Posted on April 4, 2011

How I Lost Faith in Multiculturalism

Greg Sheridan, The Australian (Sydney), April 2, 2011

IN 1993, my family and I moved into Belmore in southwest Sydney. It is the next suburb to Lakemba. When I first moved there I loved it.

We bought a house just behind Belmore Sports Ground, in those days the home of my beloved Bulldogs rugby league team. Transport was great, 20 minutes to the city in the train, 20 minutes to the airport.

On the other side of Belmore, away from Lakemba, there were lots of Chinese, plenty of Koreans, growing numbers of Indians, and on the Lakemba side lots of Lebanese and other Arabs.

That was an attraction, too. I like Middle Eastern food. I like Middle Eastern people. The suburb still had the remnants of its once big Greek community and a commanding Greek Orthodox church.

But in the nearly 15 years we lived there the suburb changed, and much for the worse.

Three dynamics interacted in a noxious fashion: the growth of a macho, misogynist culture among young men that often found expression in extremely violent crime; a pervasive atmosphere of anti-social behaviour in the streets; and the simultaneous growth of Islamist extremism and jihadi culture.

This is my story, our story and the story of a failed policy.

THE three great settler immigrant societies of Australia, the US and Canada have not seen an anti-Muslim backlash on anything like that of Europe’s. Australia, the US and Canada are more successful immigrant societies than those of Europe in the modern era, but the usual self-congratulatory explanation we offer for this is simply that our settlement practices are superior to that of Europe.

In the three countries identity can be credal. Recite the nation’s creed, believe the creed, and you are an insider. It’s a powerful mechanism because it focuses on values, not ethnicity.

You sign up to the US constitution and by golly you’re an American.

You take out Australian citizenship and you’re Australian. Immigrants are more welcome and make a better contribution than is the case in Europe.

There is some truth in all this, and in any event it’s a mostly benign myth, but it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny as a serious intellectual explanation.

Certainly the presence or absence of multiculturalism as a state policy seems to have no effect. Canada practices multiculturalism. Australia did for a while but then stopped and is now, apparently, half-heartedly starting again, according to a recent speech by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The US, on the other hand, does not practice multiculturalism, yet is the biggest and most successful immigrant society in history–more than 310 million people live there from every corner of the globe. It has a black President, Asian state governors (including two Punjabis) and a vastly more ethnically diverse cabinet and corporate leadership than Australia.

There is a big problem of illegal immigration in the US, but that is overwhelmingly from Latin America. The Hispanic desire to be part of America at a civic level is evident in the huge recruitment rates of Hispanics in the US military. If you’re willing to die for your new country that is surely a convincing sign of commitment.

Here in Australia Bowen, in his February 16 speech, titled “The genius of Australian multiculturalism”, posited the comforting notion that it is the superiority of our own multiculturalism policies that have made so big a difference between us and the tensions of Europe.

I’m afraid Bowen’s speech had the opposite effect on me. It completed my transformation.

Whereas once I wholeheartedly supported multiculturalism, I now think it’s a failure and the word should be abandoned. Australian society and government were mostly doing this until Bowen’s speech.

As a policy, multiculturalism was introduced by immigration minister Al Grassby during the Whitlam government. It was formalised a bit more by Malcolm Fraser and then further refined by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating before being gently left to die of natural causes under the Howard government. In 1988, during the Hawke government, former ambassador to China Stephen FitzGerald wrote a landmark report on immigration and multiculturalism. He concluded that the policies behind Australian immigration were broadly sound but the program needed a much stronger emphasis on skilled migration and the economic contribution migrants could make to Australia.

He also essentially said, though in different words, that the term multiculturalism was useless and confusing, but the policies pursued under its heading, such as teaching migrants English and welcoming their contribution and so on, were good policies.

Hawke and Keating nonetheless stuck with the term. It was hotly contested and highly divisive. It had two big political dividends for Labor: it led to deep divisions within the Liberal Party; and it helped convince migrants that Labor was more naturally sympathetic to them.

