Blog - 2012

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Reclaiming multiculturalism

27 November 2012

The international symposium Reclaiming Multiculturalism: Global Citizenship and Ethical Engagement with Diversity was held at Deakin University on 15–16 November 2012. In response to the political retreat from multiculturalism in Australia and in many western states, the conference organisers invited scholars to reinvigorate discussions around the conceptualisation, implementation and practice of multiculturalism. Many presenters responded to this call by drawing on empirical material to demonstrate the ways in the multicultural is an everyday reality, where engagement with diversity is almost a mundane occurrence in the lives of Australian citizens. Through such presentations, scholars pointed to the enduring disjuncture between everyday lives of citizens and the political rhetoric that has continued to perpetuate singular and assimilationist visions of national belonging. It was unfortunate that, despite the intention to move beyond dominant paradigms, much of the discussion around diversity continued to privilege ethnicity as the basis of difference.

However, some scholars did seek to conceptualise post-ethnic visions of national belonging and suggested that it might be important to explore the ways in which 'connectivity', 'patriotism' and 'solidarity' could be mobilised amongst citizens. These were interesting propositions and would need further elucidation to see whether they contain totalising tendencies that continue to engage in the governmentality of difference. In attempts to reclaim multiculturalism it might be fruitful to recongise that differences, of various kinds, are part of every society. Rather than trying to subsume them within overarching claims to sameness, an openness to possibilities of accommodation, negotiation and contestation might be best pursued through calls for a robust active citizenship.

By Lejla Voloder

Contesting colonial sovereignty

16 October 2012

Ray Jackson, long-time Aboriginal activist and president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association was one of the organisers of the Aboriginal Passport Ceremony recently held at 'The Settlement' in Sydney. This ceremony, part of a broader campaign, contests colonial state sovereignty by strengthening relations between Aboriginal peoples and migrant communities. Jackson explained that

the issuing of the passports cover two important areas of interactions between the Traditional Owners of the Lands and migrants, asylum seekers and non-Aboriginal citizens of this country. Whilst they acknowledge our rights to all the Aboriginal Nations of Australia we reciprocate by welcoming them into our Nations. It is a moral win-win for all involved in the process.

Rihab Charida, a Palestinian activist and organiser of this event added:

There are a growing number of us [migrants] that recognise that we are the beneficiaries of a great injustice inflicted on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Having learned the true history of this land and to witness the unabated land theft and violence directed at the ATSI Peoples, we feel compelled to do and say something.

The Aboriginal Passport Ceremony took place and exists alongside acts of state that continue to enact colonial sovereignty both within Australia as well as outside it. While the colonial state ‘at home’ continues to refuse Aboriginal sovereignty, the colonial state extends its reach beyond the border through its ongoing mistreatment of refugees. The recent relicensing of offshore processing in places like Nauru and PNG demonstrates that Australian immigration law, that is colonial law, reaches far beyond the national boundary and raises questions around whether the possibility of Aboriginal people welcoming migrant and refugee communities is also being threatened by 'offshore processing'. If migration law ensures that refugees do not arrive in Australia, then Australian law must be seen to be preventing the kinds of allegiances that the Aboriginal Passport ceremony seeks to nurture.

The Aboriginal Passport Ceremony disturbed the powerful legal mythology identified by Sherene Razack that European settlers install themselves as the ‘original inhabitants’ of this land (Razack, Race, space and the law, 2002). While it is generally acknowledged that First Peoples existed prior to colonisation, in terms of the operations of law and white sovereignty this fact is repeatedly effaced in colonial Australia. The issuing of Aboriginal passports to migrants defiantly enacts a form of Aboriginal sovereignty over the country even as colonial sovereignty remains intact. The Aboriginal passport is different to the Australian passport with its emphasis on policing the parameters of inclusion into the colonial state. The Aboriginal passport becomes a mechanism for the assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty by building alliances between migrants and First Peoples of this land. It generates a space for solidarity among peoples whose actual histories of state violence can be expressed outside of the restrictive frame of white sovereign and migrant subject.

In addition the ceremony, by contesting the validity of an ‘Australian passport’, raises questions about the problematic ways in which meanings around such categories and around history are monopolised. Tony Birch has written that

history, as served up by the dominant white sector of Australian society is something that is digested with great familiarity (maybe like a meat pie?). As these dominant versions of history are so common, they can be digested easily and without much conscious thought. But try taking it away? Or introducing something new to the diet? Then you will quickly discover that a very staple and particular view of the past matters quite a lot. (Birch, 'The last refuge of the un-Australian', UTS Review, 7(1), 2001, p 20)

The Aboriginal passport introduces 'something new to the diet' and does so in a way that refuses to accept or, as Birch says, to get 'stuck in an adversarial mode, of simply speaking back to the colonial master' (Birch, 'I could feel it in my body', Transforming Cultures, 1(1), 2006, p 26). To move beyond the adversarial mode of critique requires, in the first instance, a breaking down of the categories generated by the colonial master for the purposes of division and control. This is a way of refusing their claims of legitimacy and a way of releasing their monopolising grip on ways of knowing and understanding categories such as law and sovereignty.

By guest blogger Maria Giannacopoulos
Dr Maria Giannacopoulos is a lecturer in socio-legal studies and criminal justice at Flinders University. Her research concentrates on law, sovereignty and colonialism with a particular emphasis on how developments in these areas impact upon racialised communities.

Don’t believe everything you read on blogs

9 October 2012

Oh what a tangled web some bloggers weave. Currently doing the rounds on Facebook is a Huffington Post article which says that academics at Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council produced a report claiming that allowing Saudi women to drive will encourage prostitution and reduce that country’s stock of virgins. One of these said academics reportedly sat in a coffee shop in an unnamed Gulf state where women stared at him and gesticulated suggestively. This kind of behaviour was, he allegedly concluded, the result of allowing women to drive. The piece concludes with an alarming report that Saudi Arabia is considering a law that would force women to cover their eyes if they are deemed tempting.

