Rather than banning radical Islamic groups in Australia like Tony Abbott says he intends, we should support the vast majority of moderate Muslims who reject extremist ideology, writes Timothy Cootes.
IN ONE OF THE slightly less boring moments of this year’s election campaign, Tony Abbott proposed that a Coalition victory would result in the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
For many Australians, this statement no doubt produced confused glances, the scratching of heads, and then, a sigh of recognition — Hizb ut-Tahrir, that loony Islamist group urging Australian Muslims to boycott Anzac Day; Hizb ut-Tahrir and its media representative, Uthman Badar, denouncer of democracy and champion of the Islamic Caliphate.
Such issues and individuals must, of course, only occupy the fringes of the outskirts of our politics.
From that angle, Abbott’s preferred mode of discourse, bluster, reflects mere political grandstanding, an appeal to the slightly racist and Islamophobic in our electorate, and who cares anyway? The economy and boat people should dominate our attention and we must not be distracted.
I think we ought to look more closely. This is one of those small events relegated to the middle pages of our newspapers, and yet, if we give it a more than cursory glance, the stories that precede and follow might be illuminated, too.
In the proposed banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir, we see paths taking us places we didn’t expect to arrive and we confront issues that startle and confuse: the place of Islam in Australia and in secular society, our attitudes to asylum seekers, Australia’s right wing turn and the future of the left.
In this light, the story on the fringes assumes an interesting and significant salience. What, then, does Hizb ut-Tahrir have to say? How has Australia responded?
Egypt has featured prominently in international news headlines this year, given that the debate over secularism, Islam and the future form of government has recently found violent expression on Cairo’s streets.
This debate – and its location – however, is nothing new and has been an intellectual exercise as much as a practical and bloody one.
Here, Hassan al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb toiled and wrote his masterworks, and the intellectual roots of al Qaeda festered and grew into the mass graves in Nairobi, New York and elsewhere. Hizb ut-Tahrir, too, has its texts and heroes. Taqiuddin an-Nahbani received his Islamic education in Egypt and went on to found Hizb ut-Tahrir in Palestine, offering a program similar to Qutb’s while treading a unique and interesting path.
An-Nahbani’s grand work is The Islamic State — a history and a practical pamphlet. It is a retelling of Muhammed’s founding of the Islamic Caliphate, his struggles with the Jews and unbelievers in Medina and his successes in battle. It is laudatory and exciting in parts, and tedious and repetitive in others — a bit like Sayyid Qutb without the literary skill. An-Nahbani also discusses in great detail the collapse of the Caliphate, for which the blame mostly falls on Western culture:
'...the dagger drawn by the West in the face of the Islamic State, and by which it fatally stabbed her.'
An-Nahbani and Hizb ut-Tahrir are chiefly concerned with replicating Muhammed’s achievement in a modern context — an Islamic state in Muslim lands that will encompass the globe and eradicate things Western, impure and corrupt.
This vision differs, however, from the Islamism of bin Laden by being slightly less delusional. An-Nahbani’s achievement would be political and intellectual, not violent.
Instead, Hizb ut-Tahrir offers an
'...invitation and an obligation, the first one being intended to invite people to embrace Islam and the latter intending to oblige people to adhere to its rules.'
Difficult though it is to be both invited and obliged to do something, Hizb ut-Tahrir apparently sees no contradiction, and it now claims to be the world’s largest Islamist political party, with operations in over forty countries including Australia.
In Paul Berman’s contribution to the post 9/11 political literature, Terror and Liberalism, he demonstrated how bin Laden’s Islamism closely resembled and was influenced by the modern totalitarianisms that wrecked Europe over the twentieth century.
This is evident in Hizb ut-Tahrir, too, in a sanitised, tamer guise — there are the Muslims, victimised by the West and the Jews, rising to establish a perfect empire through the operations of a vanguard. There is a vision of the past thrown into the future and a reign that will last a millennium.
I can already hear the stirrings of an understandable objection:
Totalitarianism? The Islamic Caliphate? In Australia?
And indeed, in our country, the grandiose visions of power and the Islamic state assume an almost farcical nature.
Nevertheless, the Australian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir is a vocal and tireless promoter of the re-establishment of the Caliphate in Muslim lands. Hizb ut-Tahrir tasks itself, then, with criticising Australian and US foreign policies and drawing Australian Muslims to its worldview. The spokesperson for these causes is media representative, Uthman Badar, who makes known his and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s views through writings, debates, videos and television appearances.
An-Nahbani wrote that Hizb ut-Tahrir’s task is
'... by no means an easy endeavour . . . The road is embedded with thorns, full of perils, obstacles and hardships.'
This part, at least, I can agree with.
Uthman Badar seems to have driven off this road into an off-highway ditch. His discourses and written works are a series of invectives interrupted by moments of accidental amusement. He has called on Australian Muslims to reject both Anzac Day and the ballot box. He has denounced Australia’s depraved secular liberalism as “irrational values that belong in medieval Europe” while championing the cause of a pre-medieval political state. He has called for Australians to “aggressively root out” its leaders, leaving us guessing as to what exactly he might have in mind.
