Thursday, September 07, 2006

REFLECTION: Thoughts on Terror

Within days of September 11 2001, pictures of the suspects wearing turbans and sporting beards were released. The cover of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph showed a man wearing blue turban and black beard taken into custody. The headline read “FIRST ARREST”. Within days, a bearded turbaned petrol station attendant was shot dead in a reprisal attack.

What did all these turbaned and bearded men have in common? They were all male. They all had beards. And they were all Sikhs.

Whether we like it or not, most Westerners have little knowledge of this unusual group known as they and them. Who are they? How do we recognise them? How do we find them? Do they live among us? Why do they hate us?

We (as in all of us)have spent so much time and energy focussing on asking questions about they and them. In doing so, we have almost forgotten who we and us really are. At times, we’ve even sought to fight them by mutating us to look and act in a manner similar to them.

But when we scratch a little beneath the surface, we soon realise that the distinction between us and them isn’t as big as we think. In many cases, we are they are mirror images. If only we bothered looking in the mirror!

So who are they? Different labels are used. In the most recent edition of the (sadly now fringe) conservative Quadrant magazine, John Stone speaks of

... the Islamic cancer in our body politic.
He says that the real problem:

... lies in the essence of Islam itself ...
... and believes that:

Islamic and Western cultures are today, within any single polity, incompatible.
Such simplistic and absolutist rhetoric about they and them mirrors the simplistic logic of those responsible for a large portion of terrorist attacks across the globe. One only needs to read the speeches and writings of bin Ladin and Zawahiri to see the same nonsensical assumptions made about the West.

But middle-aged migrant Muslim leaders also don’t help when they react to every criticism of Islam. They have to accept that people have the right to criticise Islam.

I was brought up in Australia. I don’t regard Western civilisation as a cultural and political monolith. Anti-American and anti-Western feeling holds little attraction. I understand there’s more to America than Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, and more to Australia than John Stone.

In January, I visited Indonesia as part of a delegation of young Australians organised by the Australia Indonesia Institute. The visit opened my eyes to the enormous diversity within our allegedly monolithic and nominally Islamic neighbour.

In India, Muslims and Hindus clash over the birthplace of the Hindu hero Lord Rama in the North Indian town of Ayodhya. In the Javanese cultural heartland of Jogjakarta, I saw the Indonesian Muslims performing the Hindu Ramayana ballet in the auditorium of a Hindu temple to a largely Muslim audience.

In Jakarta, I learned of a thriving jazz scene. I met Muslim women who sit on a government panel of religious scholars and issue fatwa's (religious rulings) supporting birth control and fighting corruption. I saw women walking the streets in Western clothes, including tight hipster jeans, without being harassed.

Indonesia has so much variety of culture and language. It is a thriving democracy in which freedom of the press runs riot. Newspapers compete to expose financial scandals among politicians.

During a normal day in Jakarta, travelling from one part of the city to another can mean being stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam. The final day of my visit involved a long drive to the airport. This time, the 2-hour drive only took 15 minutes. The streets were empty. It was Chinese New Year.

Of course, Indonesia isn’t exactly a haven of racial ad religious harmony. But we aren’t exactly a haven for drunken rioters and drug smugglers either. Still, the issues we were most asked about were the Cronulla riots and drug smuggling.

For some reason, many Indonesians we met spoke on the presumption that Australians were a bunch of drunken stoned Muslim-hating drug smugglers. Their impressions of Australia were gained from their own media. They never expected to meet us - a delegation of Aussie Muslim lawyers, engineers, researchers and even a hijab-wearing policewoman!

Perhaps the most interesting experience was visiting a Protestant university in Yogyakarta. We spoke with a group of Indonesian Christians who expressed their concerns about living as a religious minority. We discovered the concerns of Indonesian Christians were largely the same as those of Australian Muslims.

Terrorism is about fear and hatred, which is in turn built on ignorance. You hate those you are afraid of. Your fear is built on ignorance that makes you presume others are different to you. The best way to overcome fear is to understand others and enable them to understand you. When this happens, the gulf between us and them reduces.

You can’t fight terror with terror. Hating all Westerners is as crazy as hating all Jews or all Muslims (Western or otherwise). Neither group are murderous monoliths.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf