The Clash of Ignorance

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by Waleed Aly

Westerners like to divide Muslims into “moderates” and “fundamentalists”. The very terms reveal the depths of Western misunderstanding.

Symbols have no inherent meaning. They have only the meanings ascribed to them by the communities in which they operate. They are a canvas on which our subjectivities are sketched.

In the post-September 11 West, Islam has been transformed from a diversely expressed, international faith to a narrow political identity. It is now a symbol. Muslims therefore have no essence, only projected meanings determined with reference to Western political imperatives.

Hence the meaningless but highly symbolic binary of “fundamentalist” and “moderate” Muslims, which we often pretend encompasses all the diverse realities of Muslim life. Other terms may occasionally be used, such as “radical”, “militant”, “extremist”, “Islamist” or “jihadist”, but the distinction between these labels is never clearly articulated, and in application they become rhetorically synonymous with fundamentalism.

Engagement with Muslims then, becomes nothing more than an exercise in crude taxonomy. Upon entering public contemplation, every Muslim must immediately be reduced to a one-dimensional fiction. The moderate is good (or at least benign), the fundamentalist is nasty, and there is little, if anything, in between. There are tolerable Muslims and intolerable Muslims. But no Muslim can be complex, which is to say, human.

A report in The Age last August juxtaposed two such archetypes: Zakir Naik and Irshad Manji. Naik is quoted extolling the headscarf by arguing that revealing “Western” dress makes women more susceptible to rape.

We then move to Manji who, we are assuredly told, does not wear a headscarf and is open about her homosexuality. She is the courageous reformist pitted against the forces of literalist dogma, which she asserts is “going mainstream” in Islam. She is everything Naik is not. He the backward and ignorant, she the progressive and enlightened. The reader is left with the impression of a two-sided battle within Islam. Here is the fundamentalist and the moderate. Take your choice.

The truth, however, is that both discourses are alien to the Muslim mainstream. The flaws in Naik's analysis are immediately obvious: he mistakes an act of violence for a sexual act, and comes perilously close to blaming the victim.

But to those familiar with Islamic history, Manji's rhetoric is simply intellectual fraud. She follows her denunciations of literalism with her call for Muslims to replicate the Islam of Moorish Cordoba. But she omits that literalism reached its zenith in Cordoba, and that the Muslim world has seen nothing since that even comes close. Manji pines for the literalism she despises. Only the profoundly ignorant could make this argument.

Many Muslims, left with a choice between Naik and Manji, would probably choose neither. Yet they constitute the entirety of this snapshot of the Muslim horizon, which centralises the trivial and trivialises (or ignores) the mainstream for whom there is simply no space in this kind of reporting. Quite simply, this portrayal of the Muslim landscape does not contemplate the existence of most Muslims.

Such dichotomous artificiality may nevertheless be tolerable were it not for the fact that these binary categories are themselves highly problematic. Neither “fundamentalist” nor “moderate” are terms that have any significant purchase among Muslims. But they are also nebulous, which allows them to be applied unaccountably.

So fundamentalism is rarely defined, and is almost never used in a manner consistent with its 19th-century American Christian roots. It is instead a label attached to anything of which society disapproves. The slippery subjectivity of this term becomes immediately apparent. Muslims know little about fundamentalism except that it is not a compliment.

But if fundamentalism is problematic, its polar alternative, moderate, is no better. In fact, to be labelled a moderate Muslim is offensive in the way it is to be called a moderate intellect. It carries with it the connotation that one's faith is somehow diluted. It implies that it is socially acceptable to be a Muslim, as long as you are not too Muslim. Few Muslims would seek this classification, except by rhetorical necessity.

But the greater problem is that “moderate” is often not a theological, or even philosophical description. A moderate is often defined by his or her political attitudes. This linguistic infrastructure prevents Muslims from having a public existence beyond Western political horizons.

