Social Acceptance as a Key to Successful Integration

Dr Nina Maadad

The focus of this paper is on mainstream Anglo-Australian society and the way it responded to the presence of Arab peoples in the Australian community over the years. The extent to which immigrants and their families adjust successfully and adapt their cultural values to life in the new country depends a great deal on the attitudes of welcome and acceptance, or suspicion and rejection which they encounter in the host society (Smolicz, 1979). It should be noted, however, that the investigation of the responses of mainstream Australian society in this paper was done through the eyes of 40 respondents who participated in a previous study - 16 immigrants from a number of Arab countries who were interviewed about their experiences and 24 young people, born in Australia to parents who had migrated from Arab countries, who completed a questionnaire survey. The Concrete Fact Profile of these respondents, given in Table A reveals that they were linked in their origins to six different Arab countries and that they were split equally on gender.

The aim of this paper is threefold:

  • to ascertain the extent to which Anglo-Australian responses to Arab immigrants in general and Muslims in particular and their Australian born children had changed since the advent of terrorist attacks, beginning with September 11, 2001;
  • to understand the nature of any negative experiences they reported in interactions with other Australians;
  • to ascertain their views on education, in relation to their experience of schools and the education system in Australia; especially in regard to the education of women, and its relevance for enhancing other Australians' understanding of Arab peoples and their cultures.

Arab immigrants in Western societies have had to cope with psychological problems due to the stresses of migration, adapting to a new culture, familiarization with a new language, and the propensity of Western societies to portray Arabs in terms of stereotypes. Western societies, i.e. those countries of Western Europe and the English-speaking world in North America and the West-South Pacific, lack an awareness of and misunderstand what it is to be a Muslim. Most Arabs do the best they can to understand these misconceptions and clarify and correct false assumptions. The fact remains, however, that many Western people - given the impact of the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent 'war on terror' - imagine Arab people to be terrorists, stripped of their lands and having no educational values.

As the discussion above indicated, there has been much misunderstanding of Arab educational values. It was considered important to understand what the respondents' views were on these educational issues, as they related to the experiences they had encountered in Australia.

In order to provide a basis for communication and living together in a multicultural society, Secombe (1999) has referred to Kloskowska's concept of cultural valency. This involved not just knowledge of a language and culture, but positive attitude or intimate feelings of shared connections that individuals could develop to their own and any other culture they encountered in the course of their lives. Such a concept could be useful in developing mainstream education so that people brought up in a majority cultural system could be educated about the different cultures that they would almost inevitably interact with in the course of their lives.

In recording the opinions of all participants about educational values, an inevitable comparison was made between Arab educational values and the taken for granted meanings and practices associated with education among the mainstream Anglo-Celtic majority in Australia. The respondents' comments on educational values were much influenced by the public reaction to the event of 11 September, 2001. They incorporated comments on the beliefs, stereotypes, and conflicts represented in the media. The wide range of educational issues explored by the participants in this research reflected the contemporary situation of Arab families living in South Australia. Their assessment of the importance of education revealed the genuine and strong feelings that have surfaced among Arab-Australians concerning terrorist minority the perceived damage done to Islamic and Arab peoples because of their beliefs as well as of those of militant minority whose violence created guilt by association.

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Responses to the Arrival of Arab Immigrants

When the immigrant respondents were asked how they were received by the host society when they arrived, there was a clear difference between those who had arrived after the 9/11 terrorist raids and those who had come earlier. A number of those who came in the early period spoke of the level of acceptance and support they found in the general community. They made positive comments on the assistance and kindness that they have received from the Australian community through schooling, medical aid, family and friends as well as neighbours.

These generally positive comments were in sharp contrast to the experiences of those who came just after 9/11. Many were afraid to leave their homes because they were called names, threatened and spat, on especially, women who were wearing scarves and men who had beards.