It’s very unclear that the term made any positive contribution to the happy settlement of migrants. In the 1990s and beyond, Australia moved away from multiculturalism. A key moment came when then NSW premier Bob Carr abolished the NSW ethnic affairs commission. He felt the constant repetition of ethnic this and ethnic that was not productive and he didn’t think migrants needed a special bureaucracy to watch over them.

Community relations is a more inclusive term than ethnic. It includes everybody, not just migrants.

Similarly the immigration department acquired the word citizenship in its title and lost the word multiculturalism. This was a natural and sensible evolution and one that reflected the maturing, the normalisation, of a welcoming diversity within Australia.

Now Bowen proudly proclaims “I am not afraid to use the word multiculturalism” and has restored Multicultural Affairs to the title of his Immigration parliamentary secretary, though not to that of his department.

Could it be that Bowen hopes once more to inflict division on his political opponents? Is Labor is playing politics with the rhetoric of settlement policies?

For the word has no agreed meaning. Bowen can’t be under the misapprehension that he is communicating something clear by the resurrection of this hotly contested, wildly elastic and downright ugly jargon word, multiculturalism. It seems instead to fulfil George Orwell’s observation that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Multiculturalism has not been used much in Australia in the past decade. Its primary meaning now comes from Europe, and to a lesser extent American university debates. If it means something different in Australia there will need to be a massive effort to convince people of its special, non-standard meaning. What is the purpose of such an effort?

But Bowen’s speech alone has not turned me into an opponent of multiculturalism. While I remain a proponent of a big, non-discriminatory immigration program and celebrate and love Australian diversity, it is the real world that has changed my views.

In particular it is four real-world experiences: watching the debate unfold about the illegal immigrants who come to Australia by boat; a month in Europe researching and writing about immigration issues; 30 years reporting on political Islam in Southeast Asia and the Middle East; and, above all, living for nearly 15 years next door to Lakemba in Sydney’s southwest, the most Muslim suburb in Australia.

In his speech Bowen sets up a neat dichotomy between a good Australian multiculturalism and a bad European multiculturalism.

Bowen is right to point out that Australian official policy, whether at any given moment describing itself as multiculturalism or not, has always stressed English as the national language and the need for immigrants to commit to democracy and the rule of law.

But at the declaratory level, European multiculturalism has also stressed the national language and a commitment to democracy.

Bowen accuses Europe of not welcoming immigrants in the way Australia has.

Certainly some European nations have not been generous in making citizenship easily available to immigrants in the way Australia has. Citizenship is the great integrating instrument of government policy in Australia, the US and in most immigrant societies.

But Bowen’s broad accusation is not true for most of Europe. Certainly in Britain migrants can become citizens. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest, at the official level at least, that Britain has not had an officially welcoming attitude to immigrants. London, with New York, is one of the great, diverse metropolises of the world.

And most important, while all of western Europe seems to be suffering a variety of the same immigration problem, European nations have had radically different settlement policies.

Britain has practised multiculturalism, France has not.

There are two obvious, logical flaws in the way Bowen treats immigration into Europe.

The first is that he puts the entire burden for the success or failure of an immigrant community’s experience down to the attitude of the host society and places absolutely no analytical weight at all on the performance and behaviour of the immigrants themselves.

Second, the problems that Bowen is talking about are problems with Muslim immigrants, not with immigrants generally. Chinese and non-Muslim Indian immigrants have been immensely successful in Britain. Indeed, being Indian in Britain is extremely chic.

These minorities for the most part have done OK in France, too. Certainly immigrants to Britain from the rest of Europe don’t display anything like the alienation of a serious minority of Muslim immigrants.

So this must, logically, lead to one extremely inconvenient, politically incorrect and desperately fraught question. Could it be that the main difference between Europe, with its seething immigration problems, and the US, Canada and Australia, with their success, is not actually a difference based on some footling interpretation of multiculturalism?

