Yes, Virginia, there is a Clash of Civilisations
Islamism, Islamophobia and Australia
A month ago, the Australian ran an extract of a speech delivered at a Quadrant dinner by John Stone, the former treasury secretary and National Party senator. According to Stone, “the core” of what he called “the Muslim problem” was to be located in the anti-Western hatred created by five hundred years of Muslim cultural failure. Stone did not distinguish between different ethnicities, or different kinds of Islam. All Muslims were religious and political extremists. They could not make a separation between church and state. They demeaned women. They believed in the use of the most extreme violence to achieve Islamic ends. Muslim women who wanted to marry out were threatened with ostracism, violence, even death.
Unlike all previous migrant groups – Stone, who was once an anti-Asian Hansonite, now sang hymns of praise to his “nice” Chinese neighbours – Muslims did not disperse from the enclaves they formed. “Muslims do not so much move out as move in.” After they have driven non-Muslims out of what would soon become “no-go” areas, “Muslim gangs flourish on the proceeds of drugs, extortion, robbery and so on.” In these “no-go” areas they create “small states within the state” from which public officials are excluded. These small states are governed according to sharia law.
Stone’s speech, which was aimed at casting suspicion on some 300,000 fellow citizens, lacked anything that looked like evidence. How many honour killings have occurred in Australia in the past thirty years? Where are Stone’s “no-go” areas? Where is sharia law practised in Australia or, for that matter, in any part of the Western world?
The implication, however, was clear. At the very least, all further Muslim migration to Australia should cease.
In 1984, Geoffrey Blainey proposed that the rate of Asian migration needed to be slowed. His suggestion ignited a vast national debate. What has happened that allows a speech as wild and extreme as Stone’s to be published in one of Australia’s leading newspapers without, so far as I am aware, one word of censure, or even one word of public controversy? If today a prominent figure spoke of Jews as Stone spoke of Muslims he would instantly become a national pariah. There is a real question about whether or not it is appropriate to call Stone’s fantasies about Islam and Muslims “racism”, or whether his kind of thinking, for which in the 1990s the name Islamophobia was invented, belongs more accurately to another contiguous species of prejudice spanning religion, culture and ethnicity: namely, anti-Semitism.
It would be almost comically parochial to think of the kind of Islamophobia seen in Stone’s speech as an Australian phenomenon. Islamophobia is growing ominously throughout the Western world. It would also be utterly misleading to think of the suspicion and hatred seen in Western Islamophobia as a one-way street. Throughout the Islamic world a ferocious anti-Westernism is on the rise.
On 22 June the Pew Global Attitudes Project released a remarkable new study concerning Western attitudes towards Muslims and Muslim attitudes towards the West, in which 1000 people in each of 13 countries answered detailed questionnaires. In the five main Western nations (the US, the UK, Germany, France and Spain), more than 60% thought relations between Muslims and Westerners were, in general, bad; fewer than 25% considered them generally good. Perhaps surprisingly, given September 11, of the Western nations surveyed the US was the most optimistic about relations between the Western and the Muslim worlds: only 55% thought relations were bad. In the five main Muslim nations (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia and Pakistan) the situation was nearly the same, although a slightly higher percentage than in the West, about 30%, thought relations were generally good.
The survey discovered that, on both sides of the divide, Westerners and Muslims thought each other disrespectful of women, although in the West the conviction was more marked than among Muslims. By very large majorities, Muslims considered Westerners selfish and, by substantial majorities, arrogant, violent, greedy, immoral and fanatical, as well. Westerners, by similar majorities in Spain and Germany, although by slimmer majorities in the UK, the US and France, thought Muslims fanatical and violent. The only group that crossed the divide, to some extent, were the Muslims who live in the West. They were considerably less likely than their fellows in Muslim countries to entertain negative stereotypes about the moral attributes of Westerners. They thought of them, on balance, as respectful of women, generous and tolerant.
Political attitudes were also starkly different. Substantial majorities in all Western countries blamed Muslim intolerance for the Danish controversy over the Mohammed cartoons. In all Muslim countries surveyed, more than 80% blamed Western disrespect.
