Pamela Bone writing in The Age and Terry Lane in The Sunday Age, have also put multiculturalism in the dock over the recent outrages and Islamic fundamentalism more generally.

The problem is none of these commentators ever quite explains how multiculturalism is responsible for promoting the hostile attitudes and actions of some Muslims. If we are to abolish such an important social policy, and since we are all multicultural men or women, we might expect at least a few paragraphs detailing the guilt of the accused. No such luck.


For Bone, there “is something wrong with multiculturalism” when “second and third-generation Muslims can believe the society in which they grew up - indeed, into which they were born - is evil to the core and needs to be destroyed. So why blame multiculturalism? In allowing migrants to retain and celebrate their own cultures, she says, we’ve ignored the question of the limits of our toleration. But who exactly has ignored this? Certainly not liberal regimes of multiculturalism such as Australia’s, which has always emphasised the imperative of abiding by liberal democratic norms and allegiance to Australia and its security.

For Ackerman, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, the “flaw in the multicultural argument has always been the nonsense that every culture and every political ideology is equal”.

Similarly, for Albrechtsen, in The Australian, the problem is “multicultural policies that promote all cultures as equal”. Which multicultural policies stand for this? How could they if they set limits grounded in liberal democratic values?

Cultural warrior that he is, Ackerman has in mind “the Left, with its blind embrace of moral relativism”. Even if this tendentious claim were true, the Left hasn’t exactly been in control of the national government for the past nine years. And which state Labor government does not insist on the superiority of some political and cultural values over others?

Or is the idea rather that Australia’s cultural institutions - such as everyone’s ABC and SBS - inculcates moral relativism in the community and sends green lights to suicide bombers? This does indeed seem to be the position of former Treasury secretary Stone, who, writing in The Australian, recommends restricting Muslim immigration and abolishing SBS. Yet, as nearly all his fellow multicultural-phobes acknowledge, the vast majority of Muslim immigrants are good, law-abiding citizens. And it is just not clear how World Movies and Dateline produce Islamic fundamentalists - at least, any more so than Desperate Housewives and Nightline.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun’s Bolt cites as hard evidence, some multicultural grants given to the Islamic Youth Movement to run language classes and the “multicultural pampering” that enables Muslim ethnic groups to retain their “identity”. Why single out this grant program for having been abused and not also the companies that supply water and electricity to the IYM and radical Mosques? As for being allowed to retain one’s religious identity, Bolt really should brush up on his liberalism. Freedom of worship and association predates the advent of multiculturalism by about two centuries.


For Lane, “assimilation is a sweet word” whilst multiculturalism is “a repulsive word denoting an ugly concept”. His argument is all too orthodox: multiculturalism breeds “ghettos of perpetual difference and special preferment,” which are “bound to foster violence by those who feel either superior to or excluded from the national culture”. Evidence? Rather unfortunately, Lane cites the parents of Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London suicide bombers, who, he says, fled stricken and squalid conditions to come to Britain for a better life, but obviously neglected to assimilate and identify with British values.

A week later, courtesy of journalists tracking down Tanweer’s family in Pakistan, we now know what was running through the bomber’s mind. “He knew that excesses are being done to Muslims. Incidents like desecration of the Koran have always been in his mind,” his uncle is reported as saying, mentioning specifically the abuse of Muslim prisoners and desecration of the Koran by US guards at Guantánamo Bay. Here is a bomber who was radicalised not by Islamic creed or moral relativism or 1960s utopianism or multicultural pampering or ghettos in Britain, but by the careless reaction to previous jihadist provocations.

And herein lies the rub for our 800-word diagnosticians. Islamic fundamentalism today is not one problem, but several. It is not simple, but complex. And multiculturalism as we practice it has no more to do with it than the liberal democratic values these writers claim they want to protect. Liberal democracy is about treating people first and foremost as individuals, a principle that liberal multiculturalism aims to extend in the name of individuals’ autonomy and equality. It is thus the very opposite of “anything goes”.

What is striking about these custodians of the Western inheritance is how easily they themselves slide into “groupism”, judging people by their group membership rather than by their deeds. That may not be as immediately scary as a bomb on your bus. But in the grander scheme of political life, it is not far behind.

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Article edited by Rachel Ryan.
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First published in The Australian on July 28, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Geoffrey Brahm Levey is a Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations at University of NSW. He is co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics to be published by Sussex Academic Press in 2004.

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