What, you might wonder, has the childhood of an ordinary little Australian girl in the 1960s got to do with global issues of race, religion, culture and immigration facing Australia today?
Travel with me for a while and find out….
Growing up multicultural – before it was a word
I grew up in a poor housing commission suburb of predominantly working class and under-employed people including lots of new migrants who were known as “New Australians”.
When I was 4 years old, Nikki and Maria lived next door and I adored their vivacity and openness, and going around their garden with them smelling all their pretty Mediterranean flowers. I’d be invited to dinner at the huge wooden table, served by their big Italian mama as if I were one of her own children, eating things I’d never heard of (nor had my Aussie family) and enjoying listening to them talk, thought I did not understand a word of it.
My best friend when I was 7 years old was a tall, quiet Dutch boy with a delightful name of unfamiliar consonant pronunciations and ‘de’s and double ‘a’s. We wrote love poetry to each other and passed it under the school desk. Although extremely shy, I’d find myself invited to dinner and sitting at the table with eleven kids and two parents who could not speak English. I greatly enjoyed listening to the Dutch conversation and eating strange, interesting foods.
Similarly with my German friends and their families. Many of my own foremothers and forefathers were German pioneers in Australia 100 – 180 years ago, but I do not know the language (would love to though!). However on Friday nights when I was eleven years old my best friend’s family took me to German Club in their new Volkswagen Kombi van. Everyone spoke German and I did not understand it but I loved listening to them and watching the slap-dances – the guys leaping about in their lederhosen, and the women in their bright clothes laughing and talking. And the strange, yummy German foods.
Of my friends at school I can only remember two or three who were born in Australia (including just one Aboriginal). The rest were a wide spread of race, religion and culture from around the world: English, Scottish, German, Hawaiian, Irish, Latvian, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian, Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Cypriot, Turkish, Dutch, New Zealander, Jewish, Japanese, Indian, Polish….. I just loved it! Rarely did we have people from Africa, Asia or the Middle East in those days; those waves of migrants came later after the Vietnam war. However there were Aussie kids who had Chinese and Afghani descent, going back to colonial days of mining and exploration. And all of us were mixtures, like probably everyone in the world, admit it or not!
Our Aboriginal connection
As I mentioned, Australian Aboriginal people were ‘in short supply’. Our school’s one Aboriginal girl was so popular it was hard to get any time with her for a chat or a game. One year our class was taken into town to see a Pitjantjatjara art exhibition, and it was one of the highlights of my education. Shyly exchanging smiles with equally shy kids from the deserts of the Great Australian Bight, who had not seen white people before, was quite a thrill, and outshone the art itself. However I and other kids in my class began to incorporate elements and styles from Aboriginal art into our own artworks. I went hunting for coloured clays, sifting them, and experimenting with natural paints. Like many other fifth generation Aussies, I have some Aboriginal in my ancestry and took to the art “like a duck to water”.
At school we had folk dancing classes of I-don’t-know-what-cultures and I was paired up with a towering lad from Bulgaria who was so strong that he’d have me airborne when we spun. We sang Scottish songs. We danced Greek dances. We watched Indian yoga teachers on TV. In art I drew portraits of beautiful black Africans and Japanese, wore Polynesian costumes for school plays and made Native American head-dresses and weapons for games at home.
There was quite a mix of religions in school too, with a preponderance of Christian types. Thursdays the whole school had “Religious Instruction” known as RI, when all the kids were sent off to classes with teachers of their own religion. No-one came out of those classes attacking anyone else or separating themselves with arrogance or superiority. I do remember there being some insulting chants about Catholicism going around, that originated with a few parents who’d been through religious persecution at some point. But we kids didn’t feel that for ourselves. Interestingly, practically all the kids hated RI and just wanted to be all the same and all friends playing together and not different or separated by anything.
Settling in together
All these people of diverse races, cultures and religions came to this ancient, worn land, joined the Australian community, contributed their languages, foods, festivals, art, music, styles, skills and ideas into the ever-evolving ancient-young nation, and adapted to the new blend. They built their own shops, churches, synagogues, shrines, clubs, restaurants, whatever, and enjoyed continuing their own ways as part of the mix, but did not expect Australia to be converted into a version of their lands of origin. Importantly, they did not try to force their cultural religious practices and beliefs onto the existing inhabitants of their new country or onto each other (at least, not in my little realm!). They did not demand changes to Australia’s government to force existing Australians into complying with religious laws from their old countries.