While the article is almost twelve months old, it has attracted over 8000 Facebook ‘likes’ and a lively (albeit basically one-sided) debate continues in the comments section. In recent comments Saudi Arabian society is denounced as medieval and in need of psychiatric attention for its ‘inherent mental complication’. One contributor admits to feeling ‘a bit like Charlton Heston in planet of the apes’ upon reading it, and is convinced that ‘we’ will be running the world in a few years if this is ‘the best they’ve got’.

What no-one has pointed out or even appears to have noticed is that the article is in large part a figment of the blogosphere’s collective imagination. The shred of truth in it is that a Saudi academic submitted a report to the Shura Council warning of the dangers of allowing Saudi women to drive. The former professor is not a member of the Shura, and an unnamed Saudi human rights activist told the BBC that the contents of his report were ‘mad’. The Huffington Post’s reports about his coffee shop encounter with an apparently loose female driver and the looming legislative crackdown on sexy eyes were sourced from an article by Andy Bloxham, an assistant news editor at Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. Bloxham’s report, filed under ‘motoring news’, sources its claims from an article posted to a news website called UKBBC News. Here things become curious: UKBBC News has nothing to do with Britain’s public broadcaster, despite its moniker and a website design that closely resembles the BBC site. UKBBC News is in fact a collection of stories on celebrities and South Asia and the Middle East, many of which are little more than jibberish. It certainly doesn’t take an assistant news editor of a major British daily to figure out that this news source is a sham.

The real story behind the alluring eyes ban has nothing to do with a legislative project. The threat of a ban came from the spokesman for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice after one of its members allegedly stabbed a man in a fight following the committee member’s order that the man’s wife cover her eyes.

So why does this sloppy journalism matter? If human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia are well-documented, why make a fuss over a few incorrect details? The problem lies in the way the misreporting of events in Saudi contributes to a view that the country lies outside time as we know it, its adherence to an oppressive form of Islam trapping it in a medieval past from which the West has long since moved on. It is a view that does not allow us to interpret the call for female eye covering as a repressive monarchy-backed council of prudish thugs scrambling to cover its collective backside when one of its members clearly went too far, even by the repressive Saudi regime’s dubious standards. Transforming the views of an academic writing to a government advisory council into the word of that same council prevents us from seeing that issue as a conservative crank attempting to assert political influence. In short, within this type of lazy media coverage we are never able to see any evidence of politics at play in Saudi. What goes on there is put down to one thing: Islam.

By Chloe Patton

Protesting the grounds of citizenship

18 September 2012

On Saturday Sydneysiders, predominately youth, took to the streets of the CBD to protest the latest film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The protest turned violent and there were clashes between protesters and the police. One of the key issues that has emerged in the coverage and ‘interpretation’ of the protests has been the inclination by political and public figures to treat the issue as a foreign concern and to objectify those involved as ‘foreigners’. The result is that such attitudes tend to perpetuate a demarcation between (Australian) Muslims and ‘real’ Australians.

This sentiment has emerged from a number of sources. Firstly, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell in commenting on the protests stated, 'We don’t need to bring from overseas ethnic protest to this country, we certainly shouldn’t bring from overseas religious conflicts' (The Australian, 16/09/12). Such sentiment is not new and works to suggest that the protests are an ‘imported’ concern and not a concern of, and a reaction by, Australian citizens; this in turn suggests that the concerns of Australian Muslims are not commensurate with issues that affect the ‘real’ Australian citizenry. Furthermore, the premier stated, 'what we saw yesterday was the unacceptable face of multiculturalism', thereby suggesting that the violence was a display of cultural difference and hence a display that transgressed the lines of ‘acceptable’ diversity. Australia has a multicultural reality, our daily lives are enmeshed with a cultural and religious plurality that exists within homes, streets and workplaces. Multiculturalism is not divorced from people’s mundane lives, and the suggestion that this particular event taints multiculturalism is more damaging than the event itself. It is not diversity that creates tensions but the denial/reluctance to embrace diversity (particularly within the political realm).

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was a second voice to affirm the supposed foreignness of the event. While stating that the protesters do not represent the vast majority of Muslims in Australia, he was reported as saying that ‘newcomers to Australia were not expected to surrender their heritage but were expected to surrender their hatreds’ (The Age, 16/09/12). Such sentiment was repeated by the New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, who declared, 'This is not Libya. This is not the country where you come to do what we saw yesterday' (ABC News, 17/09/12). Andrew Bolt has predictably adopted a similar line of thought, though of course in a more direct and explicitly provocative fashion by questioning whether the protests signal the 'time to restrict Muslim migrants' (Bolt Report, Channel 10, 16/09/12).

And finally, even the seemingly ‘good-natured’ open letter written by Peter FitzSimons directed to the ‘Islamic protesters’ through which he hoped to inform them that their actions were a disservice to the broader Muslim community in Australia wrote, 'some of you may be from countries where this kind of thing is acceptable. But it is NOT acceptable in this country' (Sydney Morning Herald, 16/09/12).

All these accounts reveal the tendency for issues raised by citizens who are Muslim to be treated within the multicultural or, more often, ‘migrant’ paradigm. The rhetoric in this instance employed references to ‘newcomers’, ‘migrants’ and ‘where you come from’. The protesters were not identified and treated as Australian citizens, but rather as ‘others’ and ‘foreigners’, with ‘foreign’ concerns and ‘foreign’ practices, who need to be ‘educated’ about what is acceptable within this country. The result is twofold. Firstly, it perpetuates the treatment of Islam as a ‘foreign’ religion rather than a religion that is practised by members of the Australian citizenry and this consequently disturbs Muslim claims to Australian citizenship. Secondly, such discourse detracts from a mature exploration of the varied and possibly localised issues of disempowerment (particularly of youth) that may have contributed to these violent confrontations. As Waleed Aly commented, 'these protesters are not truly protesting to make a point. The protest is the point' (The Age, 17/09/12) and so the protests could perhaps be read as expressions of active citizenship in which (disempowered) citizens are seeking to claim a position and voice.

