Frightening, isn't she?
Regular readers will know I am pretty much against generalisations – “all generalisations are false” being one of my favourite aphorisms – other than those that are supportable by the obvious empirical evidence, such as “The Republican Party have selected a bunch of vicious right wingers and idiots for people to choose from in 2012 and do not stand a snowball in hell’s chance of winning against Obama in November”.
One of the generalisations that worries me sick is the creeping fear of Muslims that plagues daily life in the West. Our leaders (whether in a political sense, or opinion formers) regularly use coded language – or not so coded – to keep us constantly on edge about the likelihood of a home-grown Muslim – whether we’re in America, Europe, or Australia – launching a terrorist attack in our backyard. It simultaneously plays to our best side – instinctive defence of family, stability, our community – and to our worst – fear of the unknown (or little known), fear of “other”, fear of those not like us.
There is no doubt that the world is in thrall to terrorism. But the numbers of cases of “home-grown” Muslims actually engaging in violence against the countries they now call home have been remarkably few, given the millions of people living next door to us who have contacts or family in the Middle East and Asian sub-continent, and who might well have reason to be aggrieved at some (not all) of our involvement in those regions.
Well now Professor Charles Kurzman, of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at the University of North Carolina, has released a report that found that radicalization among Muslim-Americans is “relatively low,” and has actually been on the decrease since 9/11.
Kurzman also points out that many of the suspects in 2011 “appeared to have been limited in competence.” In one arrest of a Muslim-American for terrorism-related charges, for example, Emerson Begolly, “a 21-year-old former white supremacist who converted to Islam and posted violent-sounding material on the Internet” was tricked by his mother into meeting with FBI agents outside of a restaurant. He then tried fight them off by biting them. In another case, on his way to attack a local Shia mosque, Roger Stockham bragged about the his plan to a bartender when he stopped in to a bar for a drink.
Kurzman notes that “The limited scale of Muslim-American terrorism in 2011 runs counter to the fears that many Americans shared in the days and months after 9/11, that domestic Muslim- American terrorism would escalate,” the report concludes. “The spike in terrorism cases in 2009 renewed these concerns, as have repeated warnings from U.S. government officials about a possible surge in homegrown Islamic terrorism. The predicted surge has not materialized.”
Blogger Emily Hauser notes that she wishes she “had a job that would justify me doing a comparative study of all the kinds of extremist violence perpetrated in this country on an annual basis. I’d like to see how, for instance, the 1 ,002 hate groups tracked by the Southern Law Poverty Center compare to extremist American Muslims (individuals or organizations).
If you’d like to know what most Muslims (American and non-) think about such extremism, I gathered some statistics and statements here (spoiler alert! They’re pretty solidly against it).”
Well done again, Emily.
Judging the Ainger awards, and what it’s got to do with this story
This year I was a judge at The Ainger public speaking competition in Melbourne for teenagers. It was not a debating competition, in that the speakers had to persuade us of their point of view – rather it was designed to see who could present their case lucidly, compellingly, and convincingly, whether or not we were convinced of the merits of their argument.
The notes for contestants were very specific. Rule one read:
“Speakers must choose their own topic which should be based on fact. It should be
presented in a manner that will cause an audience to take a greater interest in a topic which
may not appeal to them. In addition to the content, the speaker should use analogies,
anecdotes and the music of the language to illustrate and enhance the delivery. The
presentation should inform, interest and entertain. Take heed of Cicero’s advice: “Oft an
argument of greater merit will be defeated by an argument of lesser merit, which is better
It is worth noting, I think, that the winning speech (and including the heats, there were dozens of speeches on a huge variety of topics) came from a young Australian Muslim teenage girl in “Western” clothing and sans hijab who asked the audience – who were mainly white, Anglo, middle-aged, and slightly more men than women – in a voice that was carefully modulated and barely rising above a quiet and calming tone for her entire speech, to simply look with her at some of the facts surrounding Muslims in our society.
In particular, in the four minutes alloted to her, she asked us why we were so obsessed with the issue of the burka, when less than 2% of Muslim females wordwide wear it, when it is a cultural item not a religious one, and when the figure in Western countries was way lower than that anyway.
Why, she was asking, with incredible self-control, subtlety and courtesy, did we, as democratic-minded people in free societies with great traditions of tolerance, allow ourselves to be distracted, overwhelmed or misled by caricatures and bias against her, her family, and her co-religionists. Why are we so easily led astray by the shock jocks, and those who seek to divide us, not unite us? By those who prefer simplistic sloganeering to facts. She didn’t even ask us to change our minds, just to hear her out, and pause for a moment, and think.
As we listened to her questions – so gently presented, and yet with such urgent import – I looked around the audience, and I fell to thinking about how our societies had absorbed and benefitted from the flow of immigration from so many areas over the centuries.
I grew up in Britain – a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, starting with the Romans, the Saxons and Vikings, through the Normans and hundreds of other groups and cultures, up to the West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis of the 60s and 70s, and the Eastern Europeans and Africans of today.
America wouldn’t even exist as a nation state were it not for the exhortation “Send me your poor and huddled masses”, and, indeed, because of the vast influx of Africans brought across the Atlantic by the slave trade, and Hispanic migrants from the south.
Australia is the most racially mixed country on the planet – with the possible exception of Israel, but as that is also virtually a uni-religionist state it could be considered in a different category – and also one of the safest and most peaceful, and similarly would not exist in its current form were it not for a proud tradition of accepting and integrating immigrants from all over the world, and from widely varying cultural backgrounds.
