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Feb 1, 2011

Muslims don't fit into a simple left v right debate

Last week Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan fed the idea that Islam is a monolithic entity that's fundamentally incompatible with western values. That's what's wrong with the current debate about Islam, says writer and filmmaker Ruby Hamad.


Last week Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan took up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians and their persecution by a portion of the Muslim majority and in doing so, fed the idea that Islam is a monolithic entity that’s fundamentally incompatible with western values.

In a piece entitled “As the left sides with Muslims, Christians search for support” Sheehan began by referencing a rally held in Martin Place a fortnight ago, recalling a, “medieval…forest of crucifixes sprouted among a sea of earnest faces that would look comfortable on ancient coins.” The rally, “drawn from a broader Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora,” was protesting the current wave of terrorist attacks targeting Christians in the Middle East.

Sheehan boasted of the three Liberal MPs who spoke whilst scorning Labor’s single attendee Greg Donnelly, who was representing Premier Kristina Keneally.

Referring to Labor as, “the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence,” Sheehan chastises the PM for not preparing a statement, and calls the absence of a Greens representative “predictable.”

Accusing both the Gillard government and the Greens of siding “with Muslims” against Christians, Sheehan  concludes, “support for Labor is showing signs of disintegrating among Australians who take discrimination against Christians seriously.”

This is what’s wrong with the current debate about Islam. Namely the suggestion that, lacking the nuances of Christianity, Islam is a monolithic entity that is fundamentally incompatible with western values.

Whilst making much of the recent attacks against Egypt’s Copts, Sheehan fails to mention that after the New Year’s Day attack in Alexandria which killed 23 people; thousands of Muslims marched with their Christian compatriots against the radical threat.

Many even formed human shields outside churches to allow worshipers to celebrate the Coptic Christmas without the fear of attack.

Sheehan is correct in denouncing violence against Christians. But his failure to acknowledge the support that some Muslims are providing the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians is dishonest.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as this view very often emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

By reflexively denouncing everything from opposition to Park 51 to questioning the place of the burqa in modern society, western leftists are also treating Islam as a monolith and denying Muslims the opportunity to debate these issues themselves.

But when Sheehan simplifies a complex problem by saying, “the left sides with Muslims,” he simultaneously demonises all Muslims and undermines efforts by liberal Muslims to counter the extremism that threatens to engulf them.

His comments also diminish the efforts of those Tunisians who have forced a dictator from his lofty perch. Their revolution has ignited dissent in neighbouring Algeria, Yemen and Egypt, also struggling under authoritarian regimes.

These are not Islamist uprisings, in fact, these dictators held onto power largely by pointing to the radicals waiting in the wings. Like Iran’s failed Green Revolution they are protests by Muslims who don’t seek to replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one, but who crave freedom. Since when has freedom being incompatible with western values?

Those who denounce Islamic ideology as ‘medieval’ would do well to note that the golden age of Islam was actually in the Middle Ages, when art and literature flourished. Muslim women, not yet driven behind the veil, enjoyed rights that were unseen in the west until the 20th century.

While Muslims were excelling in science and mathematics, the Catholic Church was torturing heretics and burning ‘witches’ at the stake.

Fundamentalist Islam is a modern construct, a reaction to secularism and western hegemony. The way to counteract its growing influence is not by decrying Islam itself as evil, but nor is it by dismissing all criticism of it as racist.

It is time for secular and other liberal Muslims in this country to be a given a louder voice, for in the polarising Us v Them framework that Sheehan champions, they are the biggest casualty. Conservative Muslims far outnumber seculars and liberals, and the gulf between them- both in numbers and ideological position -is growing.

But as long as some western voices continue to assume Muslims are homogenous, and other western voices respond by defending fundamentalism at the expense of dissent, then the voices of progressive Muslims who seek to alter their negative image in the west, as well fight the growing radicalisation in their midst are marginalised into irrelevancy.


