Dysfunctional Islam debates: bipolar nonsense serves no one

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When I read Joseph Wakim’s call for tolerance and love in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of days ago, I was subjected to an involuntary double-take. Meaning that I didn’t want to question my first impressions, but I had to.

Wakim is identified as a former Victorian Multicultural Affairs Commissioner and the founder of the Australian Arabic Council. He is not a neutral observer of events. He has skin in a game of vested interests played with PR spin. I know this because I was once a spin doctor myself.

He used all the right words and phrases to make me want to agree with him. But by the end of the piece I knew I’d have to read it again carefully. He was wrong about almost everything. Not just wrong, but led down that path by articles of faith that defy logic and subvert any sense of what Australian national identity and tolerance are all about.

Referring to St Martin Place hostage-taker Man Haron Monis, Wakim said: ‘If he carries a gun, it is a siege. But if he also carries an Islamic flag, it is terrorism.’

No, no, no! Carrying a gun, and even threatening people with one, does not make for a siege. Our police carry guns every day, and so do bad guys. A siege is defined as such by what it actually entails: an armed standoff.

Nor does carrying an Islamic flag mean anything in itself. It becomes terrorism only when its symbolism is linked to terrorist aims or actions.

Monis was a lunatic using various dishonest trappings of Islam to perpetrate crimes. He was not an ideologically committed Islamist.

Looking at this another way to clarify the meaning of symbols, if a surgeon wields a scalpel in an operating theatre, he is a surgeon performing surgery. If I wield a scalpel in my home workshop, I am not a surgeon, but rather an amateur hobbyist using a sharp blade for a purpose other than surgery.

Wakim may have been trying to counter the dimwits in Australian and international media, and their credulous consumers, who were looking to fan some kind of hysteria about terrorism as a result of the Monis lunacy. But that’s a fool’s errand. Such media and their idiot followers will just invent alternative threats to justify their bigotry. Always have. Always will. Wakim’s response to that fear mongering served more to suggest that it was the major Australian response rather than the annoying background noise of idiot children.

As best as I can tell the vast majority of Australians were unheard about the St Martin Place tragedy, and about the anti or pro Muslim public screeching that ensued.

Wakim is wrong to suggest, in an astonishingly artless way, that the fear mongering he mentions should be countered by touchy-feely displays of love, or by empty rhetoric about understanding. Serious people meet fear mongering, terrorism, and other lunatic depravity by applying reason. That may involve a degree of tolerance, but also the full force of the law. And the force of arms if necessary. What it should not involve is trivialising major problems as stepping stones for sectarian, political agenda.

Indeed, I think Wakim fails to understand how great a disservice many Australian Muslims do themselves by refusing to understand where they are now, and why they face hostility from some of their new neighbours. Long story short, it is because they appear to many Australians to be Muslims first and Australians only as some distant fraction of a priority. And, right or wrong, they seem to be more noisy and demanding than their small numbers appear to justify.

The first step in countering such perceptions is not to demand tolerance and understanding before considering some significant features of Australia’s history and political foundations. That wouldn’t be a bad idea for the kneejerk anti-Muslim brigade either.

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Australia is a Westminster style democracy, strongly infused with the 19th century British political traditions that make Australia a model of liberal democracy unsurpassed by any other nation.

Australia cannot be understood as the reams of nonsense written about the vaccuous and ineffective notion of multiculturalism, nor as the sum of outcomes accruing to the horse trading between the various claims and demands of interest groups and the major political parties.

It requires instead an understanding of at least 500 years of European history, 200 years of Australian history, and a passing familiarity with some political philosophy.

Beginning with history, secularism is the norm in Australia because of the Catholic schism in the 16th century, and the horrendous, brutal wars waged in the name of religion afterwards. The European settlement to these wars was to back away from pursuit of religious dominance. Paradoxically, this is only possible by guaranteeing everyone’s right to worship according to their consciences, but only on condition of everyone being subject to a rule of law that strictly prohibits the imposition of religious tenets on anyone else. This means religion is a private matter, and to be seriously questioned every time it enters the public arena with demands to affect or control the lives of others.

