Islam is not a source of feminism or liberation for women. Secular liberal democracies are.
Arguing the former might be trendy, but plays into the hands of Australia’s worst xenophobes. Arguing the latter might defuse that xenophobia, but only if we stop reifying Australian Mulsims just for being Muslims.
When Sudanese-Australian Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Dr Susan Carland, publicly assert the nonsense that Islam is somehow not misogynistic, they should be honest enough to say that this is only the case in liberal democracies, where secularist institutions, customs, and practices defend the right of all to pursue their beliefs free of persecution.
In all nations where Islam is a majority religion, misogyny is a fact of life. None of these nations is a secular liberal democracy. And yes, not all liberal democracies a free from misogyny, even if the local laws prohibit its exercise in public.
The wearing of a headscarf (whether the hijab, niqab, or the full-face covering of the burqa) and full-length clothing to conceal from the male gaze a woman’s form strikes me as submission to sexism, not liberation from it. It also casts all men as creatures who cannot control their lust, which is a pretty misandric, mediaevalist conception of men. Moreover, Islamic women’s ‘fashions’ comprise a uniform that asserts the primacy of religion over all other matters. It tells me immediately that I am in the presence of someone who devalues all I believe in or stand for. I wonder just how much respect or support I should be expected to extend to people who wear their own disrespect like a sartorial billboard shrieking out a propaganda slogan.
When Abdel-Magied and Carland promote their naïve ‘liberation Islamicism’ in Australia, they are safe from religious reprisal from Muslims for being uppity women because of our secularism, but they also knowingly tweak the surly noses of the local buttock-clenching Christo-fascists, whose main goal in life seems to be to make life as miserable as possible for the largest number of people as possible.
That essentially makes this a religious dispute spilling over into a secular arena. And creating that spill-over invites the acrimony the contestants court.
So be it. It’s still a relatively free country, and they should not be prevented from voicing their beliefs. I nevertheless wish they would also accept the responsibility for the consequences of what they say. What I am concerned about is the fuel they offer to the Christo-fascists, both by being wrong, and by escalating religious disputes in my secular backyard.
The former prime minister, and now freelance political arsonist, Tony Abbott, is able to travel the country – and the world – to wag his gnarled, Jesuit finger the way he did in Perth earlier this month:
If you are an Australian, you have to believe in Australia. You don’t have to believe that everything about our country is perfect but you do have to believe that our country is at least worthy of respect. And most of us do. In the marrow of our bones, the vast majority of Australians are proud of our country. Not because we’re flawless, but because we’re good and because we’re usually striving to be even better.
But all too often, that’s not how the people in authority see things. Whether it’s official persecution of Queensland students for a bit of justified sarcasm, state governments promoting gender fluidity in schools, or a federal government-approved activist being disrespectful of Anzac day, there’s this pervasive ambivalence verging on hostility to our country and its values from people who should know better.
The most talked about person in Australia over the past week or so has been Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Of course, she shouldn’t have tweeted “Lest we forget” only to make a political point. Of course, she was wrong to claim that Islam was the most feminist of religions. Of course, you should be able to express any opinion you like; but why is it that only some opinions get you sacked, or investigated by the Human Rights Commission?
Still, an over-promoted, politically correct 26 year old is merely a symptom of the cultural cowardice that’s penetrated to the very heart of our institutions. While officialdom wrings its hands in nervous self-doubt about anything that might be labelled anti-youth, anti-women, anti-black or, perhaps worst of all, anti-Muslim, Australians show what they think of our country’s knockers by turning out in ever increasing numbers and ever greater enthusiasm on Anzac day.
The sanctimonious self-righteousness in this excerpt is nauseating enough to demand no further quotes from that speech. Official persecution? Gender fluidity? Government approved? Give over, Mr Abbott!
But made all the more possible for the earlier effort to fuel a religious dispute. It’s allowing the political arsonist to do what he likes doing best with other people’s accelerant.