This has significant practical implications. Now we hear intense calls for the emergence of, and support for, “moderate Islam”. But given this term means nothing to most Muslims, what exactly is moderate Islam, and who has the mandate to define it? And how appropriate is it that the shaping of Islam will so blatantly take place in response to a charged political environment and the explicit political imperatives of the West? This is no sober evolution in Islamic thought in an organic process of scholarly insight and reflection. It has no theological integrity.

This political nomenclature merely gives structure to the inherently political prism through which we tend to view, nay construct, an essentialised Muslim world. Consider The Age's editorial from December 8 last year, which opened: “Saudi Arabia was recently likened by a long-time observer to ‘a sort of oily heart of darkness’ that has come to envelop all that is anti-American.”

Here, an entire nation is reduced to a “heart of darkness”. It belongs quite simply in the one-dimensional evil box. These are not a people with histories, identities, social struggles or human complexities.

But most revealingly, this summary of Saudi Arabia is constructed on two quintessential images. It is a heart of darkness, but it is - to be sure - an oily one. Similarly, the reader is invited to infer that the Saudi darkness subsists in the fact that it envelops “all that is anti-American”.

That our descriptions of Saudi Arabia gather around oil and anti-Americanism is demonstrative of how our apprehension of the Muslim world is defined by our own political interests. Its relevant features are its resources and its attitudes towards the West. That is all the reader is told because, it seems, that is all the reader need know. We aspire to no greater understanding of this nation and its people.

Thus, we find our conceptions of the Muslim world, and indeed Islamic thought, reduced to the personification of a handful of cliches.

Both apologists and polemicists seem destined to frame the discourse on Islam only in terms of terrorism, misogyny and totalitarianism.

The superimposition of this analytical model onto Islam and the Muslim world means we have little to say about either that does not fit within this narrative.

We study our own societies and traditions with pedantic precision and attention to subtle and nuanced detail, but do not afford the same to Muslim communities, locally or globally. There is limited space in the public discourse to reflect upon the spiritual, material and human aspirations and struggles of Muslims. These are publicly stripped away from by political solvent. The public eye is unable to see, the public mind unable to comprehend, the human.

There are exceptions. In a rarely nuanced article for The Independent in July last year (republished in The Age), Simon Reeve provided a useful account of Saudi Arabia as a kingdom in flux, subject to incredible social tensions. Yet even such noble attempts, it seems, must ultimately resort to essentialised stereotypes. Making the case that “Saudi Arabia is a land of staggering contradictions”, Reeve's exhibit A is that “Saudis profess loathing for the American government” yet “McDonald's is hugely popular”.

Surely there are more meaningful social contradictions to be found than this, that might tell us more about the internal dynamics of Saudi society.

In a sense, Reeve's hand is forced. Had he produced more telling contradictions, it is doubtful that readers would have had the necessary familiarity with Saudi society to understand them. We relate easily and immediately to the competing images of anti-Americanism and McDonald's, not because they are meaningful, but because they are about us. This, ultimately, is how we have come to engage with Muslim communities. Our apprehension of them is far more about us than it is about them. And more specifically, it is more about our own political horizons than it is about their own social histories and evolution.

Here one might reference Western attitudes to the veil, a symbol that has obsessed Western Orientalists and observers for centuries. But inevitably, the image portrayed of Muslim women has always been the antithesis of the prevailing perception of Western women. In Colonial Fantasies, Meyda Yegenoglu points out that when Europe was puritanical, and viewed sex as anathema, the veiled woman was seen as an exotic, licentious seductress who used the veil to serve her own lascivious ends.

Today, the West views itself as free and liberated, yet in a struggle against the forces of terrorism. Perceptions of the veil - the very same article of clothing - have changed accordingly. Now it represents sexual and social oppression and imprisonment. It may even represent extremism and terrorism. This is why Daniel Pipes can talk of France's ban on headscarves in state schools as though it were a counter-terrorism measure. In The Australian last month, Pipes argued that Britain, in stark contrast to France, was “hapless” in the war against “terrorism and radical Islam”, in part because British law had recently reaffirmed the rights of students to wear religious clothing in schools. For Pipes, headscarves are about “radical Islam”, which becomes terrorism.