English thinker Thomas Hobbes described such a state of affairs in his mammoth treatise, Leviathan. That work presupposed that All English people were Christian of one flavour or another, and that the master of them all was the state, embodied by the monarch. This idea was significantly enhanced by another English thinker, John Locke, who argued forcefully that the legitimacy of the state depends on the consent of its subjects to be ruled to their common advantage. The most important concept here is ‘common’ advantage, which rules out all special status or privilege. Equally important was Locke’s theory of religious toleration, which proposed, among other things, that conscience cannot be dictated by decree or violence.

Locke probably also assumed all Europeans to be Christians, but he defined freedom of conscience in terms that imply the right to freedom from other people’s consciences. This is an important distinction in secular societies, because it clarifies the right of people without any religion at all not to be subjected to the insanity of squabbling sects pursuing internecine feuds.

In the 19th century, yet another English thinker, John Stuart Mill added a final cornerstone to the British tradition of liberal democracy: the idea of physical and intellectual liberty as a right for all people. Not in the mealy-mouthed, sense of the slave-owning, patriarchal American colonies when they drafted their constitution, but with an ambit of every skin colour, belief, and gender. That last part is particularly significant when it comes to Muslim demands for toleration, but more of that later.

The Australian colonies were not quite slave-owning, but not far from it, relying on predominantly Catholic convict labour, short shrift for the native inhabitants, and ruled by predominantly Protestant, privileged British soldiers and pastoralists. By the time of Federation in 1901, however, these nasty origins had mellowed a little, permitting the Australian Constitution to include section 116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

There was, at that time, most likely an assumption that Australia would always be controlled by predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Christians. The ‘free’ exercise of religion therefore refers to not having to hide religious affiliation, and not to any inferred freedom from civil laws or acceptable social behaviour. There is no question under Australian law that all literal interpretations, much favoured by ill-educated fundamentalist religionists, that ‘free’ means free from all civilised constraints, is wrong.

The secular Australian state is not hostile to religion, nor devoid of its symbols, but Western civilisation is predominantly Christian, and some of the customs and practices of Christianity are interwoven into our culture. Like Christmas and Easter holidays, for example. While these are not mandatory religious observances, they are an expression of a majority socio-cultural outlook.

Some statistics should clarify this reality.

Australian census information for 2011 shows that 25 per cent of Australians declared themselves Catholics, 22 per cent as having no religion, 20 per cent as ‘other’ Christian, 17 per cent as Anglican, and 7 per cent spread across all other religions (about 10 per cent of responses were blank or unclear). Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religion. Only 2.2 per cent of Australians declared themselves as Muslims. That means Christians comprise 62 per cent of the population, and the largest group behind them are those declaring they have no religious belief.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics showed a correlation I find to be not entirely coincidental: the higher the level of education, the more likely it was people declared themselves as having no religion. This does not always mean such people do not believe in a god, or in spirituality; what it does mean is they do not wish to be regarded as members of any codified religion.

The Christian majority nevertheless does not make Australia a Christian nation the way Iran is an Islamic state. Australia is a secular society in which a religiously neutral body of law applies to everyone. This is called the rule of law, derived from its British foundations. It is, among other things, the guarantee that no religious sect can gain advantage over any other, and that people like me are protected from the insanities pursued in the name of religion.

If our rule of law were to become a ghettoised multi-tiered affair, in which every special interest group demands its own rules and privileges, and some of them succeed, we cease to be a democracy governed by the rule of law. Therefore I see every claim for special recognition as a subversion of who we are as a nation. And that is why I believe Australian multiculturalism, in theory and practice, has been a calamitous failure, leading solely to a rent-seeking, divisive tribalism. This isn’t multiculturalism. It is an ambit segregationism encouraging Australian society to become splintered into hostile camps who eye each other with suspicion and envious greed about perceived unfair advantages. Sometimes it also creates an astonishingly recidivist, sectarian readiness to commit repugnant hate crimes.

