We are all Australian, but it’s time we sang with one voice

“We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come, we share a dream and sing with one voice – I am, you are, we are Australian.”
That song, written by Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton, will be sung many times as we head into this Australia Day weekend. I thought of those lyrics as I struggled to find the right words about the terrorist attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which prompted the universal cry for freedom of speech: “Je suis Charlie.”
I tweeted that phrase, sending my prayers and thoughts to the families of the victims of the attacks: 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, including two policemen, one a Muslim shot in cold blood by one of the three Islamist radicals. Later four people were killed later in a siege of a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris and a policewoman was shot dead in the south of the city. I concluded it was all about empathy: I am Australian and American, but I have also expressed solidarity with African and Hispanic Americans, Indigenous and Ethnic Australians, Israelis and Palestinians, Irish and Spanish Republicans, black South Africans and Zimbabweans, pro-Democracy Chinese and Timorese and West Papuans, to name just a few.
But it’s very difficult to put yourself in the shoes of men and women who kill innocent people (and behead them) in the name of religion. You might have had empathy with the Irish republican movement, but you could only condemn the members of the Real IRA who murdered 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, in a car bomb attack in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh in 1998. The bombing came only four months after the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement.
Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue – praised for its freedom of speech message with its cover cartoon of the prophet Mohammed holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign and crying under the headline: “All is forgiven” – sparked anti-French riots in Niger, leaving at least ten dead, and condemnation from Afghanistan’s president and Iraq’s prime minister.
Four million people marched in France (AP photo of marchers in Paris above), supporting and celebrating free speech after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the country still has criminal laws against “speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation.” As Sharyn Mittelman points out in The Australian this week, some commentators in Australia claim “we cannot say ‘Je suis Charlie’ and support hate speech laws. But we can and we should.” http://bit.ly/1BBQkAk
But it’s still important to try to understand why the terrorists are killing the innocent. I think of the Catholic parents in Belfast who still hate the Protestants, and teach their children to do the same. I think of the white supremacists in the US who still hate African Americans. In both cases, it is getting better, but in the week we celebrate the birth of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, we shouldn’t forget there is still a long way to go. Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic campaigner and CNN commentator, had this to say: “… we should be especially mindful as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. Today is a day of national reflection, but it is also a day of action. Remembering those who sacrificed before us is important, but carrying on their legacy and continuing to march forward is essential. The walk from Selma to Montgomery that turned into Bloody Sunday leaves us with a strong reminder of how much those before us gave for basic human rights.” http://cnn.it/1CyKQmT
Education and empathy are keys, of course, and while many Parisians marched for human rights, some encountered young Muslims who did not support the “Je suis Charlie” campaign. In fact, a group of North African teenagers in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine told their teacher they did not believe the attack had happened. The teacher told The Sunday Times: “They’re lively, intelligent children. But most of them are convinced it’s some sort of conspiracy involving the government, Israel or the CIA. They have no faith in the authorities, in the media. The parents think the same way. It’s sad really.” http://bit.ly/1wqQTVR Sunday Times reporter Matthew Campbell said the killers in the Charlie Hebdo attack had their origins in housing estates similar to those in Vitry-sur-Seine, and the students weren’t backing the republic: “’We didn’t go to the republican march,’ said a girl sitting in a fast food restaurant. ‘That was a thing for the whites, not us.’ Her friends giggled. One piped up: ‘We’re not Charlie here’.”
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It may be hard to empathise with Islamist radicals, but we shouldn’t be surprised that moderate Muslims question the Western media’s treatment of terrorism. While the murder of 17 people in Paris attracted worldwide and prominent coverage in the print and electronic media, the killing of at least 2000 people, mostly women and children, in the village of Baga in northern Nigeria by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram received nowhere near that prominence (AP photo above of some of the thousands of homes destroyed in Baga). Nor did Boko Haram’s strapping of explosives to a ten-year-old girl and sending her to a market in a nearby city. At least 19 people died in that horrible moment of terrorism. Ethan Zuckerman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made a detailed study of the contrast in media coverage between Charlie and Baga in The Conversation. http://bit.ly/15w4d5l
It’s no surprise then, that Muslim students think the republican march was a “thing for the whites,” when violence in Africa doesn’t appear to mean as much as it does in France. King’s College London Professor and former UN official, Andrew MacLeod, has written an excellent piece about the alienation of Muslims, also in The Conversation. He makes a significant point: “If we want to unite moderate Muslims in a team against the radicals, are we doing this sensibly when we protest for a set of cartoons that offend, yet don’t protest for the many thousands more that die in their lands? Doesn’t this lack of empathy push moderate Muslims into the arms of radical Islam – united in offence to their religion, even while the moderates also condemn the murders?” http://bit.ly/15sVr8i
When I was the foreign editor of The Australian back in the 1970s, I gave a lot of space to the end of white rule in Rhodesia and the evils of apartheid in South Africa. I remember Rupert Murdoch getting into the lift one morning, and saying hello, which was nice, I thought, and he added: “I don’t know how you’re going to keep them interested in Africa.” It was a short ride, so I didn’t have much chance to reply, except to say something like: “I’m doing my best.” As most readers would know, he was very interested in American and British news then. I’ve never had a chance to say “I told you so.” Somehow, I don’t think he’d remember that bit of advice he offered to me nearly 40 years ago.
MacLeod makes another point about how the radicals are making use of social media – Facebook and Twitter and YouTube – to recruit angry young men and women in Islamic countries, and other nations like Australia, France, the UK and the US where Muslims are “disengaged, excluded and in search of a sense of belonging.” Certainly, the scores of Australians who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq felt excluded from the mainstream. Empathy could play a big part in helping to bring them back to the fold. This morning on ABC’s RN Breakfast program, presenter Hamish Macdonald asked a young Muslim lawyer Rabea Khan if there was one thing she could tell other Australians about Muslim Australians what would it be. She replied: “If you haven’t had much contact with Muslims, please by all means do try and do that. We’re really not that scary. You know, we are really diverse. There’s no doubt we’re not just one group you can typecast or generalise about, but we’re a very complex, varied community. Most of us have been here a very long time. We’re involved in all areas of Australian life and we’re really not that different.” http://ab.co/1wqKpWZ
In my days as a schoolboy growing up in a white neighbourhood next to a black neighbourhood, I didn’t get to meet, let alone know, many African Americans, except at school or sport or the occasional race riot at the local playground. When I went to Villanova University 16 kilometres from the Philadelphia CBD, I discovered that black students weren’t all that scary, as Rabea Khan says. When I began teaching black children in Harlem and returned home to the old neighbourhood in West Philly on the occasional weekend, I was called a “n-gger lover” by the regulars in the local Irish American pub. When I went to South Africa on a press mission sponsored by the South African embassy in Canberra in 1977, I asked as many Afrikaners as possible if they had any black friends, and many of them admitted they had none – though they employed black nannies and household staff. When I went on a press mission to Israel in 1990 sponsored by the Australian/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and conducted by the Israeli government press office, I met Israelis who knew a lot about the history of Palestine, but didn’t know many Palestinians. And in Australia, I have met many Aborigines and Muslims, but I can’t say that many are close friends. I’m not alone on that score.
So in 2015, it’s time for all Australians to try to make those lyrics come true: “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come, we share a dream and sing with one voice – I am, you are, we are Australian.”
With apologies to the great Dr Martin Luther King, I, too, have a dream – that we can all sing with one voice.

