Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman

Bio: Dennis Altman is a Professor of Politics at LaTrobe University

The current debate on multiculturalism offers an opportunity to rethink the relationship between social diversity and social cohesion. As cultural and religious differences increase within Australia the experience of other countries, such as Britain and the Netherlands, suggests the possibility of balkanisation, the development of self-perpetuating groups deeply alienated from the larger society. We need responses that are more imaginative than increasing police powers or group hugs for clerics.

Despite the rhetoric of diversity and tolerance, religious differences threaten social cohesion in ways that are not true of diversity of racial and ethnic origin. Indeed the overall success of multiculturalism owes much to the indifference most Australians, including most migrants, show towards religion. The current growth of fundamentalism Xamong Christians as much as amongst Muslims makes it increasingly urgent to discuss that balance.

Where religion begins to inform everyday values and practices, and leads believers to impose their beliefs on others, there is an unavoidable tension with principles of democratic government. This is as true of Catholics who wish to criminalise abortion, or fundamentalist Protestants who want to ban sex education, as it is of Muslims who oppose the rights of women to be regarded as equal citizens.

Liberal democracy rests upon certain agreed values that recognise individuals deserve equal treatment in all areas of social life. This does not exclude committed believers from active participation in political life, but it does require them to acknowledge that particular religious beliefs not shared by the majority cannot determine their policies. John Kennedy was elected the first Catholic President of the United States in 1960 after his public acceptance of this position.

While Australia has no overarching statement of national principles equivalent to the United States Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights, most Australian believe in a set of values, however inchoately expressed, that guarantee basic democratic rights and practices. There is a genuine national interest in preserving and strengthening these values. A society that tolerates the intolerant will find itself increasingly unable to preserve its freedoms.

If multiculturalism means the constant reshaping of our sense of who we are through a recognition of the diversity of the Australian population (not least the indigenous population), it is no threat to democracy or freedom. The growth of minority communities who reject the basic rights of others and avoid any involvement in the larger community is, however, a real threat.

Nor should the onus for achieving social cohesion rest only with recently arrived migrant communities. As both federal and state governments have supported the rapid growth of private schools an increasing number of Australian children are being educated in ghettoes, whether formed by wealth or by faith. Muslim migrants who send their children to religious schools are merely following what is becoming a more and more common pattern of division within Australian society.

When immigrants, or religious communities, cluster together in certain suburbs, allowing them to keep their language and places of worship, this can strengthen a broader commitment to social diversity. But diversity becomes another word for social fragmentation when it produces active resistance to the values of the broader society, through withdrawing children from the school system for home schooling or discouraging women from higher education. There is a strong case for requiring all children, whatever their religion or ethnicity, to undertake at least their primary education within a state school.

Australia has one of the highest percentages of school students in religious schools of any western countries, and goes much further than does the United States in funding private schools. Such a policy would be bitterly attacked as an infringement of parental choice, and of the right to teach children according to particular religious doctrines. But parents do not have unlimited rights, and children have the right to be aware of other beliefs and to learn the civic values of their society. Such a policy has the merit of treating all Australian equally, rather than merely focusing on those who are most obviously different, which at this point in our history means Muslims.

The benefits would be enormous. Not only would it mean young Australians could not grow up in isolation, whether this be the isolation of privileged grammar schools or small under-resourced religious schools. If all children were to spend their early years in the state school system there would immediately be political pressures to ensure that system was as good as the best of the private schools.

Time could be allowed for religious classes in such a system (as long as students were also exposed to debates about the nature of religion and some understanding of religious conflicts.) Bringing all children into the same classrooms could actually strengthen multiculturalism, which requires different communities to interact with each other. Properly handled it could create both greater social cohesion and greater awareness of diversity.

Printed in "THE AGE" in September 2005