STIRRING THE MELTING POT
When considering the ‘Muslim question’, we could do with a lot more history and a little more humour, writes Miriam Cosic
THERE are times when non-Muslims in the Western world must be heartily sick of the M-word. It’s bad enough we have to be kept abreast of all the murderous goings-on in their world, but they also insert their concerns into ours: the possibility of sharia law; the entombment of women (our fellow citizens) in walking shrouds; the criminal disaffection of their youth; how we should write and think in such a way that it doesn’t offend them, even if they feel free to offend us; not to mention the ever-present threat of terrorism on our home turf. If only we in Australia, for example, could return to the Anglo-Celtic tranquillity of the good old days.
The problem with this mental groove is that, apart from lacking any sympathy or sense of justice, and from muddling who is “us” and who is “them” in the thoroughly melted melting pot that is most of the West today, it denies several hundred years of history. Muslims and Europeans have been mixing it, often to surprisingly fruitful long-term cultural effect, through centuries of ebb and flow: the Arab conquest of Spain, the Crusades, the waves of Turkish offensives lapping up through the Balkans to the gates of Vienna, and endless, especially British, meddling in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent.
Trade, too, brought the civilisations together: the Silk Road and the spice routes have straddled Asia, northeast Africa and Europe since Graeco-Roman times and created a metaculture in which people understood each others’ traditions and rubbed along easily enough in the polyglot communities that served that commerce.
Most seriously, this groove ignores the incalculable disproportion between the effect of some non-Westerners moving to Western countries for a better life today, even with the inevitable cultural friction that may arise, and the totalitarian repression Europeans spread through most of the rest of the world through the era of colonisation, starting with Spanish expansion in the late 16th century and culminating in a frenzy of competitive annexation 300 years later.
Anyone who has seen the National Theatre of Scotland’s magnificent play Black Watch will remember the potted history of the battalion, with its snapshot updates of military costume, including 19th-century expeditions to Egypt, World War I forays into Palestine and Mesopotamia, El Alamein in World War II, and involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade. What the hell were generation after generation of poor Scottish lads doing in those places? When “we” went to “their” world, we didn’t go cap-in-hand looking for a job, an education or political asylum. We went in, with our own working class as cannon fodder, to wage war, to conquer and to exploit.
The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror
By Arun Kundnani Verso, 327pp, $29.99
Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia
Edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren Allen & Unwin, 192pp, $18.99
How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position
By Tabish Khair Corsair, 208 pp, $24.99
Well, one might say, the Ottomans weren’t so kind to the Christian vanquished either. Yet even infidel children abducted into the Janissaries could rise to dizzying heights of power through its ranks. The particular hubris of Europeans was racial superiority, a biological construct that no amount of education in, or even passionate subscription to, the dominant values of empire could ever surmount.
Some theorists, including Hannah Arendt in the first two books of her masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, consider the Holocaust a coming home to roost of the racial policies imperial Europe put in place as it fanned out across the globe. Yet even she underplayed those extraterritorial horrors, as if the real denouement took place in Europe in the 1940s, the uncounted colonial dead just extras in a low-cost rehearsal. Just think: nine million dead in the Congo during Leopold II’s 20-year personal rule alone, all so he could fill his coffers from the sale of rubber to industrialising Europe.
We know from news reports about the repertoire of racisms non-white people are subjected to on an everyday basis in Western countries today: from systematic police profiling to random acts of nastiness or violence on the street. Yet it is difficult from the privileged position of fully “belonging” to grasp the extent of it or the full effect on its targets.
The Muslims are Coming! is a carefully researched and seriously argued account of the Western debate surrounding the war on terror. The author, Arun Kundnani, never tiptoes around issues in the way some writers do, seemingly worried that their name alone will lead people to think, “Well, he would say that,