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24 thoughts on “Muslims don’t fit into a simple left v right debate

  1. Lorry

    It is hard to be inclusive when

    a) you have black hooded ghosts terrifying children in shopping centres.
    b) you view the world through a letter box slit
    c) you don’t respect your women
    d) you don’t respect all women
    e) all non muslim women are referred to as “cat meat”

  2. paddy

    Well put Ruby.
    Which is more than can be said of Crikey’s latest and lamest troll.
    (It’s almost as though Sheehan has grown wheels and a sprouted a loud hailer from the cabin roof. But then perhaps it’s the heat making my imagination run wild.)

  3. Lorry

    Post script to my previous comment –
    f) How can you have “Secular Muslim” – what the? do they not pray 5 times per day or hide their beliefs? In the words of a famous Aussie red head “please explain” ?

  4. MichaelT

    I certainly agree that we need to move the debate away from these ‘us v them’, ‘Christians v Islam’, ‘L v R’ simplifications.

    If we have to take sides, we should consistently take the side of tolerance v repression, and support people of all fiaths to go down this path.

  5. El Tel

    Lorry, does your mummy know you’re using the computer.

  6. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Way to frame the debate, Lorry. You have obviously got an axle to grind. Don’t keep us in suspension.

  7. t-f-u

    Where are the voices of these liberal, progressive Muslims when their brethren are screaming for the deaths of Danish cartoonists, or murdering Theo Van Gogh, or committing myriad other atrocities? Islam does not seem very compatible with Western values, particularly freedom of speech.

  8. ruby

    Thanks for commenting everyone.

    Lorry- a secular Muslim is a Muslim who believes religion and politics should be kept separate. In other words, not all Muslims want shariah law. There are also many people of Muslim background that are not religious necessarily, but who still feel connected to their heritage. Just like ‘cultural Catholics’ and ‘secular Jews.’

    TFU- As I write this literally millions of Muslims are getting ready to risk their lives to march for the right to free speech. Islam is not incompatible with western values. Fundamentalist Islam is. But then that also goes for fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Judaism. That’s the entire point of my article. For too long, the focus has been on fundamentalists. It’s time to refocus.

  9. Roberto Tedesco

    Paul Sheehan is a loon. A loon with a weekly column in which to parade his prejudices.

  10. klewso

    Sometimes the only thing standing between a man and his god, is his religion!

    Grab one of these “Muslim extremists”, shear the beard, “take off his tea-towel”, bit of a “paint job” – leave the gibberish – and what have you got? One more of these “crash test dummy shock-jocks” inciting us the same way “they” do “them”, more often than not, through “fantasy”. “We’re” supposed to be different.
    Considering the shop front exposure these “journo’s” get for what they do, playing up those prejudices we all have (usually with crap), is there any wonder this fear of others so rampant in our communities, now?
    When do we get the chance to hear from the more moderate, tempered, with “facts”, from their limited resources?

    “Myriad atrocities”? “Western values”?
    Like “Jews”? “Aborigines”? “Native Americans” (“upstairs” and “down”)? “Africans”? In Vietnam, India? “Yugoslavia”? Russia? Iraqi’s, or any one of those other “non-Christian/other Christian savages”?
    How many of these “Islam” governments, in all their “barbarity”, have been sponsored, propped up, aided and abetted, by that very “West” – enraging their own people too?

    It’s a pity we can’t build a tower each, put these “hell raisers” from both sides in them and let them shout at each other across that chasm they’ve created and maintain – meanwhile the rest of us can get on with our lives, down here on the ground.
    I don’t think those “differences” would be all that different.

  11. Kerri Worthington

    To answer T-F-U’s question, they’re telling any one who’ll listen that they abhor that kind of behaviour. Trouble is, no-one wants to listen.

  12. Daniel

    Lorry, aren’t all trucks by definition irreligious?

  13. AR

    The reformation of state/church paradign in Europe began in the 16thC.
    Islam is approaching that age – bring it on.

  14. Norman Hanscombe

    It’s interesting to see how Sheehan’s words are ‘misunderstood’ by the bigots who project their own sort of True Believer blinkered thinking onto him. Perhaps he’s simply too bright for them to understand what he was saying? After all, clearly his Poster Paladin supporters don’t do too well in the nuance stakes.

