Brisbane, October 13, 2015 (Alochonaa): If we are sincere about addressing issues that most frequently result in serious numbers of Australian deaths and the devastation of lives in this country, far more attention and resources need to be dedicated to reducing domestic violence, suicide, homicide, drug and gambling addiction, alcohol abuse and paedophilia.
To put the problem of Muslim radicalisation into perspective, there are close to 500,000 Muslims in Australia. If we add up the number of Muslims who have gone overseas to fight for ISIS, those who rioted in the streets of Sydney in 2012, those who have been arrested for terrorism-related offenses and those currently under investigation by our law enforcement or intelligence agencies, we get a total of about 1,000 people. That is 0.2% of the Muslim population in Australia – a statistically insignificant number that is dwarfed by the numbers associated with the other above-mentioned social problems.
In saying this, the problem of Muslim radicalisation has clearly grown over the past several years and the contributing factors need to be considered.
Opinions of academics, commentators, community leaders and politicians vary as to the main contributing factors and how to counter radicalisation. Muslims tend to blame the media for engaging in irresponsible reporting, and most insist that Islam is actually a “religion of peace” that plays no role in radicalisation or terrorism.
There is also a growing view among Muslims and many on the left that politicians who engage in discourses and advocate policies aimed at attracting voters on the right are to blame. Certain sectors of the media and political leaders tend to reduce the problem of Muslim radicalisation and terrorism to the religionfactor – namely, Islam. That a criminal, extremist or terrorist happens to be a Muslim dictates the conclusion that Islam is to blame, while other human and social factors – like mental health, education, family life and socio-economic circumstances – are too often excluded from the analysis and debate.
As with most issues, reality resides somewhere in between. I do not purport to give definitive answers here, but want to highlight the key issues that need to be examined if this discussion is constructively to progress.
There is a problem with how Islam is understood by many Muslims today. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, the religion we all call Islam has been marginalised and largely replaced by a political ideology known asIslamism.
The former displays inclusivity, is apolitical, operates at the individual and community levels, emphasises belief in and worship of God as well as social justice, and is capable of coexisting peacefully and productively within Western, liberal, secular, multicultural Australia. The latter is exclusivist, overtly political and emphasises conformity to a single interpretation of an imagined law code called shariah and governance in accordance with an imagined political system called a caliphate. Combined with its “us” versus “them” mentality, Islamism is not conducive to the Australian socio-cultural context.
Concerning the use of force or jihad, Islam confines armed struggle to self-defence in response to overt aggression and oppression for the purpose of establishing a just peace. Violence against civilians and terrorism are forbidden. For Islamism, the use of force, including terrorism, is a religious obligation and legitimate strategy for achieving political goals.
As far as the Qur’an and Islamic history are concerned, shariah is a set of divine commands, principles and guidelines for how an individual should relate to God, his/her fellow human beings and the world at large.Shariah was not codified until the late-Ottoman period and was not considered as a legal code until the mid- to late-twentieth century, when the Muslim intellectuals Abul A’la Maududi (d. 1979) from Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) from Egypt championed the idea as the basis for establishing an Islamic state.
The terms caliph and caliphate are not used in the Qur’an in reference to a political system, but in reference to the responsibility shared by all human beings in relation to life on earth. In fact, neither the Qur’an nor the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) advocate any political model or system, let alone one called acaliphate. It was the companions of the Prophet Muhammad who began the process of politicising Islam when they formed the first Arab-Islamic Empire and used religion as the basis for what was otherwise a political expansion. Muslim scholars of the eleventh century – such as Abu al-Hasan al-Marwardi (d. 1058) – are notable for defining the caliphate as the “Islamic” political system and did so based on the prevailing norms of the Muslim empires that followed after the death of Muhammad. They were able to make only very superficial, tangential and misleading references to the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions to support their claims.
However, in the aftermath of European colonial rule, the newly formed Muslim nation states faced significant social, political and economic difficulties. The failure of various Western-inspired ideologies such as socialism and nationalism led to the emergence of Islamism in the 1970s. At an ideological level, Islamism rejected what it deemed to be Western values, norms, systems and institutions. At a social level it emphasised outward manifestations of so-called Islamic identity including beards for men and head scarves and often face veils for women, as well as strict gender segregation. At a political level, Islamism’s main goal is the establishment of a so-called Islamic state or caliphate based on the implementation of a shariah law code that prioritises the role of the state in the enforcement of sexual morality, physical punishments for violators, curtailment of human rights and civil liberties, subjugation of religious minorities and persecution of both political and religious dissidents.
Since the end of the White Australia Policy and its replacement with multiculturalism in the late-1960s, Australia’s Muslim population experienced an almost ten-fold increase between the early 1970s and mid-1990s when it first exceeded 200,000. This was followed by a further doubling of the Muslim population in Australia by 2011. Many of the Muslims who migrated to Australia since the 1990s were raised in the climate of Islamism that spread across the Muslim world with the aid of Saudi Arabian petro-dollars. These Muslim migrants brought with them ideas and attitudes that were not conducive to Islam in Australia and at odds with the Islam already being practiced by Australia’s early Muslim communities for over a century.
