Fractures in Victoria’s multiculturalism face cross party solidarity

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Ministers Matthew Guy and Telmo Languiller with members of the ICV and ECCV

Written by Saúl A. Zavarce

Victoria has never been more culturally diverse than it is now. At the 2011 census, 46.8% were either born overseas or had at least one parent who was.

We have a great tradition of celebrating this diversity. Just yesterday Tullamarine Airport celebrated Diwali, a major Hindu festival to commemorate the return of Lord Rama from his 14 years of exile, and next month the Johnston Street Festival, now in its 36th consecutive year, will celebrate Victoria’s Latin American community.

In one sense, we’re lucky to have such a vibrant community without populist politicians like Geert Wilders, who has made waves internationally and even here regarding his strong opposition to multiculturalism and Islam. Victoria however, as with any multicultural society still faces issues and challenges in promoting and fostering this diverse community.

In particular Australia is susceptible to international events and wars, these ruptures inflame racial hatred within the community.

During the most recent conflict in Gaza, incidences of anti-Semitism went “through the roof” according to David Marlow, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

“Anti-Semitic incidences have dropped back to ‘normal’ but anti-Semitism hasn’t gone away and the security risk is up and the community sees it as a big issue,” Said Mr Marlow.

“Sometimes you get the straight ‘Kill Jews’ painted on someone’s wall, which happened a month ago, then you get people shouting from cars and children abused as they walk to school.”

Unsurprising of course, while the conflict in Gaza drew the ire of Victoria’s bigots to the Jewish community for Israel’s involvement, the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria against ISIS have increased Islamophobia within the community as well.

In September of this year a Muslim woman was racially abused at a Melbourne train station, with the attacker pushing her head repeatedly into a wall being confronted by two men.

These types of racist events sometimes garner great media attention as seen with the Brisbane teen forced to apologise after a racial attack earlier this month, but these incidences largely go underreported to the police and less so to the media.

According to Mohammed El-leissy, a youth worker with Islamic youth believes that whoever is elected in November will need to find solutions to deal with this issue over the coming years.

“There’s always very difficult situations because they come up every time something overseas happens. It sort of flares up the racism and bigots in our society and they become violent and quite aggressive.” Said Mr El-leissy.

The solutions that each of these communities desires is as varied as their experience though.

Mr Marlow insists that there needs to be greater funding for community security at Jewish schools and community centres.

” We would like to see promises around what sort of help they can give with security infrastructure.” Said Mr Marlow.

“The council does not help. One of the Orthodox Jewish schools wanted to put up a big fence for security reasons and council knocked it back for something like heritage listing. It was above normal and they didn’t accept security as a justification.

“This is a very orthodox school, council said that it wasn’t justified. In NSW … schools in Sydney got a big bomb proof wall built, with no issue from council.”

Mr El-leissy instead calls for greater funding of education to often neglected areas with a high Muslim populations like Broadmeadow or Dandenong.

“I would like to see both parties focus on areas where there’s large Muslim areas with high unemployment that traditionally have not been invested in.” Said Mr El-leissy.

Indeed the statistics from the 2011 census back this claim. Greater Dandenong and the City of Hume are ranked first and twelfth as the most relative socio-economically disadvantaged local government areas in the State which also have the high concentrations of Muslims as well.

These experiences of two communities in Victoria may paint a gloomy picture for the state of multiculturalism in Victoria. You’d be forgiven for believing that to be the case if you thought that Victoria’s political leaders were at all like our Federal representatives.

While the Federal government has openly debated the banning of the burqa and attempted to defend Australian’s “right to be bigots”, Victoria’s political leadership has stood in solidarity in defence of multiculturalism.

From the Liberal party, Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Planning, Matthew Guy defended the 18C Racial Discrimination Act back in March, telling Parliament “There isn’t any place for bigotry in this country,” continuing to state that the Victorian Parliament was “unambiguously opposed” to any discrimination based on race, faith or gender.

On behalf of the Greens, Ellen Sandell, candidate for the seat of Melbourne states that “The Muslim community in Melbourne is vibrant, strong and make a huge contribution to our community. There have been increasing incidences of vilification, and some in the Muslim community no longer feel safe, which is incredibly saddening,”

“Melbourne is richer for its diversity, encouraging the exchange of ideas through conversation, festivals, community forums and activities will help Victorians remember that we have much more in common than things that divide us.

“From a policy perspective, the continued funding to housing, support and employment services are essential to ensuring we’re providing support, especially for newly arrived families.”

Labor Minister and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition and Multicultural Affairs, Telmo Languiller agrees with this position and the concerns of Mohammed El-leissy saying that in the lead up to policy announcements for the election, generally speaking “there will be more resources genuinely allocated to dealing with these issues, starting with employment and training and equal opportunity.”

“Education equalises up, education brings you up, education allows you to argue your case.”

He also noted that solutions to racial hatred can’t be directed just at supporting those victimised by racists.

“The Islamic faith community faces special challenges, but they are the subject of discrimination, we need to educate the entire community because they are the targets not the initiators.” Said Mr Languiller.

Perhaps though those requiring the most education about diverse communities to ensure an end to discrimination against Islamic Australians is the Australian Federal Government and its law enforcement agencies.

The recent terror raids in NSW and QLD were a spectacle and nothing short of propaganda on behalf of law enforcement to engender public support for George Brandis’ push for greater powers.

Much was made in the media regarding the “sword” removed during one of the raids, which some connected to a suspected plot to behead a random person in Sydney.

Perhaps telling of our federal leaders’ ignorance or perhaps just ASIO’s incompetence, the sword was later revealed to be made of plastic and actually a symbol of Shi’a religious iconography. The sword removed is literally a Shi’a analogue to the Christian cross.

Unfortunately this ignorance at the top of our political systems and willingness to conflate radical Islamists with everyday people of Islamic faith is represented within our community as well.

In a small survey run by myself, 32 respondents answered two simple questions:
– Do you know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a denominations of Islam?
– Do you know why Israel and Palestine are in conflict?

The results showed that 65% of respondents answered that they did not know the difference. However those who did, when asked to give responses were often incorrect stating political or violence natures over the dispute of succession after the prophet Mohammed.

Related to the Gaza conflict, while most respondents knew the difference, one respondent stated the conflict was because “Jews want ‘their’ land back”, conflating the acts of the Israeli state with the Jewish people as a whole.

Speaking at last night’s Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria State Election Forum, Minister Guy offered a possible solution to this disconnect between a backwards Federal Government and Victoria’s cross party commitment to multiculturalism.

“One of the key initiatives that the Government offers multicultural communities, is to spend the next few years, fighting as hard as we can for a Federal Multicultural Act,” Said Mr Guy

“It is so important for Victoria that we lead the nation in Multicultural affairs by legislating what we believe are the most beautiful aspect of our society, that is our diversity.”

While the challenges of maintaining harmony within a society as culturally diverse as Australia’s are almost inherent, in Victoria at least there is a triple party alliance on multiculturalism, something that all Victorians should be truly grateful for.

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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