Muslims the focus of misplaced fears
February 20, 2010
There is no hidden agenda for sharia law; Western society is not under threat.
“F— Off We’re Full” is one of the more odious Facebook groups in which members regularly bemoan Muslim immigration to Australia. It is currently in its sixth incarnation, having been taken offline and then replaced by other similarly named groups. Still, the viral meme lives on. Jade encourages people to join a petition to ”send asylum boat people home”; Faye makes a joke offering ”Muslims, Lebs an Indians” free bungee jumps with ”no strings attached”; and Kris wonders why wherever Islam is, ”evil follows”.
The sentiment “don’t come here if you don’t like our way of life” means nothing when you consider that, at last count, 40 per cent of Muslims in Australia were not foreign immigrants but were born here. Lots of Mohammads and Aishas are true-blue, happy little Vegemites sitting next to our Jacks, Marias, Sanjeevs and Nguyens in school, and that percentage is sure to increase at the next census.
However, the thrust of their arguments, and the much milder variants that spring from the mouths of politicians and the pens of journalists, is that the demographic growth of Muslims in Australia and other Western nations is a worrying phenomenon that, if left unchecked, could destroy the very fabric of Western society.
There are a number of interrelated fears of Muslims that boil down to the prophecy that on attaining sizeable numbers, Muslims will seek to impose their religion on other Australians, either by force or by creeping Islamisation. Evidence for this grim fantasy is seen in everything from innocuous halal-certification for food to the myth of the Muslim eradication of Christmas from kindergartens and council premises.
But for those who worry about Muslims in their midst, nothing screams “Islam is coming” louder than the sight of heavily veiled women in supermarkets, libraries, parks and other public spaces.
It is little wonder that the French have pounced on Islamic female dress as the epitome of un-French. Veiled Muslim women are viewed both as aggressively intruding into hard-won French secularity, and at the same time embodying passive acquiescence to misogynist oppression.
The solution trumpeted by defenders of French identity, under the guise of women’s rights, is to substitute a perceived lack of freedom with an actual one.
A burqa ban would mean that Muslim men might no longer force their women to cover up through presumed social pressure, because the state will force them to uncover through legal proscription, all in the name of upholding liberty and equality.
There are some Australian commentators urging the same for our Muslims – fortunately few take them seriously.
In reality, the debate is not about women’s rights. It is about whether Muslim immigration and settlement will fundamentally and negatively alter the fabric of Western society. In other words, are Muslims a slow-growing cancer?
The evidence suggests that Muslim settlement and integration into Australian society is, by and large, successful. Contrary to the alarmist rhetoric of shock-jocks and pundits, political Islamism and the establishment of theocracy is not mainstream theology, nor is it how most Muslims interpret the role of religion in society.
It is simply untrue that Muslim Australians are interested in superimposing some overseas model of sharia law in Australia.
A good many of them (or their parents) fled totalitarian regimes in search of freedom and they tell us they have found it in Australia.
As part of an Australian Research Council Linkage project, 600 Muslim Australians were surveyed about their experiences of life in Australia. “Freedom” was rated as the top characteristic of Australian society when participants were presented with a mixed list of 20 Australian and un-Australian attributes.
Of 594 participants who answered the questions, 87 per cent agreed or strongly agreed they could be both a “good Muslim and a good Australian” at the same time. Only 5 per cent felt conflicted enough to disagree or strongly disagree with the notion, and this is partly due to a feeling that to be truly Australian means having British ancestry or doing things that conflict with Islam (such as drinking beer).
There are some problems: Muslims suffer for the want of good leadership (although the appointment of Sheikh Fehmi al-Imam as Mufti of Australia was a step in the right direction), and community infrastructure needs development. This has long been hindered by myopic local councils rejecting mosque and school proposals.
The success of Muslim settlement and inclusion in Australian society can be attributed in part to the way we construct an inclusive national identity and to the democratic freedoms – including religious freedom – that Australia offers its citizens.
This success would be imperilled by French-style bans and a shift to exclusivist, monocultural nationalism that is hindering European attempts to grapple with changing demographics.
Rachel Woodlock is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University.