There was some racial and cultural tension of course as is usual when new individuals and groups arrive and mix, especially when locals felt their jobs might be threatened by people from other lands. But in general everyone settled into the Australian society. It reminded me a bit of adding new animals to a flock or herd: a bit of pecking, biting and scuffling, but everyone finds their niche and becomes an integral part of the group!
What’s different in Australia now? Why the recent intensification of racial, religious and cultural tension? Where’s the fear coming from?
Enter the media…..and the Moslems
I rarely watch or listen to the news (same, same, all biased!), but I do hear people talking and complaining about current events and trends as they are portrayed in the media. What’s becoming increasingly apparent is that Australian people are feeling more threatened by immigration than ever before. Of particular focus is the influx of Moslems with their Islamic faith. Why? Why, when we have people from everywhere on the planet living here already? Well, if the media is to be believed, a significant percentage of the Moslem immigrants are behaving differently from immigrants in the past. The media says that they are either being aggressively vocal about forcing the religion and laws of their Islamic countries of origin onto Australians, or being part of a ‘silent majority’ who on the surface seem to fit in but are surreptitiously supporting and empowering the terrorists and political agitators. We hear that there is a long-term plan to build up numbers and change our Australian way of life to a Moslem way of life, enforced both legally and religiously. We hear in the news about parts of England (the mother country of the Australian nation and many Australians) switching to Sharia law. About Christian women forced to succumb to the ruthlessly patriarchal rules of Islamic society. Verbal and physical assault and rape by men of both sides. All this is creating fear, anger and outrage. People are worried that we will lose the social freedoms and gender rights we have worked so long and hard to attain.
Ripples in the wake of the media
Australian citizens reading the newspapers and watching TV are asking: by what right do people from somewhere else come here (unhappy with conditions in their homelands and seeing Australia the way it is as a desirable place) and yet pushing to re-create here what they ran away from back there? Why are they using bombs, guns, rape, fear, terror, and media and political campaigns to force us to be like them though we have no interest in becoming like them and no intention of giving up the lifestyle we have created in this country? Why are they not doing what the millions of migrants of the last century did: being grateful to come to a new land with more freedom and opportunity than their old lands, and fitting in with the existing blend even if they continue their own traditions privately? That worked in the past. Now Australians are saying that the new politico-religious bullying by Moslems coming into Australia does not work. As one person shared with me today: “if the push to force Australia into adopting Sharia laws or creating an Islamic state, or any other such imposition from anywhere else, gains a foothold, it will lead to violence and major civil unrest or even civil war.” This is pretty heavy stuff!
Aren’t we all the same at heart?
I’ve always believed that separatists and troublemakers are a minority expressing some deep pain that’s driving their bad behaviour. That really what every human wants is to be loved, to be useful, to fit into their communities in harmony, to have meaningful work and raise their families in safety and peace in their own style. I still maintain that to be true. I’ve all my life welcomed new and different people with open arms, beginning with those joyful childhood days of blossoming multiculturalism at school and in my neighbourhood. And continuing throughout adult life, where my mix of beloved friends includes Buddhists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Protestants, Orthodoxes, Hindus, Shintos, Aetheists, Pagans, Jews, Sanyassins, Jains, Hare Krishnas, Indigenous people, people from every continent on the Earth, blacks, whites, reds, yellows, browns and every shade of race and belief in between. It brings me joy, as always, to invite diverse people into this land and my life. And I look forward to welcoming Moslem people into that circle of acceptance, equality, friendship and love too.
So here’s a big question:
Is all or any of this stuff in the media about Islam penetrating Australia to change our law and religion just another media ploy to whip up fear and separation, or is it partly or wholly true? We know we can’t trust the media as far as we can throw them, and that they are puppets of large interests that rely on fear and separation to control the population. Religion has been used historically to divide groups of people and keep them in conflict for the gain of corporate and political interests, as in Northern Ireland. However, what’s really going on now with this Moslem takeover story?
Is this just the latest wave of fear creation by the media?
And if it is, where’s the accountability?
Who will call the media to trial?
And how does an ordinary person find out the truth?
I’d really like to know!