By Lejla Voloder

Honouring … domestic violence

21 August 2012

On 3 August 2012 The Guardian published an article titled 'Shafilea Ahmed murder: UK urged to act against "honour" crimes'. Perhaps a more fitting title would have been ‘Shafilea Ahmed murder: UK urged to re-examine failures of social services and Education Department’. As outlined in another article, 'Shafilea Ahmed's life and death – timeline', from 1998 Shafilea frequently ran away from home and was frequently brought back. However no-one questioned why this was happening on a frequent basis. Even when Shafilea's parents banned her from school, the school failed to realise there was a problem. If that was not enough to raise alarm bells, Shafilea was admitted to hospital after swallowing bleach and still no-one intervened and assessed the problem. Now, nine years after her death, the UK is being urged to act against ‘honour’ crime. It is debatable whether this helps the victims of domestic violence and whether this will now bring any justice to Shafilea. Shafilea was clearly a victim needing attention and guidance to escape her domestic situation. Urging the UK to act against ‘honour’ crimes in relation to her case is not only dangerous in the sense that it allows us to overlook the failings of the social services to provide the support that Shafilea needed. It also allows a certain blindness to prevail around the issue of domestic violence. By labelling this as an ‘honour’ crime we are racialising a universal experience that affects all kinds of women and children. Ironically, however, domestic violence itself is blind: it does not discriminate on the basis of color, culture or religion.

By Kam Kaur

Do Australian Jews really hate asylum seekers?

14 August 2012

An op-ed piece that appeared in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News last week has received international attention over what many are calling hate speech. Written by the newspaper’s publisher, Robert Magid, the piece entitled 'Curb your compassion' called upon Australian Jews to resist drawing comparisons between forced Jewish migration and the plight of current asylum seekers. 'The Jews who fled the Holocaust fled certain death', he said. 'I doubt whether there is a single boat person in that position.' Accusing asylum seekers of 'destination shopping', he argued that Afghani refugees can be granted asylum in Muslim countries but this was not happening because 'that is not what they want and they are willing to pay criminals to take them to the destination of their desire'. His comments targeted Muslim asylum seekers, who he claimed form 'ghettoes' in European cities 'which become no-go zones for authorities, where honour killings are carried out with impunity, where demands are made for sharia law to replace the law of the land, where the immigrants despise the values, culture and activities of their adopted country'.

While certain media reports have claimed that Magid’s comments have divided Australian Jews, Magid appears to have found few to no allies within the Jewish community who are prepared to condone his comments publicly. The Australian Jewish Democratic Society has sent the AJN an open letter signed by over 500 people condemning Magid’s stance. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak Jewish community organisation in Australia, is widely recognised as a conservative organisation and has not responded directly to Magid’s claims. The council has, however, pointed out that its 51-part policy statement spells out its official stance on asylum seekers. Section 7 deals specifically with asylum seekers and states that the council:

RECALLS WITH SHAME that especially prior to, but also during and immediately after, World War II many thousands of Jewish refugees attempting to flee persecution in Europe were denied entry into other countries or forced to engage 'smugglers' to try to escape to freedom;

RECALLS that the Refugee Convention came into existence in belated recognition by the international community of the great wrong that had been done by ostensibly civilised nations in refusing to grant asylum to Jewish refugees fleeing from Europe prior to and during World War II, and as a principled and compassionate response to the moral imperative of assisting European Jews in seeking new homes after the Holocaust;

NOTES the important and positive contribution that Jewish and other refugees, from many countries, have made to Australian society and the development of Australia;

NOTES that in the past, after proper processing of their claims by Australian officials, the vast majority of those seeking asylum in Australia have been found to be genuine refugees who had fled their country of usual residence because of a well-founded fear of persecution;

ACCORDINGLY CALLS UPON the Australian Government:

a. to process applications by persons seeking asylum in Australia as expeditiously as possible and in a spirit of compassion, regardless of whether those applications are made through the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees;
b. to work constructively with other governments and appropriate non-government organisations, to ameliorate the plight of refugees around the world and in Australia;
c. to implement in good faith and with humanity, Australia's important legal and moral obligations with respect to refugees;
d. not to hold women and children asylum seekers in mandatory detention while their applications for recognition of their refugee status are processed; and to desist from actions that are likely to result in persons who seek asylum in Australia being sent to countries which are not parties to the Refugee Convention; and
e. to desist from actions that are likely to result in persons who seek asylum in Australia being sent to countries which are not parties to the Refugee Convention …

By Chloe Patton

News from India

31 July 2012

On 24 July I delivered a lecture on Muslims in Australia at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. I spoke about the long history of Muslim contact with Australia, which reaches back to pre-British settlement. It wasn’t until the arrival of Afghan cameleers in the 1860s, however, that the Muslim presence was widely noticed. Subsequently small numbers of Muslim Indians, Malays, Javanese and Albanians also arrived, and their labour and entrepreneurialism contributed to the development of Australia even into the ‘White Australia’ period. Under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, all aliens (the term used for non-British subjects) who attempted to enter Australia had to submit to a medical examination at their first port of call and to a dictation test of fifty words, in any prescribed language specified by the immigration officer. Unofficially, this practice came to be known as the ‘White Australia Policy'. Yet Australia needed labour, so some aliens such as Afghans were allowed to work in Australia after 1901. However, the aliens leaving the country and intending to return had to apply for and receive a special certificate of exemption from the dictation test at the cost of £1 before they left Australia.

In the mid-1970s the Whitlam government abandoned the White Australia Policy. The new push for a multicultural Australia aimed to impart equal opportunities to all Australians irrespective of their race, colour, ethnic origin or religion, and discrimination on these bases became unacceptable. (For further details see Muslims in Australia.) As migration restrictions eased, more Muslims migrated to Australia, especially from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The Muslim population in Australia has grown from 0.04 per cent in 1947 to nearly 2 per cent in 2006. Australia’s first mosque was built in 1890. At present there are about 100 mosques and many Islamic schools and colleges Australia-wide. In 2010, Ed Husic was the first Muslim elected to federal parliament. Muslim icons include the National Rugby League player Hazem El Masri and the Australian Football League player Bachar Houli.

