Anglo-Celtic Australian ‘Disengaged’
A striking finding was the extent to which the Anglo-Celtic participants in the study were less likely to have culturally diverse friendship networks. The patterns of mixing were much less diverse than for their Muslim-Australian counterparts interviewed for this study. This accords with research carried out for the Living Diversity study funded by SBS. Most mixing with those who are culturally different occurred in workplaces. The Sutherland Shire is an extremely homogeneous area, but not unrepresentative of large tracts of suburban Australia. The cultural homogeneity of the area was obviously a key causal factor as there were relatively few opportunities for getting to know other cultural groups through sport, parents groups and so on.
There was general support for multiculturalism and tolerance, but these tended to be spoken about in the abstract. Nonetheless, there was general support for mixing across cultural difference, although this had a strongly gendered tone.
Opportunities to mix
There appeared to be far fewer opportunities for mixing among the Sutherland Shire residents than for the Muslim-Australian participants in this study. Most tended to have studied in the area, and also work locally. School and tertiary education did not figure as prominently for the Anglo-Celtic participants. In terms of school environments, the schools in the Sutherland Shire are relatively homogeneous and there are very few Muslims attending school in the area.
Pauline: We have one coloured person in our whole school, and one Asian person. They’re a rarity! (laughter)
There are also two TAFE colleges in the Shire and therefore the intake is also predominantly Anglo-Celtic. None of the participants mentioned university, partly due to the fact that the majority had not attended university level education.
As for Muslim-Australian participants, the workplace was perhaps the main site where contact with those of other backgrounds was made possible. However only two of the participants had had contact with Muslim-Australians at work, and the experience was mixed. Those two participants held fairly strong views against Muslim-Australians.
Rebecca:...I worked for Garuda for three and a half years. During that time, I was very much subjected to a lot of the different sides of Muslim people. Some of it was great, absolutely wonderful, but some of it was also very sexist.
Mark: : I think another thing – you’re saying they look different. You say to some of the teenagers or, let’s say, the early to late twenties, you say, ‘What are you?’ ‘I’m Lebanese.’ They probably haven’t been to Lebanon. I know there’s a couple of angle grinders that I work with, ‘I’m Lebanese. I’m a Lebanese Muslim.’ How is Lebanon? ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been there.’ Well, how can you be Lebanese if you haven’t even been there?
It should also be noted that the relationships tended to be of a collegial nature, rather than friendships.
Andrew: No, not good friends, but work colleagues...they become friends.
Mark: : Yes. they would mostly be just work colleagues, but not many friends you go out with on the weekend.
Rebecca: Yeah, I suppose, a project in management...there were two guys who were of British background, and one was Muslim. I think he was Turkish. And they were just doing Ramadan. And he was very nice.
Inter-marriage, however, stood out as one way in which participants were brought into contact with those from other cultural backgrounds in a more positive way, and issues of empathy and hospitality figured prominently. This narrative by Sheree and Adam gives a sense of how such relationships have helped shaped their views towards the wider Muslim-Australian community. Here, the experience of generosity and hospitality offered by the Iraqi family of their son-in-law was reported in the context of explaining how ‘Muslims are very nice people’.
Sheree: Our son-in-law is Australian-born and bred, but his parents came here as a young couple. His father is Iraqi and his mother is Palestinian… they came here as young people and were married, and they lived here and raised their children in Australia. The children have grown up, he’s gone to university and all that sort of stuff...but yes, in the last two years we’ve actually been invited into their culture, which is very different. But they’ve accepted us.
Facilitator: How have you found that?
Sheree: Very, very good. They’re so friendly. There’s no conflicts. There’s nothing whatsoever. It’s like they embrace us into the family, and to them it’s more of a cultural difference for their son, their only son, to marry an Australian girl.
Adam: They might visit Cronulla and they’ll come and see us, or if they’re having a party, a celebration at home, they’ll ask us. They seem to be very sociable people.
Sheree: And up until our son-in-law got involved with Jane, they didn’t have Christmas or birthdays. Now, they’ll have a party. After they got married, ‘You’ll have to come over for a party to celebrate with all the relatives!’ And I’m not talking about a few relatives. A small party is about 60 relatives. And they all invite us as a family.