    Of course there are moderate Muslims. Why, in some countries it’s even safe for them to speak out. That’s usually in a non-Muslim country, of course; but if we want to be seen as ‘progressives’ we shouldn’t make that sort of prejudiced distinction, should we. In Australia, when the Auburn-based Muslims decided to hold a seminar at Sydney University on the anniversary of 9/11, in an effort to bring together Muslims, Jews and Gentiles to discuss how such events could be avoided in the future if there were greater understanding of why we should work together for a better world in which ALL faiths were more tolerant about each other, the organisers came under vicious sectarian attack.

    Was it Jews who attacked them? No, and in fact there was a rabbinical component in the day’s programme.

    Was it Roman Catholics who attacked them? No, and in fact there were both R.C. and non R.C. clergy participating.

    It wasn’t even wicked atheists, many of whom were participating.

    The attack came from that Palace of Peace, the Lakemba Mosque, domain of the spiritual leader who has told us that women with short skirts are pieces of meat who cause ‘good’ lads to do what ‘good’ lads do when they’re severely insulted by being forced to see those short skirts — and that’s his good side. The Lakemba Mosque’s spokesman for the attack in the media [the Lakemba Mosque could never condone such an outrageous thing as a spokeswoman] was well-known conciliator, Trad Kayser. Trad bucketed the idea in as good an example of True Believer style you’d ever want to see — or, perhaps, NOT want to see?

    But Trad is flexible. Not in a positive sense, of course, but nevertheless flexible. Trad saw the light (or should that be saw the opportunity?) and recanted, saying his position had changed, and he now wanted to speak at this event. I imagine the organisers were delighted. I know from what happened they were certainly deceived. On the day, Trad turned up and gave his usual attack on anyone not blindly following the lead of the Lakemba Luddites.

    Of course Trad doesn’t represent ALL Australian Muslims. He does, however, represent the thinking of Sydney’s most influential Mosque, a Mosque from which a man who was saved from what many believe to have been a well-deserved deportation order, and consequently has spent many years using his title to preach policies which are anathema to the overwhelming majority of Australians.

    And that wicked Sheehan has the audacity to suggest we could face problems in the years ahead? Why doesn’t he look at Denmark to see how wrong he is? Oooops! On reflection I can see that looking at what happened in Denmark (even if you’re not a fan of satirical cartoons) mightn’t help very much — if at all. If only the more fanatical Muslims had a policy that what happens in Denmark stays in Denmark — but even the most ‘progressive’ of ‘progressives’ knows that’s not true.

    I need a coffee now, and fortunately it’s a problem that’s easily fixed — which sadly can’t be said about the problems Sheehan’s detractors have?

  15. Lorry

    To RUBY

    Islam is more than just a religion, it is a way of life and secular Muslim is an oxymoron. On the other hand there are many secular Jews (“cultural Catholic”? Where did that came from?) as with any other race/nationality. People of Muslim background who are no longer religious are guilty of Apostasy and can face severe punishment including death, even in a newly liberated and “enlightened” Afghanistan.

  16. atticusdash

    Sheehan has suffered from the erosion of the last vestiges of his lost Catholic faith, and it continues to inform the prism with which he approaches all things ideological. Most notable have been his dog whistle coverage of some particular (and horrific) Sydney rapes that involved boys of Islamic background. They were horrible, and it would have been thoroughly laudable if it were only that he was seeking justice for the damaged girl. The unspoken suggestion, however, was always that anglo-christian boys don’t do that.

    In the meantime any slow news week will see a diatribe about the evils of the left, and the Greens in particular, whom he sees as not really a political party – mostly, it seems, because they’re green and not conservative.
    He managed to upbraid electors of federal independents for ‘getting it wrong’, claiming they really meant to vote conservative and that therefore Tony Abbott was our true and chosen PM.

    Now he claims the left is for Islamic fundamentalism, and the right for defence of a beleaguered Christianity.

    It doesn’t really do to take him seriously as a commentator. He is more a kind of Liberal Party publicity spin doctor, a la Henderson and Devine, or Bolt and Albrechtson if you’re in Melbourne.

  17. MichaelT

    To my mind most of the comments reinforce Ruby’s line of argument. The last thing we should do is think of Islam as the enemy. The enemy is indeed fundamentalism.