Throughout the Muslim world, anti-Semitism was found to be almost universal. In Pakistan 94%, in Egypt 98%, and in Jordan 99% of people surveyed had unfavourable opinions about Jews. Indeed, among those who believed relations between the Muslim world and the West were bad, a quarter of Egyptians and Jordanians thought the Jews were mainly to blame.
In Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan almost a quarter supported suicide-bombing of civilians, sometimes or often. In all Muslim countries (except Turkey) between 25% and 40% had confidence in Osama bin Laden. Most remarkably of all in this catalogue of Muslim suspicions of the West, substantial majorities of Indonesians, Egyptians, Jordanians and even British Muslims, and substantial minorities of French, German and Spanish Muslims, and of Pakistanis, did not believe that Arabs were responsible for the September 11 attacks.
There are several general conclusions to be drawn from this survey. Relations between Westerners and Muslims are currently very bad. Muslim hostility to the West is now undoubtedly fuelled by unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Yet, despite this and despite September 11, suspicions of Muslims are even deeper in Europe, especially in Germany and in Spain, than they are in the US. Westerners and Muslims, especially those living in Muslim countries, have low opinions of each other’s characters. Muslims are even more suspicious of Westerners than Westerners are of them. Westerners’ and Muslims’ political interpretations of current events exist in parallel universes.
It is in this new and frightening geopolitical landscape – where a large number of political tensions and armed conflicts have a Muslim-versus-Western dimension at their core – that we are all trying to find our feet.
Following the descent into unprecedented barbarity that marked the period between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the early summer of 1914 and the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima; following the tense and deadly forty years of ideological, military and political stalemate between the US and the Soviet Union that we call the Cold War; since the Al Qaeda attack on the US of September 11, the world has found itself in an international situation that is, essentially, unprecedented. For this new situation we have, at present, only two generally recognised descriptors: a war on terror and a clash of civilisations. If global sentiment is to be our guide, the idea that there is a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam is difficult to deny.
It is not widely recognised that the idea of a clash of civilisations originated not with Samuel Huntington but with Bernard Lewis, the neo-conservative historian of Islam. In an article published in 1990, Lewis dismissed the impact of Western imperialism, or the displacement of the Palestinians in the creation of Israel, as plausible main causes of the clash. In his interpretation, the clash represented an irrational outburst of the anti-modernist and anti-secularist passions of fundamentalist Islamic clerics. He argued that they were articulating the rage and humiliation experienced by an old civilisation which, after a period first of pre-eminence and then of centuries of even struggle, culminating in the late-seventeenth-century siege of Vienna, had been militarily, economically and politically routed by the competitor civilisation, Christendom – the West.
Lewis thought that there was little the West could do about the clash of civilisations, except to make an effort to understand the discontents of an alien culture, to hope for the coming in the Muslim world of modernisation and secularisation, and to wait patiently for the anti-Western and anti-American rage to pass. At least, he consoled himself, in his 1990 outline of the theory, the US had not experienced a strategic problem in the Middle East equivalent to Cuba, or a political disaster to equal the humiliation experienced in Vietnam.
What follows is a brief analysis of the political dynamic that has poisoned even more profoundly relations between the Western and the Muslim worlds since the publication of the Bernard Lewis essay 16 years ago.
The political process I have in mind began in the late 1970s in Afghanistan. As the pro-Soviet regime there was coming under pressure, for Cold War reasons the CIA decided to provide armed support for the growing mujaheddin opposition. During the ’80s, the US spent some $3 billion in discomfiting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of this money, channelled through the Pakistani security service, ended up in the hands of the tens of thousands of Islamist guerrilla fighters who answered the call of jihad and flocked to the struggle against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. As we now know, one of the most important leaders of the mujaheddin was the son of a Saudi business family, Osama Bin Laden, who had been converted to the most extreme branch of radical Islamism under the influence of the Muslim Brothers and the theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a consequence of ten years of Islamist struggle in Afghanistan there existed, by 1990, a cadre of battle-hardened Islamists, under the military and moral leadership of Osama bin Laden and the loosely organised Al Qaeda, who were convinced that they had destroyed the Soviet Empire.
