It’s an odd fact that at the age of 23, I’ve already spent most of my life coming to the defence of Islam.
One morning when I was 7, I remember being mildly annoyed that I couldn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons because of the rolling news coverage on the World Trade Centre. I didn’t know it then, but the world had changed forever. From that moment on, I was Jihadi Fahad; Raghead Ali.
Ever since, from the school playground to the campus pub, I’ve had to arm myself with the familiar arguments, excuses, and platitudes. It’s a religion of peace. We’re not all that bad, you see.
More than a decade later, I realise we’re not fooling anyone. But with the state of the world as it is – growing hostility towards Muslims, the resurgence of One Nation – you’d think the Muslim community would have come to some sort of realisation that Islam is in the midst of a severe marketing crisis.
Nope. Which is disappointing, because a lot of these problems are not irresolvable.
Sure, I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop ISIS. It’s not as though I can call up Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and say: “Hey mate, do you mind not blowing anything up today?”
I appreciate that left-wing platitudes defending Islam are well-intended, but a lot of us have gotten so lost in our inoffensive egalitarian fantasy that we can’t really perceive things as they actually exist. Islamic culture has a problem with women, with violence, and with very basic notions of human liberty.
There are progressive interpretations of any faith just as they are reactionary ones, but the prevalent cultural nebula that has come to surround organised Islam is thoroughly backwards.
Here’s an example: recently, the Melbourne-based Islamic Research and Educational Academy was drawn into controversy over a promotional flyer for an upcoming conference. The flyer bore the smiling faces of all 12 men, but left faceless hijab-framed drawings in place of the 3 female speakers.
Before this hit the news, the dominant excuse was “we have to protect the modesty of these women!” but as soon as the press caught on it transformed into “we wanted to shield them from Islamophobic abuse!”
Give me a break. We’re still arguing over whether men and women are equal. The idea that you can beat your wife is still commonplace. A Pew Research poll conducted across 23 nations found that in all but three of them, a majority of Muslims believe that a wife must always obey her husband.
I’m well aware that most people in the Muslim community, at least in Australia, just want to live a normal and prosperous life, detached from all the insane cultural beliefs that seem to permeate mainstream Islam. But it’s hard to argue that these opinions are confined to a small minority. On the contrary, I think they have a certain orthodoxy.
There are still a great many people in the Muslim community who fantasise about an Islamic caliphate, and they aren’t confined to the margins; they’re everywhere. Groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which believes in the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate, are actively involved in and tolerated by the community – a fact that produces acute awkwardness when people like Ismail al-Wahwah (head of the Australian chapter of Hizb ut-Tahrir), are caught on camera calling on conference attendees in Ankara “to unite the Islamic nation and to lead the armies of jihad that will conquer Europe and America so that the word of Allah will reign supreme.” This isn’t entirely surprising. Only a month ago, I watched in confusion as someone in a local Muslim discussion group attempted to argue that Muslims cannot live among the infidels.
What’s most alarming isn’t just the numbers of people who hold these views (though such numbers definitely are concerning in their own right), but the casualness – the indifference – with which such madness is received by the rest of the community. It is precisely this lack of outrage that makes it so hard to argue that mainstream Islam is not “extreme” – no matter how frequently and stridently ordinary Muslims may condemn ISIS.
To be sure, this doesn’t let Hollywood or the mainstream media off the hook – they both have a bad habit of depicting Muslims poorly, or else failing to depict them at all (which is ironic considering how eagerly liberal Hollywood was to deplore Trump’s travel ban). And what is America doing funding and arming “moderate” Islamist rebels in the Middle East anyway?
Certainly the West has played a part in all this, but that shouldn’t distract us from the central problem: much of Islam is not compatible with modernity. And so what! Admitting this uncomfortable truth doesn’t mean we have to abandon the faith like some out-dated bit of hardware; The Catholic Church was just as retrograde until only very recently, but it has – with some exceptions, and by no means willingly – had those strains within it excised. You don’t see Christians today reading Leviticus and calling for homosexual beheadings. The same cannot be said of many Muslims who read the Qur’an.
The point is that things need to change. The internal reformation of Islam is not just necessary for the longevity of the religion, but also because for so long we’ve had an elite political class in this country who, like used car salesmen, have tried to sell us the myth that we are a perfectly cohesive and accepting multicultural society – never mind that Cronulla business, or that Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated group of people on the planet. The political class tells us “move along, there’s nothing to see here,” but there is, and we can’t keep trying to sweep it under the rug.
People have reason to be concerned, but we’ve made the mistake of delegitimising any criticism of Islam, no matter how misguided or accurate it might be. And so, unheard and unacknowledged, genuine concerns morph into xenophobia, and people’s mild anxieties on things like national security and immigration become outright hostility towards an entire group of people, no matter the distinction between “peaceful” and “extreme” Muslims.
The net effect of this process, as people are slowly coming to realise, is that Ms Hanson gains a few extra points in the polls at the expense of the traditional parties.
I don’t believe that Islam has any intrinsic problems, contrary to what figures like Sam Harris might allege. What I do think is a problem is how most modern Muslims comprehend their faith, which is a different beast entirely. When someone like Yassmin Abdel-Magied argues that Islam is “one of the most, if not the most feminist religion,” she isn’t lying, and she isn’t necessarily wrong either, but she misses an important point: that a religion is as much a set of teachings as it is the translation of those teachings into practise, and that most modern Muslims – Yassmin’s 21st century coreligionists – practise a faith that is anything but progressive.
Muslims need to be honest with themselves and take up the mantle of change in their own communities, and people on the liberal end of the political spectrum should come to realise that when you take off those rose-tinted glasses, you might not like what you see.
The only way forward is to stop treating the entire electorate with contempt, and start taking responsibility for our own failures.