There is one other variable that is consistent with the results. The US, Canada and Australia have far smaller Muslim migrant communities as a percentage of their total populations than do most of the troubled nations of Europe. Could this be the explanation?

Several trends in Australian society give pause to wonder whether we, all unintentionally and all fast asleep, may be heading away from the US-Canada-Australia success story and towards a European future. That would be a very bad outcome for Australia.

Discussing these issues is very difficult. It goes without saying that most Muslims in Australia are perfectly fine, law-abiding citizens. The difficulty with discussing Muslim immigration problems is that you don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable because of their religion.

Muslims are not only individuals, wholly different from each other, but national Islamic cultures are very different from each other.

The Saudi culture is different from the Turkish culture, which is different from the Afghan culture. So generalisations are dangerous.

Then there is the ever present risk of being labelled a racist. No matter how calmly the discussion is conducted, that is a big danger.

But the only people who don’t think there is a problem with Islam are those who live on some other planet. The reputation of Islam in the West is not poor because of prejudiced Western Islamophobia, still less because Western governments conduct some kind of anti-Islamic propaganda.

Instead, it is the behaviour of people claiming the justification of Islam for their actions that affects the reputation of Islam.

In January, the governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was murdered because he opposed the severity of the nation’s blasphemy laws.

One of his last acts was to visit a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting the prophet. The governor’s murderer won wide public support.

ABC television recently showed a documentary on the killing of Ahmediya sect members in Indonesia, among the most liberal Muslim nations, because their Muslim murderers regarded them as a deviant sect. On YouTube you can watch scenes of a young Afghan woman being publicly flogged because she was seen in the company of a man who wasn’t her husband or brother.

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive cars.

In Iran, government thugs beat protesters to death to safeguard the rule of the mullahs.

This list could go on and on. It may very well be that the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims reject such actions. But it is fatuous to try to find a similar pattern of Christian, Buddhist or Jewish behaviour. You can find extremists in every religion and from every background, but there is no equivalence in the size and strength of the extremist tendency in other religions.

The Australian Muslim population is still relatively small, perhaps 400,000 or just under 2 per cent of the population.

The US-based Pew Research Centre has recently completed a big study on Muslim demographics and migration trends. It predicts that for Australia the Muslim population will grow by 80 per cent between now and 2030, to about 715,000, growing about four times as fast as the rest of the population, and reaching about 3 per cent of all Australians.

Such forecasts are always rough estimates, but this is based on fertility, migration and mortality trends, and it’s highly plausible.

It may be that by 2030 we will start to have a much more European-style, polarised society as a result.

Coming to these sombre conclusions marks a crisis of faith for me. All my life I have been, intellectually and as a matter of personal experience, strongly supportive of a big and completely racially non-discriminatory immigration program. This grew out of my convictions, my world view, and also my personal experience.

Mark Latham once remarked that the journalists and commentators who most vigorously support big immigration in Sydney live in the eastern suburbs, the inner city or the north shore. They don’t live in the western suburbs where life is much more hard scrabble.

Latham has something of a point. It’s easy to be completely relaxed about your society when you look down on it from a metaphorical penthouse. But his point never applied to me. I grew up in Lewisham, a modest little suburb about 7km west of the Sydney central business district. Its more affluent neighbours, Petersham and Stanmore, yearn to be seen as inner city. On the western side, Lewisham is flanked by Summer Hill and Ashfield, both a little more affluent. When I was a kid in Lewisham in the 1950s and 60s it was already racially diverse, surely as racially diverse as any suburb in Australia at the time. It was a bit of a religious ghetto: a big Catholic church with four priests, a Catholic hospital, two Christian Brothers high schools, a convent, a Catholic infants’ school.

But because the church was racially universal, so was the suburb. For a time at school we were placed alphabetically: Saad, Scarfone, Sheridan, Taurian–Lebanese, Italian, Irish, Italian.