In 1990 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US led a UN force that drove the Iraqi Army out. In order to mount the action, the US was obliged to ask the deeply conservative Saudi royal house, which was allied at the time to the US and sympathetic to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, to allow US troops to be stationed on its soil. The reluctant willingness of the Saudi regime broke the relationship between the Saudi regime and Al Qaeda, and committed Al Qaeda to its next campaign, against the US.
Already, of course, Al Qaeda was an enemy of Israel, a supposed Western imposition of the new Crusaders. The arrival of US troops on Saudi soil convinced Osama bin Laden that the Crusaders intended to move from the occupation of Jerusalem to the occupation of the even more holy Islamic sites Mecca and Medina. His forces were now deployed against a greater enemy of Islam than the atheist Soviet Union: the US, a country which, he was convinced, was under the control of the Jews. Just as Allah in His goodness had allowed Islamists to topple the Soviets, so would he now allow them to destroy Israel and its benefactor, the Zionist-controlled US. In turn, the struggle against the Jews and the Americans – “the far enemy” – would provide the rallying cry for faithful jihadists to wake the Muslim masses from their torpor and overturn the “near enemy”, the corrupt faithless regimes presently in control of the Islamic world.
There is hardly a more important challenge for an analyst of contemporary politics than to get inside the mind of bin Laden and his associates. He is a representative of one of the most influential and yet least understood political ideologies of the twentieth century: jihadist Islamism. Although scholars differ over detail, it seems to be generally acknowledged that the two founders of the ideology are the Indian Muslim Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi and, even more importantly, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brother executed in 1966 who has been called “the father of Islamist terrorism” and whose late work Signposts has been likened to What Is to Be Done?, Lenin’s seminal revolutionary-action manual.
Islamism is a political ideology of extreme literalism. The Islamists believe not only that the Koran is the direct word of Allah recorded by the Prophet Mohammed, but also that all the commentaries on the Koran since the time of Mohammed are of no worth. They believe that the Koran provides a detailed guide to the actions of daily life. Sayyid Qutb once wrote that humans should read it in the way a soldier is expected to read the daily military bulletin. The Koran is not only the guide to an individual’s life: its words outline, in entirety, the law, the proper punishments for wrongdoing and the constitution of the state.
The Islamists believe that there was once, during the time of Mecca and Medina and the Prophet’s sojourn on Earth, a Golden Age where there was no distance between what was and what should be. Since that time there has been a great falling away. A critical concept in the thought of Sayyid Qutb is “jahillya”: profound ignorance of the truth. Over time “jahillya” has deepened, even in nominally Muslim regimes; in Qutb’s own time the fall was complete. The Islamic world – the “umma” – has been seduced by alien doctrines like nationalism, secularism, materialism and democracy.
What, then, is to be done? Islamists – as Hannah Arendt once said of Cecil Rhodes – think in continents and centuries. For them, it is as if the Crusades, the Tatar invasion of the Islamic world and the expulsion of Islam from Andalusia in Spain occurred not hundreds of years ago but yesterday. Islam must resume the struggle to return to its lost lands. But not only to them. As Islam is the only true faith, a struggle must be conducted to bring its blessings to the entire world.
Among Muslims there has been a long argument about whether “jihad” is offensive or defensive; whether it is primarily a matter of spiritual or military struggle; whether it is a state or a personal obligation. On all these questions, Islamism of the Mawdudi–Qutb school is clear. Jihad is an obligation that is offensive, military and personal. Yet, given the depth of ignorance – “jahillya” – found in the contemporary Islamic world, how is jihad to succeed, how is the revival of Islam to be achieved? Sayyid Qutb here introduces something unknown to the Muslim tradition, the idea of a revolutionary “vanguard”, separated from but still connected to fallen society; capable, through their exemplary lives and their military exploits, of acting like yeast on the masses and, through all this, of bringing about the revival of true Islam in the Muslim world and the salvation of humanity with the worldwide victory of Islam.
For anyone steeped in the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism, revolutionary Islamist thought is eerily familiar, even though its conceptual content is often strange. Like the other totalitarian ideologies Islamism is intensely Manichean, dividing the world into two camps. For the Nazis, it was Aryans and Jews; for the Communists, socialism and imperialism; for the Islamists, it is belief and unbelief.
