Taming hatred in our midst
Professor of Sociology, La Trobe University
This article was published in 'The Australian' on August 23, 2008.
The troubled relations between radical Islam and the West triggered on September 11, 2001, show little sign of settling. In the past seven years challenges and questions have arisen on many fronts. I want to reflect here on some of them.
I have had two experiences in the past year that have had a marked effect.
In April I visited the Alhambra in Granada in the south of Spain. It is one of the architectural wonders of the world. The jewel is the Moorish Nasrid Palace, built in the 14th century, home of the Islamic rulers until the late 15th century, when they were finally defeated by the Spanish Christians.
Walking through the palace is like being conducted through a harmonious symphony of rooms and spaces. It is the proportions of particular rooms feeding into the articulation of the whole that is so engaging. There are breathtaking views across the surrounding countryside, and internal vistas across multi-levelled gardened courtyards. One strolls through intricately crafted arcades around pools and fountains. The water, intended as a transcendent reference, does succeed in inducing a peaceful serenity, one conducive to quiet reflection and meditation. The palace must have seen, in its prime, a strange conjunction of worldly power and timeless grace.
The Nasrid Palace is a useful reminder today of the extraordinary virtuosity of Islamic culture in its great period. The Islamic achievement included sophisticated philosophy and jurisprudence, and mathematics and science. Symbolic is the exquisite calligraphy in which passages and sayings from the Koran were scripted, to my taste, finer than illustrated Christian manuscript Bibles.
The Alhambra raises the obvious question, as put in a book title by the foremost Western scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis: "What went wrong?" In the subsequent 500 years, Islam stagnated. It is the same half millennium during which the West developed and prospered: from the Renaissance, through the Reformation, the rise of modern science, the Industrial Revolution to the development of liberal democracy and the primacy of individual conscience. With prosperity came geo-political power and influence.
My second experience of relevance to these reflections occurred at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September last year. I was on a panel with Abdel Bari Atwan and Margaret Simons, chaired by Rachael Kohn from ABC Radio National. The topic was broad and seemingly innocuous: religion, society and the individual. Controversy preceded the session in that Bari Atwan had received a visa to enter Australia only at the last minute, perhaps because he was the editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper 'Al-Quds Al-Arabi'. which had published Osama bin Laden speeches. He had the rare experience for a Western journalist of being been granted a personal interview by bin Laden, in 1996.
Bari Atwan spoke first and was keen to portray himself as a moderate Muslim, Palestinian-born, who had lived in the West for three decades. He saw no justification for the killing of innocent people on September 11. He wore a suit, as if to emphasise Western identification. This was particularly striking given the relaxed dress of the Brisbane Writers Festival. His speech became heated as he progressed. Then, in the question time that followed the other two speakers, he launched into a tirade against the West and its centuries of imperialism, blaming it for all the ills that beset the Muslim world. Most people in the packed audience, which had received him warmly at the start, became uneasy.
In part, I suspect, it was simply that Australians mistrust fanatics of any persuasion. I am fed up with "blame the West" dogma and responded accordingly. I pointed out that during three-quarters of the 500-year rise of the modern West, it was the Islamic Ottoman Empire that had controlled most of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. If colonialism was to blame for the geopolitical failure of Islam, then the main culprits were the Turks.
More important, to follow Lewis, it is impossible for a society to modernise unless it opens itself to new ideas and encourages a spirit of inquiry, especially in science. Oddly, Muslim science stopped the moment modern European science began and the Muslim world, with the partial exception of Turkey, subsequently closed itself off to outside ideas. A telling recent UN statistic puts it: more books are translated into Spanish in one year than have been translated into Arabic in the past 500 years. Linked, the separation of church and state has been indispensable to the development of the modern West, a separation already stipulated in the teaching of Jesus and present in classical Athenian democracy but one that still needed a long and rocky evolution to become the system we know today. This separation has no Islamic equivalent, an internal reality that is hardly the result of some European plot.
In Brisbane, the deep ambivalence that a Muslim such as Bari Atwan bears towards the West was striking. On the one hand, he chooses to live in London and enjoy the freedom to publish his newspaper. Presumably, he likes the comforts of a modern Western metropolis: its prosperity, its efficiency, the fact things work and the peaceful civility of everyday life.
Ambivalence is normal in immigrants. In settler societies such as Australia and the US, it is inevitable that many newcomers, for one generation or even longer, will have mixed feelings about having uprooted themselves and cast themselves into an alien place. Many Westerners are themselves ambivalent towards their own society. There is nothing unusual here. What was different in Brisbane was the intensity of hostility -- in fact hatred -- towards whatever it was in the West that galled. Flowing under a veneer of moderation was a tide of resentment. Perhaps the furore raised by the newspaper publication in 2005 of Danish cartoons satirising Mohammed drew on a similar source. With the cartoons I would tentatively separate two strands of emotion.
