Is Australia a Western Country?

‘What is the West? I ask.

‘You know, what is opposite to Eastern Asia’. She says.

‘But what about Africa?’ I say.

‘No, that is not the West’. She says.

‘What about Russia?’ I say.

‘That is also not the West’. She says.

‘Is it in the East?’ I say. ‘After all, most of Russia is in Asia’.

‘No, it is not Eastern either’. She says.

‘Japan?’ I say.

She pauses. ‘Well, it is geographically in the East’, she says, ‘but culturally and economically it is Western’.

‘And Australia?’ I say.

‘It may be in the Eastern part of the world’, she says, ‘but it is culturally Western’.

‘Like Japan?’ I say.

At this point, the distinction between East and West begins to break down. I have had similar conversations in ‘Eastern’ Europe, where the differences between East and West shift once again. So also do the problems of identifying what exactly is eastern and western: what about Austria or Greece? What happens in each case is that the terms are reproduced for the sake of defining what ‘East’ means. ‘West’ becomes the useful, if somewhat elusive, Other in order to define what is not Western.

But let me return to Australia.

I am intrigued by the fact that many who visit Australia come here with the preconception that it is a Western country – much the same as, say, England, or the United States, or perhaps parts of Western Europe. Time and again, they are disconcerted and thrown when they arrive.

There was the woman from England who was completely thrown by the presence of Indigenous place names throughout the country, mingled in with place names of a European provenance. Or the woman from China, who was disconcerted when walking the streets to find that most people were obviously not white and did not speak any language she knew. Or the man who had lived for some time in the United States and England, who thought he knew what to expect in terms of religion and politics, only to find that the situation here did not quite fit any of his known categories.

I could multiply the examples indefinitely, but I am interested in the disconnect between preconception and disconcerting experience, especially in light of that distinction between East and West. Let me begin with the question of history. Australia is a curious meeting of the oldest continuous culture in the world and one of the youngest. Archaeological and textual evidence indicates the presence of Indigenous Australians for 45,000 years or more. Over that immense expanse of time they developed more than 400 hundred languages and complex societies. By comparison, the initial European settlement began barely more than 200 years ago – a mere moment in light of that longer history. To be sure, the meeting of the two was fraught with conflict, with the only wars fought on Australian soil ones of conquest and attempted annihilation.

Initially, this may make Australia seem like any other colonial country, such as those found in South America or North America. The difference is one of the massive gap and discrepancy between old and new, between the sheer age of Indigenous culture and very late invasion and settlement. However, a further factor plays a role. Europeans were by no means the first to engage with Australia. Although no firm evidence exists, it is highly likely that Chinese ships touched on Australia’s northern shores centuries before Europe emerged – late in the piece – from its backwardness. Then, some four centuries ago, Muslim Makassans searching for trepangs (sea-slugs) came to northern Australia – to what are now known as north-eastern Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt, and the Cobourg Peninsula. This engagement was long and fruitful, with the exchange of turtle-shell, pearls, and cypress pine, as well as metal axes and knives, rice, cloth and tobacco. The local Aborigines did not generally regard the seasonal appearance of the Makassans as a threat, even travelling to Makassar in marriage arrangements. Linguistic, cultural, artistic, technological and ritual traces run deep even today, when the Muslim influence is more openly claimed among the Yolngu of Elcho Island. When it first became aware of such long-established contact, the colonial governments outlawed interactions between Asian and Aboriginal people, so as to benefit colonial enterprises. Yet Aborigines and Indonesians continued their interactions, in shared political strategies of resistance. This shared resistance also appears with the central Asian (‘Afghan’) cameleers, who came to central Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. They were simultaneously vital for transporting supplies to colonial outposts in the deserts and shunned by the European-derived communities. Indeed, these cameleers found more in common with Aboriginal communities. Just as interactions between Aborigines and Makassans were outlawed, ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal relationships were strictly prohibited by many state governments. Despite this, descendants of such relationships are part of the more than 1000 members (a conservative estimate) of the Australian Aboriginal Muslim community.

These facts make me profoundly suspicious of the focus on the story Australia’s European colonial history – from the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century – as the key to understanding Australia today. This focus means an overwhelming focus on European models for understanding Australian society, culture and institutions. It may take the form of focusing on the conflicts between convicts/settlers and indigenous peoples. It may appear as a focus on the constitution of a federated Australia, with its European shape. It may be a focus on the various institutions established in the colonial era. It may take the form of contesting the master narrative of colonial history. And so on. To be sure, this is one component – a ‘Western’ one – of the formation of Australia. But the danger of focusing on it is that it becomes determinative, for the reconstructed origins become the source of identity today. The catch is that the majority of Australians are not partakers of this story, for their backgrounds are exceedingly different.

That suspicion is enhanced by what is arguably the most significant point: since the end of the Second World War, the demographic, social, cultural, and especially religious nature of Australia has changed dramatically. Up until the war, 95 per cent of the nine million population had a background in Europe, particularly England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Now the majority of Australians are not from a north-western European background. This is the main reason why the colonial narrative I mentioned earlier is dangerously conservative and alienating for so many.

These changes in demographics have led us to the current situation in which the very identity of what ‘Australia’ might be is up for profound and long debate. On one side is a strident minority, who still hang onto the myth of a glorious colonial story, to the ‘anglosphere’, to the political alliances and comparisons with Western Europe or North America. The louder the noise they make, the more it signals that such a story is losing what grip it might have had. On the other side is the majority, for whom that story is meaningless. For them the fact that Australia is part of south-east Asia is more important. I do not speak of geography alone, for it also entails economic, social and cultural factors.

The debate over ‘Australian identity’ goes on, swinging now one way and now another. A good symbol of this debate is the national election of 2013: on one side was a candidate for prime minister, an immigrant from England who proclaimed that Australia is part of the ‘anglosphere’; on the other side was a Chinese speaking candidate, with his eyes firmly set on the Asian context. Other signs are the inability of Australia to decide whether it is still part of the economic and military sphere of the United States, or whether it is part of the Asian sphere. My own sense is that Australia is already part of the latter, since Australia is already primarily tied to Asia in economic matters, and increasingly so in terms of culture and society. Even the BBC world service identifies Australia as part of Asia.

Will Australia then become an Eastern country? This would be a mistaken perception. The main reason is that the whole East-West distinction is one of the northern hemisphere, with its land masses and imperial conflicts. Instead, we need to trouble that distinction. One way of doing is to suggest – and here I follow others – is that Australia is a Southern country. It is neither Eastern nor Western, but Southern. It has more in common with Africa, South America, New Zealand and the Pacific. In fact, we are in between the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and south-east Asia. However, this entails not some fixed cultural identity that can be opposed to others. Rather, it indicates the possibility of avoiding that curious fiction of finding some sort of ‘Australian national’ identity (although some try). Instead, I prefer the in-betweenness and instability of any identity. Of course, any national political myth or imagined community is inherently in between and unstable. So is it not better explicitly to build that uncertainty and instability into any political myth?

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