Monday, 17 September 2012

On militant Islamism: the sickness we dare not name

A child is standing in a park. As his well-dressed mother looks on, the boy holds aloft a placard for a nearby photographer to snap. The placard says: 'Behead all those who insult the prophet'. This is not Fallujah, Basra or Cairo. This is Sydney.
            The 'protests' which took place on Saturday in the city's CBD were an echo of worldwide events sparked by a film made by Californian man Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. The film, uploaded to YouTube but, of course, little seen by its critics, purportedly depicts the prophet Muhammad as a womaniser and child molester. In the eyes of the film's most deranged opponents, Nakoula is guilty of a crime worse than murder. Last week, the US ambassador to Libya and three other consulate officials were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. In Sydney, the violence saw a spate of arrests, violent assaults and attacks on police. One brave soul, heard to denounce the use of religion as a justification for murder, had to be rescued by police from an angry mob which pelted him with sticks and bottles.
            Responses to the violence from world leaders, and here the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, came thick and fast and were predictably spineless. Why, for example, was it necessary for Barack Obama to preface his condemnation of the murders in Benghazi by saying that it is wrong for people to 'denigrate' religion? To denounce both the criticism of religion and murder in the same breath is to meaningfully equate the two. Nothing will give greater succour to the lunatic Islamists who murdered Christopher Stevens, and who will happily thrust placards calling for the death of unbelievers into the hands of children. It is not enough to condemn the kind of violence and hate-mongering seen in Sydney as though it has no cause or supposed justification; it is the poisonous ideology of Islamic fascism which brought about the violence, and which ought to have been attacked by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
            The NSW Premier, Barry O'Farrell, was equally reticent to spell it out, defending the protestors' rights to speak freely, yet failing to point up the ludicrousness of the protest itself. It is, I think, worth dwelling on this point for a moment. Nobody in government, it seemed, had many qualms about writing off the significance of the Occupy protests which sprung up throughout the country earlier this year. Many commentators dismissed the 99% movement as a rabble without a cause. Cogent, and genuinely held, concerns about increasing inequality and the rise of an all-powerful financial and political elite were glibly derided by just anybody in a position of, well, financial and/or political power. In contrast, neither O'Farrell nor Gillard nor Abbott could bring themselves to state the bleeding obvious: that for an Islamist to 'protest', in Australia, against a film made by a Coptic Christian American which in all likelihood they have not watched and is freely available on the internet for anyone to view, is surpassingly stupid.
            Overseas, responses to the protests have been even more tremulous. Most bizarre of all has been the reaction of the Coptic Christian Church which has sided with the bleaters and murderers by denouncing the film as 'part of a wicked campaign against religions, aimed at causing discord among people'. The Church has pledged solidarity with its 'brotherly Muslims'. It's a truly abhorrent coalition: two disparate churches united in their support of coldblooded killers, even as they decry societal disharmony. It's a very sick, and very unfunny joke.
            If the only riposte 'free' Western nations can offer to militant Islamism is to say that it is wrong to criticise religion, but it is wrong to murder people too, then we are failing utterly in our duty to uphold and defend the civil liberties which we claim as our great gift to ourselves, and to the world. As Nick Cohen pointed out in You Can’t Read This Book, these freedoms are not in fact our gift but our inheritance; we can never stop fighting for them because the battle is always never quite won. It is a battle we stand no chance of winning if, every time Islamic fascists murder a diplomat or march through the streets of Sydney, we respond by somehow dignifying their insane justification for violence – namely, that religion should not be allowed to be scrutinised by anyone, anywhere.
Even ABC News 24 ran reports of the protest in which it was uncritically stated that opponents of Nakoula’s film had claimed it 'insulted' Islam. No source was given. It should not need pointing out that it is both conceptually and semantically wrong to suggest a religion can be 'insulted'. Australia's national broadcaster ought to know better. It is – in its small, pernicious way – another victory for the maniacs and murderers who hold that human life is no more valuable than a few minutes of film.
An even greater failure is continuing to take place within the mainstream media. Two days after the violence in Sydney, reports are focusing on the 'cause' of the protest – not militant Islamism, but social media. A Google search reveals headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Courier Mail like this: 'Sydney protest organised over social media'; 'Islamic protest in Sydney linked to SMS'. Bashing Facebook and Twitter, fast becoming a national sport, wins out over proper analysis into the root causes of the violence.
It is not smart phones which empower Islamic militancy in this country, but our collective failure to identify and condemn it. Fear of the price of inaction against this militancy – and not that of upsetting a few 'moderate' Muslims – should govern our response to this sickness in our society which would have children call for murder, and censor not only our right to talk, to write and to create but even our right to think.


