Community harmony

by Chloe Patton, August 14, 2014

Community harmony

The concept of ‘community harmony’ is a relatively recent addition to the English-speaking political lexicon, where it appears most frequently in debates around the management of cultural diversity. Here I trace its evolution in the Australian context from its origins in a late 1990s discourse of multiculturalism premised on notions of anti-racism, to a post-9/11 multiculturalism dominated by counter-terrorism imperatives.

The term ‘community harmony’ first began appearing consistently within the discourse on multiculturalism in Australia with the 1998 launch of the Federal Government’s Living in Harmony initiative. The initiative fulfilled a 1996 election promise to establish a national anti-racism education and awareness campaign. March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was proclaimed ‘Harmony Day’, and $10 million was allocated towards the initiative’s stated objective of eradicating racism and consolidating community harmony, chiefly through a community grants program. (Liberal and National Party of Australia 1999)

The alignment of the notion of community harmony with anti-racism is clear throughout the Living in Harmony literature. The stated principles of the initiative assert that ‘there is some intolerance and prejudice against people based on race, culture or religion and that disrupts community harmony and offends most people’ and ‘racism is wrong and it’s not the Australian way to judge people by the colour of their skin or their religious or cultural background’. While the nation is the dominant conceptual frame within which the concept of community harmony acquires meaning in this context, the assertion that ‘disharmony is universally perceived as disturbing and destructive’ aligns the initiative with broader humanist objectives that transcend the initiative’s focus on individuals’ capacities to participate in the national society (DIMA 1998).

Continuing to signify the fight against racism, ‘community harmony’ soon came to gain currency beyond the Living in Harmony initiative. In direct response to the 2002 Bali bombings the then Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Gary Hardgrave, released a press statement entitled, ‘Multicultural Australia Unites in Condemnation’. Hardgrave declared that the ‘war against terrorism’ was not a ‘war against Islam’ and urged Australians to ensure that ‘our community harmony is rigorously maintained’. This was reiterated in a Ramadan message delivered by the minister two weeks later.

In March the following year, however, the rhetoric began to change when the Federal Government pledged its support for the US-led invasion of Iraq. In his speech on Iraq to the House of Representatives, Hardgrave invokes the image of a harmonious national society alongside democracy as a measure of the moral superiority of Western nations:

It is worth noting that there are only six countries in the world that for the past 100 years have maintained democratic traditions. Australia is proudly one of those six. New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Switzerland are the other five. We are one of those nations which can rightly say that we have respect for people of all backgrounds to ably contribute to society. That is the way we organise ourselves, so we are in a position to judge a regime that is doing the exact opposite. (Australia 2003, p.13111)

He goes on to establish a signifying relationship between community harmony and national security:

There are those who are saying that it is not our fight, that it is not relevant. It will only become relevant when it is too late. As the Prime Minister has suggested, does it take an attack onshore to make it relevant to Australia and its people? No, it does not. We must stand for something. Moreover, we must ensure that we fight this fight offshore, not onshore. It is critical at this time that, when we talk about national security, we know we cannot maintain it unless there is a sense of support for all in our communities. Without community harmony in our multicultural society there can be no national security. (Australia 2003, p.13111)

Precisely why community harmony is essential to national security is not made apparent. Following the logic guiding the way in which community harmony had been understood within state governmental discourse on diversity to this point, it would seem important to stress the maintenance of community harmony in the wake of the decision to go to war in order to avoid a repeat of the racist attacks on Arabs and Muslims that followed Australia’s involvement in the first Gulf War (HREOC 1991). However, ‘national security’ does not signify the security of Australian Arabs and Muslims in that sense here. Rather, national security is taken to mean the securing of the nation against the threat of an onshore terrorist attack.

Further on in Hardgrave’s speech, it appears that this new impetus for ensuring community harmony has not superseded the focus on anti-racism:

We must spend time thinking about the feelings of those 15,000 Iraqis who are part of Australian society today. They are here for the best of reasons. We must not allow any of them to be targeted or to be made to feel fearful in our society during this time. The 280,000 people who are respectful followers of Islamic traditions, the Australian Muslim community, have risen to the occasion in the way that they have expressed their sense of Australianness, especially since Bali but most profoundly since the September 11 horror. That sort of Australian conduct needs to be rewarded with our support as Australians of all backgrounds, particularly at this time. (Australia 2003, p.13111)

However, this begs the question of what ‘Australian conduct’ is being praised here. What exactly did Australian Muslims do that is being read as an expression of their ‘Australianness’? In the absence of any documented collective action involving some 365 000 people, it is perhaps more plausible to assume that it is what Australian Muslims did not do that is to be rewarded. Here the use of ‘respectful’ becomes telling. ‘Respectful followers of Islamic traditions’ can be distinguished from ‘disrespectful followers of Islamic traditions’, and it is assumedly not ‘Islamic traditions’ that Muslims are being praised for respecting in this context. Is it that Australian Muslims are to be lauded for respectfully refraining from expressing their sense of Muslimness after Bali and September 11? While there may be multiple ways of reading this, it is important to note that this speech marks the beginning of a period in which the meaning of ‘community harmony’ came to be bound up with national security, often to the extent that it overshadowed the anti-racist concerns it originally signified. In a 2003 announcement of funding for an updated multicultural policy, for example, the $3.3 million financial commitment was justified on the basis that ‘In this context, community harmony and social cohesion are pivotal elements in enabling Australia to contribute effectively to the international effort to combat terrorism, and in safeguarding Australians… National security begins with domestic community harmony,’ (Hardgrave 2003) Hardgrave’s speech also marks another important break with the term’s anti-racism origins. Its focus on the conduct of Muslims prefigures what the term would most often come to mean as the ‘War on Terror’ progressed towards a more pronounced domestic focus.