In primary school I had one close Aboriginal friend, whom I now suspect may have been part of the Stolen Generations, and very close friends from Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Britain and Ireland. In primary school I didn’t seek out diversity, it was just naturally all around me.

I was a happy kid, I liked my friends and I assumed that a multi-coloured classroom and playground were as natural as the air.

Like many children of that era, I was more than half in love with America and early on imbibed an American-style belief in growth and greatness. I wanted Australia to be big and strong, and that meant lots more people.

The politics of the time were all about the Cold War. I was deeply anti-communist. As a result I strongly supported the South Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, which meant I supported the Australian and American commitments in support of the South Vietnamese.

By the war’s end in 1975 I was at university and this was an unusual position among student activists, but support for the alliance was the majority position among the wider population.

When the South Vietnamese lost the war in 1975 and were invaded by North Vietnam, I knew we had to help our former allies. When the South Vietnamese refugee outflow began, I became committed to refugees.

This also began a lifelong involvement with Asia.

My advocacy on behalf of the South Vietnamese refugees was passionate, almost monomaniacal, and I tried the patience of many editors with endless writing on the subject, even, or especially, when it wasn’t in the news.

One politician I met way back then in the late 70s was Philip Ruddock, later immigration minister. We worked together on a number of Vietnamese refugee cases.

But between the late 70s, and today, the nature of people seeking to come to Australia as refugees has changed fundamentally. Ruddock recognised this before me, but I have caught up eventually.

For Ruddock, who had argued very strongly on behalf of the Vietnamese, there were two moments that told him things had changed.

One came in a coastal Vietnamese city, when he met a manufacturing boss, who was also a senior figure in the local Communist Party. He was looking after his grandchildren because his son and daughter-in-law had left as boatpeople, trying to win the prize of resettlement in the US, Canada or Australia. That certainly did not make them bad people, but neither did it make them genuine refugees. The outflow of real refugees had ended and the refugee system for the Vietnamese had become a channel for immigration.

The second epiphany for Ruddock came when members of the Vietnamese community asked him why the government was admitting so many former Viet Cong to Australia as refugees. Being a former Viet Cong doesn’t make you a bad person, even in the eyes of a South Vietnam partisan like me. But neither does it mean logically that you are a refugee from your own political force.

Because of my passionate commitment to the refugee issue, it took me a long time to wake up to the routine scamming of refugee processes today.

The Vietnamese outflow ended before I faced up to the change, and when the Muslim boatpeople started to arrive in Australia I mistakenly applied my old paradigm to the new situation.

In 2009 I spent a month in Europe–Britain, Germany, France and Belgium–working on Muslim immigration issues.

I interviewed government ministers, immigration officials, non-government organisation advocates, immigrants themselves and almost anyone who would talk to me. What became clear was that uncontrolled Muslim immigration from North Africa (and from Pakistan in Britain’s case) had presented itself as an asylum issue, and thereby disabled Europe’s political response, and had been a disaster on the ground.

Christopher Caldwell’s book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the best book of any kind on public policy I have read, establishes definitively that this has been overwhelmingly a determined illegal immigration, not a refugee question.

The same is happening in northern Australia now, and as the Gillard government loses control of the situation, the number of illegal immigrants, almost all Muslim, will increase, exactly replicating the dynamics of Europe’s disaster, though of course on a much smaller scale.

So while I remain an advocate of a bigger immigration program, and would be happy to have the refugee quota enlarged, I am now a strong critic of lax borders and allowing illegal immigrants to turn up without papers and then settle permanently.

Caldwell’s book, along with the evidence of my own eyes, also convinced me that many North Africans were not going to Europe to embrace European values but to continue their North African life, with its values, at a European living standard and at the expense of the European taxpayer.

Living next to Lakemba for nearly 15 years also gave me a different view of how immigration can go wrong. Our sons went initially to a state primary school that had a brilliant principal and did a fine job.

