Issue 44, December 2004

Cross religious misunderstanding or a clash between civilizations in Australia

Abe W. Ata

Australia displays an outstanding record, perhaps beyond any other multicultural society, in displaying tolerance and in accommodating an incredibly diverse population.

As the Australian community continues to look for ways to mount an inclusive action on behalf of the common good, it takes time to appreciate all the diversities and discover common values between the two groups. Clearly the cultural and historical differences between Christian and Muslim communities in our society are too wide to make a complete reconciliation, but, given the alternatives, a creative dialogue must continue. Just like mixed marriages, certain differences between the two faiths may be identified, without being fully reconciled. A starting point towards this end is identifying misconceptions, misgivings and the roots of grievances.

1. Grievances of the Australian Muslim community

A number of groups — church social justice committees, the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board, the Australian Arabic Council of Victoria, the Islamic Council, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry in Sydney, and some journalists — have observed that the patterns of harassment against the Muslim community have not emerged suddenly.

These organizations, and others, have repeatedly voiced their concern about instances of racial prejudice, long before the events in the Gulf in the early 1990s. Participants in this study were asked if they have experienced any form of prejudice in their marriage.

At a local level, instances ranging between reported personal harassment and media bias have been common. The newsletter, ‘Migration Action’ of the Ecumenical Migration Centre (April, l991) reported vandalisation of several Muslim schools and places of worship. Police were also notified of stolen reference books and computer software. Associated damage in some instances involved burnt carpets and broken glass.

Harassment in the street and schoolyard involved name-calling and slurs, abuse, pulling head scarves off women’s heads, spitting, refusal of housing and accommodation, telephone or mail threats, graffiti on houses, and throwing of dirty water on women wearing traditional dress in shopping malls.

Many of these instances were not officially reported for fear of further harassment or ignorance of actionable pathways to follow.

Another area of complaint concerned children of Arab-speaking parents. Their grievances related to a number of issues, one of which raised anger among the community. During the Gulf War, many students, including those from a Muslim heritage, were taken to churches to pray for American and Australian troops fighting against Iraq. Muslim parents objected to the fact that such trips were made compulsory and so greatly lacking in sensitivity.

In an earlier investigation I found various types of grievance of the local Muslim community, which fall into two main categories:
(a) Split vision — a cultural religious myopia in the media and textbooks

It is generally agreed that reporting on Muslim issues in the local media since the 1970s and particularly through the recent Palestinian crisis brought about an atmosphere of religious disharmony. Muslims believe that an in-built bias in Australian reporting make the context of the events more of a focus than the events themselves. Those, for example, who fled on epic journeys from extremist regimes are made to carry the stereotype of their leaders. Iraqi refugees and other asylum seekers in detention centres have often been described as ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘genetically terrorists’.

The economic, historical and religious diversity of some sixty Muslim countries are rarely presented. Usually images portray Muslims as bland, simple, manageable and an inferior entity. One example is the portrayal of Muslim countries as ‘oil rich’, while many, such as the Sudan, Yemen and Gaza are extremely impoverished.

In the Oxford Children’s Reference Library Volume, one author gives the following definitions:
What is an Arab? An Arab is a smooth shopkeeper, who pops out of his booth to persuade a foreigner to pay twice the value for his carpet or leather bag; the baggy trousered workman asleep on the corner of the pavement and not bothered at all whether he finishes his work today, tomorrow, or never; a peasant who rides a donkey, while his wife in a long black robe walks behind carrying bundles. All these are Arab.

A further reference says:
In some parts of the Arab world if a girl is thought to have behaved badly, her brother may kill her, and the neighbours will admire him for doing his duty.

A major study of Victorian schools showed that the type of school attended correlated with the degree of stereotyping. Private school students were more likely to accept negative stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs. The study involved the application of words such as ‘rude’, ‘rich’, ‘intelligent’, ‘aggressive’, ‘lecherous’ and ‘primitive’.

Stereotyping can be found in books assigned for student reading. In The Shabby Sheikh, where the setting is Australia, not Arabia, the villain is known as the Shabby Sheikh ‘because he resembles a phony Arab’. Illustrations reveal an ugly Australian in Arab clothing riding a camel and tormenting anyone in his way.

The study found that the absence of both comprehensive relevant curriculum material and teachers with complete insight into both cultures, was a primary factor behind that.

