Recently, I got the opportunity to be part of a dialogue on multiculturalism and multi-faith in Canberra thanks to #Libby. The objective of committing half a day for this engagement was mainly to familiarise myself with the work on the same subject matter I have been engaged in out of Australia over years. Having listening to this group of eminent personalities who have been working to promote ‘One Canberra’ made me only realise how common some of these issues we face in Sri Lanka to Myanmar to the UK to Australia are.
Islamaphobia like everywhere else is challenging the democratic practices of Australia as well. No different to any other country, this is once again promoted mainly through social media. This was recognised as one of the key challenges to the multi-cultural practices of that of Australia in general and that of Australian Capital Territory in specific. I was happy to see the large numbers at the symposium on a working day morning and their enthusiasm to contribute to the dialogue. There was significant amount of time spent on identifying and analysing the issues regarding multi-culturalism and multi-faith. The survey findings of the researchers from Scanlon Foundation and Monash University were also highlighted in support of problem analysis.
It is the general practice in anywhere in the world to allocate a significant space and time to analyse problems than proposing solutions. Without following the same norm, I would like to share some thoughts on ways and means of promoting multi-cultural and multi-faith practices and policies in Canberra in specific and Australia as a whole.
My thesis would be based on the following strategy that could be considered as incremental steps to promote multi-culturalism. Each of the five steps can be approached and understood in terms of both “process” and “contents”.
- Visibility: All practitioners and the policy makers in Australia or anywhere else in the world will undoubtedly accept that hate and racism that threatens multi-cultural and multi-faith practices are widely promoted through social media. Whilst we accept this there is limited promotion on the beauty of our diversity, importance of multi-cultural practices in the same platforms, addressing the concerns voiced by many in the past few months. This clearly shows we have no visibility in terms of promotion of multi-culturalism.It is imperative that together we work on a campaign to enhance the visibility of our policies, activities on multi-culturalism and multi-faith, feeling of belongingness and social cohesion on social media as well as traditional media. Whilst Canberra has had beautiful strategic documents to promote One Canberra over the years, there is hardly anything found in social media. I hope the social media presence of the recent symposium will be a starting point in this regard.
- Dialogue: ‘One Canberra’ symposium was a rich dialogue that engaged a significant number of people. This needs to be broadened to engage more young people and those in the business community. It is vital that we engage people of all levels, representing all sectors, age levels and backgrounds. The proposal for a multi-cultural week in that regard can be considered as a wonderful idea. Examples can be drawn from Sri Lanka Social Integration week that I was actively engaged in http://lanintegmin.gov.lk/social-integration-week-2014/. Every year the multi-cultural week will be based on a specific theme, with various activities including cultural festivals, seminars and public discussions to enrich the macro dialogue.However, by dialogue I do not necessarily mean the public discourse. It essentially needs to trickle down to the individual level too. The discussion spared a significant amount of time on casual racism and understanding each other, commencing from learning about our neighbours. Some of the proposals put forward by the audience in this regard were to celebrate Ramadan with your neighbours, organise street parties and events etc. While I appreciate all those proposals in the process, I also believe it is important for us to have discussions on our religious and cultural practices openly. By integration we do not mean living in parallel societies. Such societies will scatter at challenging times very easily. Do we know why Muslims do fast? why Buddhists celebrate Vesak? what is the message behind Devali? At our homes, work places, neighbourhoods, schools, universities and community organisations we need to take time not only to celebrate them but also to understand them. Our understanding will promote social cohesion gradually.
- Access: By access I mean not only the fact that People must be able to engage in society’s activities and social networks in their daily life, including economic, social, cultural, religious, and political activities with no discrimination based on their religion, colour, race, country of origin or their long name but also to have access to a formal body to make their case. This needs easy access than filling lengthy forms and making submissions. Once again I would like to take an example from the Sri Lankan context where I have personally been highly involved in bringing a significant change: introducing a hotline to complaint about such incidents at the time it occurs might be one way of tracking them. This way, the victim can provide his or her details and report the discrimination. It could indeed be as small as someone requesting to change the name in the resume. The person requested would even not understand it as discriminating someone. Yet denying such a request would only make the applicant loose an opportunity hence most of the time he or she will agree to change the name, how much we hate to be called by a strange foreign name. The change of each and every such practices are essential for us to promote the feeling of belongingness and to have a feeling ‘we are all part of One Canberra”.
- Rights: One Canberra policy mainly focuses on ensuring the rights of all communities living in the Capital Territory and to promote feeling of belongingness. Not only the policy makers, but each and every individual in our society needs to understand the rights of all the people. It is common for most of the cases pertaining to racism not been reported due to lack of understanding on the rights. Understanding or awareness of these will inevitable be made when the above three elements are addressed successfully, why we also can identify this as a process. Let people understand that they have rights to act and claim, rights to be different, legal rights, rights to access social services, such as housing, education, transportation, and health care. They must have visibility, engage in dialogue, access to services and resources to fully participate in this. Most importantly, the right to claim will regress if one is discriminated.
- Responsibilities: The general phenomenon is that those who do not have access to rights are not able to participate fully in society which challenges our multi-cultural element. However, even if people have rights to access, they are unable to participate or strop participating because of conditions such as lack of recognition, lack of respect or physical constraints where the responsibility becomes an important element. We all as elements of this society hence needs to have a responsibility to take an extra step to make everyone feel part of this society. The responsibility does not essentially lies with the governing bodies, it is of all, each and every one of us.
In this regard, I would like to emphasise the role of media as the creators of ‘public mind’ in the 21st century. Media holds a significant responsibility in promoting belongingness and to avoid all discriminatory reporting or statements for petty profit purposes.
It is our Canberra and our Society! Let’s celebrate our diversity and make One Canberra a living reality!