Sheree: (they had the hooka pipe out) It’s just normal tobacco with other stuff in it, but the thing that was funny was that they were so hospitable. They were so welcoming to us, and …. It’s traditional. …. it was some herbal....it was something, you add water to it...anyway. It was so funny. But they were so nice, and so kind, and the gentlemen were nice and all the rest of the crew and all the family...we were just part of the family now. They accepted us.
This family contact and experience of hospitality also helped produce a sense of empathy for the experience of Muslim-Australians more generally. While Sheree and Adam would be one of the more moderate couples interviewed, this interchange below was interesting in that one of the more racist women in the group, having heard Sheree’s story of this hospitable Iraqi family, then used that to reflect on how young Muslim-Australian males are perhaps ‘angry’ in their behaviour because they are often pre-judged as being ‘bad’ according to dominant stereotypes of Muslims.
Sheree: I think there’s pockets...I don’t know. I read a lot, but I think it’s from my...’experience’ is the wrong word, but from my understanding, I think that, like anywher...it’s just pockets of young kids. The family might be fine, but the kids get into these little gangs and groups, and peer pressure and support and...
Pauline: But I think, with your daughter’s husband, another way of looking at it is, at his age – now, after living here so long, you know what? If I was a young Muslim boy, born in Australia to Muslim tradition, I think that I would get a bit uptight, and get my back up, I think I’d get pretty angry...
Sheree: He’s pre-judged all the time. Exactly.
Barriers to mixing
There were, however some significant barriers to mixing with Muslim-Australians present among these groups. In fact the barriers were greater among this group than the Muslim-Australian participants. This had to do with the lack of first hand contact with Muslim-Australians, the relative homogeneity of the Sutherland Shire, the reliance on negative stereotypes to draw conclusions about Muslims, and the negative experiences encountered in and around Cronulla, both leading up to and as a consequence of the Cronulla riots. There also tended to be a view that the lack of connection between the group tended to be due as much to ‘Muslims not wanting to assimilate’.
Mark: I think the majority of Australians are willing to mix with the Muslims. It’s their reluctance to mix with us seems to be the biggest issue. They leave their country, saying it’s crap, and they come here for a better life, and they turn it into what they just left.
Stereotypes about Muslims
Feeling threatened about ‘identity claims’
Anglo-Australian’s sometimes feel threatened by the need of other communities to employ ethnic labels to describe themselves. This is sometimes understood as a lack of loyalty to Australia, a rejection of Australianness as an identity.
Mark: But the majority, they were born here, and they’ll still talk about their homeland, Lebanon, or wherever they come from...look at those idiots who came out of the retaliation for the Cronulla riots, they were sitting there saying ‘Lions of Lebanon’, and they probably haven’t even been there. They probably can’t even find it on a map!
However as the ‘you flew here, we grew here’ sign which featured during the Cronulla riots attests, many second generation Muslim-Australian youth feel as though they are never able to fully claim a sense of Australian identity while it is associated so heavily with Anglo-Celtic Australianness. Therefore the employment of secondary ethnic descriptors is a means of marking out and claiming a sense of identity for themselves. This, however, is not understood by some Anglo-Celtic Australians.
Stereotypes about gender
Unsurprisingly, negative gender stereotypes abounded. There was a great deal of ignorance of the role of women in Islam. These views tended to come from rumour or what had been said in the mainstream media.
Rebecca: we are not overly educated in...we don’t really understand what they believe and what they do, and some of us might have preconceived ideas of what they’re thinking. … I’m not sure where I’ve got that idea from, but I’ve spoken to... friends of ours, whose sister was married to – I’m not sure where he was from, but he was very strict with her. He was Australian or Kiwi, and Muslim ... He was very...he had rigid values and ideas about how she should be and how she should act. They’re not together any longer. ….. (Husband…) She had to run for her life in the end.
Sally: One of my cousin’s friends, her sister’s married to a Muslim, and (?) there’s no respect at all.
Sometimes when these stereotypes are expressed, they can lead to outright conflict with Muslim-Australians seeking to defend themselves from insults.
Mark: I also think – like, the Australian culture, we can sit and laugh at ourselves. Now, I was at a comedy club out at Penrith. I was doing some work there. They had an open mike sort of thing. Everyone could get up and do their own sort of routine. This Muslim bloke got up and absolutely gave it to Aussies and (?) and all that sort of stuff. Sat back down. Another guy gets up out of the audience, looks at his missus and said, ‘Oh, she’s doing the washing up tonight,’ because she had the tea towel on her head. He was going to kill this bloke! It’s like...you know? And he SMS’d his mates, and there would have been 50, 60 waiting for this bloke outside.
