After Paris, after Beirut and the Aeroflot Russian airline flight and ... and all the other outrages, apparently we have to burn someone. Who, and how, are the questions to be answered. At this difficult time it would be preferable to join hands in unity; but burning nobody, no way, is no longer an option. Pretending that it is an option means that you can overlook a choice "we" seem to have made but not acknowledged. "Us" and "them"In all of the commentary and space-filler surrounding the news from Paris, the commentary from Professor Andrew MacLeod from King's College London stood out. He said that in any war you have to define "us" (who we are fighting with, and for) and "them" (who we're against). In the current environment, we can define these terms in one of two ways:
- "us" is all non-Muslims, and "them" is all Muslims; or
- "us" is moderate people of goodwill and tolerance, and "them" is extremists, whether ISIS-style Muslim fundamentalists, white supremacists, etc.
My sympathies tend to the latter interpretation, and so do pieces like this and that and millions of others that have popped up over the past few days, and which echoed good and noble sentiments from long before this weekend. Those pieces imply that by reaching out to Muslims, in Australia and elsewhere, "we" force "them" into ever-decreasing circles to the point where - well, actually the endgame isn't clear at all. It's a kind of "Tomorrow Belongs To Us" triumphalism. I want to believe in it so much but I'm suspicious of it, and am tired of being played and let down by those without the skill and wit to manifest good ideas. Had Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar fallen in with a bad crowd that was differently bad, and overdosed on heroin in an alley, it would have been a tragedy - but not an ignition-point for mass-hysteria. Same as if he had shot Mr Cheng while stealing his car. This is not to argue for some sort of quietism here, to pretend any attempt to tackle broad and difficult issues must be futile. It is to say that there are costs for turning "our" backs on some people but not others; the idea that we turn our backs on nobody, that we're all brothers and sisters, is not merely false. It is a lie that ultimately hurts people. It creates blind spots that make managing this situation more difficult rather than less. I can forgive people being taken aback by a 'bolt from the blue'. Even the experts get wrongfooted from time to time. It's just boring to act all shocked at having one's face slapped by something that had been staring one in the face for ages.In reaching out to moderate Muslims, people of goodwill and good sense, "we" leave people behind. They're the same people we've been leaving behind for years now, well before September 11 And All That. They are people with low education and fewer prospects for building and maintaining economic security for themselves. They are the people from whom Malcolm Turnbull, for all his honeyed words from Berlin and Antalya, is removing welfare payments and healthcare and school resources and penalty rates. In the absence of working-class solidarity or the British Empire or the righteous comforts of sectarianism, some define themselves against new arrivals to Australia such as Muslims. When "we" reach out to new arrivals "we" turn our backs on "them". By turning "our" backs, "they" do not run out of options. Australians who define themselves in terms of race, of an Anglo-Saxon/ Caucasian/ Aryan identity, can tap into powerful forces within our society. National myths like Eureka Stockade and Anzac have explicitly racialist elements. Not only is it possible to celebrate those national myths without wallowing in the racialist elements, but in fact most Australians do. These myths give those excluded in the modern reaching-out world far more purchase in Australian society than those being reached out to. Muslim Australians are free to join the armed forces and serve their country and many do so, tapping into the nationalistic legend embodied in those institutions. Increasingly it seems they will burnish their names in battle at the expense of their co-religionists, maybe even their relatives. Australians of German ancestry served in the two World Wars; John Monash was the grandson of a Prussian bookbinder. A contemporary Australian with a swastika tattooed onto a white face is trying to claim that symbol has lost the alarm and disgust that comes with it, and that other traditions and symbols seen increasingly often in Australia are more foreign, more alarming and disgusting.It would be great if they gave up their silly white-supremacist, all-Muslims-are-terrorists ways and joined us in the reaching-out. It would also be great if the attacks in Paris were the last of their kind. It would be foolish to bet on either outcome.Another potent legacy in Australian society that advocates for unity-against-Muslims can tap into is commercial radio and television.Articles of faithIf you believing in defining "them" as Muslims, then you have to define what Islam is. If you believe that Muslims are generally people of goodwill, with the few exceptions you'd make for any other group, then you'd leave it to Muslims to define what Islam is. Pauline Hanson declared that Muslims who didn't support Daesh were obliged to abandon their faith. Tony Abbott denied that Daesh drew on the precepts of Islam at all. These are deeply silly opinions, not only wrong in fact but potentially offensive for non-believers to wade into any religion's theological disputes. Abbott uses his Catholicism as part of his public identity, and bristles when others use it to frame him in ways he doesn't like. Once again, he can't see that what's offensive when done to him may not also be offensive when done by him toward others. It's as though he, and other Christians who share his opinions on Islam, dare not trust Jesus' injunction to love your enemies (which would lead you to the second of the us/them options listed above, rather than the first). It's also interesting that he voices his opinion while Turnbull and Bishop are abroad, exercising duties Abbott proved himself unfit and incapable to perform. There was a widely held assumption that Abbott, supposedly a thoughtful man and a Rhodes Scholar, would give up his boofhead ways when he became Prime Minister. When he left office, having disproven any benefit from all the doubt he'd been granted, people still thought he'd become thoughtful and considered despite all the evidence. There is just no helping some people.George Brandis has revealed himself with his insistence that, whatever may happen, however effective our security services may or may not be, the answer is diminution of what civil liberties may remain wherever possible. This man holds a public position and acts against the public interest. He must be removed as soon as a better alternative becomes available.Muslims debate matters of theology, and whether particular people are/aren't acting in accordance with it, all the time. It's understandable that commercial TV/radio might wish to ignore those debates. Having done so, however, it's more than a bit rich to insist that all Muslims must denounce the daily atrocity from those who claim to act in their name. Very few red-haired women were called upon to apologise for Hanson, or for Julia Gillard for that matter. People still believe that commercial TV/radio is the national debate, and that you have to run the gauntlet of its quirks and abuses to get your message out there. If you can wear other aspects of your faith lightly, then this too may bear examination. It doesn't broadcast to the 'greyzone' where many of us live. Paris again, Washington, or somewhere on your way home from work? Muzzies or bogans? How we define "us" and "them" is one of the major debates for early 21st century politics.