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Is Education and Work Enough for Integration
Dr Tanveer Ahmed
I have become something of an accidental academic on this issue, ever since Islamic terrorism was one of the world's hot topics. To be honest, I felt into it because I was interested in ideas and this particular topic was closely tied to my experience as a Bangladeshi-Muslim in Australia, albeit in very much a secular household.
Furthermore, my professional life both as a doctor working in psychiatry and a stint in foreign affairs journalism provided a close fit to the topic. All of it was probably brought to a climax when my wife and I were a few minutes from boarding one of the trains exploded by the London bombings.
Some clarifications - I am not a practising Muslim. I actually think this gives me a unique space to comment, a kind of middle ground between the devout and the wider Australian community. I remain very interested because it is so tied to my ancestry and plays such a huge role in modern politics, let alone the personal lives of over a billion people. I am more interested in politics than theology and the topic I speak of is more about the political expression of religion and identity.
I am not so interested in debating 'what is Islam' but am more concerned about people, their acts and their motivations and what this says about our world today.
I remember a trip in the late 90s to the UK where I was fascinated to read about surveys where second generation youth from South Asia- from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - were showing 2-3 times the rate of mental illness as compared to the wider British population. Being of Bangladeshi background myself, I took note of some of the theories related to this anomaly.
The prevailing one was that the children lived compartmentalised lives, growing up in households with almost diametrically opposite value systems to the outside world. They had greater difficulties reconciling their sense of self, a task that we tend to complete through those annoying years of adolescence. At home they were taught collectivism, sexual segregation and religious commitment. The permissiveness they experienced outside was the direct opposite.
In lay terms, so the theory went, many such kids could not contain such an inconsistent sense of self through to adulthood. They reported cases of what they called "fundamental change", where they picked an extreme. This could take manifest in neurotic disorders such as anxiety, depression or drug abuse. It could mean greater instances of criminality. Another was a move towards greater religiosity, finding a place where their sense of difference could be expressed and a collective identity acquired. Surveys in Britain within this population have consistently shown over the past decade a generation of kids more religious than their parents.
At the same time, I was hearing friends and acquaintances of mine saying how they felt neither Australian nor Bangladeshi, but just Muslim. I didn't really connect because I felt very Australian, yet tied to my Bangladeshi ancestry. I want to say here that I was hearing such things primarily from South Asian Muslims and almost never from, say, Lebanese Muslims. I believe it is a reflection of the politics of the countries of derivation. In this case, it was those of the subcontinent. Pakistan was borne from partition where the divide was very much one of religion. The major political struggle of Bangladesh is that of secular nationalism versus a religious extremism. I think this struggle is imported among the expatriate communities in the West, even in the first and second generation. Then, especially when the cultural ties feel distant, religion often fills the void.
This is a key difference among Australian Muslims, whose dominant ethnic group is Lebanese, and British Muslims who are primarily South Asian. The other key differences are that the proportion here is much less at 2% of the population and the economic exclusion is not as great either.
Now, back to some of the people that were finding solace in religion. They were usually from stricter households. Their parents often stopped them from attending social events such as dances and parties, even school excursions. They couldn't have girlfriends, didn't drink alcohol…genuinely distant from the dominant social life.
Now my observations in this regard started becoming really interesting after September 11. I remember reading about one of the perpetrators, Moussaoui, a young Frenchman of Moroccan descent. His brother recounted Moussaoui's journey towards religiosity beginning after he was repeatedly denied jobs and culminating when he was rejected from a Parisian nightclub allegedly for being an Arab. He turned to Islam when he felt he could no longer be French.
Around the same time, Omar Sheikh, a Brit of Pakistani descent, educated at the London School of Economics, was arrested for killing Daniel Pearl. In his testimony he described himself as neither British nor Pakistani, just Muslim. He also he could never be accepted by the 'racist' British.
A year later, a young medical student here in Sydney, Ihsan Al-Haque, was arrested and later acquitted for training with a banned group. He failed a year of medical school and told his parents that he was "sick of Westerners". Instead of travelling Europe or spending some time in Byron Bay like many other university students in their break, he joined a group dedicated to Kashmiri liberation. This was a man who had spent almost his entire life in Australia.
This is where my initial examples overlap with the theme of social protest. These people turned to a radical, very political version of their religion when they felt they could no longer be part of the society they lived in. For people with their own sense of victimhood and alienation, Islamism offers a potent identity to express their sense of alienation and connect their personal story to a larger, global struggle, fuelled by television images of conflicts such as those in Palestine, Chechnya or Iraq.
This has a link with the growing force of religion throughout the world in general, particularly in politics - from the Christian Right in the US to the Hindu nationalists in India. This trait of yearning for collective identities is a key feature of globalisation and related to the decline in more traditional identities such as nationalism or other structures such as political parties or unions. The many smaller tribal battles varying from Southern Thailand to many parts of Africa owe themselves, at least in part, to this trend. It is only likely to grow as a force, considering the very rapid urbanisation around the world. The move from collective, agrarian based communities to the more atomised, individualist cities is one that can cause considerable psychic disturbance, especially at the rate that it's occurring today.
But back to the global struggle. This idea of the global ummah, or international Muslim community, sounds a lot like the communist idea of the international working class that might rise up against their capitalist oppressors. Of course, this was the dominant form of social protest decades ago and still occurs to a lesser extent through what is often described as the anti-globalisation movement.
This link is not entirely coincidental and I want to refer to two of the most influential forms of Islamism today - the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jamaat-Islam group, a derivation of which co-ordinated the Bali bombings.
