I am of course suspicious, because I know from my experience as an ESL teacher that John Howard (from whom all important policy comes, no doubt not in detail, but he sets the parameters and tone) is and has been uncomfortable with the idea of diversity. Witness the revisions of policy since 1996 as captured in the HREOC document Face the Facts. I wrote that analysis a few years ago for my ESL colleagues.
But if you look at the actual discussion paper recently released you will find, I think, that it is not as bad as it could have been. Much of it is not unreasonable. It is a shame though that in practice the past decade has seen a weakening of ESL services in schools, a defensive approach to the idea of diversity (compared with the decade preceding), insufficient support for new arrivals from language backgrounds other than English in schools (though much good work is done), and the sad reduction/privatisation of English services for adult migrants. This is of course not to mention the demonisation of certain groups, which the government, when not itself aiding and abetting the demonisation as they did over Tampa and since, has been less than proactive in opposing.
Yet there are points in Andrew Robb’s speech to the Conference of Australian Imams yesterday that I agree with. For example:
… Australia has been hugely successful at integrating people, millions of people with diverse backgrounds from over 200 countries. We have created one broad family, with one overiding culture, based on those set of common values, but without denying people their roots. In fact, Australia’s success in integrating people from so many diverse backgrounds owes much to the community’s willingness to embrace and draw from the wealth of that diversity, and we are all the richer for it. But this success was not inevitable. We have all had to work at it. And, the task is never finished.
My sense is that fortunately Australians tend to treat people as they find them…
After all, Australian Muslims, like most Australians, just want to get on with their lives – to raise a family, hold down a good job, pay the mortgage, take a holiday, enjoy the company of friends and move comfortably and securely in the community…
But I could not help but be a touch puzzled by the advice to preach in English, which of course is not a bad idea in itself. However, if the “problem” is younger Muslims, as he seems to be saying in the following extract, than I wonder if he hasn’t forgotten a couple of obvious points.
For Imams to present Islam in a truly Australian context, especially to second and third generation young Australian Muslims, it would seem essential that Imams be able to preach effectively in English. Fifty percent of the 360,000 Muslims in Australia are under 25 years of age, and most were born in Australia. Their view of Islam should come from the Mosque, not from the internet.
The fact that I have needed to have my comments translated into several different languages so that many of you could understand my address here this morning, very clearly highlights my concern.
Arabic has religious significance for all Muslims. It is the language of the Qu’ran and in a very real sense the language of God. Yes, I know that seems absurd to those of us who grew up suspecting God speaks English, but there it is. The Qu’ran is not the Qu’ran if it is translated. I guess the nearest parallels I can think of are the Catholic Church in its long Latin phase, whose passing some still deplore, and the significance of mastering Hebrew for those of the Jewish faith. So you actually can’t have a mosque which is an Arabic-free zone. This is not to say that preaching and exposition cannot be in English, which quite clearly they very often are in our country. In fact, the ignorance of Arabic among many, perhaps most, of those under 25s is a real matter of concern to Muslims.
Yes, there are some vile Islamist sites on the internet, as we all know; none of them are found in my links on the right, but that is not to say either I would, as a non-Muslim, accept everything on the ones I have selected — but I do see them as generally responsible, and much less vile than many right-wing sites, especially but not only American, many of which have a big following too. It is more than possible for a young Muslim to find resources of the internet that would support their faith and self-esteem without threatening the rest of us with apocalypse, just as there are plenty of reasonable alternatives to the more rabid right-wing blogs, even in the realm of the religious and the conservative. All we can hope is that we succeed in weaning young people off hate sites of all kinds, giving them the values and critical skills to see them for what they are: anti-human.
On the other hand, we must not suppress valid critique of what the West has been up to in the past, and continues to be up to. Aside from being dishonest, that would be to curtail our own capacity to learn and change.