Respectable Hatred: Fairfax On Islam


Politicians and celebrities have a favourite kind of racism for politicians and celebrities. The type they love to denounce is lowbrow and extremist. Highbrow bigotry and institutionalised racism are controversial, and attract defenders of various sorts. Only more marginal groups will defend unsophisticated hatred and bigotry. It’s not hard to think of examples, but recently there have been some striking illustrations in Israel and Australia.

In Israel, there are some forms of hatred that respectable people know are not okay, and will happily condemn. For example, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Israeli terrorist stabbed six people taking part in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. The suspect was previously convicted of stabbing three marchers in 2005. The attack was widely condemned, including by the leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett.

Meanwhile, Betzalel Smotrich, a member of Knesset from the same party, campaigned in the last election as a “proud homophobe”. That wasn’t quite extreme enough to garner any repercussions in his political career.

Then there is the case of the settler terrorists, who murdered an 18-month-old Palestinian baby. This was also condemned, with Netanyahu expressing “shock and horror”. It’s a little hard to take his alleged “shock” too seriously.

In March this year, Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din released a report called “Standing Idly By”. The report documents “Israeli soldiers’ practice of standing idly by in the face of crimes committed by Israeli civilians against Palestinians and their property in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), a practice that is almost as old as the occupation itself.” This practice “has been documented for decades by both government agencies and human rights organizations, which have warned about its serious implications.” Implications that were never considered worrying enough to change policy.

The murder of the child was unsurprising, and could have been prevented. Yet the institutionalised racism of the occupation is happily tolerated. Whilst the murder of Palestinian children is not exactly shocking in Israel, that prerogative is usually reserved for the Israeli army, not fringe terrorists.

In Australia, we have a similar illustration of the different sorts of racism, no less depressing. On the one hand, there’s the case of Adam Goodes. Since objecting to being called an “ape”, and expressing concern about Australia Day being held on the day its invasion by white colonisers began, AFL fans around the country have been up in arms. For about a year, they’ve been booing him whenever he gets near the ball. This mostly passed without notice, but when he threatened to resign, it looked like this might become an international scandal. Goodes was Australian of the Year, and has twice won the Brownlow Medal, given to the “fairest and best” player in the game.

For him to be booed by tens of thousands of people around Australia every time he came near the ball was too blatant and embarrassing, even if AFL fans themselves apparently have happily tolerated the abuse. Thus, the booing of Goodes has been slammed by an increasing array of mainstream figures from across the political spectrum. Scott Morrison, who prided himself on his harsh treatment of asylum seekers, even included his favourite dog-whistle in commenting on the affair, remarking “stop the boos”.



Similarly, Colin Barnett, the Premier of Western Australia, complained that “you do not pick on one individual and particularly now where it’s got a racist tone to it”. However, “To the AFL and to Aboriginal footballers, I think also you could back off a little bit… Don’t re-enact the spear throwing. It’s provocative, it’s not necessary, so both sides, get over it.”

Barnett is well-known for his policy of closing up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities. Yet the policies of Morrison and Barnett – and these are hardly the only government figures I can think of – are unlikely to be condemned in the way that the booing is.

In a way, Australia’s an extreme example. A lot of racism passes without comment or condemnation here. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising: Australia’s history is among the most racist on the planet. Because of the White Australia policy, and the devastation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Australia is still overwhelmingly white. Ethnic minorities have struggled to gain enough power, influence, and even visibility to successfully resist the kind of bigotry and prejudice that pervades our society, major institutions and halls of power.

These trends – the pervasiveness of bigotry, and its highbrow and lowbrow forms – were illustrated last week in Fairfax. The Sydney Morning Herald campaigned hard against the booing of Adam Goodes, issuing two passionate, if not particularly well-written editorials in his defence.

Lowbrow anti-Muslim bigotry also doesn’t sit right with Fairfax. An editorial from July 24 responded to the Reclaim Australia rallies thusly:

“Is it ignorance, malice or bigotry that persists in conflating Islam as a whole and Muslims in general with the outlying, radical fringe of Muslim extremist groups such as Islamic State? How often does it need to be said that Islam is not synonymous with terrorism, and murdering, psychotic terrorists are in no way representative of all Muslims?”

An online version of the editorial

And yet, Fairfax gave plenty of space to anti-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali. For example, in this fawning interview, Ali claimed that those who think “the butchers of the Islamic State are misinterpreting … verses [of the Koran]have a problem. The Koran itself explicitly urges pitilessness”. Which is roughly the opposite of what the editorial above wrote, but maybe its heart wasn’t really in that one.