    It is true that Islam is going through a phase where the fundamentalist elements are the loudest and are causing the most problems.

    But instead of going to war (even rhetorically) against the whole Islamic world, our response should be to encourage the Islamic world to return to a more enlightened phase, similar to its golden age many centuries ago.

  18. Robert Smith

    Well argued Ruby Hamad.

    To all those who doubt the sheer variety in Muslim faith and behaviour I have a simple recommendation–meet and work with more Muslims.

  19. Norman Hanscombe

    Atticusdash, I presume you’re unaware that the Lakemba Mosque mentality insisted it wasn’t the poor boys’ fault? In a sense they were correct. Long before the ‘evil’ media took it up the genuinely evil media IGNORED police reports about organised ‘middle eastern’ gangs raping girls in that area. One brief mention was made in a local paper about the manner in which the groups boarded late-night almost empty trains, placed a cockatoo at each end of a carriage in which a lone female was travelling, and raped her.

    Since the multiculturally sensitive media never made this an issue, one can understand why those young Muslim men concluded it was all right to do it in Australia? I imagine, though, that you never experienced talking, to example, to a young woman in Campsie who needed to arrange for her father or brother to be at the station when she was arriving home after the major shops had closed? Were all Muslim males bhaving like this? Of course not. But the problems Sheehan raises (in far less unsophisticated terms than you interpret them) DO exist. Possibly his Catholic links [whatever they were/are] prevent you from thinking clearly — or is that ‘skill’ more general? Thank God [not that I think there is one] Sheehan’s articles, on the odd occasions I get to read them, are a product of his intellect and not yours.

    I wasn’t aware that he (as you assert) was saying, “ the left is for Islamic fundamentalism, and the right for defence of a beleaguered Christianity”, but while that would be an over-simplification, there has been a tendency for those who SEE themselves ‘on the left’ to be more likely to blindly back one side in disputes such as Palestine, while the right tend to have a somewhat similar tendency to fall in behind Israel. I’m surprised (even when one allows for your blinkered prejudices) that you haven’t picked up that correlation.

    MichaelT, clearly can’t cope with the complexities, so he’s right in settling for simpler interpretations. But he at least seems to understand that there is a fundamentalist “phase”, and that’s a start. It would be nice were Islam to return to its “enlightened phase, similar to its golden age many centuries ago”, although having in light of its subsequent descent, I can understand why MichaelT doesn’t seem especially optimistic about that prospect.

    Robert Smith, I can only assume, hasn’t had the good fortune to “meet and work” with Trad & Co?

  20. atticusdash

    The Lakemba mosque MENTALITY? Really?
    I’m sorry I haven’t recognized Sheehan’s supposed brilliance – you did read his take on the elections, right? – and I flat out admit that I don’t understand what you mean by suggesting that HIS catholic links prevent ME from thinking clearly.

    The title of Sheehan’s article was ‘As the left sides with Muslims, Christians search for support’. In it he states that ‘the left has consistently made common cause with political Islam, an embrace of reactionary intolerance’. I disagree that the tendency of left/right is a Palestinian/Israeli divide, since the far right is awash with anti-semitism, the far left with anti-most things. But leaving aside extremists, the divide is much more likely one of self determination versus security, and just which is more important varies from state to state, as the events in Egypt are about to instruct us.

    It is a fundamental tenet of the right that security (and stability) are of paramount importance. Otherwise how do you explain the opposition to government interference on issues like healthcare or financial regulation against the insistence on massive government spending on the military and police?

    Sheehan was quite clear in his branding of Labor as ‘the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence’. The point I was making was that Sheehan is highly partisan, and that it is not contained to this single article about Muslim tolerance. Sheehan hits every single conservative issue on the neo-con side, right down to the mocking of climate change action. He is, as I have said, not a legitimate commentator deciphering the news for those less brilliant than himself, but a completely predictable partisan creature.
    Roll on Wikileaks.