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An American friend recently told me that she perceives her society to be riven by tribalism, in which everyone belongs to some group or another, and therefore demands either absolute agreement with that tribe’s ideas, or regards others as hostile enemies. No in between. No neutrality. You can see this in politics, where Democrats and Republicans will never agree with each other, even when they do. In fact they will both confect reasons for disagreement if it looks like they might have to cooperate for the good of the country. Tribalism can be seen, too, in good American cops never speaking out against bad cops because they feel obliged to show solidarity only with their tribe, and everyone else is regarded as the enemy. And then there a racial and gender divides.

We have that kind of tribalism in Australia too. Its manifestation in Australian politics has provided me with some darkly humorous moments. At times I have expressed views that saw me labelled a ‘pinko’, ‘socialist’, ‘commie’, ‘ideologue’ – sometimes all at once – and at the same time as a ‘fascist’, ‘reactionary’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘running dog’. What did I do to deserve these accolades? I expressed opinions that were not reducible to any single party-political or ideological camp. And yet my position is that different ideas, some of which are apparently contradictory, can exist and be supported at the same time. This is called pluralism, and it offends mostly those who represents a rigidly fixed ideological position, or who eschew reasoning in preference to unthinking kneejerk responses.

Seen from a pluralist approach, which I think should displace silly notions of café multiculturalism, no one is ever entirely right or wrong. Social and political issues invariably throw up what are known as ‘wicked’ problems, defined in 1973 by German and American social policy planning academics Horst Rittel and Melvyn Webber in a joint paper as the difficulty of resolving complex kinds of problems whose resolution might well create other problems as a consequence.

Looking at anti-Muslim opinion in Australia, this is immediately recognisable as a wicked problem.

Reactionaries and xenophobes must be confronted with the reality that we are, as a nation, too silent about having helped to create some of the terrorism about which we seem so concerned. How? By committing troops and materiel to an American colonial war, driven by commercial interests, in which Australia was and remains highly visible as the source of death and destruction visited on dirt poor, badly educated peasants in far away lands. I’m talking about the brutal killings of innocent civilians that are euphemistically described as collateral damage, and that vastly outnumber the killing of actual enemy combatants. It is these killings I suspect as the driving force of Islamic militance among young men and women who might never have taken up arms otherwise.

Worse, we are fighting wars created by American foreign policy decades ago when they installed dictators about whose utility they then changed their minds. One example alone explains how most of our involvement in far away wars could have been avoided. In the 1980s America changed the balance of power in the Soviet imperial war in Afghanistan by supplying the Mujahideen with Stinger surface to air missiles. Millions were spent on covert support for defeating the Soviets. But when Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, Congress refused to fund the rebuilding of the nation, missing a critical opportunity for making the newly liberated Afghanistan an ally, or at least a friend. Instead it became the breeding ground for the Taliban, one of the most barbarous contemporary associations of thugs under the nominal umbrella of Islamicism.

Whether with or without knowledge of this background, Australia became party to an unwinnable war against the legacy of American foreign policy in that region. This involved raining fire and death of many people who had no idea why we were doing that, or why they should recognise they were collateral damage in a conflict between foreigners and local warlords.

Worst of all, we entered into these wars without any clear idea about our objectives, targets, or exit strategy. Our leaders wrote a blank cheque to fund an American war with Australian tax dollars and no clear commercial benefits for the Australian private sector, the way there were for American corporations.

Is it really so hard to imagine, then, that the people we killed had relatives who reacted the same way we would if attacked? They rally around the only unifying ideology they have: Islam. Ours is the nation. As would be the case here, smart operators move in to redefine and revise older understandings of Islam to create a newly militant version for martial purposes.