First, there was a genuine sense of sacrilege. What Muslims hold sacred was being mocked. In the West, freedom of speech is not unlimited. In a parallel case, in my view it was inappropriate in 1997 for the National Gallery of Victoria to exhibit Andres Serrano's photograph 'Piss Christ', of a crucifix being submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. My grounds are that the NGV, as a state institution, was giving public legitimacy to a work that would offend a significant proportion of local citizens, predominantly but not exclusively Catholics. The argument would not apply to a private art gallery that wished to exhibit the same work.
The second strand of outraged emotion aroused by the Danish cartoons had its source, I suspect, in humiliation. Here was yet another example of the West condescending to Islam, sneering at it as primitive, as backwardly medieval. If I am right, this feeling of humiliation is laced with power envy.
From the Western side, the Danish cartoons raised a fierce debate. One camp argued that freedom of speech, as one of the foundation stones of democracy, was being undermined. The cartoon tradition allows far more licence for lampoon that would otherwise be considered defamatory, and in that context Mohammed is fair game. If non-Westerners don't like it, that is their problem. These particular cartoons, in any case, were pretty tame.
The alternative perspective argued that, even with cartoons, there are boundaries: Western newspapers, for instance, would not publish anti-Semitic drawings. Further, surely the tradition of free speech and a free press is robust enough not to be damaged by some self-censorship. Practical political considerations also came into play: Denmark had to take into account violent attacks on its embassies and damage to its trade. I am not sure myself which was the less bad option with the Danish cartoons. My inclination would be not to publish in the first instance, but if challenges of a like kind continued to arise, a Western country should revert to its own standards of judgment about which opinions have the right to free expression. Certainly a nation cannot afford to rescind key civic principles because of threats and intimidation.
Such challenges are far more acute in continental Europe today than in Australia. The Dutch, as a notable example, have changed in one decade from being the most liberal people in Europe to one of the most xenophobic. In part, they reacted to the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Muslim extremist. But the deeper threat in The Netherlands is demographic. Population projections indicate that the country's four largest cities will have Muslim majorities in five years. This may already be the case for Rotterdam. The Dutch, like other Western people, had not foreseen that they were welcoming into their country immigrant groups that contained within themselves a tiny minority who would incline to terrorism, to murdering fellow citizens. For the moment, a terrorist threat is with us from second-generation Muslims in Western societies, such as those in Britain who carried out the 2005 London Underground bombings. On university campuses across the US, there are 600 chapters of the Muslim Students Association. It is a derivative from the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical jihadi movement. Some of those American associations may be moderate, but some may be tempted by terrorism.
For second-generation immigrants to feel uprooted is a common phenomenon: stranded in a sort of cultural no-man's land between the ways of their parents and those of the host society. Fundamentalisms are a common way today for finding security of identity. In this, Islamic fundamentalism is no different from Christian or Jewish fundamentalism. All incline to a demonic polarisation of humanity into two species: those possessed by God and those possessed by the devil. The difference that makes all the difference in the Islamic case is terrorism.
Nevertheless, I will be surprised if the threat from internal terrorism does not pass, although how soon is impossible to foretell. In the meantime, it hardly needs saying that Western police and intelligence bodies need to be in a permanent state of extreme vigilance.
In Australia we have been through rocky periods of assimilation before. There was some strong public concern in the 1980s about Vietnamese ghettoes developing in Melbourne and Sydney, and the threat of Vietnamese youth gangs. A couple of decades on, it is obvious that ethnic Vietnamese have been a very successful immigrant group, becoming a significant and well-integrated part of the multicultural social fabric.
There are positives. It was unclear in the months after September 11 whether the West faced a significant threat to its existence. To my mind, it is clear by now that it doesn't. There have been no further mega-terrorist attacks similar to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. Al-Qa'ida seems to have lost much of its former potency. There may be a protracted period of IRA-style localised terrorism, horrible and tragic for those caught up in it but not endangering the society as a whole. Modern Australian democracy is stable and resilient. It is fortified by traits in the general culture that dispose people to inclusiveness, moderation and a fair go. Local Islamic associations and their leaders are increasingly reflecting those same traits. There has been no sequel to the Cronulla riots in Sydney, in part due to a range of community groups, including the Surf Life Saving Club, taking initiatives to include groups that had felt excluded.
The vast majority of Australians, whatever their religious or ethnic affiliations, are fairly apolitical, with their strongest civic inclination that of wanting to be left alone in peace to bring up their families and pursue their own private customs and interests while provided with access to reasonable economic means. They contribute to a collective conscience that acts as a powerful deterrent to groups that are socially divisive or hold extreme views. Nothing is surer than that the recent call for the legalisation of polygamy by a Melbourne imam will be dismissed out of hand as unthinkable in modern Australia.
Can a modern Western democracy tame radical Islam within its midst? If Australia cannot, I doubt that any society can. The Alhambra in Granada is a timely reminder that Islam, as is every culture, is capable of adaptation and change, depending on place and circumstance. Industrialised liberal democracy has a long history of acting as a powerful solvent of ideologies hostile to its own working logic.