I never heard of Abdel-Magied until her catfight with the notably pugnacious Tasmanian senator Jacquie Lambie on the ABC’s Q&A show in February. Her performance in that jelly wrestling match gave me the impression she is not particularly bright, articulate, or persuasive. I confess an immediate bias against anyone who uses slang that sounds like it was cribbed from Oprah. But then, her antagonist isn’t what I’d call an intellectual giant either, channelling more Pauline Hanson than most of the latter’s recent would-be candidates.
On ANZAC Day I wrote that I thought Abdel-Magied had shown poor judgement to make her Facebook post and then remove it with an apology for causing offence. The post read: ‘LEST WE FORGET (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)’. Anyone with her public profile, carefully cultivated as it has been, should have known before posting what the likely reaction might be, and have been ready to stand by what I still think is a strikingly defensible position. I think it was an error of judgement, possibly caused by immaturity and inexperience, to have posted petulantly, without any attempt at explaining the post before retreating. Were not the ANZACs told that they were fighting for principles which include the freedom of speech?
When lighting fires in public, both Abbott and Abdel-Magied would do well to note that many Australians find it easy to be respectful of the sacrifices the ANZACs made, without being deluded about the rôle Australia played, and still plays, in the imperial adventurism of Britain and the USA. That it is possible to be proudly Australian while opposing Australian domestic and foreign policy. That one can be religious without demanding respect for a religion. That one cannot respect a country so much as its people, and that one cannot respect a religion so much as its acolytes. That respect is earned, not demanded or surrendered, which would be a servile obedience to diktat rather than genuine esteem. Or even that many people don’t care too much for being proud or respectful at all, preferring to focus on more immediate and existential concerns, like making ends meet and avoiding conflicts stirred by attention-seeking media whores.
My temperament grew no more fond about all this when I read Dr Susan Carland’s The Conversation piece today. It again propels the silly argument that Islam can be the source of feminist liberation for women. It cannot. Islam can be about feminism only in a secular state with liberal democratic institutions and practices, meaning that it’s the secularism that encourages or supports feminism, not the religion.
Anywhere else in the world, particularly in theocracies, where Islam is a majority religion, feminism, as we understand it in the West, is regarded as dangerously subversive and vigorously repressed.
Carland knows this, but pursues a rhetoric popular in some progressive political circles precisely because it is popular, not because it makes senses. It allows her to affect an opposition to the Christo-fascist right that doesn’t really exist: all religionists impose unreasonable demands on others, and most particularly on people without religious or ideological convictions.
What I know about Carland is mostly that she is the conspicuously Caucasian, Muslim wife of Aleed Waly, who is best known as the articulate, telegenic, and, by now, shop-worn public face of Australia’s ‘reasonable’ Muslims. Carland is also a Monash University sociologist and lecturer, who has written a book, ‘Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism’. Online summaries of the book suggest it is an explicit acknowledgement that Muslim women must fight the misogyny inherent in their religious communities. A contention that seems to be at odds with the positioning of Islam as a tolerant religion.
The main effect of Carland’s Conversation piece is to deliberately fuel a religious friction that ought not to distract from serious issues in a secular society. Except, of course, we have elected representatives like Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Corey Bernardi, and quite a few others, doing the same thing, albeit careful to refrain from admitting the religious base of their prejudices. Careful because they understand that there is a limited public tolerance in Australia for the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that inevitably attaches to religious and ideological arguments, like the central contention in contemporary populist manifestations of such arguments that we need a secret police to supervise how people should think, talk, and behave.
I am left wondering why both our archly reactionary Murdoch propaganda organs, and our trendy progressive media organisations, think doctrinaire disputes like these are more worthy of publicity than critical analysis and reportage of serious matters, like the unpicking of Australian egalitarianism and secularism in favour of a schismatic American vision for an oligarchic police state.
Both our Islamists and Christo-fascists are heading right down that path no matter what they say to the contrary.
They should be denied the national media oxygen necessary to preach these divisive doctrines, and if not that, a greater effort should be made to find representatives for what I believe is the majority view in Australia: keep religion out of the public sphere; it is a private matter precisely because it is divisive, and secular societies arose precisely to prevent that divisiveness from harming civil society the way it always does.