Fairfax Orientalism: How To Win Friends And Trash Muslims

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Consistency in reporting is a good thing. Unless you’re Fairfax, and you turn you mind to writings on Islam. Michael Brull explains.

I’ve written before about the shoddy and sometimes offensive way Fairfax covers Muslims. Not much has changed in the meanwhile.

Take this report from David Wroe, their national security correspondent. Reporting from Camp Taji in Iraq, Wroe shared his insights on Iraq, as seen from Australia and New Zealand soldiers trying to help train the Iraqi army.

From the perspective of our soldiers, with customary colonial condescension, Wroe writes “Yelling won’t help. Nor will talking down to the Iraqis, however frustrating they might be at times.”

Iraqi soldiers – for reasons that Wroe makes zero effort to understand – do not take their military training seriously. For “all the seeming apathy and clowning”, the Iraqi soldiers don’t seem to realise that “Iraq’s rending violence is more real for these soldiers than for anyone.”

Wroe offers a hopeful explanation for the disinterest in the army training by Iraqi soldiers: “One explanation many Anzacs give for the Iraqis’ sometimes short attention spans is that they have been training now for more than 12 weeks and they’re champing at the bit to fight.”

Wroe duly found an Iraqi Sergeant Major to promise that the soldiers were eager to fight Daesh, and how useful Anzac training is. Particularly noteworthy is this quote from Captain Michael Baker, quoted by Wroe: “There is not a single person who has not been touched by conflict. But for them there is this ‘Isha’allah’ [God’s will] attitude. The harsh reality is that the value of life is seen very differently.” (emphasis mine).

October 2012: Rebel fighters belonging to the Javata Harria Sham Qatebee watch over the enemy position during skirmishes at the first line of fire in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, district of Arkup, at the northeast of Aleppo CIty. (IMAGE: Freedom House, (Narciso Contreras/POLARIS)
October 2012: Rebel fighters belonging to the Javata Harria Sham Qatebee watch over the enemy position during skirmishes at the first line of fire in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, district of Arkup, at the northeast of Aleppo CIty.
(IMAGE: Freedom House, (Narciso Contreras/POLARIS)

For people familiar with Western imperialism, this is a pretty standard claim by occupying armies and their court intellectuals and scribes.

Jon Schwartz has a useful compilation of some of the many times Westerners have found that when they inflict death, suffering and destruction on other peoples, it turns out that it’s not such a big deal for them, because they’re not like us.

For example, in the war on Vietnam, US General William Westmoreland explained that, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

Or take Curtis LeMay, who was in charge of the air war on Korea. A reviewer explained that for LeMay the “bombardment failed because of an ‘undying Oriental philosophy and fanaticism.’ He says, ‘Human attrition means nothing to such people,’ that their lives are so miserable on earth that they look forward with delight to a death which promises them ‘everything from tea parties with long dead grandfathers down to their pick of all the golden little dancing girls in Paradise.’”

American soldiers similarly found that life was cheap in Nicaragua, and Haitians don’t consider brutality in the same way we do. The late former US President Thomas Jefferson found that for Africans, their “griefs” are only “transient”.

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Former editor in chief of the New Republic Martin Peretz doubled down on his claim that Muslim life is cheap (“This is a statement of fact”). For some, it is controversial, though there seems to be no reaction to the latest profound wisdom on Islam from Fairfax.

Some readers may think it is unfair to hold against Wroe or Fairfax the comments of Captain Baker. I would suggest that the comments are made in a context that suggests that they are supposed to have explanatory power. I would also observe that Fairfax has shown far greater sensitivity to stereotypically depicting Jewish people.

Cronulla-riots
A screencap from ABC News footage of the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

So let us review some more of Fairfax’s latest journalistic ventures. In this lengthy feature, Rachel Olding profiles at length Cronulla rioters, 10 years later. She sympathetically discusses the white thugs who rioted against Arabs, assuring us they have Muslim and Lebanese friends, employers, schoolmates, and in one case a Lebanese fiancée. They claim they aren’t racist and regret their actions, though perhaps not the cause of defending the beach from foreigners.

The Muslim counter-rioters, on the other hand, are primarily discussed in terms of their criminal records. This article too seems to have been unremarkable enough to trigger no critical response.

Or consider the response to Tony Abbott’s latest gratuitous remarks about Islam. On December 9, Tony Abbott wrote an op ed for the Daily Telegraph about the “massive problem within Islam.” Abbott wrote:

“Islam never had its own version of the Reformation and the Enlightenment or a consequent acceptance of pluralism and the separation of church and state. Fortunately there are numerous Muslim leaders who think their faith needs to modernise from the kill-or-be-killed milieu of the Prophet Mohammed.”

And then, as a model for the type of reform he had in mind, he cited the wisdom of the blood-drenched tyrant of Egypt, someone who really gets “the ordinary norms of justice and decency.”

Abbott concluded – seemingly without irony or self-awareness:

“Where hate preaching is not illegal it should at least be thoroughly answered point-by-point with a very robust defence of human rights and responsibilities. It’s not culturally insensitive to demand loyalty to Australia and respect for Western civilisation. Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.”

Pressing the superiority of Christian values, whilst continuing a campaign to escalate our war on Syria and Iraq, and decrying a culture that would justify killing people in the name of God. The best response to Abbott’s vicious nonsense came from former Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Hal Wootten, in the Canberra Times.