Some years ago an Australian teacher with a Muslim background was astounded by an article appearing in the Herald (19 April l980). The article objected to a proposal to found Victoria’s first Islamic school. Quoting a neighbour, Mr R. Scopel said, ‘We are not going to let this happen. It will create traffic hazard and it would be a health hazard to have another couple of hundred people inside my driveway … and they abuse you.

Almost 23 years later, tension was fuelled by an incident of gang rape in Sydney involving Australian-Lebanese Muslim youths. The media and leaders of the Muslim community were quick to provide their own version of analysis. The Age (24 July 2002) published two main feature articles carrying opposing views. The first, titled ‘Some Muslim leaders need to realize multiculturalism is a two-way street’, argued that that ‘racially motivated rape, the intention of which is to defile the women of the enemy, is as old as warfare, but it is devastating to think that this could be happening in Australia today’. The writer, a female journalist, is stunned that the divide between some Muslim beliefs and the secular Australian culture is so deep. The article points out that the media have been accused of ‘breeding hatred by identifying the ethnicity and religion of the rapists. But the rapists themselves identified these as the motivating factor. [Subsequently] the media would not be fulfilling their purpose if they covered up this fact or fear of offending some communities’.

The second article, ‘The media’s obsession with race sheds no light on crime’, presented an opposing view that the ‘stone-throwers’ present ‘the culture’ of the rapists as being a relevant cause of the criminal behaviour. The writer poses the following, ‘Now which culture is that? The Muslims? But most Muslims are not Arabs such as our nearest neighbor Indonesia. The Lebanese? But about half of the Lebanese are Christians. The Arabs? But the offenders are home-grown Australians.’

Ironically, proportionally few of the educated community take any steps to remedy the situation. Efforts to promote harmony on talk-back radio, in letters to the editor, book reviews, films, comedy festivals, public debates, or photographic displays are almost nonexistent. The question of why there are no people within the Muslim and Arab communities who are able to project a human face in Australia remains a moot one.

(b) Middle Eastern Christians

Other reports tend to ignore the existence of 15 million Christian Arabs who haved lived in Muslim-controlled regimes since the birth of Christ. The existence of such people in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and other Muslim countries has been ignored in many of the textbooks used in secondary and primary schools. Like Eastern European Christians, the Christian Arab community is subsumed under the flag of Western Christianity. For instance, in any religious dialogues between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, their distinct identity, experiences and character is immediately subsumed under the one Western coined label of ‘Christianity’.

People promoting sentiments of a mono-religious and mono-cultural Australia may be motivated by a kind of loyalty, but they are hindering the development of a newly emerging Australian identity. This new identity will come to see Muslim-Australians to be like Catholic-Australians, Italian-Australians, Irish-Australians … that is, both Muslim and Australian.

Examples from the media show a Muslim community that is viewed as one whose culture is diametrically opposite to the mainstream society. The differences are marked by the refusal of the community to come to terms with the Anglo-Saxon mores — mores of a Western culture that defines it as ‘rational, developed, humane and superior’. The former, by contrast, is ‘psychotic, unbalanced, skilled only at self-defeating rhetoric. It is something to be feared and controlled’.

2. Grievances of the Australian Christian community

Clear-thinking Australians point out that whatever wall exists between the Muslim and Christian worlds, it has been built by both sides. It is a wall that is founded on values and ideals which two groups of people hold in their heads. This cultural wall has existed for a long time. With an increase in migration from Muslim countries, whereby the Muslim religion has become the second largest in the country, the wall has increased in height and influence.

With all of the scarring perpetrated between the two communities as they became wary of one another’s existence, the government’s multicultural initiatives are seeds waiting to take root. Despite initiatives in integrating all of the migrant communities and their overall views and decisions into the mainstream society, a few individuals are unable or unwilling to draw the fine line between Muslim Australians and Muslims living overseas. In a letter to the editor of The Age (5 June 2002) a woman asks,
Re “Palestinian killed on the way to prayers” (World, 3/6/2002), is it normal for a Muslim to carry a gun to the mosque to pray? Last month a church in Pakistan was the scene of a bloody attack where an American diplomat and her daughter were killed. Churches in the Philippines are also targets for terror. Clearly to Islamic “terrorists”, synagogue or church is not a holy ground.