Unfortunately Australia is currently shy of smart operators. Instead we are lumbered with entitled would-be Republicans who allow American policy to be dictated to them, and therefore imposed on us in the form of totalitarian measures of population control and PR spin designed to make us afraid of each other.

***

There is no way of wishing this mess away now, no matter how much some people enjoy futile finger pointing. We are committed to the fight against groups who don’t employ strategies that would allow us to conveniently defeat them in conventional military operations. We can win only by being smarter and tougher. But being smarter also means not becoming internally divided and turning authoritarian thumbscrews on our own population the way the Abbott Government has with its completely unnecessary terrorism legislation.

The Abbott Government has also done much to revive class conflict as a fault line in Australian society by seeking to punish the economically weak to maintain the perks for the wealthier social strata. This plays out as resentment between recent migrants and local mendicants who see themselves fighting for the same scraps from the big tables. That makes them rivals, and physical proximity makes for violent confrontations.

However, the most egregious failing in addressing social divisiveness can’t be sheeted home to the Coalition alone. It can be located in the diffuse but damnably negative source that is the unwritten ideology of multiculturalism, which has served as a limpid excuse for an astonishingly incompetence, for more than two decades, of successive immigration ministers and departmental bureaucrats. An incompetence that is manifested by an absence of immigration and migrant integration policy, skills, and implementation strategies that are neither so grotesquely inhumane that they make some of us puke with disgust, nor so ridiculously uncontrolled that we can’t protect national interests.

The consequence has been the disaster that is our approach to illegal immigration and the ‘ghettoisation’ of migrant populations concentrated in urban Australia, usually in the more run-down suburbs where all they have is contact with each other, our bureaucracies, and other disadvantaged Australians. It is an almost Kafkaesque scenario in which we expect people with little or no English to organically become Australians through paperwork, social security payments, and the goodwill of others who see them as competitors for support services. Something tells me this will never work.

And so it has been with recent Middle Eastern migrants, who see no social anchor other than an already familiar Islamicism. What I’m saying is that radicalisation of Australian Muslims is at least partly a product of astonishingly incompetent administration of immigration policies that rely solely on lip service to a nebulous ideology of multiculturalism with no actual thought or expertise to realise its high-sounding ideals.

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If this weren’t enough, the progressive or left side of politics in Australia has created for us the most crushingly authoritarian barrier to open public dialogue about these issues. That barrier is political correctness, driven like a secular religion by armchair zealots who will hysterically overreact to every opinion not seen as deferential to their own, shouting down dissent without regard to the substance of opinions and arguments, devaluing in the process the epithets of ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘xenophobe’. Political correctness has become almost a sport for some who like to award themselves brownie points for being the most visibly correct of the them all, while acting like complete idiots in the pursuit of unconscionably intolerant absolutism. This lynch mob all but prevents any public discussion about the problem we have with Australian Muslims because mentioning ethnicity or ideological alignment as a vector for crime, dysfunction, or other problems is prohibited.

Political correctness has also destroyed education at all levels, blanking out knowledge of our history and politics in favour of ideological rearguard actions against an Empire that has passed away. By all means, criticise British colonialism and its consequences, but teach what it was first, so that critical analysis is possible, and criticism of what is not known cannot be mistaken for education rather than indoctrination. The effect of this erosion of education is ignorance. The effect of ignorance is usually intolerance.

I cannot persuade myself that governments of all flavours are not aware of this continuing trend in turning high schools into our own version of madrassas, and universities into vocational training bazaars devoid of the impetus or skills to teach undergraduates enough about the history and political economy of their own country to allow them to vote for policies they understand, and to recognise the social, political, and cultural contexts in which they will practice their new found professional skills.

Ignorance thus fostered, of course, leaves governments of both flavours free to deliberately create and exploit social division. A side product is also the creation of support for the most bizarre xenophobic political groups that would never get a look-in if there were open and rational public discussion. The kind of discussion that doesn’t reduce every issue to a simplistic bipolar opposition. The kind of discussion that is not subject to fearful self-censorship lest the politically correct commissars summon their version of the Basij.