Since my lecture was in India, I briefly touched on Australia–India relations. Some Indians have migrated to Australia and, like other immigrant groups, they are also contributing to the development of their country. I mentioned that relations between the two countries had been strained over some incidents, including the treatment of an Indian medical doctor Mohammed Haneef, who was wrongfully arrested and later cleared of involvement in violent extremism in 2007. In 2010 the Australian government paid him compensation. In 2009 a spate of racist attacks on Indian students were other unpleasant incidents. I emphasised that Australia is a multicultural country, and immigrants of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds (including Indians) have settled in Australia. Unfortunately, these recent incidents involving Indians represent the dark side of Australian race relations history. In 2010, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith expressed his government’s regret over these attacks.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

The death of Yasser Arafat

24 July 2012

In a recent investigative report, Al Jazeera re-examined the death of Yasser Arafat, the former head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Arafat died in 2004 after having led the PLO since 1969. His death was originally thought to have been a result of general old-age health deterioration, with pneumonia thought to have been the illness that finally killed him. But the recent Al Jazeera investigation has argued that Arafat was most likely killed by poison, the poison being the radioactive material polonium. Natural polonium is quite rare, and its most common form is a synthetic variety found in nuclear reactors or nuclear laboratories. Traces of the substance were allegedly found in personal effects such as Arafat's hairbrush, toothbrush and hat. Because the polonium detected in his belongings was found to be synthetic rather than naturally occurring, it is almost certain that Arafat was intentionally poisoned.

Although it may be impossible to determine whether it was the Israeli government who killed Arafat, Israel would certainly have the most to gain. There is no doubt Israel had a motive: disposing of its most hated enemy. It also had the means: with a working nuclear program, producing polonium should have been well within Israel’s capacity. The factor that would need to be established is opportunity, but this does not take a stretch of the imagination: with Arafat a virtual captive in his compound in Ramallah and only continuing to exist at the whim of Israel, it is almost certain that Israel would have had some amount of access to him. Additionally, Israel had previously attempted to poison Arafat during the 1970s, relying on Palestinian traitors to perform the attempted poisonings.

Regardless of whether Israel was the culprit or not, we should ask: what were the consequences of Arafat’s death? Arafat had ruled as a virtual dictator in the Palestinian territories for years. It is widely held that he and his family personally profited from funds meant for the PLO and the Palestinian Authority for the purpose of advancing the goals of the Palestinian population as a whole. His repression of internal opponents was well known and he was often seen as someone who would play the game of the ‘peace process’, despite knowing full well that the US and Israel wouldn’t allow the creation of a Palestinian state under the current conditions.

If Palestinians are to take anything from the death of Yasser Arafat, it should be the mixed record that was his rule at the head of the PLO. He was unwilling to step outside the ‘peace process’ to achieve results, ensuring that American and Israeli dominance over Palestinians continued. The recent Palestinian Authority attempt at statehood through the United Nations General Assembly would probably never had been undertaken under Arafat’s leadership. Instead of dwelling on his death, whatever the outcome of future investigation, Palestinians should instead remain focused on looking to the future. This means towards achieving a Palestinian state by putting pressure on the US and Israel outside the narrow limits of the peace process. Of course, the issue of strategy and tactics is an issue for the Palestinians themselves to decide upon, but putting a large amount of time and resources into uncovering the details of Arafat’s death is likely to be counterproductive in the larger context. The Palestinian Authority should continue to acknowledge Arafat’s role as a crucial leader of Palestinian resistance throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but nevertheless remain focused on the task at hand: the creation of a Palestinian state.

By Alasdair Hynd

Religion, knowledge and the ongoing suppression of the heart

10 July 2012

During the Critical Muslim Studies Summer School in Granada, Mukhtar Ali taught a course titled 'The Sufism of Ibn Arabi: Understanding the Principles of Correspondences'. He drew on the philosophical underpinnings of mystical inquiry in the school of Ibn Arabi which deals with the nature of being and the method by which it is realised. Mukhtar addressed the issue of religious experience that brings human beings nearer to God and to the understanding of Him, of religion and of reality. He emphasised that spirituality is the actualisation of the spiritual nature of human beings. However, one has to discover one’s own spiritual nature to be able to engage in spirituality. One has to do a kind of training to enter this spiritual realm that can only be approached via what we often call the heart.

It appears to me that in academia and the production of knowledge matters of the heart are being pushed to the background. Apart from the fact that the heart is not recognised as a possible tool with which to understand reality and to acquire knowledge, even when one tries to understand processes of the heart one usually does so from a rational perspective that squeezes spiritual experience into scientific formula. However, what academics tend to miss is that the heart cannot be ‘scientised’. Religious experiences cannot be measured with cost–benefit analysis or with rational choice theory as they involve emotions, spiritualities but also mysteries.

Thinking about this in relation to critical Muslim studies requires us to acknowledge that there is a specific western epistemology of religion that is shaped by western history, culture and politics. These western characteristics are used as parameters with which to understand human life in the rest of the world. Two main pitfalls can be observed. One is closely related to the suppression of the heart. It is about the hierarchical order in which reason, in accordance with Enlightenment values, is privileged as a channel to knowledge. This leads to the trivialisation of the heart. Religion that values the heart is seen as backwards. More importantly, religion is discounted as a tool with which to arrive at knowledge and an understanding of reality. This can be observed in the contemporary western approach to Islamic parties that have become visible during the Arab uprising. Apart from the fact that the strong unease about Islamic parties is shaped by a traumatisation caused by the Iranian revolution and Muslim terrorists, there is a subliminal voice that trivialises any kind of reference to religious text. It categorises religious parties in the Middle East as 'unfitting' within the modern, enlightened world.