Like the other totalitarian ideologies, Islamism is utopian. Just as Nazism offered the Thousand Year Reich and Communism the end of exploitation and alienation, Islamism offers human beings the promise of a new Meccan Golden Age. And as with other totalitarian ideologies, because the future Islamism promises is so beautiful, there are no means, no matter how violent, that it is not willing to entertain. Even particular ideas are taken from the other totalitarian movements. From Lenin, Sayyid Qutb borrowed the idea of the revolutionary vanguard. He shared with Nazism the rabid anti-Semitism of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When I read Sayyid Qutb’s diagnosis of the decadence of the contemporary West – “Humanity is today living in a large brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ball rooms, wine bars … Observe its mad lust for naked flesh” – I thought I might as well have been reading Mein Kampf.
Al Qaeda spent the 1990s trying to strike a decisive blow against the Americans and the Jews. In 1993 it was involved in the bombing of the World Trade Center. In 1996 Osama bin Laden circulated a “jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two holy sites”. In February 1998 Islamist groups announced the creation of the World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders, which called for “the killing of Americans and Jews wherever they may be”. In August 1998 Al Qaeda operatives blew up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In October 2000 they attacked the USS Cole in Aden. And in the attacks of September 11, 2001, they destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon.
At the time of September 11, Samuel Huntington’s version of Bernard Lewis’s clash-of-civilisations thesis was already a familiar subject of global conversation. Osama bin Laden was now asked, in an interview, whether he agreed with the idea. “Absolutely”, he replied. “The Koran states it clearly. Jews and Americans invented the myth of peace on earth. That’s a fairy tale. All they do is chloroform Muslims while leading them to the slaughterhouse.”
There was almost nothing that the US president, George W Bush, wanted less in September 2001 than a conflict between the Muslim and Western worlds. Nonetheless, by now a political dynamic was underway, unintended by almost everyone except Al Qaeda, creating the conditions for intensification of hostilities between the Muslim and Western worlds – the relationship between them having already been soured by the long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the return to bloodshed following the collapse of the Oslo Accords, the sympathy for the victims of the long Anglo–American economic blockade of Iraq, and so on and on.
There was also almost nothing surer, following September 11, than the decision by the US to invade Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s base of operations. The decision could be justified on traditional grounds of self-defence. Yet, despite the support or ambivalence of many Muslim governments, this was certain to be resented deeply and widely throughout the Muslim world. With Aljazeera in existence and well respected, Muslim opinion in much of the Arab world could no longer be contained by the influence of Western media or shaped by local Muslim government sources.
Worse was to come. Even before September 11, a tightly knit group of American political utopians, the neo-conservatives, had achieved – through the patronage of the vice-president, Dick Cheney – an extremely influential position within the defence and intelligence arms of the US government. This group was held together by close political association and a clearly articulated, unusually ideological program. They called for increased American military spending; for the exploitation of an unchallenged global hegemony with a bold, muscular and unilateralist neo-Reaganite foreign policy; for the installation of democracy and free markets around the world, if necessary by military means; for even more unequivocal support for Israel; for the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
After September 11, it was this group that was primarily responsible for convincing the US president to expand the War on Terror into the invasion of Iraq: an invasion which was opposed by the UN and by the overwhelming weight of world opinion; whose justification was soon proven to be false; which turned the invaders into a hated occupying force; which provided Al Qaeda with a new field of war for the training of the next generation of jihadists; and which gradually turned the occupied country into the sectarian charnel house it is today.
Stories of arrogant and brutal American behaviour in the War on Terror, such as those from Guantanamo Bay and from Abu Ghraib in Iraq, inflamed Muslim opinion across the globe. The hatred of America and of the West now reached new heights. The Islamist analysis of contemporary world history as a struggle between Islam and the new Crusaders seemed more and more plausible. In Muslim countries, as a consequence, the threat from the Islamist parties grew. With the election of the local version, Hamas, in the occupied territories – despite Israel’s unilateral pull-out from Gaza – relations between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated even further. Groups of Al Qaeda-linked Islamists carried out assassinations in Amsterdam and perpetrated new atrocities in Madrid and London. Doubts concerning the loyalty and civility of all Muslims living in the West deepened. An atmosphere of intense Islamophobia was the result.
