Multicultural selves: young Australian Muslims' images of self and belonging

Patton, C 2009, Multicultural selves: young Australian Muslims' images of self and belonging, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Social Science and Planning, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Multicultural selves: young Australian Muslims' images of self and belonging
Author(s) Patton, C
Year 2009
Abstract Diasporic Muslim communities have recently been the subject of intense public scrutiny in many multicultural Western societies, particularly since September 11 2001. Australia is no exception. Increased national anxiety over the presence of Muslims in Australia has prompted, among other things, calls for headscarves to be banned in public schools and for Muslims who follow Sharia law to leave the country. In late 2005 anxiety erupted into widespread violence in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla, when some 5000 “Aussies” sought to forcefully reclaim “their” beaches from “Lebs”. While the conservative commentators who declared Cronulla to be the direct result of ideological multiculturalism may be in the minority, recent issues concerning Muslim Australians have most often been framed within a discourse of multiculturalism in crisis. This crisis cannot be interpreted simply as rhetoric, for it has taken place alongside a discernible political retreat from multicultural policy. Today, even relatively minor issues arising from the recognition of Muslim identity (women-only hours at public swimming pools, for example), prompt serious reflections on the future of Australia’s multicultural identity, and multiculturalism itself as a political ideology. Academics writing from within – and across – diverse disciplines have been no less critical of multiculturalism, albeit for very different reasons; normative theories of multicultural recognition are often said to reify cultures and may lend tacit support to harmful group practices. Such criticisms cohere around important questions concerning identity: particularly the epistemological treatment of cultural identities and the conceptualisation of individual agency.

This thesis seeks to contribute to theoretical discussions over multiculturalism by exploring how a small group of young Muslims construct a sense of self and belonging to the Australian national community. The forty young people who participated in the study created photographic self-portraits for a public exhibition entitled “I am a Muslim Australian”. The participants' discussions of their work are interpreted in relation to debates over multiculturalism and identity: whether multiculturalism is “bad for women”, and what identifying with more than one culture means in terms of theorisations of cultural hybridity. The hostility Muslims encounter in Australia was a prominent theme throughout participants’ narratives, and many of the self-portraits they produced were consciously designed to subvert what negative representations of their identities. This incorporation of externally constructed representations of identity into self-representation is – as symbolic interactionists have long argued – fundamental to identity formation. The purpose of the thesis is not simply to describe this process, however, but to critically examine the dynamics of power in which it is enacted. This is done from two perspectives: in relation to the public sphere, in which Muslim identities are discursively constructed as Other, and within the religious association to which participants belonged. Questions of individual agency and the power relations existing between majority and minority cultures – and indeed within them – are therefore prominent themes throughout the thesis. In presenting a “bottom up” case for how multicultural societies might better live with difference, the thesis draws on contemporary theorisations of selfhood to suggest how that project necessitates rethinking the self.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Social Science and Planning
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