This participant viewed jokes about a woman’s hijab as humour which should be tolerated, whereas the woman’s husband was obviously deeply offended judging by the intensity of the response.
However the differences in gender norms are real, and are sometimes experienced as quite threatening by Anglo-Celtic women.
Pauline: That’s OK with me that that person is wearing that. Obviously they can’t stop me walking around in a pair of shorts, but it’s the attitude. They sort of make you feel uncomfortable.
And there is a simple lack of understanding as to why Muslim women cover themselves and an assumption that veiling equates to oppression.
Rebecca: But if someone walks down the street with a full hijab or burqa or whatever you call it on, I can’t help but look at her and think, ‘Why in the hell have you covered up like that? It ’s forty degree heat.’ … And they look different, too, in the aspect of the women who cover up. People are scared of that part of it, because they look different and we don’t know why they look different.
Rebecca: I think a lot of the problems are also that – going back to the female point of view, understanding why women do subject themselves to that way of life, without thinking that...like, from a ‘ normal’ person’s point of view, it looks like they’ve been downtrodden and very under the thumb and abused and whatever else, but they might be happy that way. So, without us knowing –
Fears about Sharia Law
Similar levels of misinformation gleaned from the media also permeated one of the focus groups where there was a view that Islam posed a threat to Australia’s system of democracy and law.
Sally: The other thing I think is different about Islam is that it appears to be a bit of a colonising type of religion, and the extremes of Islam, the ones that believe in Shari’a law and things like that, there’s no separation of church and state –
Cronulla riots & Anti-social behaviour
Not surprisingly, the Cronulla riots figured very prominently as a point of reference for this group of participants. Often the anti-social behaviour of a few Muslim-Australian youth (mainly Arabic-speaking Australian) in public places such as the beach and parks had a negative impact on broader perceptions of the group.
As has been well documented, there were and are negative encounters with anti-social behaviour perpetrated by ‘middle-eastern youth’, which cannot be discounted.
Pauline: I used to get the quarter to four train home from the city, after work… The police were always on the train. We were between Sydenham and Sutherland, these young lads, all Middle Eastern background, would search the train and intimidate people and toss bags and do all sorts of stuff. And that happened day after day, week after week, and this used to happen all the time. That’s going back then. And then everybody talks about what happened down in Cronulla...now, I’m not saying that it’s the Muslim community. I’m just saying that it’s this cultural thing that these kids, where they grow up, Marrickville or Bankstown or wherever it might be, that they just think it’s the greatest thing to do what they were doing. And it was very intimidating, even back then, on the train.
There were, however, differences in how these encounters were interpreted, and the extent to which they were racialised and used to justify, or explain away the riots.
Sheree: I’ve lived in the Shire for thirty years, and over the past five or six years you could see that there was trouble brewing. It was the catalyst, because I can remember going to cross a level crossing, and there was a gang of them, and they wouldn’t even let us cross the street. We weren’t doing anything, but they were going to try and make it difficult. So we just changed our...now, I feel very sorry for the elderly folk who live in Cronulla, and there are a lot of them, and they were being very intimidating, and so there were two sides to the story. I mean, I’m not saying what was wrong on the day, but if you lived and were down there all the time, you could see what was going to happen.
Angela: I can see that, too, Sheree. I’m not sitting here being...I don’t say that to my kids, I just tell them that they shouldn’t describe an ethnic gang, and...it sounds terrible, but they do come in cars, and Cronulla seems to be their destination.
Sheree: And that’s what I think is sad, and they’ve done a lot of damage to their culture by doing that.
Angela: As you say, it’s probably only 25% - Pauline: But that’s a vocal 25%...
Again, Sheree and Angela were two of the more moderate and aware participants and struggled with how to make meaning of their encounters without being racist. Interestingly, the anti-social behaviour mentioned was not simply of the violent kind, the everyday rules and codes of shared behaviour expected of beach goers also figured prominently. Cultural norms were important and when these norms differed from mainstream western ones.
Angela: The unspoken rule is that you don’t play ball games while everyone’s sunbaking. You play the ball games down at the park and so forth. They come and play their ball games where little kids are playing, and knock them over...whether I’m just noticing them because it’s ‘Them’...
Angela: They tend to socialise in large groups, whereas we might be two or three, all good friends...