When cartoons of Mohammed as a terrorist were published by anti-Islamic libertarians in Denmark, there was worldwide Muslim outrage. This outrage only confirmed suspicions in the West about Muslim fundamentalism, violence, fanaticism. In all this, one could no longer distinguish cause from effect. A clash of civilisations – one grounded not in Western innocence and Muslim rage, as Bernard Lewis had argued, nor in essentialised cultural or religious difference, as Samuel Huntington once theorised, but rather in an accelerating political dynamic that had passed beyond anyone’s control – was the melancholy result.
Peace-loving and law-abiding Muslims who migrated to the West have been victims of this process. Recently, an excellent book about the fifteen million or so who live in Europe was published: Jytte Klausen’s The Muslim Challenge, which coolly dispenses with the kind of ignorant version of Western Islam seen in John Stone’s speech .
Klausen’s book is based on detailed questionnaires and extensive interviews with 175 Muslim leaders in six European countries: Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Virtually no one she interviewed thought the idea of basing law in Europe on the sharia was anything but absurd. Only a small minority, less than a quarter, even wanted sharia law to be an option available to Muslims in Europe in areas such as custody of children or divorce, as it presently is for Orthodox Jews in one or two Western countries. Women were noticeably less keen on this proposal than men. Virtually no one Klausen interviewed was interested in converting non-Muslims to their faith. Almost everyone merely yearned for the right to practise their religion in peace, in the way they had once been allowed to do.
Some of the Muslim leaders Klausen interviewed were highly critical of orthodox Muslim religiosity. This is hardly surprising, given that in one survey conducted in Holland only one in three Muslims was attending mosque on a weekly basis, and in another French survey conducted among four to five million Muslims only one in ten was considered religiously observant. Many of the Muslim leaders Klausen interviewed adhered to what she calls neo-orthodoxy. They managed to balance a modern lifestyle with the daily fulfilment of the practices of a demanding faith. Virtually everyone she interviewed was offended by the school bans on the headscarf, the hijab, in France and parts of Germany. As unwitting John Stuart Mill liberals, most thought it ought to be a matter of individual choice. Many, however, did not support the wearing of the veil, the burqa.
Many Muslim leaders were worried about the ignorance of Western life shown by the European imams, the vast majority of whom had been educated in religious schools in Pakistan or the Middle East. Klausen encountered a few of the ultra-pious religious fundamentalists. They were appalled by terrorism, the “criminality” of Al Qaeda, and what they saw as the Islamists’ politicised distortion of the faith. Islamists found their main support-base among the group of uprooted and alienated young Muslim men: part of a social phenomenon Klausen characterises as an aspect not of traditional Islam but of globalisation. In contemporary Europe, as Gilles Kepel has shown, pietistic and political Muslim fundamentalists are bitter enemies, often conducting their arguments in ferocious battles on websites. Although there is, so far as I know, no study of Australian Muslims like Klausen’s, there is no reason to believe the situation would be greatly different here.
At present there are about 300,000 Muslims in Australia. Mass migration did not really begin until the late 1960s and the ’70s. The most significant groups were Turks, and Lebanese fleeing from their country’s vicious civil war. As these migrants often came from rural backgrounds and were frequently uneducated, and as their arrival was followed, not long after, by the abandonment of the policy of economic protectionism and the decline in unskilled manufacturing jobs, the migrants and their children experienced higher-than-average levels of unemployment and lower-than-average rates of upward social mobility. As many were tied to their faith and to their ethnic community, they tended to cluster in areas close to mosques: Lebanese in Lakemba, Turks in Broadmeadows, and so on.
There is some evidence that even in the ’80s there was considerable public hostility to this diverse and amorphous group of migrants, in which – in popular imagination – religion (Muslim), ethnicity (Arab or Turkic), nationality (Lebanese) and even demeanour (“Middle Eastern appearance”) were merged. In 1988 Multicultural Australia conducted a so-called distance survey. People were asked whom they would like as neighbours, work-mates, friends and partners for their children. The survey discovered that from the specified groups – British, Aboriginal, Greek, Asian and Muslim – Muslims were the least popular. Yet, at this time, the hostility had not surfaced politically.