  1. Wouldn't you agree that there's something to be said for exercising caution at times like these, Ben, rather than decisively moving to fuel the fire in the belief that because we have the moral high ground, it doesn't even matter if we're misinterpreted in our reaction and used as an easy excuse to carry on this conflict? I realise that we could forever attempt to second-guess what religious fanatics could possibly take as an unforgiveably offensive gesture and then be paralysed through fear of violating political correctness; this is something that I never want to see happen in this country (much less the censorship that you discuss the possibility of in the last paragraph; free speech must apply to ALL, including those whom I may consider my enemies, as well as any whose views I despise and reject), but I can't say that I agree with taking the kind of decisive stand against the perpetrators as you would like to have seen.

    I agree that investigation into root causes should be the priority here, but I would also suggest that even if Facebook was being 'bashed', I imagine it can cope. I don't envisage any serious calls for (and certainly no serious prospects of) it being banned in this country on the basis of it being used to stir up trouble (even violent trouble) in this way. Maybe the media was concentrating on a lazy and ultimately useless angle, but what you may call a cowardly tactic on their part, I would suggest was a prudently cautious one.

    "It should not need pointing out that it is both conceptually and semantically wrong to suggest a religion can be 'insulted'. Australia's national broadcaster ought to know better." It is all well and good to state this as your opinion, but clearly there are a number of people who disagree or just plain can't comprehend that point-of-view of religion (I don't know how many, or how much weight their opinion deserves to be given, but they clearly exist, and I don't think they can all simply be dismissed as foolish or ignorant, at least not without engaging them in calm discussion first.)

    For what it's worth, I am prepared to admit that I personally was raised with exposure to Uniting Church teachings and values in my childhood, but today I generally don't either dismiss or embrace moderate religion of any sort. I am not an extreme person by nature, and I reject without reservation the idea that extremism should hold any sway in Australian life or politics.

    What if it's not 'Islamism' per se (at least not 'rational' Islamism) that's ultimately fuelling these violent protests, so much as general feelings of disenfranchisement and ostracisation? I am not saying that Muslims who choose to settle in Australia and to embrace a violent and extremist worldview (in contrast to what I'm confident are the majority of moderate Muslims) should be considered blameless victims beyond reproach (on the contrary; if they wish to live here and enjoy the benefits of what Australia has to offer, I believe they should be made to understand and abide by the values that the majority of our nation's population hold dear, as well as WHY we hold those values), but I think that the kind of understanding of each other that all who hold differing religious views (or no religious views at all except generally negative ones) should be aiming to achieve will not be reached if our politicians respond as you would wish them to. What you would see as 'backbone', I'd be more inclined to view as closer to 'antagonism', just at the point when those of us who have been keeping cool heads all along should ideally be seen to keep doing exactly that, while at the same time seeking to get to the heart of the matter with respect and a sense of diplomacy.

  2. You seem to be setting up a bit of a false dichotomy here, Anthony, with 'tolerance' at one end and 'antagonism' at the other. The idea of toleration is a slippery one, and I think you overstate the case for it. I've argued in other forums that we tolerate the disgusting and dangerous ideas perpetuated by organised religion (as well as the secular defences of these ideas) at our peril. Why, in any case, should the Australian community 'tolerate' a diseased ideology which does not tolerate investigation, let alone even the mildest of criticisms? It is the religious zealots who equate scrutiny with antagonism, and I think it would be a mistake to give credit to that perverse way of thinking.

    Your last paragraph is a good summation of the standard left-liberal line on this issue in Australia at the moment. My problem with it is that I have yet to see anybody directly involved in the original protests articulate this. Many intelligent commentators in the press (both Muslim and non-Muslim) have projected their own thoughts on Muslim disenfranchisement and US imperialism onto the events in Sydney, and I think I have a right to be deeply suspicious about this. I think we should - indeed, must - have a broad and unfettered debate about US foreign policy and its often disastrous effects on Muslim populations worldwide, but we are fooling ourselves if we think a handful of Islamic fascists can have a useful role to play in that debate. These are people who say they will behead you and me because we do not believe in their god. Is this an idea that we should 'tolerate'?

    We are at a dangerous juncture now. The fact that the introduction of laws prohibiting blasphemy is now being mooted at the UN shows that concessions are already being made to the extremists who would, if they could, curtail not just what we can say and write but what we can think. Free speech must be protected, and we cannot allow it to become the plaything of militant ideologues. We all have the right to protest - and the right to say that a protest is vile, brainless and contrary to the majority values of a nation.