The second pitfall relates to the western secularist viewpoint, which understands religion as restricted to the private sphere. The idea that individuals can easily separate their private religion from their public life falsely assumes that there is a clear line between both spheres, as if people can just forget about their religion once they are in public. Also, the opposition that western secularists draw between transcendence and immediacy, whereby religion is confined to the former realm, cannot be applied as such to an understanding of religion within Muslim communities. In those communities religion is part of the ‘here and now’ because it has entered almost every part of people’s everyday lives. These two aspects of a secularised understanding of religion are not only observed within secular thought but are also shared by Christian thinkers like Saint Augustine. An example of the problems arising when this western approach to religion is applied to Muslim communities is the French secular-based law that asks Muslims to remove their hijab in schools. This constitutes a demand to confine one's Islamic religion to the private sphere and to do without religion once in public. Apart from the fact that this law undermines the value of freedom, it reflects a specific western understanding of religion with which non-western communities are approached.

I think that beyond this academic bias there is a personal oppression within religious communities. The huge weight of reason comes up again and again. There is very often an attempt to search for some logic behind those parts in religion that the mind cannot grasp. Their reality is 'checked' by the critical mind. This oppression is facilitated by the lack of space contemporary societies afford for religious experiences of the heart. Religious practices, even when they are carried out, are often ‘despiritualised’. What one sees are prayers where the lips speak and where the body move but where the heart is absent. The outer reality of one’s context but also the inner reality of one’s thoughts both distract the heart and make it unreceptive to spiritual experience.

I assume that once one is liberated from these forms of oppression and engages in a different approach to 'understanding reality' and experiencing spirituality, one can become more aware of the critical mind’s bias. It might be that one will be looking with a critical heart at the limits and restrictions of the critical mind.

By guest blogger Asmaa Soliman,
PhD student, University College London, UK
and participant in the Critical Muslim Studies Summer School, Granada, Spain, June 2012

The other mosque of Cordoba

3 July 2012

mosque, Cordoba'Do you want somewhere to pray?' The elderly man with a thick, Spanish accent asked me.

I was taken aback. I was in Cordoba, Spain, a city known as the site of the Reconquista, during which Spanish Christians conquered what had been the Islamic centre of the Muslim caliphate for over 700 years. I had been idly glancing at trinkets sold in the souvenir shops just outside of La Mesquita, the Spanish word used to refer to the old Mosque of Cordoba, when the elderly man approached me.

At first glance, I was just like any other young tourist outside of the famous mosque-turned-cathedral, except of course for the mint-green hijab draped gracefully across my hair, giving away that I was Muslim. Since it was already time for midday prayer, I told the man that yes, I did want a place to pray.

'Follow me', he said, and turned around to walk in the opposite direction, through the small, winding alleyways of Cordoba.

As we walked, I thought back to just a few hours before when I had been touring the famous Mesquita, now increasingly referred to as La Catedrale ever since an incident in 2010 involving a group of Muslims from Austria. They had tried to pray in the mosque but were told not to by security, and the ensuing confrontation with the guards turned violent. Two people were arrested and the church made a statement reaffirming the ban on Muslim prayer in the cathedral.

Despite these events, I had been eager to visit the old mosque. As a child, I had read and seen pictures of the incredible architecture, the spectacular red and yellow arches that were built upon pillars suspended one atop the other, the so-called 'palm-tree forest'. I expected to be moved by the beauty and splendour of the old mosque, to marvel at a structure that had originally been built in 786 CE, which displayed the pinnacle of Umayyad architecture and design.

Yet, to my own surprise, not only was I not moved by the splendours of La Mesquita-Catedrale; the experience felt decidedly unsettling. For one, I felt nothing of the peace and calmness that I usually associate with being in a sacred space. It felt as though I was in a museum that had undergone too many renovations, not all of them successful.

The architecture was not a harmonious mixture of old and new traditions, Islamic and Christian; it was a schizophrenic mixture of styles, Gothic and Islamic, the difference in the newer whiter plaster used to build the cathedral at the centre of the building clashing with the older yellowish colour of the arches holding it up. I found the juxtaposition of colour and style a little too chaotic, the pockets of light inside the dark building a little too abrupt, the eyes of the security guards following me and my other hijab-wearing friends a little too unfriendly.

Only when approaching the southern wall of the structure, and noticing the Arabic script that had been preserved as part of the original mosque, did I realise that this had actually been the minbar that indicated the direction of prayer. Images began flooding my mind about what this building might have looked like centuries ago, bustling with people performing ablutions in the courtyard for Friday prayers, lining up in rows behind the imam, sunlight streaming through open doors, lighting yellow and red fires on the ground that mirrored the yellow and red palm-tree arches, raised to the heavens.

I found myself replaying that imaginary scene in my mind’s eye as I followed the old man, who was now turning into a tiny courtyard, where another, younger man stood. With a small smile and an exchange of salams, I was introduced to the imam. He led me inside what I quickly realised was the place where I would be allowed to pray. This was the other mosque of Cordoba.

Stepping inside the small, simple and unadorned space of this mosque felt like walking into an oasis. An intricate mosaic-patterned fountain surrounded by a few modest plants heralded the entryway with a simplicity that was a stark contrast to the lavish gardens inside the fortressed walls of La Mesquita. The interior of the small mosque contained several columned arches but, instead of the bold red and yellow bricks decorating the more famous structure, these arches were made out of simple orange bricks. One could tell that the arches had been designed to resemble those in the nearby Mesquita, except there was no hiding the limited means with which they were built. This was not a wealthy congregation. The mosque itself seemed to have been built in secrecy, doing as little as possible to draw attention to itself. Anyone walking past it would never have guessed that it was a place of worship.

As I stood facing the direction of prayer, the minbar facing me did not contain the intricate golden calligraphic artwork that had adorned the mihrab inside the Mesquita. It was a simple cove, large enough for the imam to stand in while leading a congregation for ritual prayer. And yet the simplicity and stillness of this mosque facilitated a wonder and contemplation that I had not been able to feel inside the opulent grandeur of the Mesquita-Catedrale.

This oasis, this other Mesquita, was the real treasure of Cordoba, the kind that you can’t look for, but that finds you. It was a secret yet hopeful place that reminded me that flowers are forever resilient, and will still continue to bloom beneath rubble and ash.

