Breaking Out of Prism


The Victorian Government has decided to give the police new powers in the ‘war against terrorism’. Under the new laws, the police will be able to demand identification, seize goods and obtain closed-circuit TV footage without a warrant. They will also be given the power to stop and search people and vehicles. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has, of course, given the new powers his blessing. Thus we move rapidly toward a police state, after the style of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.

In the increasing polarisation between Islam and the West and the manufactured hysteria about terror, there is a problem we have to confront. It concerns education.

This is best illustrated by a story Robert Fisk tells. Fisk is by far and away the most reliable journalist in Iraq. He reports on Baghdad and the Middle East for the London Independent, and was talking recently to an Iraqi friend, a professor who teaches English literature at the university. Here is what Fisk’s friend had to say:

Many of the students are now very Islamically oriented. They want their classes taught through the prism of their religion. But what can I do? I can’t teach existentialism any more because it would be seen as anti-Islamic – which means no more Sartre. These same people ask me for the religious message in Eugene O’Neill’s plays. What can I say? I can’t teach any more. Do you understand this? I can’t teach.

Learning, or gaining knowledge through a religious prism, is by no means new. In medieval Europe, for example, practically all knowledge was gained through the prism of the dogma of the Catholic Church. Those who thought outside the Catholic square were seen as heretics.

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<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Another example might be education through the prism of Christian fundamentalism – or any dogma or fundamentalism for that matter. The best modern instance would be Soviet Marxist-Leninism, or Orthodox Judaism.

The problem is do we, in our society, accept education through the prism of Islam, or not – for those who wish it? Seeing as we accept Christian fundamentalism and Orthodox Judaism, as much as it pains me, I don’t see why not. Time and patience are needed – after all, it took the Catholic Church some hundreds of years to accept the findings of Galileo.

However, a consequence of education through the prism of Islam – or any fundamentalist prism – is that it can lead to social and political tension. And in these straitened and polarised times, it is drummed into us over and over again that ‘extreme’ Islam equals terrorism.

There is no doubt in my mind that the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq has led to a hardening of attitude as far as the teaching of the Islamic faith is concerned. As long as the American forces are in Iraq, people like Robert Fisk’s professor friend will have a hard time of it. If he teaches Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene O’Neill, as we in the West understand them, he will be seen as an ‘agent of Western imperialism’.

There is an important aspect to all this. Suicide bombing (terror) is by no means basically ‘Islamic’ – a war on Western ‘values’. Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, has studied 462 terrorist attacks over the last 25 years. In an interview with Kerry O’Brien on 20 July on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Pape said:

There’s a faulty premise in the current strategy on the war on terrorism. That faulty premise is that suicide terrorism, and al-Qaeda suicide terrorism in particular, is mainly driven by an evil ideology, Islamic fundamentalism, independent of other circumstances. However, the facts are that since 1980, of the 462 suicide terrorist attacks around the world, over half have been secular. What over 95 per cent of suicide attacks around the world are about is not religion, but a specific strategic purpose – to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.

What we have evidence for, time and again across the spectrum, is that they [the terrorists]are deeply angered by military policies, especially foreign combat troops, on territory that they prize, and that they believe they have no other means to change those policies.

(click here for the full interview; see also two extracts from Pape’s recent book Dying to Win, in New Matilda Issues 51 and 52)

In other words, terrorism is a military tool, not a philosophy. And education through the prism of Islam does not necessarily mean terror, any more than, say, Orthodox Judaism is an attack on Western ‘values’.

If one is a non-believer, education through the prism of religion is unfortunate – if not foolish. But I should have thought that our eclectic, humanist culture was strong enough to withstand any Islamic (or other) ‘attack’.

Adolph Hitler once made the cynical point that any issue must be grossly simplified to ensure mass support. This is precisely what our politicians are doing over Islam and Western ‘values’.

Education through the prism of religion may be unfortunate and silly, but it is preferable to increased police powers and wholesale slaughter in defence of so-called Western ideals.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.