The recent news that a Croatian club that openly displays paraphernalia relating to the fascist Ustashe regime has been the recipient of significant amounts of government funding has created consternation within our community. Families of victims of the Pontian genocide as well as families of victims of Nazi massacres in Epirus and the Peloponnese in particular feel aggrieved, considering that during World War II, the Ustashe regime presided over a Nazi puppet state in Croatia that systematically killed up to 500,000 Serbs and causing another 300,000 to be removed from their homes. To know that government money has been used to fund those who fetishise genocide thus makes our community which is fighting for the recognition of the genocide of the Armenians Assyrians and Greeks in Asia Minor, so much more indignant.
Sadly, this is not the first time that government funding has been provided to organisations or endeavours that appear to promote ethnic hatred or racism. In 2007, the Victorian Multicultural Commission sponsored a publication entitled “The “Macedonians” in Victoria, which bore on its cover an irredentist map showing parts of Albania, Northern Greece and Bulgaria as belonging to a purported “Macedonian” state. Two landmarks of the city of Thessaloniki, the White Tower and the Church of Saint Sophia, were also included on the front cover, implying that the said city, which is the second largest city in Greece, should belong to their ‘homeland.’
Although, according to sources, the application for funding submitted by those involved in its publication stated that funds were sought in order to write about the life of a particular ethnic group in Victoria, within the pages of the book, there are calls for the “liberation of Macedonia.” The inclusion of photographs within the pages of the book of protesters holding placards bearing the caption: “I’m not scared of Greeks, raciest (sic) vampires,” is racist, in that it stereotypes, insults and dehumanises an entire group of Victorian based solely on their country of origin.
Yet it is not only in reaction to the Greek community that this book, published with Victorian Multicultural Commission creates stereotypes. It comments on the housing situation of English-speaking Victorians: “Unlike their English-speaking counterpart who can live in a rented flat, Macedonians prefer to get a loan from the bank and buy their own houses.” It also demeans women and denies them a voice: “The majority of Macedonian women support the old traditions, saying that the family ‘where the hen sings’ is not a family.” “The daughters are brought up under strict supervision and are expected to perform their domestic duties, leaving the running of their private lives to the greater ‘wisdom’ of their male relatives.” “It is seen as a waste of time and money for a girl to go to university because, when she marries, her education would be wasted. Worse still, higher education may lessen the girl’s chances of making a good marriage…”
The creation of this thoroughly disturbing publication was made possible by the fact that although funding was provided by the VMC, there was no vetting or oversight over the contents to be created. And herein lies the conundrum with multiculturalism policies in Australia: On the one hand, if a government body sought to apply stringent control over the content its funding is facilitating, this could give rise to ethnic communities protesting against a stifling of their own modes of creative expression, railing against interference by a dominant class that does not necessarily share its values or understanding the complexity of its national discourses. On the other hand, throwing money at ethnic communities and feeding their prejudices is not multiculturalism, it is patronising and unethical.
Of course, real multiculturalism is about facilitating communities in Australia maintaining their language and traditions and making these relevant and accessible to the broader social fabric. To do this requires deep knowledge of their history and the fault lines that run through it, as well as their aspirations. Considering that no ethnic community is the same, a “one size fits all” approach of blanket uncritical funding is counterproductive because the lack of oversight and the overlooking of differences in nuance, approach and emphasis within each community can, as in the case of the Croatian club in question, fuel, albeit unintentionally, repugnant behaviours that are absolutely unacceptable in Australia.
Yet even if local, state and federal governments went out of their way to ensure that they are funding endeavours and organisations that do not offend other communities, this is pursuit fraught with danger, for one community’s heroes are often another community’s villains. Growing up, I remember by Croatian classmates speak in admiring tones about Ustashe criminal leader Ante Pavelic, because according to them, he saved the Croatians from Serbian domination. At Greek school, I was taught that Ibrahim Pasha was a bloodthirsty tyrant who planned to commit genocide in the Peloponnese and replace its inhabitants with Egyptian fellaheen, only to come across his statue in central Cairo and to be told that the Egyptians look upon him as modern, enlightened ruler. Do we want to be in a position where the institutions of the dominant group are empowered to adjudicate and make pronouncements upon which “ethnic” heroes are acceptable or fundworthy? What would be the implications of such powers?
The answer of course is that they already do. There exists in Albany of Western Australia a statue of Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk. Another monument to Kemal Ataturk, a bronze likeness, exists in Anzac Parade in Canberra and there is also an Ataturk Tribute Memorial in North Adelaide. According to Monuments Australia, “he was an immortal hero to his people and an extraordinary leader and peacemaker.” According to the Armenian, Assyrian Greek and Kurdish communities of Australia, he is a criminal who has ordered, participated in or facilitated crimes of genocide. No matter how offensive a statue of Ataturk may be to those communities, no matter the trauma they feel when they behold his likeness in Australian public spaces, it is unlikely that any attempts to remove these images would be successful. This is because the dominant group has chosen to incorporate Ataturk in its national myth, even though his purported speech in tribute to fallen Anzac soldiers, the very words that are inscribed on his Canberra and North Adelaide memorials, have been shown by Turkish writer Cengiz Ozangici not to have been written by Ataturk and appear to have been manufactured some decades after his death. Whether we, or it likes it or not, ultimately it is the dominant group that is the arbiter of all that is offensive and repugnant, according to its own narrative and we ought to temper our expectations accordingly.
Consequently, Pavelic is out and Ataturk is in, simply because while all heroes are offensive, some are more offensive than others to those who count. In the meantime should government funding be secured in order to erect a statue of Yanis Varoufakis outside the ANC, do not go crying to the powers that be. We only have ourselves to blame.