Dr amanda wise & dr jan ali commonwealth of Australia 2008

Theoretical Insights into the Divide

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Theoretical Insights into the Divide

Certain ideas and concepts can be usefully employed to explain and understand this divide between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians. They act as ‘lenses’ through which to view the conditions that create such a situation and, therefore, provide insights into ways in which the issues may be addressed.

Recognition and Tolerance

Tolerance is sometimes used as a description or as an idea. This is usually the case when we think of tolerance as a virtue (cf. Heyd 1996). However, whether or not tolerance is inherently virtuous remains contested (cf. Williams 1996). While discussions of the idea of tolerance are useful in developing an understanding of what it means, tolerance can also be examined as a practice – as something that people do.5 In this sense, tolerance is seen to be intentionally not acting coercively against something objectionable when that one feels they have the power to do so (Cohen 2004: 69).

This raises the classical paradox of tolerance: why should we tolerate something that is objectionable (cf. Horton 1993; Mendus 1989: 18-21)? For example, why should people who object to veiling allow this practice? Many have appealed to other liberal virtues such as respect or freedom of speech as good enough reasons to tolerate under certain circumstances.5 More broadly speaking, the reasonableness of tolerance is cited as adequate justification (cf. McKinnon 2006: 67-80). Importantly, the justification of tolerance usually involves some sort of communication about what makes it right and/or acceptable. This involves another understanding of tolerance as a discussion norm (Dewey 1999 in Johnson 2000: 301-302), or a way of disagreeing in a civil manner. Jurgen Habermas illustrated an important aspect of this last view of tolerance – that it necessarily involves all participants in this discussion to try to understand the situation from one another’s perspective (Habermas in Borradori 2003: 36-38).

This sort of understanding that tolerance involves requires some level of mutual recognition. Whether this is recognition of what is different (e.g. as Muslims or non- Muslims) or that which binds (e.g. as neighbours or citizens) is a contentious point (cf. Jones 2006).

Indeed, the theory of recognition, the core reference for which is the work of Axel Honneth (2007, 1995, 1996) provides a comprehensive model, which explains not just the structure of feelings of injustice, but accounts also for many other dimensions of the overall experience of Muslim-Australians. To list some of the most important dimensions, recognition theory also accounts for: the cultural and social conditions that make it possible for individual feelings to be perceived as representative of a group experience; the specific logic of social movements, their relation to initial feelings of injustice and disenfranchisement, and their practical and normative dynamics (Deranty 2005).

However, it is generally agreed that recognition requires a basic respect for or acknowledgement of others as fully human in their capacity to act morally as members of one’s community (Noble 2005: 116). It is only in this way that tolerance could produce the sorts of insights necessary for any sort of harmony or solidarity and, therefore, acceptance of difference.

At the same time it is important to note that tolerance and intolerance, like Islamophobia, are mutually exclusive. This means that tolerance may not be an adequate response to intolerance. When Islamophobia manifests itself as violence, should we respond with tolerance? Or, for that matter, more intolerance? What is important in advocating tolerance is that it requires recognition of others at some basic level – as fellow commuters, shoppers, workers and citizens – such that intolerance is avoided, despite harbouring certain objections. In other words, tolerance is no substitute for respect. And while tolerance necessitates recognition, in a culturally plural society like Australia where certain ways of life may be very unfamiliar, we are not immune to disagreement and misunderstanding. In other words, tolerance and recognition remain important to producing the sort of understanding to combat the misunderstanding involved in Islamophobia, but also as a mechanism for dealing with any legitimate disagreements in a civil manner.

Inter-group relations: Contact and Conflict Theory

Contact Theory is a key reference point for those activities which aim to tackle prejudice by bringing groups together in face to face contact situations. The Nature of Prejudice (Allport 1954) has proven to be an influential study of inter-group contact and the conditions that can lead to a reduction in prejudice. Specifically, Allport highlighted four conditions that were important to more positive inter-group relations (1954: 287):

  • equal status between groups

  • common goals

  • inter-group co-operation and

  • support or sanction of the authorities, law or custom

Importantly, Allport recognised that in-group preference did not necessarily imply negativity or hostility towards out-groups (1954: 42). In this way, Allport suggested that we could conceive of belonging at one and the same time to many wider and more inclusive in-groups ranging, for example, from one’s family to humanity (1954: 43-44).