The large numbers of new Muslim migrants quickly overwhelmed the relatively well-integrated early Muslim Australians. Imams educated in mostly Middle Eastern and South Asian madrassas (religious schools), or often completely unqualified, were able to convert second and even third-generation Australian-born Muslims to Islamism.
Herein lays the origins of one part of the Muslim radicalisation problem we face today. By not giving due recognition to the early Muslim Australians and the way they practiced Islam, the Muslim migrants of the 1990s onwards not only almost eradicated Australian Islam, but in turn caused potentially irreparable damage to the Muslim communities’ relationship with wider society, which contributes to the alienation of Muslim youth and makes some vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.
Many of our political leaders share responsibility for the current problem with Muslim radicalisation. Much of which is the result of deficient and misguided immigration and multicultural policies that arose amidst a climate of ignorance concerning the profound changes to Islam and the Muslim world that occurred in the mid to late-twentieth century with the rise of Islamism.
In an effort to support multiculturalism, insufficient scrutiny was applied in the granting of visas to people, including imams and other Muslim community leaders. While most were unlikely to pose a security threat to Australian society, many harboured Islamist ideas incompatible with the Australian socio-cultural context, which negatively affected the relationship between Muslim communities and Australian society and was ultimately detrimental to multiculturalism in Australia.
Due to a lack of official guidelines as to the expectation of new migrants regarding the extent to which their cultural baggage would be accepted and the extent to which they are actually expected to integrate, many migrants incorrectly assumed that Australian multiculturalism meant that they were not required to make compromises and could live in complete disregard for – and, in some cases, condescension towards – Australian culture. Consequently, multiculturalism in Australia has suffered a major blow signalled by the portfolio’s continually declining prominence since the Howard era.
Since the Howard era, Australian politicians – mostly from the right – have exploited anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigration sentiments within segments of Australian society in order to increase their own popularity and to redirect public and media attention away from their own political failings. Some incidents, like the “children overboard” scandal of 2002, proved to be blatant deception based on false claims designed to convince the Australian public that Muslim asylum seekers pose a risk to the Australian way of life due to their inhumane nature and incompatibility with civilised society.
Although official political rhetoric has shifted to a kind of compassionate determination to prevent further deaths at sea, the sentiment that “they” are no good for “our” country and must be deterred because more of “them” threatens “our” status quo remains central to Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers.
Australian foreign policy is also a major contributing factor to the disharmonious relationship that currently exists between Muslim communities and segments of wider Australian society. By engaging in unnecessary, counterproductive, deceptive and occasionally illegal invasions of Muslim majority countries, politicians have had to resort to increasingly hostile and dehumanising language in order to justify their decisions to be involved in these conflicts. This has served as a convenient cover for the real reasons for going to war that have more to do with obligations under Australia’s alliance with the United States and the economic interests of major transnational corporations than with a moral commitment to toppling brutal dictators, promoting democracy and human rights or genuine compassion for the plight of others.
Moreover, the policies of the successive Australian governments concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict raise the ire of Australia’s Muslim communities and the majority Australians at large. Support for Israel’s policies and practices towards the Palestinians and insufficient support for Palestinian human rights and self-determination is completely inconsistent with the values and principles of a nation that championed the global campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, purports to be playing a constructive role in global peace and security and advocates democracy and human rights.
Foreign policies that have the effect of positioning Arabs and Muslims in the international arena as the enemy signal to segments of Australian society that Muslim communities within Australia should be similarly perceived as such.
Over the past decade or so, the passage of a series of security-oriented pieces of legislation – including the anti-terror laws, border protection laws, privacy and meta-data collection laws, and the bill for stripping Australian citizenship from suspected terrorists – have further signalled to the Australian public that Muslims in general pose a threat to the country. This has been exacerbated by the so-called “terror raids” – the timing of which conspicuously coincides with parliamentary debate about and the passing of security-oriented legislation.
Like foreign policies that position Muslim people and nations as “our” enemy, these security-oriented laws have encouraged pejorative media coverage in relation to Muslims as well as open hostility towards, and physical and verbal abuse of, Muslims by segment of the Australian public. The consequence has been the empowerment of Islamist preachers and community leaders, a rise in feelings of alienation and sense of rejection by Australian society among Muslims, and increasing self-segregation of Muslims within suburbs with significant Muslim populations.
The media has contributed to the current situation by its preference for narrow, unbalanced and contextually-skewed reporting on issues pertaining to Muslims. One cannot deny that some Muslim individuals, leaders, groups and governments, globally and domestically, engage in acts of violence and terrorism, violate human rights, oppress women and persecute religious minorities. Many even do so in the name of Islam. Unfortunately, current news values dictate that the stories most likely to be covered concern conflict, controversy, crime and crises as well as the sensational, strange and unusual.