The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a school teacher called Al-Banna. He modelled the slogan of his paramilitary organization--"action, obedience, silence"--on Mussolini's injunction to "believe, obey, fight". Taking a cue from the Nazis, he placed great emphasis on the Muslim Brotherhood's youth wing and on the marriage of the physical and the spiritual, of Islam with activism.
A second source of Islamism can be traced to the founder of the Jamaat movement in Pakistan in the early 1940s. Mawdudi was a journalist well-versed in Marxist thought and advocated struggle by an Islamic "revolutionary vanguard" against both the West and traditional Islam. He was perhaps the first to attach the adjective 'Islamic' to such distinctively Western terms as 'revolution,' 'state,' and 'ideology.' "
This was brought together by Qutb, one of the major intellectual inspirations for Al-Qaeda, who called for a monolithic state led by an Islamic party, advocating the use of any violent means necessary to achieve that end. The society he envisioned would be classless, one in which the "selfish individual" of liberal societies would be abolished and the "exploitation of man by man" would end. This, as many commentators have pointed out, was "Leninism in an Islamist dress," and it is the creed embraced by most present-day Islamists.
So this sheds light on why you had a besieged Hilaly, who publicly expressed admiration for Qutb, responding last year in effect 'why the hell are you coming after me when America is the great oppressor.' Just as amusing was last month when there was the radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir having their conference here in Sydney. This is a group banned in the UK which calls for the non-violent but global uptake of Islamic law. In between talking about the Great Satan and the moral corruption of the West, their keynote speaker suddenly launched into why a country's utilities and telecommunications sectors should be nationalized.
Considering this historical overlap with left wing groups and modern Islamism, it is not such a surprise, as occurred during protests last year surrounding the war in Lebanon, of union leaders wearing Yasser Arafat's headgear or environmental groups chanting "Allah Akbar" or God is great, in alliance with the Lebanese community.
Infact, shouting 'God is great' in Arabic has become something of an anti-establishment 'Screw you' in some circles. For example during the separate rape trials of Pakistani brothers and Lebanese youth led by Skaf, there were multiple chants of 'Allah Akbar' to drown out the judge and when the sentence was read, despite the accused having little interest in their religion prior to the crimes. This was also the case during the race riots, when reprisal attacks were held aloft by some, as a kind of jihad.
So increasingly, right around the world, we are seeing a growing number of cases where people who may have previously joined a radical left wing group are now converting to Islam. It is almost their revenge on the society they feel has wronged them, perceiving that Islam is fundamentally opposed to it.
This is given even greater weight when you consider that not only are a great proportion of the world's poor of the Muslim faith, increasingly, the places of social exclusion in the West also have a strong ethno-religious flavour, from North Africans in Paris, South Asians in the UK and, to a lesser extent, Lebanese in south-western Sydney. Their disadvantage has a lot more to do with socio-economics than religion, but that doesn't dampen the symbolic attraction. These spaces will increasingly be occupied by those from sub-Saharan Africa, who are also majority Muslim.
The theme of protest is clearly illustrated in the jail systems, where groups as diverse as African American Negroes, British-Jamaicans and Australian-Aborigines are showing growing numbers of conversions to Islam. While it didn't occur in jail, Anthony "The Man" Mundine is the clearest example of this in Australia. Day by day, his pronouncements become more political. Don't be surprised if he soon starts making references to jihad or the moral degradation of Australian society.
I find converts particularly interesting, because they have any ethnic flavour to the religion stripped away and the modern symbolic appeal is clearer. There are a host of reasons people convert, but there is certainly a group that does so because they see becoming Muslim as a kind of uniform to generally wreak havoc. David Hicks is such an example, having sought out a number of religions before converting to Islam and then training in Afghanistan. One of my favourites is a French guy called Lionel Dumont who was found fighting on the side of the Bosnians in the late 90s. When quizzed about what the hell he was doing there, he said, a little inexplicably, that "Muslims are the only ones to fight the system."
There are many similar cases, from the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, to Jihad Jack, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines to Don Stewart Whyte, the relative of the member of the British Conservative Party who was arrested in the UK last year for plotting a terrorist act.
I spotted what I think is a particularly interesting version of a similar trend recently. In Bangladesh, there are growing numbers of university graduates who end up in dead end jobs or are unemployed later joining the party of Islamic extremism. This is akin to the accusation made against the Labour Party that rather than get the best of the working class, they now get the rejects of the middle class. Furthermore, in countries like Bangladesh, it's leading to the worrying situation where, along with banks and multinationals, religious extremists are visiting MBA schools handing out pamphlets, hoping to recruit from the drop outs.
I am conscious of time so I will wrap up and perhaps clarify things further during the discussion.
Where to from here?
I just want to say that Islamism holds a considerable prestige around many sections of the developing world and among those who feel marginalised in the West. The fact is the ideology, through Al-Qaeda, was able to hurt the US in a way the anti-globalisation movement could not. They will retain this prestige for some time yet, especially if conflicts like Iraq remain the disaster they are.
The challenge for countries like Australia is to provide a sense of collective identity beyond a bland sense of tolerance and metaphorical group hugs. The danger is, of course, as we saw a little during the Big Day Out controversy, that it doesn't turn into something that will be perceived by many as a "white pride" version of nationalism.
The modern world, for many, holds limitless choice and boundless opportunity. Our identities in such an environment are possibly more fluid than they've ever been. This suits many of us, even if it results in looser ties with nation, work or even family and community. But the yearning for a collective identity is undiminished and for those feeling disaffected by the modern system, ideologies that offer a moral and ideological clarity, such as Islamism, will retain a potent appeal.