It was generally felt that ‘mainstream’ Western norms should predominate on the beach, and that acceptance of Muslim-Australians back on the beach at Cronulla hinged on adherence to certain behavioural standards.
Sheree: I have no problems mixing with cultures in the Sutherland Shire at all, as long as they know there’s a behavioural standard.
Pauline: Like the unspoken rules about the balls...it just hasn’t occurred to them. They’re there on the beach to have a good time....
Mark: We’re not saying ‘the beach is for white people only.’ It was just to say, ‘ If you’re coming to our beach, respect it.’ Everybody respect each other. That’s all they want.
Lack of opportunity & Geographical Location
Most Shire people have lived there for many years, or their whole lives. It is the most Anglo-Celtic population in urban Australia, and is geographically isolated by waterways from the rest of Sydney.
Rebecca: That’s just how it is. I’ve also chosen to live here … but I don’t want to live in a place that looks like Hurstville, Parramatta, or any of those kind of...isn’t that terrible! Suburbs that have literally been taken over by one particular nationality. I don’t want to live there, because I live in Australia, and to me that’s not how it should be, and that’s not how it was twenty years ago. It was very much multicultural, and it’s not now. I got the shock of my life when I went there just last week, at Hurstville, and every single shop had Chinese writing on it. Every single one. And so I don’t think that’s assimilating with Australia, and I have a real problem with that. That’s why I love the Sutherland Shire.
This relative cultural homogeneity means there are much fewer opportunities to get to know not only Muslim-Australians, but culturally and linguistically diverse Australians more generally.
Roslyn: The only reason that I don’t..I think I’m the only person at this table that doesn’t have a multicultural friendship…, but I’ve been isolated to the Shire and the only people I knew at school were Italians, maybe… we didn’t grow up with Asians or...when I went to school, they just weren’t there. There were some Italians, and that’s it. … So that’s why...but I do welcome friendships with anybody, and I’d love to..
There is little day to day experience of living with multiculturalism and this means that dominant culture perspectives are taken for granted.
Comfort with ‘those like me’
Finally, as for the Muslim-Australian participants, there was simply the fact that it was more comfortable to mix with individuals from the same background. Cultural norms and codes are shared and this eases the burden of socialising.
Pauline: I think it’s what you’re used to, what you grow up with, and when you live in the Shire, as I was saying to you before, we’re a little bit insular in terms of what we’re used to, and we’ve had it all our lives, and it’s why a lot of people don’t leave the Shire. They love it. The familiarity...I moved away for eight years and couldn’t wait to get back. … I think sometimes it’s just what you know, and it’s having the same values, core beliefs, those types of things, it’s just easier to relate to them, and especially if your social network...we actually don’t have a lot of...I mean, we do have some, but not to the degree of other areas, like Parramatta. It is basically Anglo, the Shire.
Angela: I think it is easier, because you don’t have to try as hard, perhaps, to communicate or to listen. And you just naturally slip into similar experiences.
There is also a sense that some of these participants would not know where to start in terms of getting to know a Muslim-Australian.
Pauline: I’d like to turn this situation around, in Cronulla, but even so… I know that I would find it difficult to relate to a Muslim woman. What would I talk about? So it is a huge hurdle, and how do we get there? There’s no easy answer.
Ideas About Tolerance
An interesting discussion occurred in one of the focus groups where the idea of tolerance was discussed. What emerged very strongly was how ‘slippery’ this term was, in that the general view was that it was Muslim-Australians who were straining the relationship due to their lack of tolerance for the Australian way of life.
Stephanie: They have a lot stronger culture, and they come here and... Australians from Anglo-Saxon background are very tolerant of all different races, but I feel that some of these races coming in aren’t tolerant, that they’ll take advantage of how tolerant we are.
This also figured strongly around the gender issue. Participants felt that Muslim views about female dress and behaviour was also implicitly a comment about the gender codes of Anglo-Celtic Australians. Anglo women mentioned an uncomfortable feeling of being judged by Muslims for wearing revealing clothes which they felt equated to a lack of tolerance on the part of Muslim-Australians for mainstream Australians more liberal views on these matters.
