Why are we at odds? Robert Manne on contemporary politics and Islam

Why are we at odds? Robert Manne on contemporary politics and Islam

Robert Manne believes that encouraging multiculturalism in Australia may be the best chance we have to combat irrational levels of fear about Islam growing in our communities.

As part of our Bold Thinking Series, we’re hosting a conversation between Professor Robert Manne and Waleed Aly, two political commentators of note. Together, they will interrogate the question – why are we afraid of Islam?

Ahead of the sold out event on 5 April, we got together with Professor Manne to chat about how the conversation might unfold.

Forgiving the broad strokes of these two categories, what do you think it is that sets Western culture and Muslim culture at odds? Where is the suspicion born?

Well that’s a very complex question and it depends how far back you want to go.

There is tension deep in the history of the relationship between Islam and Christian Europe. As recently as the late seventeenth century, Muslim armies were besieging Vienna. It can be seen as a turning point in history when they failed. Before that, there was a long history of hostility between Muslim and European-Christian civilisation.

Secondly, there’s the question of the later period when Europe became materially and militarily stronger. That’s the period when a lot of the Muslim world had to cope with European colonialism. When colonial projects began to unravel, which was in the 20th Century, new troubles opened.

That experience left a great deal of hostility within the Muslim world, particularly because of how the Europeans had treated them.

The Ottoman Empire disintegrated at the end of the First World War, and there is a resentment of the way the European powers then carved up parts of the Middle Eastern Muslim world.

In more contemporary times, the story is connected to the shape of world politics since the Afghanistan War. For a while the United States was supporting the push of Muslim forces against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the Soviet defeat, the Americans brought troops into the Middle East, using Saudi Arabia, the site of the two holy places in Islam, Medina and Mecca, as a military base against Iraq in 1990.

At this moment an extremist movement of Islam, which only a tiny minority of the Muslim world supports, began to wage a struggle against America and Israel – against what they thought of as the new Crusaders. That led to 9/11.

9/11 was the second most significant terrorist act in modern history, the first being the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, which triggered the First World War.

9/11 has changed world politics. It led directly to two US-led invasions, first of Afghanistan and then of Iraq.

All of this has created a complex and highly layered historical enmity between parts of the Muslim world and the Americans and, more broadly, the West, as we’d call it.

Bringing it to the Australian context, was there animosity towards Muslim culture before 9/11 or did Australians see it as just another ‘foreign’ way of being that we didn’t have a lot of understanding of?

Well, that’s a very good question – there are studies that have looked at this, and they show there was a fair degree of latent suspicion of Muslim migration going back to the 1970s, particularly the Lebanese migration, so there was something there before 9/11.

There’s also the question of how much the Howard government stoked up hostility to mainly Muslim asylum seekers who began arriving on boats well before 9/11.

So it’s not as if there was no hostility to Muslim migrants or Muslim people before 9/11. But everything went up several notches when that happened and indeed Australia was one of the most active participants, alongside Britain, in the two American invasions. That potentially led to a lot of ill will in the Muslim community about Australian foreign policy.

One of the stories that Australians tend to tell themselves is that when migrants arrive they’re unpopular for a while and then they become fully accepted.

According to this story, for a while some hostility was shown to Italians and Greeks; then later on it was people from the Middle East; and then it was the Chinese and Indians. The story we tell is one of early suspicion and then gradual acceptance of incoming groups. So the last off the boat, as it were, is the group that we’ll be hostile to and then suspicion melts away.

But that story doesn’t quite meet the experience of Muslim migrants.

That hostility is longer standing, and it’s been stoked up mainly because of 9/11 but also other things that have happened – in Sydney in particular there’s been a lot of strong press about some criminal cases, centring on some crimes against women that took place in 2000/2001. The build-up of this kind of hostility eventually led to the Cronulla riots.

Recently there was a most outrageous article in the Sydney Morning Herald from Paul Sheehan, based on a story that someone made up. This fear of Muslim men’s crimes against non-Muslim women hasn’t gone away.

Do you think Australian culture has some sort of in-built xenophobia, or does it become a tool for particular governments at certain times in our history? To put it another way – are we just bad at dealing with difference?

Well, I don’t think – at least in this case of contemporary Islamophobia– that Australia is exceptional. I do think however there’s undoubtedly a distinct history of racism in Australia.

This country’s history of racism takes two forms. One is the way the Indigenous population has been treated, which is an incredible story in and of itself. The other is the White Australia Policy which was an absolutist policy to keep non-European migrants out of the country, which hung around until the early 1970s. So there is indeed a history of racism and suspicion of the Other and the Outsider.

But in regard to Islam, I don’t think Australia is peculiar.

Levels of Islamophobia are probably stronger in Europe and even in the United States than they are here. There are Australian conditions that lead to a slightly different form of it here – how we deal with asylum seekers, for example. But I think in Europe and in America – particularly with the rise of Donald Trump – there are even higher levels of Islamophobia than here.

Do you think we have a chance, therefore, to head things off before they get really bad here?

I think the great countervailing feature of Australian politics and culture is the extraordinary success of multiculturalism as an idea. I think multiculturalism is more developed in Australia than anywhere else in the world, except perhaps for Canada.

There is a very strong feeling amongst many people in this country that we have managed the mass migration program since the Second World War – which has been very diverse – extremely effectively.

How we’ve done so has partly been because of the government policies of multiculturalism. But partly also because, culturally speaking, Australians now take pride in the fact that they live in a tolerant country and a country at home with diversity.

So I think it’s very important not to underestimate the dangers of anti-Muslim feeling, but it’s also very important to see that we have the architecture here to combat those feelings. So when there are anti-Muslim outbursts, for example in Bendigo at the moment over the opening of a Mosque, there are many people and not only radical or left-wing people who feel that this reaction is not right, that it’s un-Australian.

So it’s by no means an entirely gloomy picture here.

I agree, and this links to my last question – I feel that Waleed Aly has become a trusted voice and has the ability to bridge some of the gaps – why do you think this is?

I think Waleed Aly is a very unusual person. He’s highly intelligent, he’s a great communicator, who can get complex ideas through to people. And it’s not only to people with university educations or an interest in ideas. Waleed can communicate with the general public and in particular with young people.

He’s both a man who is true to his faith and to his origins but also very much a mainstream figure in Australia – in a way, it’s because multiculturalism has been so successful that someone like Waleed Aly can be a faithful Muslim and someone who is proudly from non-European ethnicity but at the same time a keen supporter of the Richmond Football Club and an excellent rock musician.

He symbolises what multiculturalism is meant to be about.

In addition, he is one of the most talented people of his generation, in his combination of skills, intelligence and ability to communicate. So he’s the perfect person to get through to people in this vital debate.

And I’ll be asking him about his role as a communicator to a young audience, and how he sees he might make a difference when we have our conversation.

Miss the conversation between Robert Manne and Waleed Aly? Watch it now.