Asian Engagement Means Talking to Muslims


Stock photo representing multiculturalism, selected by The Advertiser.

Today, I hosted a large-scale public discussion event called InterculturAdelaide, focused on policy innovation to better equip Australians to engage with our own diversity, along with that of our Asian neighbours. This is the text of an opinion piece that I published today to accompany the event, in which I argue that Islamophobia in the Australian community can hamper not only social cohesion at home, but also our capacity for genuine Asian engagement.

Engagement with Muslims is an inescapable part of our search for a prosperous future in Asia

IN 1994, Indonesian journalist Ratih Hardjono published her book on Australians, who she pithily referred to as the White Tribe of Asia. Her book traced the history of debates about immigration since the White Australia policy was abolished in the late 1970s.

As Hardjono pointed out, Australia was a nation experiencing burgeoning diversity, and the insecurity that sometimes accompanied that diversity was consistently belied by its advantages on the ground.

Those advantages were first officially acknowledged in 1978, in a policy framework we know as multiculturalism. This framework was underpinned by a series of principles designed to protect “other” European and new Asian migrants.

These principles included equality of opportunity, the right to retain one’s culture, and access to programs designed for migrants in consultation with migrants themselves. These principles were supported by the Racial Discrimination Act, passed in 1975.

By the 1990s, Australian multiculturalism was increasingly overlaid by a reorientation in the nation’s foreign policy — this time towards a new emphasis on better engagement with Asia. This turn towards our geographic region was largely driven by economic change, but it also created new opportunities for improved social, cultural and political understanding.

These opportunities were further enhanced by growing numbers of Asian migrants, creating a sense of enmeshment with the region even while it triggered a backlash from those who felt “swamped by Asians”.

In the 21st century, the climate has shifted. The language of multiculturalism has been muffled by two influences in particular. These are the War on Terror, which continues to restructure notions of belonging and citizenship; and ever more extreme regimes for refugee detention.

Now, simmering anxiety about Asia and Asians has overlapped with open expressions of public concern about Australian Muslims.

Nevertheless, the apparent “rise of Asia” continues, driving ever closer Australian engagement with a region which, by 2050, may become host to nearly 1.5 billion Muslims, along with more than 3 billion non-Muslims.

Contact with “Muslims”, like contact with “Asians”, is an integral feature of the Australian experience. Indeed, it is an inescapable part of this nation’s search for a prosperous future in Asia.

Australians are plainly not just a white tribe, and diaspora populations resident in Australia are in fact leaders in Asian engagement. This engagement is now firmly part of the nation’s domestic life — it is not only a feature of international relations.

Increasing diversity and enmeshment with Asia call for improved initiatives which build Australians’ capacity for smart, sensitive interaction across and between varied cultural contexts, including those of faith.

It is our contention at InterculturAdelaide that this capacity is best supported by a new policy framework designed not only to manage, but to live and experience, the diversity inherent in our community.

New policy frameworks should support this experience under a rubric of “interculturality” — broadly defined as a set of attitudes and skills that leverage our multiculturalism to raise our levels of cultural adaptivity.

Our discussion today at InterculturAdelaide is focused on how best to support this new emphasis in the interest of improved understanding, a more resilient and cohesive national community, and improved forms of engagement across cultural differences, both in Australia and internationally.


  • First published in The Advertiser, 9 July 2015. Picture: Evan Morgan.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll To Top