By guest blogger Roshan Jahangeer,
PhD student, York University, Toronto, Canada
and participant in the Critical Muslim Studies Summer School, Granada, Spain, June 2012

Processions and possession on the streets of Málaga

22 June 2012

I was walking across the Roman Theater in Málaga on my way back to my hostel to get some rest when I began hearing the loud chanting of drums. While I simultaneously approached the growing raucous and one of the many cathedrals that dot southern Spain and contemplated whether this one too had once been a mosque, I ran right into a Catholic procession that had already commenced. Catholic processions are not new to me. The enveloping smell of frankincense emanating from the swinging canisters in altar boy hands reminded me of evening masses, where I sat still, knelt and prayed next to my grandmother. She was a devout Catholic and her religiosity was expressed daily through ritual, biblical study, attendance at mass and constant prayer. In many ways, her daily routine still informs the way I interact with sacred space and time. It is within this locus of space/time that my experience in Málaga can be situated. My brief sojourn as a tourist in the city was punctuated by reflections on the very nature of the sixteenth-century colonial project in Granada and the Americas. As a Dominican-American Muslim, my visit to southern Spain or my return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, manifested more questions than answers but, as any good pedagogue will tell you, true inquiry begins with the questions.

What moved me to reflect upon the procession, as an act of public religious performance, was the fact that it impeded my free movement within space and time. I am not Catholic, yet here I was forced to wait and bear witness to the might and grandeur of Spanish Catholicism without my consent. The procession was a show of hegemonic dominance. In it you have the gathering of the community's elites who form the core of the parade along with a military style marching band – often led by representatives of state authority in the form of both police and local government officials. The procession is slow moving and time consuming and delineates sacred time and space through its sheer size; the drumming of the band; the continuous ringing of the church bells; the burning of incense; and the colourful staffs and flags. It consumes the senses and forces an experiential understanding of domination. One could view the procession as a show of force on par with what the indigenous peoples of the Americas and what the Muslim population of Granada would have been exposed to after the conquest. With the malageuños plebes in attendance as onlookers and supporters of the procession, the image couldn’t have been much different 500 years ago, when the Spanish attempted to establish their hegemony over the Muslim population. The sixteenth-century Spanish colonial project in Nasrid Granada sought to control exposure/access to the dominant culture as an act of epistemic violence. It proposed an acculturation to Spanish Catholic culture by the indigenous Muslim population, while contemporaneously seeking the annihilation of Morisco culture through the destruction of said epistemic sources and the imposition of foreign/European/Catholic epistemologies.

I wasn’t until the next day that I had a chance to consider more deeply the characteristics of power displayed by the procession and their relationship to the quotidian religious experience of the city’s inhabitants. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Robert Orsi’s article 'The religious boundaries of an inbetween people', which addresses the show of Italian solidarity and spatial demarcation during the annual feast days of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Spanish Harlem. New York City, like Málaga, is a port city that has seen its fair share of colonial masters and shifting ethnic and racialised ghettos. Religion is often the vehicle through which communities mark off territory like graffiti vandals in a language only known to the initiated but which powerfully lets the outsider know they have crossed onto unfamiliar ground. Orsi describes the parade route taken by the Madonna as the way 'Italians marked out certain sections of the neighborhood (East Harlem) as their own'. Similarly, the multiple processions I encountered during my weekend in Málaga speak directly to the delineation of ownership of the city centre by Catholics. The processions made clear who possessed the land, power and authority. It wasn’t the many Muslims I witnessed walking Málaga’s streets or working her shops. It wasn’t the Asian shop owners I visited to purchase daily groceries. It wasn’t the countless disenchanted youth I passed by on street corners and abandoned plazas. Málaga belonged to those at the top with their giant crosses, chic clothing, elaborate ceremonies, obnoxious marching bands, and their real and imagined structures of physical and mental dominance put on display for all. I guess I was just lucky enough to see it.

By guest blogger Yarehk Hernandez,
PhD student, Temple University, USA
and participant in the Critical Muslim Studies Summer School, Granada, Spain, June 2012

Critical Muslim Studies: Decolonial Struggles, Theology of Liberation and Islamic Revival

19 June 2012

The city of Granada was the last stronghold of Muslim-ruled Spain, holding out against Catholic ‘reconquest’ until 1492. Over the past two weeks, Granada’s historic Albaycin quarter was subject to a reconquest of a very different sort as more that 40 scholars, activists and postgraduate students from all over the world set up temporary home in the area for the second annual Critical Muslim Studies Summer School. Taking the form of an intensive seminar consisting of several discrete yet related courses, the summer school aimed to bring together decolonial and liberation theological perspectives to develop new approaches to the study of Islam and the social and political issues through which Muslims are positioned as objects of knowledge.

Where this was most successful, at least in terms of my own research interests, was in the discussion of the epistemic consequences of the distinction that was consistently made between the colonial and coloniality, and postcolonial and decolonial perspectives. Postcolonial scholars most often see the concept of race emerging somewhere around the 17th and 18th centuries with European imperial expansion into the so-called Orient and the techniques of classifying colonised populations that were used to facilitate and justify colonial rule. Racism thus becomes the dark underbelly of the project of modernity. Decolonial scholars, however, argue that the relationship between race and modernity is more fundamental. They see race as woven into the very fabric of modernity because racial classification predates the Enlightenment, emerging through the conquest of the Americas and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. As Ramon Grosfoguel put it in his course, when Christopher Columbus declared that the indigenous peoples he encountered in the West Indies had no religion, he meant that they were not in possession of a soul and were thus sub-human. Modernity, according to this perspective, is premised upon the relationship between the West and its non-western Other. Coloniality refers to the formation of power instituted on the basis of this relationship, which continues to structure social life across the globe long after the formal end of colonialism.

Taking 1492 as a point of departure for thinking about race also highlights the role of religious difference in the emergence of racial classification. This line of thinking requires that we reconsider how we approach contemporary problems of Muslim and non-Muslim understanding. Islamophobia becomes not merely a post-9/11 expression of hatred towards Muslims for being Muslim. Nor can it be seen as a lingering technology of colonial rule. Rather, as Sirin Sibai pointed out, it becomes necessary to view Islamophobia as an enduring mode of coloniality which limits alternative ways of seeing the world because it is reproduced in the forms of resistance typically adopted in response to it.