The Experience of Ignorance in Australian Society

The ignorance of so many people in Australian society concerning Arabic peoples and cultures, particularly of their religious beliefs and practices, was often mentioned throughout the interviews and in the questionnaire comments. In some cases it was expressed as surprise at how little people in the community in general understood Arab cultures, the religion, the faith or the background. Some remarks were made about people of Lebanese or Jordanian backgrounds as not being Arabs "You can't be an Arab if you are Lebanese or Jordanian". Other comments made clear that the lack of knowledge of Arabian people was accompanied with negative stereotyping in association with religion, background and even names (such as Mohammed). These negative stereotyping affected many people's job opportunities and in some situations few respondents were told that they have the capability of attracting great careers with their qualifications if they weren't Muslims.

In a number of situations, however, it was indicated that some Australians who lacked proper understanding of Arabic cultures, but, instead of indulging in negative stereotyping, were interested to learn more. Most of these were people, such as work colleagues or neighbours, who had on-going contact with Muslim Arabs.

Changed Responses After 9/11

Almost all the respondents considered that the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent Bali bombings had changed the way they, as Arabs, were perceived and treated in the Australian community. Perceptions were especially negative in relation to visual markers, such as Muslim women or girls wearing scarves, or men with beards. There were some incidents reported were Australian neighbours or colleagues of Muslim Arabs of many years stopped talking to them and confronted them with questions about terrorists and their mentality, expecting them to have answers as if they were involved in the terrorist acts.

It is also noteworthy that Muslims who were born in Australia were also most forthcoming in discussing the changed way they had been treated since the terrorist attacks. These changes were reflected when job seeking, travelling, schooling and at university, carrying shopping bags and even some were reported as being treated suspiciously during the Ramadan festive season because they were getting up early in the morning to pray and eat.

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The Role of the Media

The majority of the participants blamed the media for inciting fear and suspicion, by creating and reinforcing negative stereotypes of Arab and Muslim peoples. They reported instances of deliberate excision and discriminatory reporting, based on stereotypes of Arabs. The disappointment evident refers to the way that the media was seen to be "brainwashing" society through the news, current affairs shows and documentaries. Australian society was showing signs of being passive and not questioning what it was fed through the mainstream media channels. For example, people were concerned about how Americanized the Australian media had become. There was only a marketable emphasis on what people were allowed to see and understand. The world was being understood only through the filter of Western values and assumptions as shown on the media, which is a distorting filter itself.

The statements made in the interviews and the questionnaires responses revealed how deeply the local Muslim community distrusted the Australian media and were frustrated by how little Australian society knew about other cultures or what really went on in the wider world around them. It was obvious that the understanding of many Australians like many people in Western countries in the wake of 9/11, has been influenced by two factors: first, the one-sided story that is perpetuated by Western media conglomerates about what Muslims and Arabs are; and second, the tendency of those from Arab culture to be conservative in how they manifest themselves to the outside world and unintentionally do not do full justice to the truth about Arab cultures and peoples.

Since the treatment of Muslims in most of the Australian press is so negative, it is worth discussing an article in an Adelaide newspaper (Blair, 2006) which focused on giving 'a fair go' to all Australians no matter what background they came from. The article was about Muslims and how people misunderstood their culture and underestimated their abilities. It gave the example of the Prime Minister John Howard, talking very slowly and carefully to a Muslim woman, wearing a scarf, because he assumed she was new to Australia; she was, in fact, born in Australia.

The same article described how the world looked at Muslims as "the boogymen" and assumed that all Muslim men were authoritarian in nature, and sought to suppress Arab women by making them wear the veil. The author claimed that these assumptions were not true and gave people the false impression that Arab culture was somehow fanatical. Blair (2006) also mentioned the story of two Australian women on the Gold Coast who would not use a lift because there were Muslim women wearing head scarves in it, and they were terrified of being blown up. Blair argued that these myths and fears would be eliminated by educating people about how other cultures work and thus bringing about better (or restored) relations in a successful multicultural country such as Australia.

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A Challenge to Australian Identity

It was the Australian-born group of respondents who were most angered by racist remarks and incidents because they saw this as a challenge to their dual identity. They objected to the way local politicians and opinion-makers used terrorist events to construct all Arabs and Muslims in Australia as criminals and a threat to others. Since they were born in Australia, they had been proud to think of themselves as Australians of Arabic background, but now they found their Australian identity being questioned. They had been forced to think twice about being Australian because people generally perceived them as disloyal and having improper ties to a foreign culture. Still, they demonstrated a sense of having a connection with both communities but in the context of 9/11, they had experienced a sense of being 'caught' between two cultures. They themselves related positively to being both Arab and Australian, and regarded the culturally diverse nature of their lives as a positive thing because it gave them a sense of belonging and security.