The National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security

In the wake of the 2005 London bombings, fears over ‘home grown’ terrorism naturalised the concept of a multiculturalism oriented around counter-terrorism. The Council of Australian Governments’ 2005 communiqué on counter-terrorism identified strengthening community harmony by building links with the Muslim community as a key counter-terrorism tactic, alongside stronger legislative and surveillance measures (COAG 2005). In an address to parliament the following year, Prime Minister John Howard presented multicultural policy as an extension of the harsh legislative measures – similar in effect to the US Patriot Act – introduced in response to the perceived threat of domestic terrorism:

There is no single measure to combat terrorism.  However, the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 and the Anti-Terrorism Act (No.2) 2005 provide a robust range of measures to enable us to better deter, prevent, detect and prosecute acts of terrorism. The Australian Government is committed to ensuring that all Australians have the opportunity to be equal participants in Australian society, free to live their lives and maintain their cultural traditions. The government’s multicultural policies operate to ensure an environment where freedom of religion is observed and community harmony is maintained.  These policies encourage respect for each person so that, subject to the law, all Australians are able to express their own culture and beliefs and have a reciprocal obligation to respect the rights of others to do the same.  In particular, the government is continuing its efforts to promote respect and understanding through working with state and territory governments to develop a National Action Plan building on the Principles agreed at my meeting with Islamic Community Leaders in August 2005. (Australia 2006, p.115)

The National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security (NAP) to which Howard was referring was to become the policy backbone of this counter-terrorism multiculturalism. Explicitly focusing on Muslims, the NAP’s stated purpose is

to reinforce social cohesion, harmony and support the national security imperative in Australia by addressing extremism, the promotion of violence and intolerance, in response to the increased threat of global religious and political terrorism. It is an initiative of Australian governments to address issues of concern to the Australian community and to support Australian Muslims to participate effectively in the broader community. (DIAC)

The plan implies that existing multicultural policy and legislative measures are sufficient to meet anti-racism objectives. Counter terrorism therefore becomes the logical focus of multicultural policy:

[…] all Australian governments have various mechanisms in place to protect the rights of all Australians through legislation on human rights, discrimination and vilification. The NAP recognises the importance of these policies, associated programmes and legislation. The NAP builds on this by introducing additional measures to improve national security and social cohesion and to help build a society resilient against extremism and terrorism. (DIAC)

These additional counter-terrorism measures consist of programs and initiatives that seek to educate and integrate young people and community leaders deemed to be at risk of involvement in violent extremism. Identified as being particularly vulnerable to ‘extremist recruiters’, young people are to be targeted by education programs that promote ‘mutual understanding and inclusion’ and the adoption of ‘Australian values’. Uncited research is said to have found that young members of ‘some communities’ do not participate widely in ‘mainstream Australian sporting, social and cultural activities’, thus recommended action also includes encouraging ‘active participation’ in those domains. ‘Emerging’ and existing leaders of communities of which members ‘might be susceptible to radicalisation’ are to be targeted by leadership capacity building initiatives so that they may be ‘proactive in addressing the potential for extremism within their own communities’. Recommended action includes providing community leaders with learning materials so that they may learn about ‘Australian values’ and encouraging them to ‘inform their members about the cultural norms of mainstream Australian society’, enabling them to ‘guide their communities to greater mainstream involvement’. (DIAC)

While the language slips between the overt naming of Muslims and coy references to ‘some communities’, the premise underlying these measures is clearly that Muslims are a potentially disruptive social force. That Muslims require education in the abstract values set out in the citizenship pledge and the National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools (DEST 2005: 4) implies that without NAP intervention, Muslims are likely to not respect the rights and liberties of others or uphold and obey Australian laws as the citizenship pledge requires. Muslim school children are therefore at risk of becoming uncaring and uncompassionate; becoming dishonest, untrustworthy, and disrespectful; not doing their best or believing in freedom; and so on, in accordance with the values outlined in the Government’s values education statement.

The NAP constructs all Muslims as potential agents of the violent extremism that is believed to emerge from this assumed valuelessness, not just the ‘tiny minority’ of Muslims usually identified as presenting a problem. The NAP represents the minority as an actively expanding force which, left unchecked, will contaminate other Muslims through recruitment to the extremist cause. Extremism in this view is a contagion to which Muslims are vulnerable simply because they are Muslim, and more so if they are also young. Relying on the familiar dichotomy of good ‘moderate’ Muslims and deviant fringe-dwelling ‘radicals’ that has gained currency since 9-11, it is not those deemed radical who are the focus here, but the so-called moderates. The perceived vulnerability of Muslims is equivalent to a lack; their subjectivities are essentially voids which must be furnished with the vaguely-defined values that demarcate the moral boundaries of the nation, lest these empty vessel subjects become the receptacles for extremist beliefs and ideologies.

