The following appeared in The New York Times…
Australia’s Dangerous Fantasy
By EVA SALLIS
LAST Sunday on Cronulla Beach, a suburb of Sydney, thousands of drunken white youths attacked anyone they believed was of Arab descent. Inspired by reports that Lebanese-Australians had assaulted two white lifeguards, text messages calling for a Lebanese “bashing day” appeared on thousands of cellphones. Some of Sunday’s assailants wore T-shirts that proclaimed, “We grew here; you flew here,” or, “Ethnic cleansing unit.”
For many, the Cronulla Beach incident did not come as a surprise. Rather, it was the bubbling up of an undercurrent that is increasingly evident in Australian life.
Newcomers, especially those who form linguistic or ethnically distinct groups, always have a hard time in Australia at first. But Australia is a country that has been created by many streams of immigrants and has come out the better for it. Greeks and Italians are among the largest non-Anglo groups and are fully integrated. Melbourne has the world’s third largest Greek community. Vietnamese immigrants experienced racism and hostility when they first arrived in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but time, and the entry of increasing numbers of Vietnamese-Australians into public life, have eroded that prejudice.
While this country is less diverse than the United States, its minority communities are a core part of its national identity. The notion of an all-white Australia is a fantasy and an anachronism. No dark-haired, dark-eyed Australian would have been safe on Cronulla Beach last Sunday, yet Australia is - has always been - substantially dark-haired and dark-eyed. And the expressed hostility toward “Lebs” as recent intruders belies the history of Australia, where people of Lebanese ancestry have lived for more than a century.
Several recent events have made this latest eruption of racism and xenophobia different from those of the past. While denying even that racism exists, our leaders have given tacit approval and support for it through policy, whether this is policy on refugees, security or Indigenous affairs. The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers was strongly linked with border protection from 2001, and, as most asylum seekers of recent years have been from the Middle East and Muslim South Asia, “border protection” has become protection from Muslim refugees in the popular imagination.
Like the United States, Australia has new anti-terrorism legislation, first passed in 2002 and significantly strengthened just recently. Such laws have helped to validate broader community mistrust of Arab and Muslim Australians.
Our government has done little to substantively allay fear of Muslim and Middle Eastern Australians generally or to increase public understanding and appreciation of their culture and contribution to Australian life. Arabic is the fourth most commonly used language after English in Australia, and the most commonly used language after English in New South Wales, Sydney’s home state, yet it is taught in only a handful of schools and universities.
In the last five years there has also been evidence of an increase in violence toward people of Arab appearance. An Iraqi writer I know begged his wife and daughter to stop wearing the hijab because of the potential of violence on the street. An Afghan refugee taxi driver in Adelaide said to my partner last night that he thought he would have to quit because his younger passengers were so nasty. In recent years high-profile cases in which Arab-Australian youths were charged with violent crimes generated a storm in the news media, as well as unchecked vilification on talk radio.
Prejudice creates what it fears by curtailing young people’s prospects. Young Arab-Australians are increasingly ghettoized in Sydney’s poor suburbs, where they struggle for education and jobs. Their families are often prejudiced against non-Arab Australians; the racism of the minority and that of the broader society reinforce each other.
I have Muslim friends who used to feel that they were Australians, but now cannot identify themselves in the negative space created for them in our community. I have non-Muslim friends who are furious at being mistaken for Muslims because of their Middle Eastern background; they are doing all they can to differentiate themselves from people they too are starting to openly dismiss. It has become fashionable, perhaps, to be racist, although none of us, not even our prime minister, is willing to call it what it is.
What happened on Cronulla Beach warns us that our self-inflicted wounds are festering. A volatile part of our community is deeply alienated, unable to belong, and another volatile part has retreated to an irretrievable past and a mythical notion of racial purity. If contemporary Australians are to live at ease with ourselves, we need more education, less fear mongering and, not least, greater honesty about the culture of racism that is so damaging us.
Eva Sallis is the author of six books, including “Mahjar,” a collection of short stories.