Clarifying Islamophobia; Clarifying Interfaith Ethics

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Andrew West on Radio National Religion and Ethics Report recently interviewed a writer who raised interesting perspectives (for Australia) on Islamophobia and Interfaith Ethics.

In a recent episode of ABC Radio National Religion and Ethics Report, program host Andrew West summarised recent events worldwide with regard to responding to an incendiary film and cartoons which riduculed The Prophet Muhammad:

The response from the worldwide Islamic community to all these events has ranged from violent, even deadly protests, to a Pakistani government minister offering a bounty for the death of the film maker, to the more general charge of Islamophobia. But is Islamophobia a reality or a myth? One expert says the term has been used to silence debate about Islam. Indeed writing in The Australian newspaper recently, Clive Kessler called it a moral bludgeon. Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales. He’s an expert in the sociology of religion. He’s spent 40 years studying Islam, especially in Asia and specifically in Malaysia and he challenges the idea that Islamophobia is rife.

Clive Kessler summarised that a phobia is an unfounded irrational baseless fear. The term Islamophobia is all too often used by zealous defenders of Islam as they understand it to silence the voicing of views that are uncongenial and unwelcome to them. Clive Kessler went on to say,

And we cannot I think, have a situation where the term Islamophobia is used as a silencing device.

Andrew West, the program host, raised a critical issue with regard to terminology and understanding the issues:

Andrew West: Do you think though we often confuse Islam and Islamism—and a distinction has been drawn—do you recognise a distinction?

Clive Kessler: I do. Whatever Islam as a religion and a civilisation may be, we are now in a historical situation where after a century or two of the subordination of Islam, many Muslims in the post-colonial era have now come out and wish to reassert themselves in history, reassert Islam in history. Among some people that is a quite proper and properly conducted enterprise. But among some, the notion of Islam itself becomes ideologised, we might say, becomes a sacred cow, and many of the people who see themselves as simply rallying to the defence of Islam are promoting Islamism as a political agenda.

Clive Kessler went on to mention a proper ethic of multiculturalism:

Clive Kessler: That is it, yes. And I do not wish to see any faith community maligned, impugned, publicly humiliated. Under a proper ethic of multiculturalism one doesn’t do that sort of thing. But at the same time we have to recognise that there are a number of difficulties, particularly in the relationships among the three Abrahamic faith communities—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—the dynamic of whose inter-relationships, not just as religions but as civilisations, have shaped the contours of much of modern world history.

Clarifying Islamophobia in Australia

Clive Kessler went on to explain critical issues about Islam and the status of the Prophet Muhammad, and why any material which calls into question the status of the Prophet causes problems:

Clive Kessler: The crucial thing about Islam is the status of the prophet Muhammad, that according to Islamic doctrine, the Koran is the divine, the word of God himself, that was then injected into the world through the medium of the prophet Muhammad and that is why any questioning of the prophet Muhammad calls into question the whole project of Islam itself.

… …

Clive Kessler: Certainly there is the notion that the reputation of the prophet must be protected. And certainly Islam came into the world as a success story. It came within a century of the prophet’s death to rule most of the known world. It lived in the world on its own terms. It wrote its own script. Now this was a very complicated process. Standard Islamic historiography says this was all done by…in peaceful ways that war and the sword were no major or key part of the whole project. So anyone who raises those questions about whether the spread of Islam was entirely peaceful is seen as impugning Islam and the prophet.

The problem for modern Muslims is, that for the last two or three hundred years, ever since Napoleon landed in Egypt, the civilisation of Islam has been in some sense a wounded, a violated civilisation that has not lived in the world on its own terms, but has had to live a historical script written by others, that has yearned to live in the world once more on its own terms and which in our present age is seeking to assert itself in that way.

So the consequence in places such as Australia in particular, outside the Middle East, is that Muslims are minorities living with a majoritarian complex born of the long history of Islam’s civilisational ascendency. And that means that many Muslims find it difficult to abide by any public criticism or comment about Islam or Muhammad that they find uncongenial. And that’s when the charge of Islamophobia is habitually raised.

Clarifying Interfaith Ethics

Clive Kessler then raised the notion of interfaith ethics in a multicultural society. The core prinicples of multiculturalism in Australia are:

  • social cohesion understood as national integration, that is, institutional arrangements for allocating resources and resolving conflicts;
  • equality of opportunity and access;
  • freedom to chose and maintain one’s own cultural identity understood as ‘the sense of belonging and attachment to a particular way of living’; and
  • social duty of requirement of shared ‘responsibility for, commitment to and participation in society

The Australian multicultural vision stipulates, celebrates cultural diversity as an asset, and not a threat or liability. Australian multiculturalism aims, and it has always aimed, at social cohesion or social integration – and not ethnic or religious division fragmentation, let alone separatism. Its original principles, in other words, stress ‘social cohesion’ as the main goal-aspiration.

(For more information and understanding of multiculturalism in Australia, see Prof. Jan Pakluski’s paper Confusions About Multiculturalism on this website.)

Andrew West: Well in your article you say the term Islamophobia is used indiscriminately. But that implies there is occasionally or from time to time, a legitimate use of it. When would you say the term was used legitimately?

Clive Kessler: I don’t like the term Islamophobia in general but this does not mean to say that I think that Muslims do not have an entitlement to voice their sense of dignity and to say when they feel that the interfaith ethics of a multicultural society have been violated. And I think we all have to be sensitive to those concerns with all faith communities.

The reference to an interfaith ethics in a multicultural society raises the idea of reciprocity: Australians have value based responsibilities for creating and maintaining a society where the wealth and contributions of all its citizens are honoured and respected; those citizens also have values-based responsibilities which betoken participation in the national cultural fabric in a manner which adds to and enhances that common-wealth which we call Australia.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor in Sociology at the University of New South Wales and an expert in Islam.

You can listen to the full interview with Clive Kessler on ABC Radio National

Source: ABC Radio National

Photo Credit: ABC Radio National