The proposed proscription of this group is based upon its associations with terrorism and violence, which are, of course, non-existent. Well, sort of.
Hizb ut-Tahrir may not commit violence itself, but Uthman Badar has approved of the violence of others — namely, the murder of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. At other times, it’s easy to see how Badar’s tone elevates a few eyebrows.
In his response to Barack Obama’s happy Ramadan tweet, Badar responded:
'@Barack Obama you wish them peace but send them bombs and drones, torture and (secular) terror? Your time will come.'
The best indicator of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s incongruity in the modern Australian context is the humorous juxtaposition of Badar’s rantings with his slight Australian accent. When reading his works and watching his videos, you could be forgiven for thinking he is a clever satirist. Alas, the heavy realisation sets in that his words are intended to be without irony and certainly without any humour.
The questions worth asking, then, are:
To what extent does Hizb ut-Tahrir represent the views of Australian Muslims? Or to what extent do Australians think that Hizb ut-Tahrir represents those views?
If a ban is a serious question of policy, it is worth inquiring into the organisation’s representative credit.
An even simpler question, however, might elucidate all of the above and is a question seldom asked, probably because every commentator, demagogue and regular working class Australian purports to already have an answer:
What do Australian Muslims really think?
This inquiry formed the basis for a paper written by a team of university researchers from Queensland and published in the Journal of Sociology. The team presented surveys to a large sample of Australian Muslims at the 2009 Brisbane Eid Festival. The questions were designed to
'...identify the attitudes, opinions and perceptions of Muslims on a number of key social and policy issues . . . such as integration, gender equality, violence and terrorism, democracy and Muslim perceptions of the West.'
The results demonstrate the staggering disconnect between reality, Australians’ perceptions of the country’s Muslim inhabitants and, of course, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ability to speak on behalf of those Muslims.
Some of the noteworthy results included:
- 71% thought that Muslims should hold onto their religion but still integrate socially and politically and through English language acquisition;
- 13% favoured total integration while only 1% thought that no integration was desirable;
- respondents showed generally high levels of trust in our democracy and social and healthcare institutions, but the media and government, unsurprisingly, fared the worst;
- a solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict figured importantly in foreign policy, but an issue of almost equal concern was the environmental crisis.
The authors concluded that
'... contrary to popular perceptions of Muslims being exclusivist or even adversarial towards non-Muslims, the Queensland Muslim community identifies being good, fair and kind to fellow human beings as a central component of Islam.'
Good, fair and kind? Could this description of the ideal Australian citizen be improved upon?
The results of this research should shatter the misconceptions about Muslims in this country, but of course, they won’t, given that the readership of the Journal of Sociology will never match those tuning in to A Current Affair. Nonetheless, it should be better known that, after all the fear and demonisation, the average Muslim is a decent citizen trying to fit in, yet still skeptical of our lamentable politicians and media. Nothing, in my mind at least, could sound more Australian.
Juxtapose this image with that of poor and pathetic Uthman Badar, spewing his nonsense about the Islamic Caliphate. Which of these images reflects the real Australian Muslim? I would argue that after all of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s years in Australia, its goals and ambitions remain hopelessly and permanently incomplete. After Uthman Badar’s many speeches, rallies, pamphlets and protests, all of his work is still ahead of him. The “invitation” Hizb ut-Tahrir offers and then demands seems to have been politely but firmly rejected by Australia’s Muslims.
Who’s afraid of Hizb ut-Tahrir?
Forget fear. From this angle, Uthman Badar appears piteous rather than contemptible, risible rather than threatening. The odds of Hizb ut-Tahrir actually achieving its goals politically and intellectually seem rather slim, given that in the Australian context it has refused to engage in the political process, where it could attempt to effect change.
Its claim to intellectual influence collapses under the ironies and hypocrisies of its endeavour: the things Uthman Badar finds most loathsome – secularism, liberal democracy, respect for pluralism – are the very features which allow Hizb ut-Tahrir to have an Australian presence; the recent attempts at the Caliphate’s restoration have had limited success, to put it mildly, but they have raped civil society and terrorised and murdered millions of Muslims in Iraq, Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Syria and elsewhere; Badar claims to know and argue for the true face of Islam, yet so few Australian Muslims share his vision. After giving the issue more than that cursory glance, Hizb ut-Tahrir seems almost apolitical, and certainly intellectually impoverished.
This, however, is something of a lonely argument.
On the question of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s fear inducing abilities, many individuals have raised a trembling hand. If not objecting vehemently to Hizb ut-Tahrir, they certainly find themselves in irrational opposition to the ideas at work: that the values of Hizb ut-Tahrir accord with the wider Muslim community; that the imposition of Sharia law is an imminent, rather than impossible threat; and that the growth of Islam through immigration will ruin Australian society.
Such ideas find expression in a broad range of actors, from the reprehensible to the supposedly respectable.