Yet in the main Fairfax broadsheets, the response was less encouraging. On December 9, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote an editorial in response to his comments. His significant re-entry into the public debate about Islamic State this week was a case in point.

The editorial claimed that Abbott “made telling points when he said ‘Islam needs to delegitimise the urge to behead all those who insult the Prophet – but only Muslims can do this.’ He was right on other points, too.” However, “we do not support… the tone and timing of Mr Abbott’s contribution.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Fairfax then warned against “Demonising Islam generally or all Muslims”, presumably unaware that a call for “Islam” (who?) to delegitimise the urge (from whom?) to behead those who insult the Prophet is hard to distinguish from what they criticise.

Whilst Abbott purports to be offended by those who behead those who insult the Prophet, he was not quite so offended by the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Though Saudi Arabia apparently rarely carries out executions for blasphemy, it too prescribes the death penalty for it, along with an array of other brutal punishments, largely indistinguishable from Daesh.

Saudi Arabia began the year with dozens of beheadings. Yet in the case of the late King Abdullah, Abbott claimed that the tyrant was, among “many achievements… also a strong proponent of international interfaith dialogue”. Yes, he praised the late King of Saudi Arabia – from a country where blasphemy is illegal – for his support of interfaith dialogue.

It seems Abbott is in favour of reforming Islam, but apparently not in favour of reforming the most extreme theocratic tyranny on the planet (with the possible exception of ISIS, if one recognises their government).

Islamic-State-Saudi-Arabia

Then on December 10, Fairfax issued another editorial on the wisdom of Abbott’s comments. Apparently backtracking from the previous day’s claim about Abbott’s “telling” points about Islam, they wrote, “There is a measured debate to be had about the role of religion in terrorism. But Mr Abbott chose not to recognise that most Muslims do not believe their faith justifies killing for any cause. Mr Abbott also ignored that Christianity has been used as justification for myriad atrocities.”

Whether this “measured debate” should include the deep thoughts of Abbott was not clarified.

Fairfax gave Waleed Aly a column to critically respond to Abbott’s call for reforming Islam: “This is, of course, perhaps the most well-worn and ill-informed cliche of Western discourse on Islam – the kind of thing people like to say when they want to sound serious but know almost exactly nothing about Islam, Muslim societies, or indeed the Reformation.”

This created the opportunity for “specialist on security and international affairs” Paul Monk to write a response to Aly in Fairfax, agreeing with Abbott. Monk concluded with this almost amazing casual accusation:

“If Aly and his co-religionists are keen to have such a conversation, no obstacle stands in their way. But if, whatever their take on the Islamic past, they have a vision of Islam becoming the religion of the world at large and of some form of sharia law becoming ascendant over secular civil law; or if they remain ambivalent about the barbarities of their ‘reformers’, then we all have a serious problem.”

Note how he casually implies that Aly and his co-religionists – that is, it seems, Muslims in general – may or may not want Islam to take over the world and extinguish secular civil law. And they’re ambivalent – at least for now about certain “barbarities”, though this may not “remain” the case.

Perhaps this is the “measured debate” that Fairfax had in mind. Remember that Fairfax claims to reject demonising all Muslims or Islam generally.

To get a sense of the conventional wisdom at Fairfax, I’ll quote from two more articles from the SMH. Here is Mark Kenny, the “chief political correspondent” on December 11 last year: Abbott:

“used an interview mid-week to weigh into the profoundly contested terrain between mainstream Australia, Australian Muslims and radical Islam.

His comments however have simply provided another example of how the preconceived understanding of the messenger determines the manner in which the message is received.

Viewed objectively, some of the changes the former PM advocates, such as a recognition of a separation between church and state, or the benefits of an internal reformation, were reasonable. Or at least they could be regarded as such had they been said by a Muslim leader. Herein lies both the problem, and Abbott’s frustration: He believes Muslim leaders are not squaring up to the structural flaw in a belief system which is ambivalent to secular modernity, and which is so readily appropriated by extremists for holy war.

But the very enunciation of these arguments by a punchy, fiercely conservative ex-PM who trained for a time as a Catholic priest, has critics worried that it is counter-productive.”

He concludes with the position of Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Progress comes from “strengthened social unity and internally driven change by moderate mainstream Muslims.”

So Abbott’s points are basically reasonable, Islam needs reform, and Muslim leaders – the “moderate mainstream” ones – need to step up, which apparently they are failing to do. Alas, Abbott’s approach is counterproductive. Remember – the chief political correspondent of Fairfax.

And lastly, Annabel Crabb – star columnist and TV personality for the ABC – who was published the next day. She found amusement in Abbott’s comments that Islam needed to have a good hard look at itself; ideally by means of a formal Reformation process… Not because Islam is not in need of reform; it’s pretty hard to disagree with that proposition.” But because he was in a poor position to accuse “an entire religion of poor self-awareness”. Note that this seemed so uncontroversially obvious to Crabb that she didn’t feel the need to even argue this point.

Whilst some may have thought that Abbott’s comments about Islam would be controversial in Australia, it appears such a view was overly naive.

For the most part, some of the leading figures in Fairfax seem to agree with his stance. Including Crabb, the chief political correspondent, and the editorial writers.

In this context, a sympathetic profile of racist rioters from Cronulla, or the claim that the value of life isn’t really the same in Iraq, can perhaps be better understood.

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Michael Brull

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).

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