Graeme Blundell, in his assessment of the public broadcasting station SBS, blithely observed that ‘turning thirty is difficult’. A couple of weeks ago Insight on SBS demonstrated just that. The program exhibited the fraught politics and murky ideological realities present when it comes to issues of religion and its place within Australia’s multicultural landscape, but also in the geopolitically unstable landscape of the Middle East. But this is not a new issue; it is just that we are seeing its manifestations in a post September 11 world with a voracious news media cycle.
In a provocatively named ‘Fear of Islam’, the same debate-show formula was on display. The former Muslim apostate, now an evangelical Christian apologist, castigating their former religion for the ills of the world; the eloquent professor using postmodernist terminology to elucidate the differences between radical and moderate Islam; the religious leaders with their authentically heavy accents representing their various amalgamated organisations; and a panoply of audience members with their agitating viewpoints all clamouring to be heard. Of course, there were cogent and sensible observations made, by Randa Abdel Fattah for example, but what was interesting to note was how the separation of church and state – trumpeted as a hallmark of western civilisation – is far from clear because the issue of where religion fits in the public sphere is still being debated.
Inevitably, the Insight discussion was led to the familiar route of maintaining the distinction of so-called good Muslims and bad Muslims. Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani warns against the assumption ‘that we can read people’s political behaviour from their religion or from their culture’. He provocatively continues:
Could it be true that an orthodox Muslim is a potential terrorist? Or, the same thing, that an Orthodox Jew or Christian is a potential terrorist and only a Reform Jew or a Christian convert to Darwinian evolutionary theory is capable of being tolerant of those who do not share his or her convictions?
It is certainly hard these days to defend the virtuous qualities of faiths and religions in the moral haze of massacres and rapacious atrocities in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Israel, etc. But Mamdani raises these questions to think of terrorism and political violence not as some primordial phenomena, but instead as part and parcel of the modern responses to western constructions of the nation-state in the Middle East.
Last week, protesters clashed with Egyptian police after the state refused to grant permission to build a church in Cairo. It ended with a Coptic Christian dead and several protesters injured. There has been a recent surge of sectarian violence against religious minorities in countries such as Iraq and Egypt, mostly due to conversion claims from one religion to another. ‘Conversion,’ noted literary theorist Gauri Viswanathan maintains, ‘is arguably one of the most unsettling political events in the life of a society. This is irrespective of whether conversion involves a single individual or an entire community, whether it is forced or voluntary, or whether it is the result of proselytization or inner spiritual illumination.’
The sense of unsettlement currently being felt is of a different ilk. Fifty-eight Chaldean Christians were recently massacred in a church in Baghdad by extremist groups due to Coptic women, who had converted to Islam, reverting to their original religion. These sectarian cleavages bring to light how secularism is not a hermetically sealed ideology that protects the public and private spheres of life as it claims. There are always leakages, which are not acknowledged by Arab, let alone European, states – think of France and Holland debating the burqa. They are instead glossed over as irrationalities and follies of religious extremists.
The project of the nation-state marked the point where religion was supposed to be held at arms-length at all times, confined to the private sphere. Fair enough, but in reality this hardly happens because faiths and religions are public creatures. By this I mean, their identity expressions cannot be hidden and inevitably they do spill out into the public sphere, and in some cases they are part of everyday life, as with public holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Secularism in this sense is still underpinned by a religious framework. No matter how much moral policing of secularism there is, there needs to be a space for religious practices and freedoms to flourish, especially in the Middle East.
Farid Farid is a final year doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney. His thesis examines the cultural politics of trauma and loss among exiled Iraqi artists & writers.