That is a lot to read into a piece of cloth. But what emerges is the fact that in the Western conversation the veil, headscarf, or indeed any readily identifiable aspect of Muslim life is to be constructed as the very opposite of the Western self-image. Our apprehensions are a polemical, fluid construct that say more about ourselves than anyone else.

In this public environment, the Muslim naturally has one of a defined set of roles to play. The fundamentalist repulses, frightens and inflames, and the moderate condemns, but neither connect to mainstream society. All individuality is lost as a civilisation and its people are reduced to roles, their humanity consumed.

The Muslim world, too, plays its role: ally, trade partner, oil supplier, military base, military threat and ultimately perhaps, invaded nation.

This is reflective of the fact that Islam and Muslims only enter our serious contemplation when something we deem to be newsworthy has occurred.

This most often means the detonation of a bomb in some place where we have an economic, political or cultural interest (and nowhere else), but it can also mean a harrowing tale of misogyny or the gross violation of human rights. Suddenly we find an eruption of material presented to us, seeking to explain Muslims at home and abroad. No sustained, in-depth discussion of Muslim communities or contemporary Islamic thought precedes these attention-grabbing triggers because in the absence of a newsworthy event, the Muslim world is not deemed worthy of comment.

Little room exists in our public conversation for the dispassionate study of Islamic societies away from an environment of political turmoil. As long as this approach persists, we will never come to have a thorough, or even balanced grasp of Muslim societies. The context in which Islam and Muslims enter our thoughts is simply too compromised. That we have only ever come to study Islam in an environment of conflict necessarily colours our reading of it.

Thus we find books in the Islam section of our bookstores with titles such as Islam Exposed, Islam Revealed, or Islam and the Myth of Tolerance. Certainly, scriptural and religious criticism is welcome, but we cannot pretend these are works produced in a motivational vacuum. Like the Orientalist material they regurgitate, these works ride shotgun to a political agenda. You will find no equivalent titles in the Christianity or Judaism sections despite the fact that there is plenty of scriptural grist available for the polemical mill. You might, however, find similar material about Jews and Judaism in a bookshop that services aggressively anti-Israeli clientele.

The bandwagon of politically motivated polemic, it seems, rolls on.It is clear that the politicisation of a discourse naturally leads to the grotesque simplification of the subject matter. Most familiarly, we do this with our meaningless categorisation of political debate in terms of Left and Right; a binary so brilliantly dismantled by Andrew Kenny in an essay for The Spectator earlier this year, and re-published in The Australian. As Kenny notes, this often “replaced rational argument with a playground division into two gangs who understood nothing clearly except how much they hated each other”. Thus can the Muslim world, and Islam itself, become essentialised in a way that would be incomprehensible and unacceptable if done to our own societies and philosophies. The countless diverse nations, histories, traditions, languages, cultures and identities that inform the realities of Muslims all over the world are collapsed into one mental construct we call the world of Islam.

This is, of course, hopelessly false. A Muslim from sub-Saharan Africa has far more in common with a Christian from the same region than he or she might with a fellow Muslim from Uzbekistan. No doubt the religious identities of these people play an important part in shaping their respective world views, but it is intellectually reckless to make Islam the dominant reference point for analysing their behaviour. Human behaviour is far too complex to be understood so one-dimensionally.

In this light, and given that the Muslim world only enters our consciousness when something shockingly newsworthy draws our attention to it, we are naturally invited to consider such oppressive, criminal and antisocial behaviour and practices an inherent function of Muslim existence. When a Muslim does something evil, it is therefore because that is what Muslims are.

Thus, the practice of female genital mutilation becomes linked inextricably with Islam because of the practice of some Muslim communities. Any Muslim woman who frequently gives presentations about Islam will be asked to condemn the practice. The same is never asked of Christians, despite the fact that Christian tribes in places such as sub-Saharan Africa also engage in the same practice. We are too familiar with Christianity to essentialise it in the same way.

