In case you haven’t noticed, Bendigo has been caught up in a row over the establishment of a mosque. While much of the support for the recent protests has come from outside the city there is clearly an element in Bendigo opposed to the mosque.
And so on two Saturdays our city’s population has been swelled by the presence of hundreds of police. Not to mention, on one hand, anti-mosque protestors whose location can be tracked by the reverberation of their inane chants of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi’ and on the other hand the opposing ‘Nazi Scum Off Our Streets ‘ mob whose actions at one stage included the burning of an Australian flag. Most of the protestors are not local and rather than ‘pistols at dawn’ we have ‘Australian flags at 20 metres’. Go figure.
This has taken place against a backdrop of wider global concern about ISIS and the radicalisation of young people, issues that were amplified by a recent murder in Sydney.
In terms of schools, the reaction of government has been to focus on the identification of students whose behaviour suggests they may be at risk of radicalisation. In Victoria, the department has designated some senior staff as the ‘go to’ people for such issues.
Recently our school hosted visits on consecutive days from Tim Wilson, Australian Human Rights Commissioner, and Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. Their presence in Bendigo at community events was in direct response to the issues regarding the mosque.
The Race Discrimination Commissioner’s forum had a profound impact on the students present. An interesting line of dialogue opened up between he and the students. How, they asked, should I respond when I hear people talking in derogatory terms about Muslims? What do I do when one of my friends makes comments that have no factual basis and are at odds with my values? What can I do when I see insulting or threatening language being used on social media? And my favourite: what does patriotism look like in a multicultural Australia?
It brought home to me the need to focus on more than the identification of those young people who might become ‘radicalised’ and take off to fight overseas or decide to engage in acts of violence in our shores. Sure we should try to prevent such things occurring. But also, how do we prevent the spread of violent anti Islamic sentiment? How do we empower young people to act as a positive force in the lives of their peers and in a way that’s consistent with the values that have defined Australia?
I imagine that the risk of being ‘radicalised’ is exaggerated among those who feel socially, economically, politically or culturally isolated from the society in which they live. Ironically, these characteristics might also be evident among some of those inclined to rise up violently against Islam.
One of Tim Wilson’s messages to our students was that we have both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. One doesn’t trump the other and in a civil society we find ways for both to coexist without resorting to intimidation and violence. The Believe in Bendigo movement is trying to make a difference in this sort of way. Schools clearly have a role to play, and it would be helpful if government broadened the scope of its focus from the detection of radicalisation to strategies to support our students to play their role in maintaining that balance.