Last week a lot of us were talking about the Essential poll which showed that 49% of Australians wanted a ban on Muslim immigration1http://www.essentialvision.com.au. Like many, I assumed that the reason was the association of Islam with terrorism in popular thinking, but a closer look at the data suggests another story. Those who supported a ban on Muslim immigration were asked the main reason. 27% referred to Muslims as a terrorist threat. 41% said it was because “they do not integrate into Australian society” and a further 22% that “they do not share our values”. Combining those last two answers we have 63% who oppose Muslim immigration because they feel that Muslims don’t fit into Australian society.
This was backed up by a Deakin university research project that found 60% of Australians would be concerned if a relative married a Muslim, which was twice the level of any other religious group (33% had reservations about a Jew marrying into their family and 8% percent a Christian).2http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/new-national-snapshot-finds-60-per-cent-of-australians-would-be-concerned-if-a-relative-married-a-muslim-20160926-grp4x0.html
It appears then that what we fear is not so much violence as difference. We like the idea of a nation where we share enough in common that would feel comfortable sitting down having a beer together or sharing a cup of coffee. We don’t mind the idea of diversity, as long as it doesn’t turn into a sense of estrangement.
So what’s the answer? I think a ban is the last thing we need. That will do nothing to help us out of our fear of otherness and will succeed only in the concern about otherness being visited upon a smaller group of people. Nor will we be helped by those who welcome Muslim immigration decrying those who favour a ban. I suspect the answer lies in the 98% of Australians who are not Muslim getting to know some who are. Sharing meals, sharing stories, laughing, crying, and connecting as human beings. As we do this we will come to realise that our common humanity is far richer and more significant than our cultural difference, which will then enable us to celebrate cultural differences rather than fear them.