All of this may seem like a substantial departure from Wakim’s opinion piece, but it isn’t. I think the sermon Wakim is preaching is aimed at the acolytes of political correctness and their views on multiculturalism. It is a demand, in the nicest terms, for an uncritical surrender to tolerating the intolerable. It is playing the system. It is the same shameless misuse of tragedy to advance a political cause as exercised by the Prime Minister, the NSW Premier, and all sections of the media (not just the Murdoch Tea Party propaganda machine).

I call this unfortunate to be polite about the thoughtless stupidity of Wakim and the big battalions of political correctness in pursuing a strategy that will damage rather than help their joint cause. By eschewing critical analysis and a rational approach to addressing perceived and real problems, instead focusing on tolerance for Muslims, they encourage minority hate groups and media commentators to succeed with messages of malicious divisiveness.

Worse, they alienate people who should be their natural allies. Like me. I began this commentary by identifying Wakim’s stated credentials. Let me offer some of my own. I’m one of the 22 per cent of Australians with no religion. I am one of the first generation immigrants that comprise 25 per cent of the Australian population. And I am from the 11 per cent from a non-English speaking background. I’m educated to postgraduate level. It’s true that my white skin and genitals may have opened doors for me that remain closed to people with other skin colours and genitalia, but getting to wherever I am, which I don’t regard as privileged at all, has made me a staunch advocate of an egalitarian liberalism, a humane liberalism, and above all, or a human decency when it comes to dealing even with enemies and distasteful people.

I wanted desperately to agree with Wakim when he argued that criticism of marginalised young Muslim hotheads drives them into ISIS recruiters’ open arms. But that’s an absurd distortion of the truth: the most high-profile, persistent advocates of religious and political intolerance in Australia today are Muslim clerics. The names Manteghi Boroujerdi (Sheikh Haron), Junaid Thorne, Taj El-Din Hilali, Feiz Mohammed, and Samir Mohtadi (Samir Abu Hamza) come readily to mind.

They preach a mediaevalist conception that directly contradicts the social contract on which Australia rests: in return for protection of life, limb, and property we surrender to the state our right to act as mercenary thugs, and in return for social goods (like medical care, for instance), we are obliged to accept responsibility for our words and actions (including our inactions), and sometimes to serve our country.

Wakim is implicitly asking us to tolerate hate speech from Muslims, while condemning it when it comes from others. He’s asking us not to talk openly about odious Muslim excesses, apparently as a kind of emotional blackmail where the payoff is the fantasy that our silence will lead to fewer Muslims signing up to kill us. The reality is that sociopaths cannot be controlled or cured by tolerance.

That said, however, I think Australia’s Christian majority has been remarkably more tolerant than it’s given credit for. I have never been kind in my opinions about Christianity, and remain a wary observer waiting for the next idiocy they will visit on us. However, if Australian Christians were more like the American fundamentalist literalists, many Muslims would have died in hails of gunfire by now. Instead the gunfire comes mostly from Muslims targeting other Muslims. And other Australians, too, are much more tolerant than sensationalist headlines would suggest. What incidents have there been, for example, of Buddhists preaching the murder or rape of Muslims? What about people with no religion? That’s me. When have we ever sought anything but to be free of religious sectarian nonsense?

Wakim’s opinion piece avoids what I regard as an incontrovertible truth. Some of the hostility Muslims feel from other Australians would reduce enormously if two things were curbed: Muslims putting allegiance to Australia second to their religion; and the contemptible public display of Muslim misogyny, paraded quite openly in the form of women covered in cloth from head to toe.

The first issue is pretty clear-cut: if you don’t want to be Australian, you ought to consider why you are here, but while you are here, preaching the murder or rape of other Australians is, and should be treated as, intent to commit criminal offences. We don’t need special terrorist legislation to do that. It is a long established criminal offence that requires only vigorous prosecution.