Arab Women and Education

In the popular press, there is often mention of the Arab woman, or sometimes the Muslim woman, who is taken to represent the 'East' and stereotypically represented as old fashioned, inferior, oppressed, weird and veiled (Maryams, 1995). Even though there is a variety of Arab cultures and traditions from which women come, Western feminists have seemingly labelled them all as mysterious and uneducated (Fernea & Bezirgan, 1977). Since than there was also many considerable feminist discourses from Muslim feminists who reported that physical concealment was freedom from sexual curiosity (Kampmark, 2003). Such an approach ignores the specific historical and cultural contexts in which Arab women have been brought up, and indeed the avenues they have had and continue to have in regard to education opportunities.

One such portrayal argued that most Arab and Muslim women lived in societies where religious law permeated the whole of Muslim life (Minces, cited in Maryams, 1995). She presented Muslim women as the silent victims in society.

While women elsewhere gradually liberated themselves to some extent from the total supremacy of men, most women in the Muslim world continued to be totally subordinate. They live under a system which has barely changed despite the undeniable evolution of their societies.

In Minces' representation of the Arab woman, the only way for her to be 'liberated' was to be stripped of all her culture, laws, texts and practices. This would enable her to be made equal and identical to Western women. The Arabian/Muslim woman would then have her spirit or soul set free and be saved from oppression and subordination. When the respondents were asked about this issue, they were also asked to consider their own personal experiences and whether such a claim was valid. Both men and women responded to this issue.

The people who were interviewed for the research made it clear that the image of the Arab woman, often portrayed in the Western world, seemed very unfair and untrue in their own experience. They also emphasized that most Arab women felt quite independent and free to choose what they wanted to do and how they wanted things to be done. In addition, they stressed the fact that Arab women did not feel oppressed in any way about their lifestyle and the way they viewed themselves. They all spoke about Arab women's rights and freedom in a positive light. Furthermore, they highlighted that the Quran validates education for both men and women (Nashat and Tucker, 1999).

The Importance of Educating Others

What is the best response to the host society's, stereotyping and racism towards Arab peoples and their cultures? The respondents maintained that education was important in facilitating the adaptation of the host and immigrant to each other's culture. However, understanding the culture and religion of Arab immigrants should go beyond knowledge about dress code and related 'surface' issues. According to McHugh (1979), such multicultural education for others was most effective if and when it was taught directly through literature that did not portray an Anglo-Saxon point of view.

Most Arab Interviewees expressed their view on educating others in Australian society. They saw it as necessary for all in order to understand one another and appreciate different cultures and values. It was emphasized that Arabic language should be offered at schools the same as other languages for cultural and educational purposes. The lack of Arabic culture being taught in the education system was seen as an issue that poses an important question for racism and ethnocentrism: how do people foster positive connections with Muslims when they do not know anything about them? Cultural knowledge is vital to the process of understanding and appreciating other people and it is the most appropriate way to avoid stereotyping.

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Conclusion

Racism, based on terrorism, has emerged in the wake of 9/11 and the people who took part in this study have been greatly affected by it. The negative attitudes of some people towards Muslims of any nationality in general and Arabs in particular became very noticeable to the respondents, in terms of hostile words and actions, as well as silent fear, suspicion and withdrawal.

The negative image of the Arab and Islamic world and the stereotyping of its entire people as backward and violent terrorists were seen as the creation of the media, often stirred up by politicians trading on the general ignorance of many Australians and trying to interpret events to their own particular advantage.

Education is needed to address Western educated people's depiction of Arab women's lifestyles as subjugated and their dress code as a symbol of oppression, and submissive behaviour. The women respondents, both immigrants and those born here, seemed to be very happy with their way of life, traditions and values and did not for a minute consider themselves to be uneducated. The Western perception is that the Quran is a tool of gender control, but the comments and knowledge indicated that this was far from the case for the respondents; education was available to everyone, it played an important role in society and it was mostly free. According to the respondents who had lived in Arab societies and experienced that kind of life, they did have choices, and those who did, were happy to wear the veil.