In the ’70s Australia had embarked on a great migration experiment: the almost simultaneous embrace of multiracialism and multiculturalism, that is, the almost simultaneous abandonment of race as a condition of migrant entry and assimilation to a pre-existing Anglo-Celtic cultural norm as the unwritten and unenforceable contract between the migrant and the host society. Between the ’80s and 2001, for deep historical reasons, the chosen test-case for debate about this experiment was the traditional phobic group Anglo-Celtic Australians called “Asians”. On at least three occasions the question of Asian migration flared: during the Blainey debate of 1984–85; more briefly, at the time of John Howard’s 1988 return to the Blainey question of whether Australia could cope with the current rate of Asian immigration; most significantly, from 1996 to 2001, when Pauline Hanson’s attack on both Asian immigration and multiculturalism was near the centre of political life.
On each occasion the challenge to Asian migration failed, although in the case of Hansonism a lengthy period of inscrutable prime ministerial agnosticism and five years of fraught discussion undoubtedly changed the national mood on questions connected with migration, multiculturalism and “race”. Yet what is of greatest interest here is the fact that, between the embrace of multiracialism and multiculturalism in the early ’70s and the spring of 2001, Muslim or Arab migration and settlement never once became questions of public discussion or political dispute.
What brought the latent question of Muslim and Arab migration to the surface and gave it explosive salience were three quite separate events that, as a matter of complete coincidence, aroused widespread passion, anger and anxiety in the space of two months in 2001.
In August, especially but not exclusively in Sydney, the public gaze was riveted on the trials of a number of young Lebanese-Australian men from around Lakemba who were found guilty of gang rape. In part, the public was outraged by the foulness and the brutality of the crimes, as was I. In part, the public was appalled by the leniency of the initial sentences, a sentiment I also shared. But, in part, public opinion was also shaped by the way politicians and the media interpreted the crimes.
As Scott Poynting and others have shown in their book Bin Laden in the Suburbs, the behaviour of the rapists was frequently treated as if it was primarily driven by racial contempt and the desire for domination over young “Caucasian” women, whom the rapists described, during their crimes, as “sluts”. It was frequently characterised as a culturally produced crime, the predictable behaviour of Muslim or Lebanese young men. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the columns of Janet Albrechtsen who, to the astonishment of her sources, distorted material she encountered on the internet so as to make it appear that the gang rape of white women was now a common cultural practice among Muslim males in Europe.
The incident was also frequently interpreted as the failure of the policy of multiculturalism. Some argued that the crimes were caused by the moral relativism supposedly found at the centre of multicultural ideology. Some argued that they occurred because politically correct thought-police had imposed an effective ban on criticism of any culture other than “our own”. Some, more straightforwardly, argued that the crimes proved the unassimilability of certain racial or religious or national groups, an idea which multiculturalist ideology discounted in advance. I have often sensed, just beneath the surface, a particular kind of brittleness about multiculturalism in Australia, as if very little evidence is required to convince large swathes of the general public that one or another ethnic group will never fit in. In the ease with which the loathsome crime of a gang of Lebanese-Australian youths was transformed into generalised suspicions of Muslims and even generalised doubts about the whole experiment in multiracialism and multiculturalism, this brittleness was publicly revealed.
Shortly after the gang-rape trials, public attention turned to the government’s refusal to allow the landing of the Afghan refugees who were on board the Norwegian cargo ship the Tampa, and the Howard government’s subsequent decision to use naval force to keep all future asylum seekers from our soil. With the Tampa incident, a moral line in Australian public life was crossed. There had been almost nothing as callous in recent history as the use of armed force against refugees. It is difficult to forgive those whom you wrong. For this reason the government needed the public to believe, and itself even needed to believe, that the repelled were of low character. That is why the story of Iraqis, on a later boat, throwing their children into the ocean as a form of moral blackmail was so readily given credence.
From the political point of view this was probably unnecessary: one of the most astonishing features of the episode was the ferocity and the near-unanimity of opinion. When the Herald Sun asked its readers whether the government ought to allow the Tampa to land, around six hundred thought it should; almost fourteen thousand thought it should not. And when John Howard pledged at the launch of the Liberal Party’s 2001 election campaign that “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come,” his words were greeted with rapturous applause and became, almost instantly, one of the only memorable statements of his prime ministership.