Alongside helping us better articulate the problem, which is no mean feat, the summer school also provided space for the exploration of possible solutions. I was particularly interested in the work of Muslim scholar/activists such as Asma Lamrabet who seek to develop non-patriarchal ways of critically engaging with Islamic texts, and Santiago Slabodsky’s proposition that Jewish theology can provide the basis for undermining the Zionist justification for Israel’s colonisation of Palestine.

Aside from the sheer beauty of the summer school location, with its labyrinthine cobblestone streets and unrivalled view of Alhambra, our physical surrounds prompted sustained reflection on the seminar content. For many of us the brutality of what had gone on during the reconquest and the casual way in which it is celebrated in public monuments around town inspired anger and sadness. Having ancestry in a Jewish community in India which emerged as a result of the dispersion created by the reconquest, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of connection with the place. This spilled over into revulsion at times, particularly upon seeing Ferdinand and Isabella’s coat of arms emblazoned over the elegant carved ceiling of Alhambra like a sixteenth century graffiti tag.

Overall, however, my experience in Granada was incredibly positive. The intensive format of the summer school allowed conversations to be sustained well beyond what is normally supported in academic conferences, and I’m sure the friendships that emerged as a result will lead to further fruitful exchanges for many of us.

By Chloe Patton

Starved of justice

19 June 2012

While the hunger strike waged by 1600 Palestinian prisoners may have ended last month, the plight of Palestinians incarcerated in Israel has not. Amnesty International has released a report claiming that the Israeli authorities have not made good on elements of the deal that ended the strike. Although a number of prisoners held in solitary confinement for up to 10 years have been released into the mainstream prison population, family visits from Gaza have not been allowed as promised. It was widely hoped that the deal would constitute a small step towards ending administrative detention, but Amnesty says that thirty prisoners have had their administrative detention orders renewed in the fortnight following the deal, while at least another three administrative detention orders were issued. Administrative detention is not unique to Israel; incarceration without charge or trial has become a routine component of counter-terrorism legislation across the West since 9-11. It is a form of punishment that Palestinians have been subjected to since the British mandate, when it was used against both Arabs and Jews. Amnesty say that of the more than 4000 Palestinians currently held as ‘security prisoners’ – meaning they are subjected to harsher conditions than ‘criminal prisoners’ – over 300 are held under administrative detention orders.

By Chloe Patton


US military trainers call for total war on Islam

22 May 2012

Leaked course materials from a US military training facility confirm claims that lectures delivered to senior military personnel have called for a ‘total war’ on Islam that would see the complete annihilation of Muslim civilian populations in Hiroshima-scale strikes on Mecca and Medina.

Exposed by Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog, slides from lectures delivered at a US Defense Department’s Joint Forces Staff College that has been running since 2004 describe Islam as a ‘barbaric ideology’ that must be reduced to cult status. The lecturer convening the course, Army Lt Col Matthew A Dooley, urged commanders, lieutenant colonels, captains and colonels to view all Muslims as violent by nature and to think of themselves as part of a resistance movement: 'Remember – we are at war. Act like it.' Dooley presented his agenda with the help of three guest lecturers – Shireen Burki, Stephen Coughlin and John Guandolo – who are all well known for their Islamophobic views, including claims that President Obama is under the influence of Islamist extremists and the Crusades were just and noble.

The Pentagon responded to the story by cancelling the class and ordering a thorough review of the representation of Islam in its military training. At a recent press conference Army General Martin Dempsey declared the course 'totally objectionable, against our values and [not] academically sound'. This was not the swift response it seems, however, because Danger Room has been reporting on the negative representation of Islam in counter-terrorism training since last year, including video footage of an FBI trainer mounting basically the same argument as Dooley. Back then the story sparked widespread condemnation at top levels of the government, prompting the White House to order a review of counter-terrorism training across the board. Nevertheless, Dooley’s course made it through the review and as late as March this year military representatives were still endorsing its content. A spokesperson for the Joint Forces Staff College, Steven Williams, defended Dooley’s course on the basis of positive student feedback, which is 'usually around the 90% range'. 'Students generally appreciate thought-provoking discussion and the freedom to consider critical perspectives', he told Danger Room. Judging by the course content, it seems they’re also pretty keen on hatred and vilification.

By Chloe Patton

Nakba Day commemoration

15 May 2012

May 15 was Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, the day after which, in 1948, the state of Israel was formally established and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had their expulsion from their lands finalised. The state of Israel could not have been created without the mass transfer of the indigenous population out of the territory that was to become Israel. Jewish militias destroyed villages throughout Palestine, removing their inhabitants to outside the borders of their future state, and killing many unarmed adult and adolescent men who were considered a potential threat. Luckily for Israel the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit forced population transfers, only came into force in 1949, a year after Israel was created. Palestinian refugees created by Israel were forced to settle outside their homeland in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. The camps remain to this day.

Last year there were deadly clashes between the Israeli Defence Force and unarmed Palestinian protesters who sought to enter Israel and visit their former homes. Israel reacted to this attempt with complete disproportion, firing at protesters with live ammunition and killing at least 10 people on the borders with the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. Many more were wounded. These protests were inspired to some extent by the uprisings that occurred in neighbouring Arab countries which stoked a sense of nationalism and hope amongst many Palestinians before they took to the Israeli border. I would not expect similar events to occur again this year mainly due to the relatively subdued political climate relative to last year. Protests will inevitably occur in the Occupied Territories, but hopefully they will avoid bloodshed and Palestinians will be able to grieve in peace.