Rebecca: The women walk around covered. That’ s not how we dress over here. I think they’re imposing their culture in that way. I mean, I don’t know to what extent this occurs because, as I said before, I don’t know much about Muslim people, I haven’t had much to do with them, but from what I’ve seen on television and how they seem to be...from what I can gather, they seem to think Australian women are loose because of our clothes, we wear short skirts and all the rest of it. And you do see some Muslim men out shopping with the children, and the women are covered, and I think, ‘Well, that seems like a non-acceptance of our culture.’ I have no problem with women walking around in burqas, I wouldn’t think twice about it, but there seems to be a double standard. It’s just that whole issue with women.
The view was also expressed that Australians were tolerant of other cultures and races, but that the Muslim-Australian community were an exception due to their own behaviour
Sally: Islamic culture. I mean.. possibly intolerant generally, that there are so many cultures coming into Australia, that people are getting sick of that. I mean, (?) we are more tolerant of various cultures just generally, rather than just focusing on the Muslim… The reason it’s happening in their countries because they don’t have the clear, democratic system that we do. Because we’re a democracy and a secular society, then acceptance and tolerance of all races, and a wider acceptance of all different races,...so, in their countries, they’re the rules and you have to obey the rules. Our rules here are that we accept people of many different faiths, and you’ve got more freedom. We’re a much more open, democratic society.
Ideas about what would work
Despite the relatively negative views encountered, the Anglo-Australian participants from the Sutherland Shire were supportive of initiatives to build bridges between Muslim and non-Australians. They were all sensitive to the damage done by the Cronulla riots and understood that better understanding needed to be developed between the two sides.
Cath: But equally, I think it’s up to Cronulla to turn the situation around and say, ‘OK, that did happen, but how can we make that a positive thing now? And let’s use it to our advantage. Let’s not always let it be the negative thing that it was.’
Getting back to the riots again, because it’s so on my mind! When the riots happened, I thought, ‘What can I do? How can I change this?’ and I went to a meeting that the Council put on, and it was just to talk about any matter that you thought was relevant to you, so I raised that issue and the majority of opinion at the meeting – and there was probably forty people there – was: ‘That’s their problem.’ But there was maybe a handful of about five people, and they actually applauded what I had to say, which was that I think we should use this to turn the situation around. But what could we do? No- one had any input about what we could do. Someone said, ‘Oh, (?) such and such,’ and that was the end of the story, but another man was quite antagonistic to me.
Suggestions on how this might be achieved were mostly quite productive and there was a firm view that the most effective means of breaking down barriers was to help Anglo- Celtic Australians to get to know Muslims personally.
Sally: We’re not really the ones to talk, because none of us know anything, really, but I think our worst fears are being triggered, and I think the only way to break down the stereotypes that you have and is to know people.
A number of suggestions emerged quite strongly, including more opportunities to get to know Muslim-Australians, information campaigns to help people better understand some of the cultural and religious differences—especially around gender—and interactive activities such as fairs, sport and school based initiatives.
There was a very strong view expressed that the women in the group in particular would appreciate some kind of initiative which would allow them to have an opportunity to learn more about the role of Muslim women, and to help them understand better why it is that Muslim women veil.
Sally: Most people have got no idea why Muslim women wear a scarf, or what’s expected of them. Most people don’t know….
Interviewer: So would you like the opportunity to get to know Muslims, to find out those things? Why they wear the scarf...
Pauline: Oh, yes!
Interviewer: What things would you like to know about Muslims that would make it easier for you to mix with Muslims?
Rebecca: I think probably more information about the female’s role.
Interactive opportunities to get to know Muslims
The preference across the board was to provide more interactive opportunities to get to know Muslim-Australians at a personal level. This desire for more personal interaction was contrasted with the experience of an exhibition featuring photographs and stories of Muslims that had previously been held in Cronulla after the riots. This woman describes how she felt it was a helpful exercise to go examine and discuss her views in the focus group environment. She felt that a similar small scale discussion group with Muslim- Australians would be much more helpful than the kinds of events where one simply ‘appreciates’ the culture from a distance.
Pauline: I know that compared to the exhibition day, I could speak much easier at this [focus group] table than if there was a whole heap of us standing around [not interacting]. If we were allocated groups and put into those groups, I could talk, otherwise it is very difficult....., I just happened to be down at the beach that day and...but you know what? That didn’t bring me any closer to understanding them, not one bit. But actually, if I was at a round table like this and there were some Muslims here, then I could talk... Because at that exhibition there were (Muslim) ladies …there was nothing to really...I didn’t know what to say about them. It didn’t actually force me to (interact with them)
Rebecca: I do think a cross-cultural night based on a women’s night would certainly be a good place to start. Something along those lines, I think, would be very beneficial.