In the history of Australia, maritime border control had been dominated by fears about the arrival of Asians. With the Tampa these fears were displaced onto Muslims. September 11, after which Australian opinion was drawn immediately and intimately into the downward spiral of hostilities between the Western and the Muslim worlds that I outlined earlier, was now a mere fortnight away.
We have been rather blind to the way in which, in the five years since Tampa and September 11, a new and uncontested kind of anti-Muslim language, of the kind expressed with unusual nakedness in John Stone’s speech, has insinuated itself and become increasingly respectable among conservative politicians, journalists, public commentators and religious leaders. I would like to try to reveal that blindness by asking what would happen if the kind of things now routinely said about Muslims were to be said about another complex and diverse, non-Anglo-Australian group bound by ties of religion, culture and ethnicity.
Let me begin with the comments some Australians now feel comfortable making about the way Muslim women choose to dress. It is no longer uncommon for Australian parliamentarians, such as Bronwyn Bishop or Sophie Panopoulos, to demand that Muslim women remove their headscarves in public. What would be the response if they were also to demand, as the French did, that Jewish boys remove their skullcaps if they want to attend government schools?
Although the prime minister did not accept that the call for a ban on headscarves was reasonable, when questioned on radio he did reveal that he thought Australians were “confronted” by the sight of the small number of ultra-orthodox Muslim women wearing the burqa. Perhaps Australians do find the burqa confronting. For all I know, they might also be confronted by the vision of Hasidic Jews wearing eighteenth-century Polish dress in the heat of the Australian summer. What would be the reaction if the prime minister spoke on radio about this?
It is not uncommon for conservatives such as John Howard or Peter Coleman, not conspicuous in other contexts as defenders of feminism or women’s rights, to express outrage at the supposedly patriarchal nature of traditional Islam. What would be the response if these conservatives expressed a pseudo-feminist outrage at the separation of men and women in the Orthodox synagogue?
Recently, the deputy leader of the Liberals, Peter Costello, advised Muslims to either abandon their support for sharia law or leave. This was a strange demand. Was Costello implying that the demand for the institution of sharia law in Australia was widespread among Australian Muslims, or even that it constituted a political threat? Did it occur to him that for many faithful Muslims who are perfectly comfortable with Australian civil law, aspects of sharia law provide precisely the same basis for the ordering of daily life that the Torah and Talmud provide for Orthodox Jews? What would be the reaction if a senior Australian politician thought Jews had to be advised to choose either Australian law or the Torah and the Talmud, and that if their choice was for their holy books, it might be time for them to quit Australia?
On a similar theme, several Australian politicians have, either implicitly or explicitly, warned Muslims to accept something they call “Australian values” and reminded them that they must obey the law. What would be the reaction if government ministers thought Jews needed similar advice?
Sometimes matters have been even more extreme. Following September 11, the Herald Sun scholar-columnist Andrew Bolt offered his readers this interpretation of the Islamic faith, a religion with one billion adherents:
Unlike Mohammed, Christ did not slaughter unbelievers, execute women who sang rude songs about him, cut off the limbs of apostates, sleep with a woman whose family he had just killed, have sex with a nine year old, authorise the beating of wives … and promise heaven to all those who made war on infidels.
What would we think of a similar commentary comparing Judaism and Christianity, based on some of the more violent passages in the Old Testament?
The economist Professor Wolfgang Kasper, in Quadrant of November 2001, complained about the “transaction costs” incurred in dealing with Arab Muslims and, this time as a sociologist rather than as an economist, explained the tribal-desert origins of Muslim men’s characteristically indecent treatment of women and children, propensity for lying to strangers and involvement in gang rape. What would we think if a writer in the most important Australian conservative journal were to point out that traditional Jewish shtetl culture countenanced swindling? And what would we think if a leading Australian public figure were to call for an end to all Jewish migration, as John Stone has consistently done since September 11 in regard to Muslims?