But as they approached secondary school a senior teacher told us that our boys had academic potential and it would be a tragedy to send them to the local high school. It was riven with violence and misogyny, drugs and gang and ethnic conflict.

If you find yourself unexpectedly in a war zone, your instinct is to evacuate the family, so the boys went to a private Catholic school, which was racially and even religiously diverse, though I don’t believe there were any Muslim kids there. It was excellent.

Lakemba and surrounding areas such as Punchbowl had a large Lebanese Muslim population, many of whom had come when Malcolm Fraser crazily instituted a come-one, come-all admissions policy for those claiming to be refugees from the Lebanon conflicts of the 80s.

Replicating the European experience that the second generation had more trouble than the first, it was the sons of some of these immigrants who figured heavily in anti-social activities.

I was shocked to discover the growth of jihadi culture in Lakemba. We used to go to its main street for shopping and for food.

One day, waiting for a pizza order, I wandered into the Muslim bookshop. I was astounded to see titles such as The International Jew or The Truth about the Pope, amid a welter of anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and pro-extremist literature.

The revenge attacks on white Australians after the Cronulla riots originated out of Punchbowl. A number of media crews were attacked when they went to local mosques. A large number of those charged with terrorism offences in Australia stayed in or had associations with the area.

Due to the brilliant and fearless reporting of this paper’s Richard Kerbaj, who spoke perfect Arabic, we found that at a number of the mosques in the area outright hatred was being preached: anti-Semitic, misogynist, conspiratorial. Most of the time, these sermons didn’t advocate violence. The speakers were what Britain’s David Cameron has called “non-violent extremists”.

The advent of satellite television made it easier for these folks to live a life apart. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station was available on satellite packages. Most Arab homes you went into had Arabic TV playing in the background.

The anti-social behaviour became more acute.

One son was playing cricket with friends when they were challenged by a group of teenagers, whom they presumed to be Lebanese but may have been of other Middle Eastern origin, who objected to white boys playing cricket. A full-scale, if brief, fist fight ensued.

One son was challenged by a boy with a gun. Lakemba police station was shot up. Crime increased on the railway line.

I was in the habit of taking an evening constitutional, walking a long route from the station to home. At some point it became unwise to walk on Canterbury Road. A white guy in a suit was a natural target for abuse or a can of beer or something else hurled from a passing car.

Occasionally at the train station I was recognised and my pro-Israel articles were not popular, though nothing serious ever came of these incidents.

The worst thing I saw myself was two strong young men, of Middle Eastern appearance, waiting outside the train station.

A middle-aged white woman emerged from the station alone. She was rather oddly dressed, with a strange hair-do.

The two young men walked up beside her, began taunting her and then finished their effort by spitting in her face. They laughed riotously and walked away. She wiped the spittle off her face and hurried off home. It was all over in a few seconds.

These events in Lakemba and nearby are not unique. Lots of people from lots of different backgrounds commit violent crime in Australia. There is a good deal of unemployment, combined with a highly advanced informal culture of welfare exploitation, often freely discussed at the local schools, in the area. But Lakemba is different from most of Australia.

A senior policeman from nearby Bankstown once told me that policing in the Bankstown area was unlike working anywhere else in Australia, and he was amazed how much violent crime went unreported by the media.

Does Islam itself have a role in these problems? The answer is complex and nuanced but it must be a qualified, and deeply reluctant, yes.

This is the only explanation consistent with the fact other immigrant communities, which may have experienced difficult circumstances in the first generation, don’t display the same characteristics in the second generation.

But there is a deeper reason as well. As the great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, has written: “The community of Islam was church and state in one, with the two indistinguishably interwoven.”

This isn’t just a theoretical observation. It means that imams at mosques tend to be preaching about politics, and doing so from a cosmology deeply influenced by paranoia and conspiracy.