It is in these contexts that Muslims generally feature in the media. Consequently, the media has allowed criminals, extremists and terrorists to become the representatives and spokesmen for Islam and Muslims in general. Simultaneously, through adherence to such news values, the media deny sufficient access to the mainstream majority of Muslims and more importantly exclude the non-stereotypical, liberal, secular, ordinary Australian-born Muslim with whom average, everyday Australians already relate.
A pertinent example is the 2012 Sydney riot. After police dispersed a crowd of about 100 Muslims who were protesting in front of the United States consulate, the number of protesters swelled to about 300 as they demonstrated through the streets of Sydney. The protests resulted in damage to civilian and public property, including police vehicles. Six police and 19 protesters were injured and nine people were arrested.
Although the number of protesters was relatively small, given that almost half of Australia’s Muslims live in or around the broader Sydney metropolitan area, the media portrayal of the incident suggested a mass uprising of Australia’s Muslims was occurring, as “Muslims stormed the city” according to Channel Ten News. The leaders of the Australian Muslim communities’ 25 most prominent organizations condemned the protests as “unacceptable and un-Islamic” but their stand was significantly underreported compared to the actual protests.
Indicative of how entrenched news values are in respect to prioritising negativity, controversy and conflict, the article in the Sydney Morning Herald concerning the Muslim leaders’ denunciation of the protests bore the headline, “Muslims inundated with messages of hate.” Sure a more appropriate, and accurate, headline would have been, “Muslim leaders condemn protests.” This example is a clear demonstration of the way the media allows the extreme minority to represent and speak for the majority of Muslims.
The other major shortcoming of media reporting is the tendency to reduce all issues, events and behaviour involving Muslims to the religion factor – Islam. The underlying assumption that the actions of Muslims are religiously motivated is as erroneous as it is Orientalist and deterministic. This kind of reporting completely ignores internal human and social factors such as mental health, education, family life and socio-economic conditions, as well as the impact of external social and political factors, including media and political rhetoric, policies and laws, that contribute to feelings of alienation, defensiveness and sense of rejection from wider Australian society.
This kind of reporting is rooted in a perception of Muslims as the “other” that been an enduring sentiment among Western societies that trace their heritage back through to European colonial powers that ruled the Muslim world in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to European countries that battled against the expansionist Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the European Catholics who waged the Crusades for the recovery of the holy lands from the Saracens in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and all the way back to the ideological and territorial challenges to Christendom and the Byzantine Empire posed by the first Arab-Muslim empires in the seventh and eighth centuries.
Superficial, flawed and misleading analysis of this kind denies society the ability to accurately understand the problem at hand and to develop effective solutions by addressing the real contributing factors.
What can be done?
In sum, Muslims need to recognise the difference between Islam and Islamism. They need to reject the latter and begin a conscious effort to revive Islam as practiced by the early Muslim Australians. This will be a difficult process that will require introspection, time and external support. Media and political leaders could assist through more careful consideration of who they present or endorse as representatives, spokespeople and leaders of Muslim communities.
More broadly, at a global level Islam needs to be de-politicised. As secularism was necessary in the West for politics to be freed from religion, in the Muslim world secularism is necessary for Islam to be freed from politics. Again, media and political leaders could assist with this process through more carefully considered policies and procedures.
For its part, the government should review its policies and rhetoric concerning immigration and national security. It is far preferable to deny visas to those whose ideas are not conducive to the Australian socio-cultural context than to burden the existing Muslim communities to such negatives influences and then blame them for the consequences, subject families and neighbourhoods to distressing police raids only to later release most of those arrested due to a lack of evidence, and routinely harass Muslims at airports, schools and in other public places.
Also implied is that political discourse and policies need to change. Rhetoric has to be more inclusive, expectations need to be more clearly defined and mechanisms to support positive change implemented. Foreign policy needs to be aligned with national values and principles of human rights, international law and a genuine commitment to peace and global well-being.
The media need to be more responsible and play a much more constructive role in the reporting of issues and events involving Muslims. Editors and journalists needs to be more discerning and critically examine the extent to which Islam is actually a factor in the issues and events being covered. Greater attention needs to be given to the human and social factors that in most cases are far more relevant and more aptly explain issues and events concerning Muslim countries, communities and individuals.
Finally, if Muslims must continue to be covered in the context of conflicts and crises, a broader picture needs to be shown that gives a more complete account of conditions and realities. Criminals, extremists and terrorists who happen to be Muslim should be denied a platform as the representatives and spokesmen for the religion and its adherents. Those from the mainstream majority should be granted more access.
Returning to the sentiment that opened this article, the problem of Muslim radicalisation needs to be put into perspective, reduced not abetted, and addressed honestly and sincerely with a resolution not expediency in mind.
*Halim Rane is an Associate Professor of Islam-West Relations in the School of Humanities at Griffith University. His latest book (written with Jacqui Ewart and John Martinkus) is Media Framing of the Muslim World: Conflicts, Crises and Contexts. Republished with Author’s permission. Originally posted in the ABC
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Categories: Political Islam