This opinion piece first appeared in ‘Online Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate’ on 3/12/2015. The article on that site can be found HERE
As an Atheist I have no contact with God in any of his or her forms. Yet as an educated human I understand that some people need a belief system in their lives. While I may think that nearly all of these systems are devoid of common sense, some are more palatable than others. Islam, in its purest sense, isn’t one of them.
Now we don’t need to have immersed ourselves in the teachings of a particular religion to feel the ‘vibe’ of the religion. Our 21st century brains are very well trained at getting the ‘gist’ of most things. From films to books to consumer products, we don’t need to be scholars to get our own personal perspective of things and religion is no exception.
The Hindu religion is fascinating and has some wonderfully colourful characters. When travelling in India or within Indian communities at home in Australia I’ve never felt threatened or insecure. Sure, there’s some scary Hindu Gods like Kali or Shiva who supposedly create havoc at times. Yet there’s also some very likeable ones like the protection deity Ganga, or my favourite – Ganesh – the Elephant deity of Arts and Sciences. None of these deities urge Hindus to kill.
I find the Buddhist faith equally as benign. Buddhists seem to laugh lots and experience their faith more inwardly. They don’t evangelise unless it’s to those who seek it and they don’t make me feel threatened or insecure. However, I don’t like their orange robes much.
The Christian faith, with its often dour and humourless preaching does make me itch a bit. The churches are always dark and devoid of colour. There’s no orange and there’s no elephants. On visiting the Hillsong Church in north-western Sydney recently, I’ve come to believe that Christians are among the ones likely to form armies of blind faith to march against something or someone. That in itself is scary.
The Sharia difference
Yet the Muslim religion is different. Sharia law is the basic legal framework of the religion and the introduction of Sharia Law into western countries is a goal of Islamist movements around the world. In its truest meaning it is a body of moral and religious law and deals with both state and personal issues. State issues could involve punishments like stoning and beheading while personal law could relate to hygiene, diet and sexuality. There are vast differences between Sharia Law and secular law and these differences are a point of conflict between progressive, moderate and fundamentalist Muslims world over. Fundamentalist Sharia however, is very scary.
Most Muslim countries only practice partial Sharia law meaning secular and Sharia Law work side by side without the extremes we’ve come to see in news broadcasts. Islamists – the fundamentalist kind, don’t represent most Muslims.
Yet our western understanding of Islam is predominantly based on our exposure to news reports about terrorism or crime. Islamic State related terrorism can occupy well over half of a media’s news space while the disproportionate involvement of middle-eastern men in Australian crime has featured heavily in local reports over the past decade. This is reality and reality hasn’t been kind to the Muslim faith in Australia.
Now some may feel I’m being unfair to state that men from middle-eastern backgrounds have a disproportionate involvement in Australian crime. In 2013, the then NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said that the middle-eastern crime wave was getting ‘‘increasingly difficult to combat”. Middle-eastern involvement in Australia’s illicit drug trade is immense. The number of young men from middle-eastern backgrounds participating in gang rapes around the country is staggering. The crimes of Bilal and Mohammed Skaf and many more like them illustrate a hatred of western women that is hard to understand but clearly present.
Yet what frightens me more is the way women are treated in a strict Muslim household. On a recent visit to the Sydney Suburb of Merrylands to check out a 2nd-hand lounge, I found myself in a Muslim household with six men and three women of mixed ages. It was around dinner time. I smiled and said hello to everyone yet the women weren’t allowed to speak to me. One woman tried to illustrate with hand movements how to get the lounge to recline yet was quickly ushered away by a man. It was not a comfortable environment and the muzzling of women is not something most Australians are used to.
The Burqa and Niqab
The Muslim religion is the only one where the more fundamentalist streams hide the faces of women via the Burqa or Niqab. Of course, more moderate Muslim women may wear the Al-Amira, the Hijab, the Shayla or the Chador- all headwear that show the face and still display respect for Muslim values. No problem there whatsoever.
Seeing the face of another human is one way we, as human animals, measure our personal safety. The face shows intent and without seeing it we can only guess at what that intent might be. Sure, we may be wrong at times when a smile hides hate or a frown hides confusion, yet when a fast decision is needed, our initial gut-response is important. Perhaps if the balaclava was worn less in terrorism attacks and robberies we might trust the Burqa a little more. This is unlikely to happen.
The Burqa or the Niqab make our initial biological assessment of safety versus danger impossible. When facial visualisation cannot take place, assessing our relationship with that person becomes futile. It just makes matters worse if women can’t shake hands or speak. Women become chattels or objects devoid of a vital human and indeed natural attribute – communication.
Is this the way we want people to relate to one another in Australia? Is this how we want to see women regarded in this country?
While my left-wing sensibility tells me I ‘should’ tolerate this difference for the sake of diversity, my common sense and indeed biological need for a secure environment tells me this is not OK.
In an interview following the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, the Grand Mufti of Australia Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed spoke all of his answers in Arabic. Is it too much to ask the leader of an Australian religious group to speak in English? Is it too much to ask anyone who elects to become a citizen of Australia to use English as their main mode of verbal communication?
Not embracing the transition from Arabic to English is another way that makes assessing ‘friend or foe’ impossible. If the dominant population of English speakers can’t understand what is being said by a group who are not just over-represented in crime statistics but solely represented in terrorism news, then our first response is to mistrust it. Is there a hidden intent? Is there something they don’t want me to hear? Are they mocking me?
For civil rights types to express disgust at these defensive yet natural responses is to put an entirely non-human perspective on what is really a very human reaction. These are the types who if being chased by a lion, may first say “Oh, here comes a nice, friendly lion because really, some lions CAN be friendly”. They become lion food very quickly.
Open faces – open arms: The push for an Islamic Reformation
Now I understand fully that most people of the Islamic faith in Australia speak English and don’t wear the Burqa. Yet the minority are those with the greatest impact. They are the ones who stand out simply because we can’t possibly relate to them. They may be a regular ‘Aussie’ in lion’s clothing, but gee, we can’t be fully sure.
The Burqa and Niqab must be prohibited in Australia. If we are to give a little by accepting those who need refuge, the Muslim faith must also give a little. Our society has open faces, not just open arms. While civil libertarians and fundamentalist Muslims may see a ban on the Burqa as an attack on Islam, clear thinkers see the reverse to be true – that wearing the Burqa is actually an attack on not just Australian values, but the rights of women. Women should not be muzzled or hidden in this country.
Muslim leaders and indeed any leader must also communicate in English and if they can’t they shouldn’t be speaking in public.
Perhaps what the Islamic faith needs is a reformation; a movement that will bring the outdated and stricter Sharia elements of Islamic belief into the 21st century; a New Testament Islam if you like. If men are too entrenched in inflexible doctrine to mount this reformation, it is the women who, like the feminists of the 1960’s, must take control and force a change that will benefit Muslims around the world. The 1960’s feminist cry of ‘Burn the Bra’ could translate to ‘Burn the Burqa’ – the progressive Muslim women’s cry of the 21st century.
While it’s perhaps too much to expect women from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan to forge a ‘New-Testament Islam, progressive Muslim women from Australia may be perfect to lead the way.