4 thoughts on “We are all Australian, but it’s time we sang with one voice

  1. Yes, we can be thoughtless, contemptuous and uncaring. A shameful confession: The Magpie has met many Queensland and federal politicians but he can’t say he knows or socialises with any of them. Would you want one in your home … or to marry your daughter? Should we not try to assimilate them into our real world? Christ, we’re a bigoted lot.
    Happy Straya Day, Gonzo, yours is a thoughtful and commendable view which probably deserves more than the above smart-arsery, but The ‘Pie can’t help himself – as you know..

    • Pie, Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t have believed it was you, unless there was a bit of “smart-arsery” in it. And you did add that it was “a thoughtful and commendable view,” which is very kind of you. I still enjoy reading your blog The Townsville Magpie every Saturday (there you go, a plug!), which is full of humour, politics and a bit of “smart-arsery!” Happy Australia Day to you, and hope to see you later in the year.

  2. Hi My Friend, we are in the deep freeze right now and had a small snow storm last night (6″).

    Recently read a good book by Thomas Kenneally (author of Schindler’s list). Daughters of Mars about 2 sisters who were nurses from Australia during WWI. Carol would have loved it and I enjoyed it although many of my friends did not.

    We are seeing a number of books coming from Australia “A town like Alice” Nevile Shute.

    Everything is good here, new grandchild, Ellery, a girl born to Colin & Amy in Jan in VT. We will see her in March.

    Much love, B

    Elizabeth K Keech PhD, RN Assistant Professor College of Nursing Villanova University 610 519 4912 ________________________________

    • Hi Betty, Great to hear from you. Yes, Tom Keneally is one of our greatest novelists and one of the most prolific. I interviewed him years ago and have met him quite a few times. I first read Neville Shute in 1960. It was Trustee from the Toolroom and his last novel. A Town Like Alice was published in 1950, and became a popular mini-series in the 80s. On the Beach was made into a movie and filmed in Melbourne. Ava Gardner allegedly said Melbourne was the perfect place to film the end of the world! Congrats on the new grandchild. We’re expecting another one in August. Heidi is due then. Much love in return. Tom

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