There was no reference in the letter of an Australian ‘self-identified’ Christian who set fire to the Muslims’ second holiest shrine in East Jerusalem two decades earlier.

Others note that Australia, like other English-speaking countries, press its ‘Christian’ values for individual and women’s rights, and religious freedom of worship, but continue to support authoritarian regimes in supplying weapons and technology. The leaders in Canberra talk to Muslim rulers — not to the people — about where they are heading in the future; and how they can work and live together.

In Australia, the separation between the religious and secular identities is a cultural and political given. The community may have been influenced by Christian values, but, unlike citizens of Muslim countries, their identity is not exchangeable with a religious affiliation. Muslim participants in this study identified with their particular religious group, but few Christian partners did.

Before a multi-culturally politically correct Australia, social thinkers expressed serious reservations towards ethnic diversity. A radio talkback program asked a prominent academic,

We have secularized Australia and made our religions a private matter. Why is it when we deal with certain incoming communities we are required to deal with their religious beliefs or religious leaders? They may have a larger influence on members of their community than their secular leaders. But we are not dealing with foreign countries here.

Another asked,
If Laden, a spiritual leader, does not represent true Islam. Who does represent true Islam? “Will the real Islam stand up?” This is the kind of question that our military and diplomatic institutions are designed never to ask and never to notice they are not asking (Jack Miles, ‘Theology and clash of civilizations’, in Cross Currents, p.4, vol. 51, no. 4, 2002).

The polarised sexual attitudes between the sexually restrictive Muslims communities and a permissive Australian society is a major factor that perpetuates a volatile cultural divide.

A rigid code of honour of males (ird) for first generation Muslims continues to affect what women wear, what they see, places they are not to go, who to mix with, how early they are to return home, what permissive issues they are not to engage within or outside their own community, which places of entertainment involving drinking and dancing they are to avoid, and why they should not take part in mixed fitness gym/aquatic activities.

For the parents it is inconceivable why their daughter would want to dress like other ‘parent-absent’ Australian girls and make herself sexually attractive. ‘Why should she exhibit her charms if she does not mean to sell or give them away?’ is a popular question that illustrates the conservative mindset of many participants within an ethnic community (Ata, l980 PhD).

Like other migrant communities, Muslim families increasingly believe they should not feel under pressure to give up their identity, and that their traditional family structure should not be eroded.

To the Australian society, composed of both Anglo and non-Anglo Australian born, expressions of opinion and criticism of their lifestyle is synonymous with separation and antagonism — definitely not to be tolerated. Studies describing attitudes of first generation migrants towards Australia are sporadic and few.

The air of naive wonder with which an alien culture is described probably needs no further comment. A newly arrived Egyptian immigrant typifies such observations heard nowadays:
One of the things which puzzles the newcomer is the customs of the Australian people, their love for instructions and law and order … the Australian obeys warning notices and thus he avoids incurring severe [legal] punishment … traffic lights are operated automatically and the public obeys them even though there is no traffic on the road (p.33).

Pretty girls seem to attract attention as they wear mini skirts in the cold licking the ice cream … coffee and tea are obtained from vending machines, otherwise known as ‘auto service’.

Life here is constantly moving, like a factory in which everyone is working and producing; and then they eat their meals in the streets, on the tram, or on buses (p. 34).

Speaking of sex shops, this is a subject without an end … strip shows showing beautiful figures — and what incredible figures they are — attempting to excite their customers with their sighs, moans and groans (Samir al-Muhandis, Al-Tareek ila Australia [The way to Australia], Cairo, 1974).

In one study, the differences between the predominantly Australian ‘Christian’ culture and Arab ‘Muslim’ culture were cited as a major factor in creating negative reactions towards Australia by the latter community (Ata, l980 PhD). Responses relating to sexual permissiveness (19%), unfriendliness (29%) and lack of spiritual values (27%) constituted the bulk of replies. Remarked one participant,
We give them [the Australians] our hand to shake, and to become friends. Their eyes open instead thinking we don’t want to touch them … You know what I mean, don’t you? Friendship with Australians is easy to make, easy to lose. We have tried the lot … We invite them to our house, they never show up … and if we talk to them they open the door a little but they never let you in … still it is their country.

It is true the above comments are manifestations of a culture shock which most migrants experience when values of the host culture are perceived to contradict those of a traditional social upbringing. In such societies, where informal modes of communication current across civil, official, legal, departmental and institutional spheres of the culture, one’s private affairs are considered to be of public interest.