There is evidence that this kind of language – which is, of course, a reflection of the geopolitical situation – is having its effect. In late 2001 the social geographers James Forrest and Kevin Dunn conducted a survey of more than five thousand people in Queensland and New South Wales. While an overwhelming majority believed that it was good for society to be made up of different cultures, almost half believed that Australia was “weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways”. They were also asked if they believed there were “any cultural or ethnic groups that do not fit into Australian society”. A full 46% thought there were. They were not asked which groups they had in mind.
Others were not so polite. In 2001, before September 11, and again in 2004, the Irving Saulwick poll asked a representative sample of Australians which groups they would like to exclude from the country. In 2001, following five years of Hansonism, 28% chose Asians and 34% chose people from the Middle East. In 2004, the desire to exclude Asians had dropped to 17%. The desire to exclude Middle Easterners had risen to 40%. Indeed, Australians were almost twice as keen to keep Middle Easterners out as they were to exclude people perceived as a burden or a threat.
Does this feeling translate into social aggression against Muslim people of Middle Eastern appearance? It seems, almost certainly, that it does. In 2004 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission published a study by Scott Poynting and Greg Noble. The authors sent out a detailed questionnaire which reached about a thousand Muslim Australians living in Melbourne and Sydney. Of the 20% or so who responded, one-third reported experiencing “a lot more racism” since September 11; one-third “a bit more”; one-fifth “no increase”. Interviews with 34 of the respondents were conducted. What they had experienced was summarised like this: “The events recounted ranged from seemingly minor incidents of social incivility, to verbal abuse, through threats of violence including stalking and threatened sexual assault, to actual physical assault from veil-tearing to a stabbing …”
Although I must admit to scepticism about advocacy-scholarship of this kind, many of the incidents recorded in detail in the report had about them the ring of truth. They were also soon authenticated by a major public event. Whatever we might think about the long-term pattern of behaviour of Lebanese-Australian youths at Cronulla Beach, that there now exists among Australians an explosive rage against Muslims or those of “Middle Eastern appearance” can no longer be in doubt. Indeed, what interested me most about Cronulla was not the involvement of alcohol or the far-right groups, or even the disgraceful incitements of powerful talk-radio people like Alan Jones, but the fact that so many of those involved were not the kind of underclass skinheads one sees in similar episodes in Britain: rather, they were prosperous-looking young men and women of what could be described as “Middle Australian appearance”.
Among conservative Australians, there exists what one might call the Whig interpretation of Australia’s postwar migration history. According to this standard account, which I generally accept, the painless acceptance of millions of non-Anglo-Celtic migrants from the four corners of the Earth represents one of Australia’s great political and social achievements. Sometimes the achievement is attributed, complacently, to the innate decency and tolerance of Australians, as it is, for example, by the present prime minister. Sometimes it is attributed to a kind of benign indifference in the national character, where, to paraphrase a recent article by Andrew Norton, if a choice has to be made between expressing displeasure and not making a fuss, Australians characteristically decide upon the latter as the more prudent course.
In the thought, however, of one of Australia’s most original historians, John Hirst, the success of postwar migration is explained in a far more sophisticated way: as the deployment, under new conditions, of the social strategies nineteenth-century Australians had learned in the struggle to take the sting out of the one real threat to civic peace, the potentially explosive sectarian divide between Anglo-Scottish Protestants and Irish Catholics.
The Whig interpretation of postwar migration has one additional theme. Insofar as any hostility to migrants has been expressed, it claims that it occurs only for a brief period following the arrival of the particular group, swiftly dissipates upon familiarity, and resumes when the next ethnic group arrives, at which point the earlier process is repeated – with the same happy ending a guaranteed result. What is happening over Muslim-Arab migration has shown this aspect of the Whig interpretation to be a myth. This group began arriving in significant numbers almost forty years ago. It is not the latest ethnic group to arrive. The hostility has not dissipated gradually. For both the global and local reasons I have sketched out here, it has risen sharply over the past five years.
Three hundred thousand Australians are now routinely being informed, in one way or another, that their manners are unpleasing, that their loyalty is questionable, and that they do not really belong. As this atmosphere grows, one of Australia’s great national accomplishments is being placed at risk. With the rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feeling in Australia, we have reason to be alert and, yes, alarmed.