Waleed Aly On Multiculturalism, Identity & Leaders Flirting With The Dark Side

Waleed Aly, co-host of Channel Ten’s The Project and lecturer in politics at Monash University, is Australia’s highest-profile Muslim. He is one of the few non-Anglo faces on free-to-air television, and his appointment as replacement for Charlie Pickering on the prime-time news program was a coup not only for Muslims but for people of all non-Caucasian backgrounds.

The white-bread nature of Australian television – from Neighbours to the commercial news – is remarkable, given the diversity of races you see when you walk the streets of almost any city in this country.

According to the 2011 census, more than a quarter of Australians were born overseas and a further one-fifth had at least one overseas-born parent. Adopted as a policy by successive governments since the early 1970s, multiculturalism has characterised the past 40years of Australian history. Aly believes it continues to thrive to this day.

“The biggest mistake we make in terms of multiculturalism is we copy wholesale the arguments from Europe. We are a completely different country to any country in Europe, including the UK. The parade of European commentators and politicians who want to pronounce the death of multiculturalism blinds us to the fact that Europe’s never tried it. And in some ways they are not set up to try it … partly because … it has a series of national identities that are ethnically and racially defined … and lots of countries in Europe are former colonial powers.”

He makes the point that every time Australians are asked about it,”they love it; they say they’re very comfortable with it”.

Aly argues that you couldn’t change it even if you wanted to, that it’s an inherent part of our social fabric and too deep-seated: “Multiculturalism has worked, it just bumbles along. And that’s not to say we don’t have social problems, but that’s quite a different thing to saying we have an issue with multiculturalism.”

‘We’ve never really settled on what it is our country is about’

We are dining at Maha in the city at Aly’s suggestion. He wanted somewhere halal and admits that although he’s eaten here once before he was so tired that he can’t really remember what it was like.

“And everyone raves about it,” he says, with good reason as it turns out. The food is fabulous – especially the 12-hour slow-cooked lamb – and plentiful; we settle on the two-course menu, which in fact includes 10 dishes all up, the first course consisting of six mezze.

It’s the week before Australia Day and the accompanying debate about national identity and consciousness is in full swing. It’s an annual discussion, but in the past 12 months an avowed republican has taken office as Prime Minister, a series of rallies has pitted supporters of immigration against the likes of the United Patriots Front, and footballer Adam Goodes famously called out racism in sport, after a teenager called him an ape. Stan Grant’s powerful speech about racism goes viral a few days after our lunch.

Aly has an interesting take on the ongoing debate about who we are, saying we are uniquely positioned globally: “We’ve never really settled on what it is our country is about, in the way that America did and the nations of Europe did, which is such an advantage, because it means that we are still malleable, that we have a dynamic sense of national self; we can update it with relative ease, and I think we’re beginning to see that already.

“When I talk to kids what really strikes me is how effortlessly cosmopolitan they are. They don’t really understand the point of racial difference. I think they kind of get, in a very uncomplicated way, cultural and religious difference. You could probably add sexuality to that. Australia is pretty good, actually, at coming to an easy accommodation of changes – because it’s never been fixed.

“The trick is whether or not we’re quite prepared to acknowledge our advantages, and that’s where I come back to the anti-multicultural argument. If it came from the heart of Australian reality, then I would probably give it more respect, but in all the anti-migration bluster, your whole ideological positioning is a migrant, an import.”

‘I was the editor of nobody’

Aly’s father emigrated to Australia from Egypt, as did his mother. Both Sunni Muslims, they met here, married, had two sons and raised them in Vermont in Melbourne’s east. His dad was an engineer, his mother an English teacher. As is the case in many immigrant families, education was not negotiable; going to university seemed as inevitable as going into year 7. At one point, Aly thought about studying music at uni. He figures his mum would’ve been quite happy for him to take that path, his dad probably less so. His father died in 2014, and until he died, Aly says, “He was very worried about my career.”

This seems ironic, given he completed a double degree in law and engineering and practised law for several years before forging a career in broadcasting.

“My brother [Ahmad] who’s a surgeon, that’s the way you’re meant to do it.”

Growing up, Aly had flirted with the idea of journalism, and he loved writing.

“I remember deciding in year 5 I wanted to be a journalist and thought I’d write a newspaper for the street. I reported on a spate of plants going missing but the newspaper never got off the ground. No one else was keen; I was the editor of nobody …

“In grade 6, I got a group of my friends together and we made a radio station for our primary school; we broadcast every Wednesday for 15 minutes,” he says.

With time, the law beckoned and became the focus of his efforts.

“Everyone kept telling me that I would be a good lawyer, cos I was very argumentative. If I’m in an argument, by which I mean an actual argument, not a fight, I am more or less happy,” he says.

“I’ve always really enjoyed that and I’ve always had friends who really enjoy that. The more insignificant and the more bogged down in minutiae the better,” he says with a laugh.

‘There’s no question it’s a more polarised landscape’

Once he completed his studies, Aly was offered a job as a legal associate to a judge in the Family Court. He worked as a lawyer for a number of years and believes his interviewing approach is informed by that experience: “I tend to be less moved by the individual case in front of me and I think more generally about the abstract principle we’re seeking to apply.”

In 2002, a chance meeting with The Age columnist Martin Flanagan led to him writing a couple of pieces for the paper. One of the first was about how Australians responded to the tsunami victims as compared with our response to asylum seekers; he argued the former could not be politicised. ABC radio host Jon Faine invited Aly onto The Conversation Hour on the strength of those articles, and so began his foray into broadcasting. He filled in when Faine was on leave; in 2006, he became a full-time presenter.

That the media is run largely on emotion, especially television, is not lost on Aly. In terms of impact, the media and the law both have significant roles to play. A recent editorial he gave on The Project after the most recent Paris attacks, in which he called Islamic State weak, attracted 6 million shares on social media.

We talk about the recent events in Cologne and Germany more broadly and how they have been held up as an argument against immigration. Aly says it’s important to drill down into what happened and to look at the facts rather than make assumptions.

“The way Australians will react to it is to assimilate it into a story about the world that they’ve already been telling themselves. What will matter is not what happened, but the stories we tell ourselves about what happened.”

At a certain point, it is beholden on politicians and public leaders to seek out the truth rather than grasp the convenient, easy news grab. “It’s also never been more tempting for our leaders to flirt with the dark side. There’s no question it’s a more polarised landscape … more shrieky,” he says.

With that, it’s time for us to finish; The Project commitments beckon. After Aly leaves, I pay the bill and the waiter brings the receipt.

“So, is he going to go into politics?” he asks. “He could be Prime Minister one day. I’d vote for him.”

Originally posted on Sydney Morning Herald on 29 January 2016. Written by Kerrie O’Brien. Picture by Wayne Taylor.