The clear-cut separation between business and pleasure in societies like Australia leaves traditional migrant families baffled.

Some criticised a lack of family ties and upbringing of Australian children. One parent said,
When their [Australian] children begin to earn money they don’t know their parents any more. So they take drugs, drink and bludge around … or they form gangs and tease everyone in the street … Don’t worry, my girl is doing the same now. She always wants to do things privately and be by herself …

The following quotation highlights the double standards which some migrant males exhibit within their community. An Australian doctor of Lebanese background observed,
Our men convey an impression of decency and religiosity by sheltering their wives at home … In the most secret circumstances, they continue to seek treatment for venereal diseases which they have obtained from “places of entertainment” … Their wives become infected as a result, and the repercussions are obvious — severe infection or divorce.

Of the sixty ethnic newspapers surveyed, less than a handful attempt to bring their readers into contact with Australian news, politics, or decisions that are directly relevant to their immediate social concerns. No doubt a few of the community’s more open thinkers realize this, but they are unable to surmount the historical and religio-political forces which prove too strong for well-intentioned reformers. This has forced several Muslim communities to pay a high price. Chief amongst them is an unemployment figure of 34% — the highest among 160 ethnic and religious groups. Another is a recently-acquired label of ‘The Lebanese back’, a symptom that allegedly places those claiming for workcare benefits above any other migrant community.

An important point to be stressed is that news items and editorials are written uniformly by, for and about first generation migrants of Muslim background, with little or no attempt to cover the affairs of or publish contributions from second generations. It is not, of course, merely the editorials that express a point of view, but the content of papers as a whole; the selection of subjects worthy of attention and the interpretation.

Rarely devoted to abstract discussions, endorsing the benefits of integration, dialogue, and participation in the cultural, artistic and intellectual life of the Australian culture, such articles continue to dramatize the local gossip and the various inter-community political struggles. Less than six per cent of a total of 460 randomly analyzed articles during a five year period had an ‘Australian’ content.

Fostering a meaningful dialogue

The non-too-complimentary attitudes between Christian and Muslim communities continue to fill folkloric and literary pages of the two traditions. It may take one look to find out that interfaith couples can work out their religious differences, and that it is usually the families and their respective community who require a little coaxing.

In assessing the current situation, there is a need to break down further stereotypes of one another and to remove fear of each other’s religion. Those non-accommodating attitudes often take on a religious dimension fueling further misrepresentations, false inter-pretations and misperceptions of each other.

The following affirmations, in both the Australian Muslim and Christian communities, should be fostered to promote inclusiveness, togetherness and diversity, and to dispel xenophobic attitudes:

In Australian Muslim communities

The Australian- Muslim communities can play a role in bringing about various initiatives. Many ordinary and professional thinkers have become more publicly vocal. An Australian Muslim academic, Kamal Siddiqi, notes that many of the overseas resident clerics who come to Australia have little knowledge of the local culture and may inadvertently do a disservice to the community. Not only do they replace home-grown ones but they continue to look to their home country to address local problems.

One of these would be to clarify that Muslims and Arabs cannot be lumped under one title. They may share common religious rituals and beliefs, but like the Christian communities they are separated by denominational affiliations, language, cultural upbringing and affinities to Western cultures and political alliances. Recent research, for example, reveals that certain Australian Muslim communities share with non-Muslim communities more in their beliefs on issues of division of labour and children upbringing than with other ethnic co-religionists.

Australia’s Muslim communities want to live in Australian society and not live apart from it. Muslim thinkers are tilting in the direction of increased integration and participation in civic life. One of the critical steps is to engage with educational curriculum consultants nationally and at a state level. They may propose inclusion of subjects relating to their current and eventual contribution to the building of multicultural Australia; the diversity of Muslim cultures and diverse Christian (and Jewish) minorities in their countries of origin; the emerging identities of children within Christian-Muslim marriages; their willingness and eventual participation in the cultural, artistic, literary, and political expression of the mainstream society.

They can make their position clearer as to their stance on issues of extremism and moderation — that a minority of extremists do not speak in the name of a majority. In doing so, they will allay the dilemmas of many ‘other’ Australians in wanting to know who the moderates are and who the fanatics are? Such a dilemma was often expressed in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the print media. One said:

Either you are opposed to barbarism in the name of your religion or you are not.. If you do not, you shouldn’t be surprised when those who are the targets of terrorists eye you suspiciously (The Age, Letters, 22 October 2002).