Or this interview from 2013 where Ruby Hamad in Daily Life sought instructions from Ali on what “Western feminists need to do”. In March, it printed an op-ed by Ali, urging the reform of “Islam”, which she treated as a monolith, which is characteristic of her style. This was to promote her new book, Heretic: Why Islam needs a Reformation Now.

The Economist, reviewing her book, noted that one suggestion for supposedly “reforming” Islam was a “show stopper… she wants her old co-religionists to ‘ensure that Muhammad and the Koran are open to interpretation and criticism’.” Ali wants the Qur’an to be treated as the product of “human hands”.

The warm reception Ali tends to receive for her writings is rather striking. As As’ad AbuKhalil observes, she has no relevant expertise on Islam – she is “only because of her bigotry… treated as an expert on Islam”. Ali has identified Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” This sounds a lot like the language of Tony Abbott on Daesh. Yet while right-thinking progressives in Australia have mocked Abbott’s rhetoric, Ali gets a warmer reception.

In a notorious interview from 2007, she stressed that Islam had to be “defeated”.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?
Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.
Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?
Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. … There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.
Reason: Militarily?
Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.”
I’m not sure how to overstate this kind of hatred, prejudice and bigotry. Her continuing respectability among Fairfax and Western progressives more generally is startling, yet is simply a more highbrow version of the kind of things one might expect at a Reclaim Australia rally.

As the kind of free-thinker the West admires, Ali has claimed that she has tried to convert to Judaism, and might do so in the future. She admires Henry Kissinger, and “really” admires Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, she explained as Israel invaded and bombed Gaza last year. “I really think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize. In a fair world he would get it”, she said.

Perhaps inspired by Ali, or other anti-Islam advocates, Hussain Nadim similarly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last week that “Islam is in desperate need of internal reforms”. Note the identification of Islam as a single entity. Though he didn’t identify the type of reforms he had in mind, one might suspect he had in mind those of Ali. Mr Nadim retweeted someone suggesting Ali and Sam Harris would be interested in his article.

Mr Nadim’s central thesis is that responsibility for Islamist terrorism should be placed on Islam. He criticises those who take “the burden of blame away from issues of religion and identity”, and those who think the “problem lies not with Islam, nor even with some of the Muslims but with the environment Muslims are currently in”.

Mr Nadim asserts that “the problem with religion is what is driving the identity crisis which is leading to radicalisation among Muslim youth.” He concludes by complaining about those who would blame anything but Islam for Islamist terrorists:

“The uneasy fact is that Islam is in desperate need of internal reforms that have been delayed to this point where the religion is being damaged from within causing serious identity crisis amongst the Muslim youth. And it is this very identity crisis that is at the core of radicalisation problem leading young Muslims to fall prey to terrorist propaganda joining Islamic State and other militant groups. As long as those at the helms of power in the Muslim community remain in constant denial blaming the government, the “environment” and anything else while ignoring the real issues, deradicalisation will not prove easy.”

Okay, so the problem is Islam – not an interpretation of Islam, but Islam – and those who blame anything else are making it harder to fight terrorism. Note the similarity of this position to the one that the Sydney Morning Herald editorial objected to. Which is a clear illustration of the difference between the lowbrow ravings of Reclaim Australia “patriots”, and the calmly written, pseudo-scholarly advocacy of the same position.

Though Mr Nadim identifies Islam as a monolithic entity in need of reform when he’s stressing its supposedly “desperate need of internal reforms” to prevent terrorism, he undercuts his own thesis when criticising Muslim community leaders. Mr Nadim writes that “All stand united against the government for its lack of understanding the issue of radicalisation and not ‘consulting’ them with important policy decisions on the subject”.

Mr Nadim sees “nothing wrong [with]consulting the community”. But “who is the government supposed to ‘consult’? The reality is, that there is no ‘one’ Islam, or its representative. Should the government consult with Sunni, Shiite, Barelvi, Deobandi, or Ahmadi Muslims – all of whom consider each other kafirs (non-Muslims)?” Putting aside the gratuitous and unsupported claim about the intolerance of all Muslim community leaders, Mr Nadim then identifies a “racial divide… There is a cosmic difference between Turkish, Lebanese and Pakistani Muslims each with their own mosques and imams. Naturally, their understanding about Islam and their solutions to the problems of radicalisation are also different.”