Contrary to the contact thesis, an alternative view, known as Conflict Theory suggests that inter-group contact can produce conflict rather than a reduction in prejudice and a more positive regard for out-groups. Ethnocentrism, for example, may simply lead to a devaluation of out-groups despite contact (Hewstone and Greenland 2000: 136-137). The way in which groups may have incompatible goals and be competing for scarce resources also undermines contact theory and favours conflict theory (Hewstone and Greenland 2000: 137). Social identity theory makes further claims that contact may simply serve to reinforce ‘a positively valued psychological distinctiveness of the in-group’ (Hewstone and Greenland 2000: 137). Nevertheless, the conflict model of inter-group relations has not served to undermine the contact model. It challenges many of its assumptions by raising different conditions and processes that shape inter-group relations.

In any case, since Allport’s original study, other studies of inter-group relations have successfully supported his thesis (Pettigrew 1998: 67-8). At the same time, various criticisms and limitations of Allport’s thesis have emerged, many of which have sought to address the challenge of conflict theory.6 Such limitations and qualifications have borne fruitful insights into how to understand inter-group relations and how they can be fostered. One key insight was that prejudice tends to make those who hold such views avoid inter- group contact and that a reduction in prejudice may in fact not be a result of contact but may be a factor in there being any contact in the first place (Pettigrew 1998: 69). Another issue relates to whether or not the effects of contact can be generalised beyond any specific situation in which it is observed and how this might happen (Pettigrew 1998: 70). In light of such issues, Pettigrew points towards four processes that cut across the conditions in Allport’s thesis and may better serve to explain and understand how positive inter-group relations may emerge (Pettigrew 1998: 70-73):

  • learning about out-groups that corrects negative views;

  • positively reinforced behaviour modification that leads to attitude changes;

  • generating affective ties, such as friendship;

  • and, in-group reappraisal of their existing norms and customs to be more inclusive of out-group worldviews

Discourses & Stereotypes

The term discourse refers quite broadly to communicative exchanges that are logically connected and socially relevant. In this case, the various manifestations and forms of Islamophobia can be understood as a discourse. Although, not all instances of Islamophobia are directly connected to each other we can understand the common stereotypes that underpin Islamophobia by examining it as a discourse. Importantly, discourse is seen as an important way in which we come to understand ourselves and the world we live in.

Discourses are usually linked to relationships of power. In regards to dominant discourses around Islam, many Muslims feel that they are powerless to define themselves and, therefore, subvert the kinds of negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims which have gained currency in recent years. Similarly, when we see how Islamophobia manifests itself in response to events like September 11 and media reporting on Muslims, we see how stereotypes have adverse consequences and how these stereotypes connect to other discourses, such as the ones on terrorism. In other words, Islamophobia as a discourse inextricably ties together the idea of ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorism’ such that Muslim- Australians are at pains to disentangle such associations and the blame that comes with it (Dreher 2005: 20).

Moreover, stereotypes perpetuated by such discourses as Islamophobia, remain quite powerful vehicles for prejudice because of their ambiguous character. For example, many Sikhs, by virtue of their appearance, were targeted in Islamophobic attacks subsequent to the events of September 11 because they seemingly fit the stereotype of ‘Muslim’ by the perpetrators (Dreher 2005: 9, 25-26). What is important about Islamophobia as a discourse, is that it continues to reproduce the divide between Muslim (as well as other minorities) and non-Muslim-Australians because the stereotypes act as substitutes for understanding.

Social Capital

The term social capital has had various meanings and applications in social scientific research (cf. Portes 1998; Portes 2000). However, its use and application has been popularised in the work of American political scientist Robert Putnam (cf. 2000). For Putnam, social capital essentially entails ‘social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness’ (2007: 137). While social capital may not necessarily be beneficial under all circumstances (Putnam 2007: 138; Portes 2000: 15-18), there are three broad functions of social capital: ‘(a) as a source of social control; (b) as a source of family support; (c) as a source of benefits through extrafamilial networks’ (Portes 2000: 9), with the third function usually being seen as its most common function (Portes 2000: 12). Importantly, Putnam sees social capital as an attribute of communities and nations (Portes 2000: 18).

In a more recent study, Putnam found that communities marked by ethnic diversity contain lower levels of social capital (2007: 146-151), even after accounting for various other important contributing factors (2007: 151-153). This suggests that people living in ethnically diverse communities are not comfortable with such diversity and what results is a ‘bunkering down’ or social isolation where people retreat from civic engagement (2007: 149-151). This is compounded by the fact that these results seem quite pervasive when considering both bonding and bridging types of social capital that acts within, for example, an ethnic group, and bonding types of social capital, that acts between ethnic groups (Putnam 2007: 148). Nevertheless, Putnam suggests that such discomfort with diversity and its negative effect of social isolation is a temporary phenomenon that occurs while people, over time, reduce the social distance between themselves (2007: 159-164).