Similar sentiments sparked suggestions for some kind of BBQ or gathering in a local park. However as this comment attests, these events would need to be planned and managed carefully to take into account the religious restrictions of the Muslim-Australian participants. There remains a great deal of ignorance about what these restrictions are. Alcohol issues in particular would need to be navigated carefully and sensitively well in advance as this has the potential to cause tensions on both sides: Muslim-australians may take offence at the presence of alcohol, where Anglo-Celtic participants may take offence at a ban on alcohol.
Mark: If it was a party….[I’d go] …I’d like to have a beer with them. (laughter)
Rebecca: Show the culture. You could have your eskies, thongs, at a barbeque, and you could have some parts that really symbolises their culture that they could bring, and so you could learn about each other’s culture...do you know what I mean?
Street fairs were another popular suggestion. Such fairs provide a space for relatively safe and festive interaction in a public space, and therefore would be suitable for attracting participants who would not be drawn to something requiring more formal involvement. However it was felt by some of the participants who were most uncomfortable with Muslim-Australians that such activities should not be overtly about ‘Muslims’, rather should focus on a common theme to bring people together.
Mark: Don’t have a Muslim Day, or whatever. Just have a fair.
Stephanie: I went to one out the front of the church in the big town square, with traditional dishes and all these things were happening, and you just got immersed in this whole culture, and it felt fantastic!
Mark: You could have it in Cronulla Street, and you have someone in the Muslim community going out, setting up stands and stalls and everything like that. But not to advertise it as a ‘big Muslim fair’. Just say, ‘It’s a fair.’
Stephanie: But some sort of common theme where you can just get together. Mark:That’s right (just getting people around a common thing.). And that’s how you
learn. Because people who have this stigma about Muslims, will just go, ‘I’m not going! [if its openly a ‘Muslim’ thing]’
However there was a counter view that a festive Muslim event in a park may attract those who are perhaps a little less racist, and curious to learn more, so there is certainly room for events with an outwardly ‘Musilm’ focus.
Rebecca: But if you had a Muslim event in the Park, a lot of people in that area aren’t as racist or whatever. Maybe after the Cronulla riots, maybe they’ll be intrigued and go and find what it’s all about, or give it a go.
Sport was also raised as a positive activity where the participants are able to work together around a common goal, rather than focusing on cultural differences.
Pauline: But how do you change anyone’s opinion. Like, sporting teams, and stuff like that. That’s a way of learning to work as a team, and stuff like that, and getting to know each other.
Education and schools based interventions
School based activities involving both children and parents of Muslim and non-Muslim- Australians were also raised as a productive possibility. An important focus would be mutual hospitality, most likely manifest in each group bringing food.
Angela: And if I can go back to the primary school suggestion. For instance, the Middle Eastern Day or whatever you could have – I think a good way to get that to happen might be to write to the schools where you know a lot of these people are, and ask any mothers if they would feel confident in bringing a small group and having a display table set up. But ideally, I think play is...artefacts, whatever they have, are good. But I think for the children to play the games. … it’s important to include food in it, because that was my experience with [another cross-cultural event at school I was involved with]. I didn’t want to do food. I thought it was too hard, but some of the other mums said, ‘You’ve got to do the food!’ and it was probably the highlight, having the Japanese food. But, again, I don’t think we can just ask Muslim ladies to (just bring the food). We could say, ‘Look, we’d like to do this for you. Whatever we can do for you...if we could come and visit your school and talk about the way we play games with our children, or how we use the beach, we could cook hamburgers or whatever...could we do this for you, and would you like to do something for us? To come back to our school?’ I don’t think we can...they’re the ones who are trying to fit into this country. They’ve got a lot of struggles, and we’re here already, and we know – yes, we know the rules, that’s right.
It was also suggested that specific efforts needed to be placed on bringing the participants together in small mixed groups to ensure that true interaction takes place over the course of the activity.
Pauline: Yes. And just two of them, I think. I mean, I know you like the idea of mixing around, but I think you get to know someone better if you spend the whole day with just one person that is completely different to you, and forming a relationship with them.