As I listened, I pondered how those previous flows of immigration had been received by the host nations. And it struck me that they had often caused a degree of tension – the clashes between the Irish and Italians in New York, the anxieties over immigration in the UK when Enoch Powell predicted “rivers of blood” flowing down the streets, the dismissive attitudes of the mainly British and Irish local stock in Australia when they were confronted by a vast influx of southern Europeans in the 50s and 60s – those “wogs” who “smelled funny” and talked incomprehensibly – or again in the 80s and 90s with concerns over the Asian-isation of this wide brown land. And how those tensions always existed, and exist, and probably always will, but how over time they always invariably seem to disappear, as we learn about the incoming culture, and come to value its distinctive contribution to our suburbs and our streets.
When the Nazis began to wage war against the Jews, they used rhetoric and propaganda at first, then followed by action. On November 8, 1937 a propaganda exhibit entitled Der Ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew) opened which portrayed Jews as communists, swindlers and sex-fiends. Over 150,000 people attended the exhibit in just 3 days. Jews were frequently associated with communists and thieves. The Wandering Jew later became a notorious hate film, and associated the Jews with rats and other vermin.
And then I mused, at some length, about the Jews, and how they had been repeatedly marginalised and persecuted, and alternately embraced and celebrated, and then persecuted again, over hundreds of years. And how one of the major differences between the Jews and other immigrants was that they didn’t just believe different things, they often looked different, too, with their yarmulkes or kippas, and some of them with funny haircuts and weird black 19th century clothes, too. And how in Europe and Russia that meant they became such an easy target for us to foist our fears on – see any propaganda materials of the time to understand how difference in appearance played a major role in whipping up fear – so that we slaughtered tens of millions of utterly innocent men, women, and children, giving away our own humanity in the process. And I say “We” deliberately, because although it was the Tsarist Cossacks and then the Stalinists and then the Nazis who actually did the deed, it was the rest of Western society – including great chunks of the political establishment, the cultural leadership, and the opinion formers – who stood by and let them do it when a timely intervention could have stopped the madness before it ran entirely out of control.
And two things occurred to me.
No, I still don’t think women should wear the burka, because I remain to be convinced that anyone truly wears it out of choice but rather through fear and cultural imposition, and I think it is demeaning to their personal freedom not to be able to wear whatever they damn well please*, and it is representative of an antiquated and patriarchal view of the family and the world that I simply do not agree with. And I also believe it is active cruelty to expect an Afghan woman to walk along the streets of Melbourne on a thirty eight degree day swathed in black heat-absorbing cloth while her husband wanders along beside her in white shorts and a t-shirt.
And also that the matter has nothing to do with Muslims in general, who in the main are far more like me than they are unlike me, who love their children, and worry about their jobs, and want to live in a decent house, and go to the footy, and contemplate art, and most of all just want to be left alone to get on as best they can, and make a contribution to the country they now live in. And that every time I forget that, I am zipping my mouth shut in a manner that could one day lead to marginalisation, or pogroms, or worse – and will certainly not lead to a rapprochement between my country and the countries Muslim migrants have come from any time soon. And that if there is not a rapprochement, that the tiny number of terrorists who make our life a misery under the cloak of radical Islam will continue to kill themselves and others, as sure as night follows day.
Driving home that evening, I remembered a short story told by David Kossoff, who was a popular actor and writer-philosopher when I was just a boy, and a Jew who wrote movingly for Christian audiences in his best-seller “The Book of Witnesses”, (first published 1971 and still available, and a heart-warming read for followers of both cultures), who talked on radio one day about the foolishness of one side of society instinctively mistrusting another.
As a child of Russian-Jewish emigrés to London himself, he told with gentle charm the story of a young man who was walking home one night to his hut near the Jewish outskirts of a Russian town, pushing his bicycle, when a mounted sabre-wielding Cossack thundered around the corner of the street with clearly murderous intent, and bore down on a small group of Jews huddled in fear against the wall of a nearby building.
As the Cossack raised his sabre to strike, the young man interposed himself between him and the Jews and called out “What on earth do you think you are you doing?”
Momentarily nonplussed, the Cossack looked down, and cried out “It’s all the fault of the Jews!”
The young man shook his head, and spoke quietly. “No, my friend,” he said, “It is all the fault of the bicycle riders. It is me you should kill if you are angry.”
The Cossack peered at him in confusion, and asked “Why the bicycle riders?”
The young man shyly looked up at him and smiled gently, and murmured “Why the Jews?”
Kossoff doesn’t say if the young man was Jew or Gentile, and I like to think that omission was deliberate. And as I thought back to the faces of those in the audience listening to the quiet urging of a young girl who could not understand why we didn’t trust her and her family, I realised that one thing was stamped on the face of the listeners, almost universally.
It was shame.
And as I pulled into the driveway of my very ordinary suburban house, which just happens, by sheer coincidence, to be right next door to the home of a family of Muslims of Lebanese extraction – who seem just like my family except they drink tea when we would drink wine, and look healthier for it, too – I gave thanks to God, as I often do, for the innocent, naive honesty and passion of the young, and I made a mental promise to listen to them more intently and more respectfully, as I watch myself slide slowly but inexorably into ossified middle age, and beyond.
*This also means I accept their right to wear it, of course, if it is genuinely their choice and preference.