Wednesday, January 04, 2017

CULTURE WARS: A message to mono-cultural chestbeaters

Abul A'la al-Ma'arri (973-1057BC) was an Arab philosopher and poet who lived to the ripe old age of 84 in the district of Aleppo in Syria. When it came to denigrating religions, al-Ma'arri was an equal opportunity offender. French-Lebanese novelist, Amin Maalouf, quotes one of al-Ma'arri's more famous verses in his The Crusades Through Arab Eyes:
The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: Those with brains, but no religion, And those with religion, but no brains.
His words were almost prophetic. Decades later, European crusaders led by Raymond de Saint Gilles and Bohemond of Taranto stormed Abul A'la al-Ma'arri's home town, murdered 8000 civilian and then cooked and ate their remains. In 2013, the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front in Syria finally got to punish al-Ma'arri by beheading his statue.

Al-Ma'arri's message is strangely relevant today as we see self-declared Christian politicians and their pundit pals using every opportunity to attack a religious tradition which is oh-so similar to their own. Their crusade/jihad may not involve cannibalism or beheading statues. However, it does involve a strange mix of patriotism, prejudice and political opportunism.

The rhetoric about Islam, a faith whose Australian adherents are from more than 160 countries and who make up barely 2 per cent of the population, has never been terribly sophisticated in Australia. Middle Eastern religion isn't one of our strong points. Many Australians are still offended by depictions of Jesus as black or of Mary wearing a veil. The Aussie Jesus must be whiter than Santa Claus, his mother a Roman-era Lara Bingle.

Surprisingly, Tony Abbott appears to have joined the ranks of the monocultural chest-beaters. There was a time when he doggedly refused to follow the Howard line on multiculturalism, penning articles for Quadrant and The Australian declaring multiculturalism to be an inherently conservative idea worth defending. He refused to buy into the anti-Muslim rhetoric of colleagues like Bronwyn Bishop or pundits like John Stone and Andrew Bolt. Abbott's Catholicism did not even lead him to mimic his close friend Cardinal Pell's speculative diatribes on Muslims.

And then Mr Abbott became prime minister. We soon discovered he wasn't the suppository of wisdom on national security. Our law enforcement agencies cringed as Abbott lectured Muslim spokespersons to convince him they really meant it when they said they followed a religion of peace. It was a patronising performance from a prime minister born overseas to religious communities largely born in Australia.

Still, the numbers of young Muslims heading off to Syria to join Islamic State didn't exactly skyrocket as a result, remaining steady at about 0.0002 per cent of the total Muslim population. The few successful prosecutions of Muslim terrorists have involved tip-offs from Muslim communities, including mosque leaders giving crucial evidence at trials.

ASIO and law enforcement officials are aware of these facts. They are aware of the pressures minorities face when their traditions are constantly maligned and pilloried, when they are treated as security threats and as people whose transnational connections make them a danger in the imagination of others. Yes, many people working for ASIO are middle-aged Catholics who, like Abbott, are not too young to remember a time when Catholics, their faith and institutions were treated as foreign, a security threat and not very Australian.

"But ah, Mr Yusuf", I hear you say, "What percentage of Australian Catholics turned to violent extremism?" I'm not sure. Perhaps 0.0002 per cent of them?

Mr Abbott says not all cultures are equal. Or perhaps he was echoing the words of that great foreign fighter George Orwell by declaring all cultures are equal but some are more equal than others. But can one speak of Muslims whose ancestry is from more than 160 different countries as possessing one single culture? Why are so many mosques and Muslim religious bodies divided along ethnic and linguistic lines? In this respect, how are Australian Muslims any different to Orthodox Christians or Buddhists?

Even some Coalition MP's seeking to "defend" Islam have made a meal of it. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has argued that we need "a more modern interpretation of the Koran". Seriously? Is the problem one of exegesis? Do people who tick the Muslim box on their census forms stop and consult the Koran before they decide whether to shop at Coles or Aldi?

Why do Coalition MPs imagine that Muslims are any more or less religious than the rest of Australia? Is it all about religion? Are Muslims just characters in some Koran-bashing freak show? 

Such speculative forays do become frustrating for Muslims who are often too busy working to pay mortgages and school fees to worry about what some Coalition MP or obsessive Kippax Street columnist is saying about them. But I strongly doubt the unholy Islam circus will push Muslims over the edge and into the hands of IS.

I appreciate the phone calls made by the ASIO boss to Coalition MPs, but I wonder whether it was as unnecessary as the many rounds of anti-terrorism laws that ASIO has supported over the past decade or so. Still, if our civil liberties can be curtailed for the sake of national security, why can't the verbiage of pollies who love the sounds of their own voices?

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at Deakin University's Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. First published in the Canberra Times on 20 December 2015.

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