Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Identity a problem for Muslims in secular Australia

A protester in Sydney on Saturday.
The fallout from Saturday's protest in Sydney's CBD continues, just as pundits globally comment on the wider context of protests throughout the Muslim world. A lot of what's being said contributes positively to the debate (I choose not reference comments from right-wing Australian senators, deliberately), including the informed piece by Waleed Aly which came out on Monday. Aly's thesis is that among Muslims there is a chronic feeling of disempowerment and that the film against which the protest was ostensibly angled was just an excuse to express this otherwise inchoate anger. Aly says that in this situation "you have an identity that holds an entirely impoverished position: that to be defiantly angry is to be" and so asks those Muslims to consider their position more objectively. What can be done? He also congratulates Muslim community leaders for condemning the violence. In effect, the burden of change falls back on Muslims in Australia.

Conversely, today Mohamad Tabbaa, a Melbourne PhD candidate in law and criminology, shifts the burden of change onto the shoulders of Muslim community leaders in his piece in the Fairfax media. Tabbaa asks the community leadership to more faithfully represent the interests of the community:
These youth have been relying on their leaders - their representatives - to [articulate their grievances] on their behalf. Instead what they see is a leadership almost exclusively concerned with ''portraying the correct image'' of Muslims in the media. Rather than voicing their grievances, they see their leaders capitulating to representatives of the governments they accuse of Muslim oppression. Instead of protecting them from what are seen as some of the harshest anti-terrorism laws in the world, they see their leaders thanking police for raiding Muslim homes; they see their leaders as siding against them, rather than with them; they feel betrayed.
Over in the US we also have Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the secularised Dutch Muslim author writing in Newsweek about the protests in another way. Hirsi Ali wants Western leaders to do more to uphold the values against which currently Muslims around the world are protesting: freedom of speech, human rights. She envisions change happening within the Muslim community so that it begins to adopt these values as its own:
America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative. At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation.
Everyone except Hirsi Ali, it seems, is trying to hose down the situation. Muslim community leaders are keen to get the pictures of protesting youths off the front pages. Political leaders, such as those in the US who have been asked by Muslim protesters to prosecute the filmmakers, have tried to do just that, and failed. But the issue will not go away. Maybe we should listen to Salman Rushdie, whose famous episode, which started in 1989, set the tone for all the conflicts of principles involving Muslims that have happened since. As I mentioned a few days ago, the issue at hand currently is a matter of identity. If your identity is defined by religion exclusively, then resort to violence is your only option when it is attacked, within a secular democracy. That is because there are no other mechanisms available for you to seek change unless there is a party of the religious in government, or even in opposition. But there is no place for a party of the religious in secular democracies. So there's the rub.

There is however a place for ideology within the system of secular democracy that has developed over centuries in the West to manage the fraught matter of how to change the way the community is led without resort to violence. Currently, in Australia, there are two main frames of reference in respect of ideology: progressive and conservative. We know however that for some reason the conservatives have taken ownership of the view that asks Muslims to change, to prefer ideology over religion when it comes time to cementing their allegiance. With regard to this point, I refer once again to Tabbaa:
[M]any Muslims in Australia do not simply give up their identity as belonging to a global community merely because they happen to live in Australia. Many have not bought the liberal idea of individualism, and so see events happening on the other side of the planet as personally related to them.
What I want to see is some effort put into explaining the reason why countries like Australia base their system of values on things such as the individual and human rights. Rather than let the right-wing ideologues take possession of the field I want to see progressives start talking about why and how such values emerged, and why they are to be preferred over values inscribed in a 1300-year-old book. 

Sadly, the kind of debate I envisage usually takes place within the pages of right-wing publications such as Quadrant, and it seems that it falls back on people like Hirsi Ali to defend the faith. Is she right-wing? Ironically, throughout history it has been progressives who campaigned for the changes that, today, the Right has decided it wants to own. So I'd like to see progressives get bolshie on the matter of how a peacful secular democracy like Australia developed. It's the world's fourth-oldest democracy, after all, and in its history there is no major episode of civil strife to mar a seamless mien. Let not just skip bogans with Southern Cross tattoos on their legs feel proud of Australia. Let us all learn how it came to be the attractive destination for refugees - from all over the world - that it is.

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