Note the unexplained disparity within his own argument. Mr Nadim treats Islam as a monolithic entity, which is the real, “core” cause of Islamist terrorism like Daesh. Yet when it comes to listening to Muslim community leaders, Mr Nadim thinks it’d be a waste of time, because after all, Islam is so complex and comes in so many different forms.

Yet if Mr Nadim’s grasp of logic doesn’t impress, he’s at least smart enough to argue self-interestedly, narrowly hidden behind a façade of impartiality. He criticises Muslim community leaders for their “rudimentary understanding of the subject”, their “very baseline understanding of the major Islamic political and theological issues”, and absence of “historical context. Most of the community leaders even lack the background in the complex field of Islamic political history and radicalisation to understand and offer serious solutions to the government.”

Okay, so if Muslim community leaders are to be ignored, and consultations are a waste of time, then perhaps those who are familiar with this research – say, a PhD student at the University of Sydney – are the peope the government should be consulting with.

Mr Nadim then verbals the Muslim community, to counter-pose their unreasonable views with his own. Mr Nadim claims Muslim community leaders suggest that “socio-economic and political issues drive radicalisation”. Mr Nadim writes:

“Extensive research work by Alan Krueger, Jitka Maleckova, Christine Fair and many others has demonstrated there is no causal link between terrorism, radicalisation and socio-economic conditions. Most of the notorious terrorists including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed come from educated, middle- or upper-class backgrounds.”

Okay, so Mr Nadim says that many Islamist terrorists are rich, and from educated, middle or upper class backgrounds. Is it true that Muslim community leaders – with their “very baseline understanding of the major Islamic political and theological issues” – fail to incorporate this into their claims about the primacy of socio-economic conditions?

Let’s consider the position of the Australian National Imams Council. It said that “one of the main causative factors for local radicalisation in the west has been the western governments’ military involvement in the Middle East. The support of unjust, dictatorial regimes as well as unilateral military aggression based on duplicitous foreign policy positions has only aggravated the state of global fear and violence.” Those who review the original statement will find there is zero reference to poverty or socio-economic conditions – the stance that Mr Nadim cavalierly and repeatedly attributed to “Muslim community leaders”. Yet Mr Nadim cannot be accused entirely of dishonesty – he slyly wrote “socio-economic and political issues” as the causes of radicalisation – and then only refuted one of them, before complaining about the failure of Muslim community leaders to understand these issues.

Now consider the work of Mr Nadim’s preferred experts on terrorism. Alan Krueger is a Princeton economist. Together with Jitka Malecková, he studied the information he could obtain of 129 “martyrs” of Lebanese political and military organisation, Hezbollah. They found that those they surveyed had a “lower poverty rate than the Lebanese population”, and were “better educated”. Those who know anything about Lebanon’s history will hardly be started by their finding that Hezbollah’s resistance of the Israeli occupation and invasions wasn’t driven by poverty.

So if education levels and poverty are not causes of terrorism, what is? Krueger observes that:

“One set of factors that I examined did consistently raise the likelihood that people from a given country will participate in terrorism—namely, the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights. Using data from the Freedom House Index, for example, I found that countries with low levels of civil liberties are more likely to be the countries of origin of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks. In addition, terrorists tend to attack nearby targets. Even international terrorism tends to be motivated by local concerns.”

Krueger concluded that:

“The evidence suggests that terrorists care about influencing political outcomes. They are often motivated by geopolitical grievances. To understand who joins terrorist organizations, instead of asking who has a low salary and few opportunities, we should ask: Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extremist vision by violent means? Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

Now remember – this is one of Mr Nadim’s preferred academic experts. And Krueger is used to bolster his claim that “the overwhelming claim by Muslim community leaders that ‘research’ suggests socio-economic and political issues drive radicalisation is not only erroneous but reveals a primitive understanding of the debate on the subject.”

In short, the intellectual content and honesty of Mr Nadim’s work disintegrates at the slightest examination. All that’s left is the sour assertion that Islam is to blame for terrorism, whilst Muslim community leaders should stop “blaming the government, the ‘environment’ and anything else while ignoring the real issues”.

That “anything else” is a broad dismissal of blaming anything but Islam for terrorism. The government is wasting its time in consulting Muslim community leaders, who can safely be ignored.

There is no question that similar claims about the connection between Judaism and terrorism, or any other form of crime would never have been printed in Fairfax, or any other major media outlet. Yet the most toxic forms of Muslim baiting can pass without incident across the media spectrum in Australia. All that’s needed is some thin veneer of rationality, and it becomes highbrow enough for the more liberal end of Australian media.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).