Pauline: I don’t know that. You know, I wouldn’t be so...I don’t think the older people coming into a school and showing the different cultural things...I think what would be more important and what would get the message though to a 7 or 8 year old is being with a child their age …And not exchanging the whole class, but to halve them, so they’re sitting in a class with another culture, and then they’ve got the other half, so they understand them. They could sit with them and play with them and eat with them....I’d love my children to be exposed to that.
It is clearly not possible to engage the entire population in small scale ‘getting to know you’ type activities. It was interesting to note that documentaries featuring prominent Muslim-Australians were mentioned by different individuals in the interviews. These documentaries provided a more informed view of Muslims and helped cut through negative stereotypes.
Sally: I saw this documentary on the ABC, a series. I think the woman was Australian, but she converted to Islam. She married an Islamic man, and they...I can’t remember. She’s really well-known. She was trying to make a school for Muslims. She’s out near Bankstown Airport, (?) and they were trying to raise money to build another Muslim school, and it was a whole series about the Caucasians and this woman, this really struggling woman who challenged adversity in every way. It was this whole series about this Muslim school, and it was really, really interesting. She was really approachable...you could see she was really immersed in the Islam faith, although she was Australian. To me, that’s harmony, and just projected a really healthy image of Islam and Islamic people. I found that was probably the most I’ve learnt about Islamic people...
Roslyn: I watched Australian Story a couple of weeks ago, and it had El Masri, and I watched that and I thought, ‘If there were more shows like this, so we can understand them,’ because I know absolutely nothing about them, and only hear bad things. I have heard good things, too. My husband actually works with a lot of multicultural...he should have been here! He’d be better than I! And he’s got lots of stories about how they’re disgusted by the way these people are behaving, and they’re not like that, and they’re very respectful of women.
This suggests there is great scope for tackling some of the more enduring stereotypes through such media forms such as documentary film.
Cynicism about past interventions
Participants were asked about their views of current and past initiatives responding to the Cronulla riots. One of the more vocally anti-Muslim participants was particularly scathing of the Living in Harmony funded program to train lifesavers from Muslim-Australian backgrounds. It seemed to play into resentment of ‘special treatment’ for minority groups which is fairly common.
Mark: That really gets me, because we’ve got our kids in the surf club, and they’re on a waiting list. When you’ve lived in the Shire all your life, you want your kids to join the surf club, but after the Cronulla riots there was a big political thing and, ‘Let’s get X amount of Muslims in there.’ Hang on! We’ve been on the list for four years! (laughs) Why should they be able to walk in? Why can’t they just join the list, just like everybody else? It’s preferential treatment that really gets people’s back up.
No, it just made a lot of people more angry! You’re sitting on a list, waiting to join the surf club that I went to, that I want the kids to go to, and they straight away jump on top of you. ‘I’m a Muslim, I can go first!’
However it remains to be seen whether his view is a common one. Nonetheless, it suggests that the public perceptions of such programs do need to be managed carefully, and perhaps take into account possible side effects such as inflaming hostilities due to perceptions of ‘queue jumping’.
Can not be too contrived or too obviously about ‘harmony building’
This participant’s input was invaluable, however, in providing insight into the sensitivities of that part of the community which is, in fact, the target group for many of these ‘mind changing’ undertakings. Those uncomfortable with Muslim-Australians were acutely sensitive about not having these things ‘pushed down their throat’.
Sally: The whole thing. I think it’s artificial. I don’t think anyone in the Shire would want to come to something that’s set up to ‘be tolerant’. I think it’s an artificial kind of concept, and I think there would be a degree of resentment which would be hard to overcome. I’m not in favour of an artificial approach. Especially ‘bringing Muslim culture to the Shire ‘ – how patronising!
Rebecca: Because I’ve seen it before, (having a) target group, if you like, I just think (we should) let time do its thing.
Sally: You can’t set up a fair with food stalls and everything else if the focus is Muslim, because it’s not going to achieve things, the main problem is people aren’t educated and don’t understand –
Angela: And the more you try to force people to look at Muslim values and stuff, the more you force people, the more you actually scare people away.
This suggests that interactive public activities such as a fair including culturally diverse stall holders and performances would be effective, rather than focusing strictly on ‘Muslims’ per se. However it would be important to involve Muslims in the day quite prominently. These sentiments also suggest that such activities should coalesce around a common project theme such as raising funds for a charitable cause would be appropriate, rather than simply ‘celebrating and appreciate diversity’ in the abstract.
However such an event would need to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities for interaction and discussion between the different groups involved.