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The second issue is not so simple. In 2010 I wrote a comment piece that I find the burqa confronting, but do not believe the state should legislate against such attire. It was serious talking point at the time. I have not changed my mind since 2010.

My reasons for being confronted by hidden faces is based partly on Western notions about honesty and trust being tied into an absence of concealment, and partly by the idea that religionism should not be rubbed in my face publicly.

My strongest objection, however, is its symbolic assertion of a deeply ingrained misogyny that abrogates human rights altogether.

When Muslim men demand that their daughters, sisters, and wives cover themselves to prevent lustful attention from men, they declare openly that they don’t trust themselves to act with responsibility, restraint, and decency, but are given over entirely to barbaric instincts, and must be expected to rape women on whim. To justify such barbarism in themselves, Muslim men find women guilty of being the cause of their irresponsible criminality.

How can non-Muslim Australians feel safe from self-declared impulse-driven, opportunistic criminals?

Moreover, even less openly barbarous Muslims appear to find in the Koran justifications to control and command their female relatives as semi-slaves. Not equal to men in any regard.

The deep sense of unease arising from these considerations is not at all dispelled by murderous blackmail. The kind that accompanies the exercise of free speech in Western societies any time Islam and its sacred cows are critiqued, satirised, or condemned. Riots and death threats as symbols of Islam do not at all enhance tolerance for Muslims anywhere.

An unwritten but pervasive tenet of politically correct multiculturalism seems to be that I have no ‘right’ to object to different ‘cultural practices’, meaning of course that I must not speak my mind about wicked problems. That’s just horseshit!

It is a simple fact that every time any group in Australia suffers abrogation of their human rights, my human rights are also diminished. This is because once we start to segregate our society into different classes with different rights, even if that works to my advantage at some stage, we have accepted that any human right can be arbitrarily revoked or subverted. From there it is a short road to rule by arbitrary fiat rather than rule of law. I can’t and won’t be tolerant of anything leading down that path. Doing so would diminish me as a man.

In that context I am convinced that I have not just a right, but a responsibility to demand from other Australians the maturity to act with lawful responsibility and human decency. Disadvantaged or disaffected Muslims are not exempt from that expectation, and I believe I’m in the company of a majority of Australians who find no excuse at all for crime, no matter if it is committed in the name of a phoney religionism.

There are undoubtedly those who would say to me that not all Muslims are as I have described them. That ‘most Muslims are peaceful and decent people’. But that’s a platitude without any more foundation than saying most Christians are paedophiles just because we know that some have been.

The reality is that any people defined solely by their religion and its practices cannot be anything at all but how their religion represents itself in public. Moreover, religions cannot be respected. Only individuals can earn that tribute by their words and actions. This is the case for all people, not just Muslims.

I instinctively liked Wakim’s homily to the common Australian ground of flowers and mourning, but rationally I see it as the same empty, quietist resignation to barbarism as the Christian admonitions to render unto Caesar, and to turn the other cheek.

Our mission must be to reduce the occasions on which we mourn, and to prevent such mourning from becoming a media circus dragged into every imaginable, self-serving agenda.

I have a different vision of a common ground for all Australians. My common ground with my fellow Australians will never be religion, or its absence. It is and always will be that we recognise each other as Australians before anything else. That recognition is also a realisation of responsibility and obligation to the nation and each other. It does not include a right to demand support or tolerance for segregation, divisiveness, special privilege, or lack of human decency.

My friends, known and unknown, are others who display integrity, responsibility, and a sense of duty to maintain Australia as an open, pluralist society with strong liberal democratic ideals and practices, independent from our friends, allies and enemies alike.

When we come to wicked problems, instead of dividing into implacably opposed camps, our first and continuing effort should be to question our assumptions and fixed positions to work out whether there are better ideas to be tested. That cannot happen if all discussion is restricted to only two paths.

 

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