However, several characteristics about this study must be noted in order to properly appreciate the extent to which it can be used:

  • This research is a correlational study – it examines the relationship between the presence of ethnic diversity and social capital. However, it has limited use in explaining the causes of social isolation. For example, it is possible that prejudice, such as Islamophobia, causes erosion in social capital – not diversity itself. To this end, research has shown how the difficulties encountered by Chinese migrants attempting to start businesses were not due to a lack of financial or social capital, but rather because of obstacles resulting from normative issues, like prejudice and discrimination, that are neglected in the concept of social capital (Ip 2003 in Vasta 2005: 61).

  • The notion of ‘community’ that Putnam employs is one that is contentious. Firstly, it implies predominantly face-to-face relationships (e.g. trusting people in your neighbourhood (Putnam 2007: 147)) without accounting for the wider effects of discourses and the presence of mediated social relationships. Secondly, this type of community can be characterised as a ‘thick’ conception of community – his measures refer to a very specific notion of social networks, trust and civic engagement, such as: lower confidence in local media and government officials; lower political efficacy, lower frequency of registering to vote, less likelihood to volunteer or give to charity, more time spent watching television for entertainment (Putnam 2007: 149-150). Importantly, this seems to belie Putnam’s own understanding of society as dynamic and organic (2007: 159-160).

Everyday Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism has mainly been thought of in terms of policy (cf. Vasta 2005; Lopez 2000) or as an ideology that attempts to establish how we ought to live in a culturally plural society (cf. Zevallos 2006: 1). Nevertheless, the very object of multiculturalism is a concern with different ways of life. Everyday multiculturalism presents a different approach to understanding diversity in an everyday, lived sense (Wise 2007a: 1). It is an approach characterised by trying to understand and explain how we ‘do multiculturalism’ as place-sharing (Wise 2005: 172), by exploring ‘forms of locality, belonging, affinity and disjuncture among local residents’ (Wise 2007b: 1). It is an acknowledgement of the important and complex connections between everyday practices and experiences of multiculturalism and for that matter racism (cf. Essed 2000)) with ideological and policy prescriptions and developments.

While the consequences and experiences of Islamophobia described have been located in the realm of the everyday, so can we similarly make some suggestions about the location of its causes. Increasing cultural diversity tends to change the landscapes of our cities, towns and suburbs. For those witnessing the changes dissonance, dislocation and disorientation occurs as the once familiar becomes less so. In her study of Ashfield, a suburb in Sydney, Amanda Wise notes how the changing physical environment of local areas eroded the memories of ‘paths well trodden’ such that they produced ‘bodily revulsion and neurotic bitterness’ (2007b: 32). The bodily in this case refers to the intimately sensory, sensuous and affective relationship we have with our environments, such that we can examine and understand how, for example, the role of smell can cause inter-cultural frictions (Wise 2007b: 19-26). Not only are our cross-cultural experiences embodied, but so are our practices: the subtle, yet significantly different gestures (Wise 2007b: 11-12), mannerisms (Wise 2007b: 13), looks (Wise 2007b: 14-15), forms of body contact (Wise 2007b: 17-19) and understandings of them between cultures can have profound effects on cross-cultural relationships making them more prone to difficulty or avoidance.

Nevertheless, our everyday practices, exchanges and their meanings are typically negotiated through which positive cross-cultural understandings and solidarities can emerge. Such encounters, that Wise calls ‘hopeful moments’ (2005: 178), can involve substantial and prolonged neighbourly relationships of care (Wise 2005: 178-179) or more ephemeral and less intimate encounters such as tending to watering the plants in an apartment block (Wise 2005: 179-180). These types of interactions create a sort of ‘interethnic social capital’ that contains possibilities for opening up to others that produces forms of interethnic belonging, security and trust (Wise 2005: 182). Further more, these sorts of interactions rely upon ‘transversal people’ and/or ‘transversal places’ through which the tensions and discomfort of everyday experiences and practices are smoothed over and resolved (Wise 2007a: 9-13).

This, however, does not mean that such positive relationships are immune to misunderstanding and misrecognition (Wise 2007a: 14-16). Nevertheless, Greg Gow’s study of cross-cultural neighbourliness in Fairfield exemplifies how a situation of conflict and tension – sharing the common space of a car park in an apartment block – can also unify neighbours in meaningful ways beyond a common instrumental interest (2005: 393-397).

Everyday multiculturalism seeks to explain and understand the lived experience of cultural diversity. Importantly, it shows how people’s life circumstances are intricately woven at a local, state and federal level and how concrete relationships can be shaped by as well influence abstract discourses on how to live in a multicultural society. It demonstrates both how multiculturalism can be a ‘lived ideology’ (Zevallos 2006) and how the lived reality can inform better policies and services.

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