Many Australian Islamic institutions receive funding from Saudi Arabia, but I know from my work in Southeast Asia and Europe that the Saudis almost always fund an extremist interpretation of Islam.

To have concerns about these matters is not racism or xenophobia. It is reasonable.

It may also be that when young men of Islamic background experience failure and alienation they are much more readily prone to entrepreneurs of identity who offer them purpose through the jihadi ideology, which has a large overlap with what they hear at the mosque and what they see on Arabic TV.

This is simply not true for Buddhists or Confucians or Sikhs or Jews or Christians, and to pretend so, to make all religions seem equal, is to simply deny reality.

Islam is a deep sea with a tradition of much spiritual goodness and genuine insight.

However, the Koran itself contains numerous injunctions to violent jihad and suppression of infidels. It also contains passages against violence and against compulsion in religion.

These things are to a considerable extent matters of interpretation but it is undeniable that at the very least a sizeable minority of Muslims choose an extremist interpretation.

How can Australia sensibly take account of all this while maintaining a non-discriminatory immigration program? Three obvious courses suggest themselves.

In the formal immigration program, there should be a rigid adherence to skills qualifications so that the people who come here are well educated, easily employable and speak good English.

The inflow of illegal immigrants by boat in the north, almost all Muslim, mostly unskilled, should be stopped.

Within the formal refugee and humanitarian allocation of 13,500 places a year, a legitimate stress should be placed on need but also on the ability to integrate into Australian society.

And, finally, we simply should not place immigration officers in the countries with the greatest traditions of radicalism.

A few years ago there was an informal view across government that very few visas should be issued to people from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, as these were the three likeliest sources of extremism.

These sorts of discussions take place all the time among senior officials, politicians and others. But I have never encountered a policy area in which private and public positions are so different.

It is right to be sensitive and avoid needless offence.

It is wrong to avoid reality altogether in such an important area of national policy.

No one in Europe, 25 years ago, thought they would be in the mess they’re in today.

Australia has been a successful immigration country. But the truth is not all immigrants are the same. And it may be much easier than people think to turn success into failure.

* * *


IN France, recent polls put National Front leader Marine Le Pen ahead of all other contenders for the French presidency. The National Front is a traditionally far-right extreme group, with an inheritance of anti-Semitism.

It has recently ditched the anti-Semitism and now stands primarily against Muslim immigration and Islamic influence in France.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently Germany’s attempt to create a multicultural society had failed completely.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron recently denounced European-style multiculturalism, saying: “We have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.

“We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has agreed with Cameron and Merkel, that multiculturalism is a complete bust, as has Spain’s former leader, Jose Maria Aznar.

Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown said shortly before he lost office that 75 per cent of terror plots in Britain came from Pakistan or had a direct Pakistani connection. There are 800,000 Pakistanis living in Britain.

Across Europe, anti-Muslim parties are gaining electoral strength. They are often described as anti-immigration parties but in truth they have little complaint about immigrants other than Muslim immigrants. Switzerland has banned minarets. Even Sweden has an anti-Islam party.

All this is happening in Europe, the most liberal continent on earth, in the face of furious opposition from the liberal elite, who regard it as racist and, worse, incipient fascism, leftover colonialism and every other kind of -ism you can imagine.

Greg Sheridan

* * *


GREG Sheridan in The Australian, November 6, 1996: There is nothing in multiculturalism that could cause any worry to any normal person. Multiculturalism officially promotes an overriding loyalty to Australia, respect for other people’s rights and Australian law, recognition of people’s cultural origins, respect for diversity, the need to make maximum economic use of the skills people bring to Australia and equity in access to government services.

What mostly passes for “debate” about multiculturalism is really the psychology of paranoia as a political style. That is why opinion polls on these issues are often self-contradictory. People will say they think there should be fewer migrants from Asia, but that the policy should be non-discriminatory. Or people might say that everybody should speak English, but then denounce funding for multiculturalism when its chief expenditure is to teach migrants English.