The disciplinary function of the ‘values’ rhetoric extends beyond shaping deviant Muslims into desired subjects. The work it performs in delineating a national community along moral lines is not achieved by fleshing out what constitutes ‘Australian values’, but rather through an envisioned purging of those deemed not to conform. In August 2005, the Prime Minister declared that ‘if somebody has come from another country and has failed to properly embrace the values of this society, his society… then the idea of taking away their citizenship is one that ought to be looked at’ (cited in Johnson 2007: 201). In the same month he instructed Muslim leaders that Muslim schools must teach ‘Australian values’, threatening that the government was prepared to ‘get inside’ Muslim schools and mosques to make sure they were not promoting terrorism’ (Poynting and Mason 2008: 237). In early 2006 Treasurer Peter Costello similarly warned that Australian values are ‘not optional’; failure to adopt them is akin to refusing to remove one’s shoes in a mosque, he asserted, and should by punishable by the revocation of citizenship. A number of scholars have pointed to the assimilationist logic underpinning these rhetorical efforts to police the boundaries of the national community through national values (Hage 2002, Jakubowicz 2007, Johnson 2007, Poynting and Mason 2008). Carefully scrutinising Howard’s espousal of national values rhetoric from the mid-1990s, Johnson (2007: 198) surmises that while non-white Australians are not expected to pass as Anglos, they are certainly expected to assimilate to values defined as British in origin. While this might suggest nostalgia for an imagined golden era of nationhood that disappeared with the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, Hage argues (2002: 433) that proponents of this rhetoric are actually appealing to what they believe is a continuing lived reality that is being relegated to the background in the face of increased cultural diversity. Australian values rhetoric is therefore, in Hage’s view, a narrative of White decline.

From this perspective, the NAP’s goal of seeing more Muslims participate in ‘mainstream’ – i.e. White – sporting, social and cultural activities is not representative of the anti-racism concerns over barriers preventing participation that guided similar policy initiatives in the past. In the context of counter-terrorism multiculturalism, it is an assimilationist strategy aimed at disciplining young Muslim and shoring up the support of those who experience cultural diversity as a loss of White privilege. What is perhaps most significant about the NAP is that this assimilationist imperative does not have to be inferred through close analysis of the policy, it was openly declared by the Prime Minister. When asked in a radio interview whether $461 million had been allocated in the Federal budget for ‘assimilating Muslims’ through the NAP, Howard questioned the amount quoted yet confirmed the assimilationist nature of the programs: ‘Well there’s every reason to try and assimilate, and I unapologetically use that word, assimilate a section of the community, a tiny minority of whose members have caused concern.’ (Australia 2007b, p.107)

No matter how benign the actual activities of NAP-funded community harmony projects may turn out to be, an assimilationist counter-terrorism policy framing has far-reaching consequences for community development work. One of the projects funded under the NAP in 2010, for instance, aimed to recruit more Muslims to the Girl Guides. The counter-terrorism rhetoric of the NAP makes for uneasy racial symbolism here: unruly Muslim bodies with their perceived tendency towards violence are to be rendered docile by an organisation that still maintains strong links with the British Empire, requiring that its members pledge allegiance to the Queen. The issue is more than symbolic, however. The push for greater ‘mainstream’ involvement obscures the fact that the kinds of activities typically proposed are ones in which young Muslims already participate, albeit in non-‘mainstream’ settings. The core activities of the Guides movement – outdoor adventure activities, spiritual guidance and ‘girl only’ social space – for instance, replicate those of typical youth camps organised by mosques, prayer centres and Muslim youth groups. A significant difference is that Girl Guides Australia is a long-established organisation with high profile international supporters and sponsors, including Unicef and multinational corporations, whereas Muslim community groups often struggle to fund their youth activities. Not only do the latter groups miss out on state resources, by falling outside the realm of the ‘mainstream’ their organised youth activities immediately become cause for suspicion as possible weak-points through which, according to the terrorism as virus metaphor so prevalent in this discourse, extremism could take hold.

DEST [department of Education, Science and Training] 2005 NationalframeworkforvalueseducationinAustralianschools, Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training.

HREOC [Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission] 1991 Racist violence, A report of the national inquiry into racist violence in Australia, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service

Hage, Ghassan 2002 ‘Multiculturalism and white paranoia in Australia’, Journal of International Migration and Integration, vol. 3, no. 3-4, pp. 417-437

Jakubowicz, Andrew 2007 ‘Political Islam and the future of Australian multiculturalism’, National Identities, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 265_280

Johnson, Carol 2007 ‘John Howard’s “Values” and Australian Identity’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 42, No. 2, pp.195-209


Poynting, Scott and Mason, Victoria 2008 The New Integrationism, the State and Islamophobia: Retreat from multiculturalism in Australia, International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, No. 36, pp.230-246

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