Both the immigrant respondents and those born in Australia had experienced negativity toward Arabs since 9/11. For the Australian-born, these experiences of discrimination and hostility were particularly galling and they expressed their views on the media and the need for education to reverse the negative attitudes in the Australian community. They argued that cultural prejudice would only stop when leaders recognized cultural differences, and governments had the courage to build up the foundations of multicultural education and bring down the social barriers.

The respondents pointed out that education was vital to facilitating the understanding that Australians and immigrants should have for each other. The growth of cross-cultural understanding, which had flourished relatively in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s, had been undermined through the supposed 'war on terror' and the belief that ethnic minorities such as Arabs and Muslims were now 'alien' in terms of their beliefs, traditions, customs and cultures. Such a situation can only be redressed if Australia's education system includes teaching the history and culture of 'mainstream' and 'ethnic' minorities, so that all can understand the overarching values of Australian society and the core values of different minority groups (Smolicz, 1979).

Table A: Concrete Fact Profile of Respondents (N 40)

Birthplace/Ethnic Background

Other B/G Factors

Egypt
N=3I+
4Q
Iran
N= 1I+
4Q
Iraq
N=2I+
2Q
Jordan
N=2I

Lebanon
N= 7I+
5Q

Syria
N=1I+
10Q

Total
N=16 I+
24Q

Gender:
Male

I9, Q23 Q18, Q20 Q22 I15 I 3, I 6, I 13
Q27, Q34,
Q36, Q40
I 5, Q26,
Q28, Q29,
Q33, Q35,
Q38
6I + 14Q = 20
Female I8, I10, Q24, Q25 I16, Q17, Q19 I11, I12, Q21 I14 I1, I2, I4, I7, Q37 Q30, Q31, Q32, Q39 10I + 10Q = 20

Age:
14-20

I10, Q25, Q23 Q17, Q18, Q19 - - Q37 Q28 1I + 7Q = 8
21-30 Q24 - Q21, Q22 - I3, Q34, Q36, Q40 I 5, Q26,
Q28, Q29,
Q33, Q35,
Q38
1I + 14Q = 15
31-40 - Q20 - - I2 Q35 1I + 2Q = 3
41-50 I8, I9 I16 I11 I14 I1, I13, Q27 - 7I +1Q = 8
50+ - - I12 I15 I4, I6, I7 I5 6I = 6

Religion:
Muslim

I 8, I 9, I 10
Q23, Q24
Q25
I 16, I 17,
Q18, Q19
Q20, Q22
I 11, I 12
Q21,
Q22
I14, I15 I7, I17, Q27 I5, Q29 12I + 11Q = 23
Druze - - - - I 1, I 2, I 3,
I 4, Q34,
Q36, Q37
Q40
Q26, Q28,
Q30, Q31,
Q32, Q33,
Q35, Q38,
Q39
4 I +13 Q = 17

Note: All I participants were born overseas and all Q participants were born in Australia.

Bibliography

Blair, A. 2006, 'Muslims, Myths and Fear Mongering', The Sunday Mail, September, 3rd, 2006, p.19.

Fernea, E. W. and Bezirgan, B. Q. (Eds.) 1977, Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, University of Texas, United States of America.

Kampmark, B. Islam, 'Women and Australia's cultural Discourse of Terror', Hecate: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Women's Liberation, May 2003.

Nashat, G. and Tucker, J. 19999, Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Maryams, R. 1995, 'Women, Islam and Equality', Islam: Beacon of Women's [online], viewed 10 April 2003.

McHugh, B. 1979, 'Multicultural Curriculum: Consideration for Australian Schools'. In P R de Lacey and M E Poole (Eds.). Mosaic or Melting Pot, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, Sydney.

Secombe, M. J. 1999, 'Cultural Valence as a Cross-Cultural Phenomenon in Australia', Education and Society, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 99-115.

Smolicz, J. J. 1979, Culture and Education in a Plural Society, Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra.

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