Similarly, suicide bombing becomes an “Islamic” phenomenon, despite the fact that Palestinian Christian priests have also praised it, and that it finds its genesis, and still the majority of its expression, in non-Muslim groups such as the Tamil Tigers. So, too, honour killing, which occurs among Hindu and Sikh families in the subcontinent, Christian families in the Middle East, and Italian and Greek migrant communities in Britain. The common thread has more to do with low socioeconomic class, feudalism and poor education than religion, but honour killings nevertheless feed into an essentialised discourse on Islamic misogyny far more often than they do a socioeconomic one.

None of this excuses the barbarism that exists in some Muslim societies. But it does indicate that too often we have not been serious in attempting to explain it, preferring instead to use news selectively to perpetuate and bolster our cliched narrative.

More locally, the same phenomenon could be observed in commentary surrounding the infamous Lebanese gang rapes in Sydney in 2001, much of which implied these crimes were an expression of Islamic misogyny. The abhorrent children overboard affair was only possible in an environment that facilitated a belief that Muslims were so primitive, so mischievous, so heartless as to risk drowning their own children for their own purposes. We must surely recognise this myth never could have been advanced about people we saw as reflections of ourselves.

It is lamentable that with the London blasts so freshly in the background, we seem incapable of anything more thoughtful. Indeed, the revelation that the suspected bombers were British-born and raised has only entrenched our approach.

Pamela Bone, for example, is moved to rethink multiculturalism, and in The Age last month, brought forth statistics about Muslim populations in Europe in support of her thesis that some cultures are simply incompatible with our own. And indeed, it might be true that some cultures are, nebulous though our culture is. But Bone's argument rests on several implicit assumptions that are typical of the essentialised discourse described above.

First, the use of European data in making an argument about Australia assumes the sociology of the two Muslim communities is readily transferable. This is an unjustified assumption. As an example, the Pakistani community in Australia is very different to its counterparts in Britain or the United States. But further, the historical interaction between the Muslim world and Europe has a long and often unpleasant history that creates its own social dynamics. The same cannot be said of Australia.

Secondly, in order to connect Bone's argument to the London bombings that inspired it, Bone must assume implicitly that the London bombings were the expression, not of criminality, but of a culture. Here, again, the evil actions of the Muslims in question proceed simply from who they are. No interest is shown in the individual psychology of the alleged bombers.

Perhaps their actions had more to do with some feelings of social alienation that were not specifically a function of culture, but of personality. Perhaps they were simply suicidal. Perhaps they fell into a cult, which again, is not a cultural phenomenon. We will never know because we do not bother asking.

Thirdly, Bone constructs her argument on examples of misogyny. This, of course has nothing to do with terrorism. But it has much to do with the Islamic caricature; where all manner of human behaviour is reduced to a singular concept of, in this case, culture. We are invited to conclude: these people are misogynists and terrorists, and we should not tolerate that culture.

Meanwhile, in The Australian, former National Party senator John Stone outlines six proposals to secure Australia from terrorist attack. One is a halt to Muslim immigration, that Stone asserts has “nothing to do with race, but everything to do with culture”. Stone makes the same assumptions as Bone, although he is more explicit in saying that “Islam has become a failed culture”.

One might be forgiven for concluding no barbarism has ever come from anyone within the dominant Australian culture. The difference, of course, is in how we understand the crimes in question. No one called for the reform of white Australian culture after the unspeakably gruesome Snowtown murders. We comprehend those crimes in human behavioural terms, unpacking the complex sociology and psychology beneath it: child abuse; humiliation; power; control; addiction.

But post-London, we still find nothing beyond our discourse of good and evil; of fundamentalist, militant, radical and moderate; of Islam and the West. We do not perceive our world as a human creation, so we have no human discourse to describe it. It might be tempting to believe the inhumanity of terrorism means terrorists are not human. Perhaps one day we will realise they are only too human and seek solutions accordingly. Until then, the clash of civilisations, which in reality is a clash of ignorance, must surely continue.

[Waleed Aly is an executive member of the Islamic Council of Victoria].

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