Monday, March 25, 2013

Freedom and Multiculturalism a Passover Perspective

This week Jews will celebrate Passover marking the deliverance of freedom to the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, which also links strongly to Easter. I was surprised to learn that the story at the core of Passover also features in the Quran. At the heart of the Passover story are undeniably powerful universal messages, not only the right for freedom, but also about how cultures need to avoid the ‘us and them’ trap with particular relevance for Australia with its newly confirmed freedom to offend.

I must disclose that I am employed by a Christian-Jewish-Muslim diversity education organisation. At my family Passover feast I will be telling of a Pharaoh that at first resisted the dog whistle politics of division. The Pharaoh was quickly removed in a leadership coup but reinstated when he showed a willingness to portray the small community of Hebrews as an existential threat to the nation. The contribution of the most prominent Hebrew, Joseph, was “not known” to Pharaoah, or Firaun as the Quran calls him. Instead the Hebrews became the “other” that needed to be managed.

The recently released bi-partisan parliamentary Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia reported that “despite majority comfort with diversity, 41 per cent of survey respondents had a narrow view of who belongs in Australia”.  In the work of the organisation I lead, Together for Humanity, we have asked 60,000 young Australians to guess which members of a panel typically consisting of a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian are  Australian? The vast majority always assumes that the Muslim is not Australian.

I recall the  year 11 student in Mudgee, who confidently declared  that anyone can become an Australian (citizen) but to be an Aussie you had to have your BBQ in front of your TV and wear thongs. And of course be White and Anglo Saxon. To its credit the bi-partisan report gave prominent voice to the multiculturalism-sceptics and included their concerns in a snap shot of Australia’s response to diversity. In combating prejudice we need to honestly explore the fears and assumptions we make if we are to develop thoughtful resolutions to some of the problems we face.

A Lebanese Muslim year 12 student we worked with some years ago, was recently asked to fill in a question on a form about his identity. His teacher asked him, do you see yourself as Lebanese? Australian? “It depends on the context, Miss” he replied. This young man understands what many Australians don’t. Our identity is multilayered. 

In recent days proposed strengthening of anti-discrimination legislation has been shelved out of concern about freedom of speech. The freedom of an Australian to replicate the Youtube video that ridiculed the prophet has been protected. Perhaps this is the necessary price to protect freedom in general. It comes at a high cost. I was deeply moved when talking about the US made film and its aftermath with young Arabic Muslim students in Western Sydney. There was no hostility or menace. Instead the young men quietly and politely expressed a deep hurt about something so precious to them being desecrated and ridiculed
This attitude of the young Muslims might especially annoy people who take religion lightly, yet if we as a nation are serious about pluralism we need to find room in our hearts for differences not just of belief itself but also how deeply held it can be.

The parliamentary report recognises that “freedom to maintain one’s cultural and linguistic inheritance is an important factor in developing a confident sense of self and a sense of belonging”. This is an important bi-partisan repudiation of the assimilationist approach. There were probably some well-intentioned Egyptians who insisted that the Hebrews were not really that different and it would all be sorted within a few generations. Indeed, the Hebrews adopted some local customs but other Egyptians must have recognised that the Hebrews clung to their own language, distinctive dress and foreign sounding names and   congregated in Goshen. The report calls for greater interaction between people of different beliefs and cultures, a view Together For Humanity strongly endorses and have found highly effective.  We hope we can count on strong bi-partisan support in promoting just such interaction so that we can all enjoy freedom within our great multicultural Australia. 

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