One group that stumbles into our headlines and is then casually dismissed is the Australian Defence League (ADL), a cousin of the more notorious English Defence League
The ADL styles itself as a 'human rights organisation' in opposition to Islamisation and Muslim immigration and unapologetically in favour of Australian values and the Australian way of life. I spent far longer than recommended perusing the ADL’s Facebook pages and partners like Australians Against Muslim Dominance, which had a staggering fifteen thousand ‘likes’. To enter this community is to witness a vicious assault on pluralism and multicultural society — as well as good grammar and syntax.
An August SBS report examined the ADL’s expanding influence and it’s growth from a social media force to holding chapter meetings and protests. The report also quoted the League’s president, Ralph Cerminara, who is not exactly a wordsmith.
He set out the main positions of the group:
“We stand for Australia — Australian way of life, Australian values, Australian culture . . . the Australian sort of values that our Anzacs died for, freedom of speech only to a certain point. And we’re against Islam and Islamic way of life.”
You’ll notice how difficult it is to find anything of substance here. You can also stop looking. Cerminara seems to think that placing ‘Australian’ in front of a noun renders any further elucidation unnecessary. He has no ability to articulate what, exactly, his vision of Australian values and culture looks like.
It’s too easy to accuse such individuals of racism, what they offer is nihilism: an undefined Australia minus everything else, a cultureless society.
The British novelist, Martin Amis, warned us about this:
"What we eventually run up against are the forces of humourlessness, and let me assure you that the humourless as a bunch don't just not know what's funny, they don't know what's serious. They have no common sense, either, and shouldn't be trusted with anything."
More stirrings? The ADL probably has less representative credit than Hizb ut-Tahrir and they certainly demonstrate about the same intellectual content.
Fine. Agreed. Sort of.
I have a few qualms. 2013 was the year that the humourless had its political surge. Take just two of the numerous right wing nationalist parties that found a degree of populist success: The Party For Freedom, modelled on Geert Wilders' Dutch anti-Muslim immigration party, and Rise Up Australia, headed by the Christian pastor Daniel Nalliah. Their platforms were based on strident opposition to multiculturalism, immigration, the impending Islamification of Australian society and, I would argue, a commitment to defile the political offices they sought.
Rise Up Australia was preferenced by the ALP and the Coalition in some seats and received kind words from its comrades in the ADL. Daniel Nalliah has also recently found vindication in Abbott’s shakeup of the Immigration Department and the Ministry for Multicultural Affairs, seeing this as an affirmation of his party’s position and influence.
A tragic irony pervades all of this.
Islamism does have real world implications, and the desecration of societies and the rising number of refugees too often provide the evidence. Yet, the ones opposed to Islamism in Australia and the ones not caring about Islamism’s real victims turn out to be the same people; the same bodyguards of racism, stupidity and ignorance that Australian society consistently confronts, and must ceaselessly combat.
And yet, this time, it seems that our major parties, too, have wandered into the company of the worst of right wing ultranationalism. John Howard injected the poison into our immigration politics in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and we are still experiencing the symptoms. This year, a competitive thuggery came to define the policies of our major parties towards refugees, all with the goal of appealing to the Australian electorate.
At the heart of this debate is a baseless fear, manifested in the image of the Muslim Other, and its easy translation into the suspect refugee.
Who’s afraid of Hizb ut-Tahrir?
Our current political discourse suggests that, well, we all are, hence the ban. But not to worry, casual membership of the ADL is available to all.
How did we arrive here?
All the necessary conditions have been in abundance: the idea that Hizb ut-Tahrir and the ADL could be left alone, that we didn’t need to meet their arguments with better ones; a lazy media and a misinformed public content with meaningless solutions like ‘stop the boats’; a provincial over an internationalist left that has given way to a reactionary turn.
How do we turn back?
To start with, I oppose the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir. Such a policy would be a capitulation to the desires of groups like the ADL and right-wing parties. They would feel vindicated when they should feel shamed. Let Hizb ut-Tahrir spit on our national holidays. Let the Muslim community call them out and defend our democracy — and we should stand with them. Hizb ut-Tahrir and the ADL are lonely groups — let us make them lonelier. Let our pluralism and secularism prove that it can withstand even the worst.
The task, then – in Australia and elsewhere – is to convince individuals to give up their crazed beliefs. From this perspective, it might not sound too difficult: they have absolutism and narrow-mindedness, we are armed with cosmopolitanism and respect for difference. We’ll win, and they’ll soon realise that they have no one left to persuade.
There is one more thing we need, and its absence is likely to make our endeavour perishable — we need leadership.
We need a positive leader who can inspire and draw disparate social groups together. We need an articulate individual, one who can illuminate nuance and show a respect and appreciation for complexity. We need a problem solver, someone who can draw Australia out of its intellectual and social malaise.
You might be disappointed, as I was, to think now on our current prime minister’s gormless visage, and recall that at this moment of cultural and political exigency, the man on whom we rely now is Tony Abbott.
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