Friday, 23 January 2015

Islamophobia and the Terror Within

Professor Jeff Lewis
Co-director of the Human Security and Disasters Research Program
RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Image via iStock

As western governments and citizens around the world seek explanations for the current wave of Islamist terrorism, the notion of an intractable cultural divide re-emerges. Unsurprisingly, the letter from UK government minister, Eric Pickles, asking Imams to explain Islam’s position in  British culture, has been met with howls of ‘Islamophobia’. The traditions of Islam, we are often told, are entirely incompatible with western democratic freedoms, especially freedom of speech.

Much of this discussion, however, is ill-informed, and exacerbates equally confusing arguments about the presence and role of Muslims in ‘western’ states like Australia, France and Belgium.

Principal among these misunderstandings is the very idea that Islam and the west are significantly different, even repellent, cultural dominions. In truth, the European Enlightenment, with its exaltation of reason, rights, democracy and freedom, has deep roots in Islam and particularly the Islamic Renaissance (800-1200 CE).

Not only did the scholars and scientists of the Islamic Renaissance provide a template for the later rise of western Europe, they translated and preserved much of Classical Greek culture which is so frequently cited as the foundation of modern western science, literature, philosophy and democracy.

Equally dubious are the analyses which explain the current violence in terms of an intractable opposition between modern and traditional cultural dispositions.  Very obviously, Islam and the other Abrahamic religions—Christianity and Judaism—share a contiguous religious and cultural heritage remains forceful in the modern context.

But even militant Islamist ‘fundamentalists’ have been profoundly influenced by modern modes of thinking, and entirely embrace modern communications technologies, weaponry and organisational systems.

ISIS and AQAP, specifically, have mobilised broadcast and social media systems to promote their causes, terrify enemies, and attract recruits. The recent ISIS attacks on US Internet networks represent the work of a thoroughly modern military organisation, one that is deft in cyber as well as conventional military strategies.

Principal among these strategies is the militant’s exercise of their own ‘freedom of speech’, particularly their invocation of a glorious, masculine and heroic past. This propagation of fantasies and ideology deftly mimics the ways in which modern states define themselves and validate their economic, cultural and military power.

The invocation of Gallipoli, ‘Team Australia’ and cultural values like ‘freedom of speech’—are all designed to ground our sense of nation in a glorious but enduring past.

In fact, the recent terror events in Australia and France are more about fantasies of difference, than intractable cultural or religious divergence.  Domestic terrorism, specifically, is principally about the ways in which modern states are dealing with their own social transitions and evolving pluralism. It is about our own progress and modernism.

Significant Muslim migration into western states has been largely driven by economic pragmatism and the putative need to grow and refresh populations. Along with the economic and cultural gratifications that flow from this human mobility, are a range of social disjunctions and adjustment problems.

For example, while only 10% of the French population are Muslim, around 70 % of France’s prison population are Muslim. In Australia, over 75% of Muslims earn less than average income. These figures indicate that Muslims, as a definable group, remain socially and economically constrained within the social and economic hierarchies of many modern societies.

Of course, these inequities don’t of themselves dispose particular groups to the sorts of criminal violence we have seen in Sydney and Paris. But when they are adhered to the political violence that western states and Israel have inflicted on Muslims in the Middle East, these inequities become amplified as political enmity. This enmity re-constructs the past and the imaginary of culture, contributing to the ‘radicalisation’ of young Muslims who are seeking their own forms of justice, freedom and redemption.

Despite their best intentions, therefore, western governments and parts of the media continue to stoke this war against ourselves. They continue to propagate a sense of difference and enmity without sufficient regard to the considerable overlaps and continuities that define our modern, pluralist societies.

This is not a battle over ‘freedom of speech’ so much as it is a battle over what kind of speech and who gets to speak. Rather than censor discussion and debate, as effected through the new anti-terror laws, we need more voices, more speech. That is, we need to acknowledge our complexity and the language wars that inform our modernity.

In this context, debates around the repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are simply a distraction from the real war we are fighting. It is regrettable, and perhaps an indication of our struggling modernity, that minority groups feel the need to be protected from idiot abuse. However, the real war is about ourselves, our own modernity and conceptions of freedom.


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