  21. Norman Hanscombe

    Atticus, if you weren’t always in such a dash, you might understand what’s being said better. And are you really so unaware of the vast differences between the Lakemba and (say) Auburn mentalities [with OR without capitalisation? It’s a wonder, lacking even that insight, you feel able to comment at all. As for your claimed inability to understand I suspected your attitudes towards Catholicism, be they negative or positive, could have influenced how you ‘interpreted’ anything Sheehan wrote, that is a puzzle, although I’m fairly confident that if you think about it again, the penny should drop. I’m sure though that I suggested any “brilliance” on Sheehan’s part, as he wouldn’t need that status to be ahead of most of his pseudo-critics would he. Either way, you should try to remember that the status of brilliance doesn’t rely (as you appear to believe) on whether or not a writer agrees with you.

    I shan’t try to sort out your confused notions of the trends which tend to be found across current l\’left’ vs ‘right’ groupings, but it’s a tad more complex than your portrayal, even if your interpretation does throw light on your reaction to Sheehan, including your diversion into what he wrote about other issues un-related to this thread.

    It’s interesting that you even trot out climate change. My awareness of the effects of burning non-renewable fossil fuels goes back a long way, possibly even before you were born, and it wasn’t a recent discovery even then. I also attempted to raise the issue in the 70s, but the issue was rejected by (hard as this may nowadays be to believe) the Tasmanian greens. They hadn’t a catchy phrase like “greenhouse gases” to rally their troops, so it wasn’t relevant to them. Nowadays, when you look at the sorts of intellectually bereft nonsense trotted out by vocally assertive Climate Change True Believers, can you really blame journalists for having fun mocking them?

    Finally, I suggest you look up “legitimate” in the dictionary. It doesn’t mean agreeing with you. Unless, perhaps, if your Bible is Wikileaks?

  22. atticusdash

    No, what I don’t understand is your sentence:
    ‘Possibly his Catholic links [whatever they were/are] prevent you from thinking clearly…’
    It doesn’t make sense, my friend. His catholic links have no bearing on the clarity of my thought. They can only affect his thought.

    And I ‘m not sure where you get the idea that I’ve equated ‘brilliance’ with either (dis)agreement or legitimacy, as you imply. I’m merely pointing out that Sheehan is partisan. And that I don’t think he’s particularly clever. And that there is no sense of fun at all in his mocking. He is a furiously serious grumpy old man given to sweeping statements. I’m not saying I don’t tend the same way, either, but I don’t collect a cheque under the pretence that what I do is news. What he does is Opinion, and has no more validity as such than anyone else’s. Except that his position might (according to the principles of ethical journalism – and they have them) come with the moral duty to opine reasonably across the divide, and not always side with the dog whistling right. On EVERYTHING, regardless of its merits.

    Personally I am meticulously centrist. I make my electoral decisions based on policy.
    It’s not interesting that I trot out climate change at all. It’s simply an issue of our times. What’s interesting is Sheehan’s inability to engage it beyond the intellectual level of Lord Monckton. Like Tony Abbott, he just thinks it’s crap. It’s the lack of sophistication that’s offensive.

  23. Norman Hanscombe

    Atticusdash, if you GENUINELY can’t understand that a person’s reactions to someone can be influenced by the first person’s attitudes about the latter’s [present OR past] religious affiliations, whatever success you may enjoy in other fields, whatever you do, don’t try to understand human nature.

    I CAN understand why you’re confused by a reference to how so many of our species base their evaluations not so much on the material per se, as whether they endorse the conclusions. Don’t feel bad if you fall into that category, as you’d be far from alone. Just continue to label articles brilliant or not brilliant in terms of your prejudices, and you’ll never notice it. I’m not sure it would be worthwhile discussing ethics, as it’s a far less simplistic matter than many believe, but if you think you’re on a good theory, follow the advice of that old fly-spray ad, and be happy sticking to it.

    With regard to your protest that, “It’s not interesting that (you) trot out climate change”, you have a point. Reading your latest comments, I should have said it’s understandable. But try to put your prejudices aside, and you may one day realise that it’s the material of both the Lord Moncktons AND the Al Gores of the world whose intellectual values deserve closer scrutiny.

    Good luck.

  24. atticusdash

    omg. you just don’t listen, do you norman? you just go right on typing as though there’s no one else involved. in your ‘versation’. you don’t seem to get the ‘con’ bit.


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