In Australian Christian communities

The Australian Christian communities can equally play a role in rapprochement by endorsing various initiatives. Foremost of these, they can endorse the first steps of reform experienced by sections of the Muslim communities. Although their religions and cultures are different, a note underscoring that their primary motive of migrating to Australia is the safety and education of their children is in order. Their willingness to contribute to Australia is only hindered by never-ending misconception, false accusations and exaggeration of difference by some section of the broader community.

That said, significant differences in the teaching and attitudes between the two religions are not to be side-stepped due to a false sense of security. Differences of interpretation towards social values and way of life, individual accountability, consensual decision-making, and attitudes towards implementing moral imperatives do exist. It is feasible that we should be able to acknowledge them, respect them and address them without aiming at a fine compromise. Not because we no longer need a dialogue, but because ‘these different approaches have concrete implications to both communities living together in a shared place’. Prof. Robert Manne has referred to this capacity of accommodating many cultural and religious expressions — within a single language, law and polity — multiculturalism.

Moderate Muslims who keep their faith on a personal level, avoid bringing political issues out of it, and feel embarrassed at actions made under the banner of their religion are in particular need of such an endorsement. Absence of religious hierarchy has prompted many moderate Muslims to take matters into their own hands and become more organized. For a self-serving minority it may be politically convenient to demonize others on the basis of race or religion, but it never defeats their own phobias.

As Australian society matures into a full cultural inclusiveness, those who promote Islamo-phobia, Australia’s fear of non-Western cultures and assertion of ‘their’ culture and life, shrink in numbers. When a conservative member of Parliament called for a ban on Muslim women wearing their traditional dress, he sparked an uproar both in the Parliament and community. He was made to account for his attack on the values of modesty of a religious observance, and misunderstanding of the nature of religious freedom in a liberal-democratic society.

In Australian Arab Christian communities

While the Muslim communities have had their fair share of demonization, Christian Arabs were treated as non-people or at best as token Christians. There has been little doubt in the mind of the ordinary person that they must have converted from Islam. The code of silence has inadvertently made it politically convenient for Islaomophobes to keep the flame of hatred alive. In marginalizing the Christian Arab communities they keep alive the ‘Western only’ Judeo-Christian agenda, and conveniently promote a sectarian anti-Muslim fanaticism that hinders well-intentioned steps for dialogue.

The mainstream versus Muslim ethnic media

For a long time, to be a Muslim or Arab in the western media is to be an object of belittlement. They are made to endure the Hollywood stereotypes and religious misnomers forced on them whether by accident or design. The unprincipled have conveniently made them to pay the price of the post-War guilt feelings of the western nations.

Print and broadcast media in Australia and the US have been selective in foreign news coverage, leading to a poorly educated Australian public This may be one of the reasons that some Australians, and most Americans, were so shocked by the events of September 11 — they have little to no knowledge of politics, ideology or religion in the rest of the world. In proportion, the space given to crime, violence, sex and scandals has greatly increased.

In the same vein, the Muslim community plays a part in formulating the reactions of the main society. The dozen or so ethnic Arab Muslim papers have been a channel through which the community vents its own political and cultural frustrations, though at a price. Amongst its failing, the Muslim Arabic press, despite the proclaimed good intentions of some editors, tended to accentuate the political and socio-economic divisions between the various sections of the community. It devotes some 85 per cent of its space to the ethnic community and news of the home country of origin, with only a portion devoted to Australian society.

The Muslim/Arabic press has succeeded in perpetuating a native cultural tradition in a host society, perhaps more so than any other migrant press. With time this isolation may give way to strengthening integration. It may provide the community with increasing confidence, and sufficient bonding to open up to bicultural values.

The flow of information and fair sense of play, we believe, is a two-way traffic. The ethnic Muslim communities and their press were less sophisticated and more cut off from the mainstream cultural life. Today more names of second generation migrants writing and editing in the mainstream media should speed up this process.

At the end of the day each community should ask : what are we doing to portray a better image of the other community?

Dr Abe Ata is senior fellow at the Institute for the Advancement of Research, Australian catholic University in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia.

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