Waleed Aly could barely contain his anger. In his Monday column on Sydney’s protest, you could trace the hard edge of his incredulity. Typically, though, Aly’s frustration was elegantly transposed into a thoughtful and muscular piece. It was not, as Gerard Henderson argued in The Sydney Morning Herald, an apology for the thugs that transformed Hyde Park into a medieval tavern.
After detailing the illogic, hypocrisy and pre-modern vulgarity of Saturday’s fracas, Aly sketched a pitiful psychology:
That the Obama administration immediately condemned the film in the strongest terms doesn’t register… This is invisible to an audience of humiliated souls waiting desperately to be offended and conflate every grievance. Indeed, they need the offence. It gives them the chance to assert themselves so they can feel whole, righteous even. It’s a shortcut to self-worth.
Aly’s piece was important because it wedded emotion with nuance, a rare dynamic and one absent in Henderson’s predictable piece or the under-graduate alarmism of Liberal MP Cory Bernardi: “It is easy to dismiss the practices of the last week as the result of some crazy extremists. That is the convenient route for those who know very little about the fundamentalist Islamic agenda and understand little of their mission worldwide.”
It was also important because it intelligently went beyond another reiteration of “it was only a minority”. That it was only a minority is both true and bears repeating. That Saturday’s protest disgraced innumerable moderate Muslims is both true and important.
But, as true and important as this is, it is also inadequate. In saying “it was only a minority” the temptation is to place the full-stop there, ignoring or retarding a braver, fuller conversation about Islam in the West. Moderate, law-abiding Muslims must repeat the minority line too—and they are—but we mustn’t confuse this fact as the fullest expression of our response to Saturday’s protest.
In certain mouths, “it was only a minority” is an anaemic mantra. Did the left happily shrug off the white rioters of Cronulla with the same response?
Placing a full-stop at the end of “it was only a minority” prevents a hard discussion of the pronounced sensitivity of Muslims around the world. And that sensitivity is consistently more violently expressed in the Arabic region than any other. No conflagration of rape, torture and murder—as was the case in Libya last week—in response to a cartoon or movie is so numbingly predictable than there.
It depends upon who you speak to, though it shouldn’t. The honest response is a confusing one, the knots and complications unsatisfactory to cultural warriors like Henderson and Bernadi, as they are discomforting to Jacobin zealots who breathlessly seek to exonerate, explain or empathise with barbarity.
Let’s begin by distinguishing Islam from Islamism, it’s virulent and deformed cousin. As much as you might wish to believe that the hijackers of 9/11 or the nihilistic jackals of the London bombings were the human refuse of colonialism or occupation—rendered sick, poor and illiterate— they were, in fact, highly educated, multi-lingual adherents of a particularly warped idea: that death has more meaning than life.
If you don’t believe me, read their diaries. Study their background. Consider that most suicide bombers are more, not less, educated than their peers. Then read the statements of bin Laden, Sayyid Qutb or Ayatollah Khomenei, who don’t adopt geo-politics as the framework of their hate, but the absolute moral turpitude of the West.
And consider: the Ayatollah of Iran regards our life—our sentient existence, the multitude of moral, emotional and physical movements—as filth. Islam, the great cultural donor to our civilisation, has for a few, been perverted into a cult of nihilism. That’s Islamism. Now, feel free to blame the Great Satan for that deformity, if that’s the narrative that makes sense to you, but it’s ignorant and inadequate.
Waleed Aly wrote pointedly about the staggering illogic of Saturday’s protest—the fact that the protestors were the most effective publicists of the thing they hated; the strange tension between protesting the moral corruption of the West, while embracing them and enjoying its freedoms.
My favourite example of the irony and illogic of Islamism comes via Sayyid Qutb, philosophical godfather of al-Qaida. An Egyptian, Qutb came to resent the US presence in his homeland, considering the country as the quintessential essence of Satan—a perfumed whore, enticing and corrupting.
In 1949, Qutb made his own fact-finding mission to the Great Satan, landing in a tiny, God-fearing town called Greeley in the state of Colorado. Greeley was a dry town, and its most raucous socialising occurred at sock-hops in the basement of the local church. This was the world of Leave It to Beaver, but Qutb saw evil wherever he looked:
They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed against lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire.
Like Karl Pilkington in the comedy series An Idiot Abroad, Qutb, had an unlovely time in this most innocent of places. The American manner of drinking unsweetened tea was unthinkable, the local barber had “awful taste” (emblematic, he thought, of America’s uneasy relationship with elegance), while jazz was the “music that the savage bushmen use to satisfy primitive desires”.
But Qutb’s reports on the US weren’t comprised solely of sour riffs. He was happy to blend lies and laziness. Here’s American journalist Robert Seigel:
He informed his Arab readers that it [American history] began with bloody wars against the Indians, which he claimed were still underway in 1949. He wrote that before independence, American colonists pushed Latinos south toward Central America—even though the American colonists themselves had not yet pushed West of the Mississippi… Then came the Revolution, which he called “a destructive war led by George Washington”.
Much of this would be funny, if Qutb’s frustrations and misgivings weren’t psychotically transposed into his redefining jihad as an offensive struggle for Islam (as opposed to its traditional—and far more common—definition of the private struggle of reconciling oneself with God), a theological deformity which Al-Qaida enthusiastically adopted.
The irony here is that Qutb spoke of the West’s “hideous schizophrenia”—its separation of Church and State—but the real schizophrenia seems to rest with the young firebrand Muslim men who seek the freedoms of the West but can’t reconcile themselves with their seduction.
To be fair, local circumstances of poverty or tyranny can’t be theoretically expunged by the commentator—but the left’s insistence that Islamism is the sole result of imperial subjugation is too neat, too selective, too ignorant.
Let’s be honest: fundamentalist Muslims do not pose a threat to Australia. Let’s relax the lofty, inflammatory “clash of civilisations” rhetoric, but understand that visceral disgust at declarations of beheading is unimpeachably okay.
But I think we’re stronger than responding with our fists—flexible, tolerant, refined. It is also incumbent upon Muslim communities to stress the distinction between Islam and Islamism, and to call out extremist leaders. The grubby, Bronze-Aged Sheik Hilaly comes to mind.
As much as Gerard Henderson and Cory Bernardi might enjoy the idea of their participating in some grand, cosmic war between the Enlightenment and Barbarism, we need to look at Lekemba as much as Mecca. What particular circumstances do we find? That is the business of local religious leaders.
And to certain left activists: your blind spots, selective muteness and friction points between competing ideas are shockingly obvious. You can theoretically separate the campaigns of multiculturalism, social equality and freedom of speech, but it means nothing if you can’t admit the difficulties when those three streams intercede in the real world. Fundamentalist Islam is such a case, and it’s a rude reminder of the limitations of the particular mantras we repeat to ourselves.
We can condemn irrationality and violence, while recognising that it’s Muslim communities that must untangle the knots of aggression of some of its men. And let’s call things as they are, admitting that none of our frameworks for explaining our tiny, glorious, sentient existence is ever satisfactory—but we joyously choose life over death.