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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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,

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