The refugee question will only be resolved once a settlement of the greater Israel–Palestine conflict is reached. Under the Oslo Accords, the issue of Palestinian refugees will be settled at an advanced stage of negotiations, along with the issues of permanent borders, and the status of Jerusalem and of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Therefore the only way for Israel to rectify its past crimes permanently is to acknowledge its current crimes in the Occupied Territories and seek to remedy them by entering into negotiations. Unfortunately, despite the willingness of the Palestinian leadership, the current Israeli government doesn’t seem to share this enthusiasm, laying down a number of new preconditions to negotiations in order to stall the process. Israel’s demands that Palestinians recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and that Fatah end its coalition with Hamas have no precedent in the negotiation process, unlike the Palestinian demand for an end to settlement expansion in the West Bank. Until he drops these preconditions, it is obvious that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is not interested in peace and therefore, by extension, intends to maintain the current occupation thereby keeping Palestinian refugees in their ghettos in Lebanon and Jordan.

By Alasdair Hynd

Hunger strike over

15 May 2012

AP reported overnight that an important deal has been struck between the Israeli government and some 1600 Palestinian prisoners involved in a hunger strike. The news comes on the eve of Palestine’s national day of mourning over the forced displacement of Palestinians when the state of Israel was established 64 years ago. The agreement raises hopes for the recovery of the two men who launched the hunger strike back in February who, after 77 days without food, are currently in a critical condition in hospital. Twenty prisoners who have been in solitary confinement – one for nine years – have been released into the general prison population while around 400 more will receive family visits for the first time. The agreement also raises hopes for the more than 300 prisoners currently being detained without charge on administrative detention, a practice that was sharply criticised by the UN and EU last week. Today’s lead story in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper pronounces the move an all-round win, and not just for the prisoners. The Israeli General Security Services have neutralised the shameful ‘ticking bomb’ of such a large proportion of the prison population prepared to starve themselves to death, while the granting of family visitation rights represents a small step in dismantling the policy of segregating the West Bank from Gaza, an approach that has come under sustained attack not just from the Palestinians, but also from the Israeli liberal media.

By Chloe Patton

Badiou: it’s business as usual in France

11 May 2012

In the midst of France’s presidential elections, this weekend’s Le Monde carried a piece on the racism of France’s intellectual elite by Alain Badiou. Badiou takes a potshot at the idea that the blame for France’s drift to the right rests on the shoulders of those recalcitrant, globalisation-fearing provincial types who voted 'yes' to Marine Le Pen and, a while back, 'no' to a European Constitution. He argues that the seeds of Sarkozy’s racist laws and policies, which many left-wing commentators chalk up to rampant populism, were in fact sown by the socialist Mitterand government. Restrictive immigration measures and legislative incursions into Muslim women’s wardrobes have been bolstered by French intellectuals’ hysterical crusades for the triumph of secularism and feminism over a perceived Islamic peril. The original article is in French, but an enterprising blogger has already posted a provisional translation. Here’s an excerpt:

The left’s candidates announce everywhere they are leading a ruthless fight, not so much against the corruption of the capitalists and the dictatorially ascetic budgets as against undocumented workers and recidivist juveniles, especially if they are blacks or Arabs. In this area, both the right and left have trampled every principle. It was and is, for those who are deprived of papers, not a state of law, but the state of exception, the state of non-law. They are the ones who are insecure, and not wealthy nationals. If we were, God forbid, to be resigned to deport people, it would be better that we choose our rulers rather than the very respectable Moroccan or Malian workers.

By Chloe Patton

'Yes, we can change' … but can we?

1 May 2012

When I was conducting research on young American Muslims’ identities, many participants of diverse backgrounds passionately mentioned US President Obama’s Cairo speech and how he was an inspiration for many young Americans. Yet I also heard some emotional voices suggesting that President Obama was just like any other American president. A few asked, 'Would President Obama solve the Palestinian question?' Some respondents of Palestinian heritage spoke of their ordeals at Israeli checkpoints, the Jordanian border or Tel Aviv airport when they visited their extended families in Palestine. The words that echoed were 'dehumanising', 'differential treatment' and 'racial profiling'.

On 19 April 2012, when the Hawke Centre hosted a discussion titled, 'Paths to a just peace for Palestine and Israel – a dialogue', I enthusiastically attended the event, naively thinking perhaps there would be a breath of fresh air. Yet it was just another talk! I agree with my colleague Alasdair Hynd who mentioned in his blog (below) that the discussion was very 'constrained'.

The Palestinian representative, Mr Izzat Abdulhadi, spoke of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. There was no mention of the security checkpoint ordeals, the water issue and the existence of the Bil’in wall, which is twice the height of the Berlin Wall and four times longer. It runs through several villages and disrupts Palestinians’ travel for work, education and healthcare purposes. An Israeli study found that the wall was erected to confiscate land and not, as publicised by the government, for security reasons (See Occupation 101, DVD 2007).

Mr Abdulhadi also presented some statistics: 78 per cent of land belongs to Israel, while 22 per cent belongs to Palestine. The current population of Palestine is 6 million. Israel also has a population of 6 million. The annual growth rate of the Palestinian population is 4.7 while the annual growth rate for Israelis is 1.7. By 2020 Palestinians will be a majority people in their territory. In that case, Mr Abdulhadi speculated whether the Palestinian people would be subjected to ethnic cleansing.

At the Hawke Centre, the Israeli delegate, Mr Meir Itzchaki, reminded the audience about the successful Israeli democracy and said that there should be trust between Israelis and Palestinians as well as more dialogue. Mr Itzchaki also said that Israelis were victims of missile and terrorist attacks.

As I listened to the 'dialogue' I realised that people in governmental positions (both Palestinian and Israeli) would just talk. It has been 20 years since the Oslo talk and still there is no negotiation. Israel still wants one state while the Palestinian authority prefers the two-state solution. In the meantime, ordinary people suffer.

It is time that activists, academics and journalists are given a voice in the Israeli–Palestinian question. Only they can bring about a change. In the DVD Occupation 101 some leading Jewish academics such as Professor Noam Chomsky and Professor Ilan Pappe and human rights activists Rabbi Arik Ascherman (Rabbis for Human Rights Jerusalem), Neta Golan (Israeli Peace Activists) and Rabbi Rebecca Lillian (Jewish Peace Forum) criticise Israel’s heavy-handedness against the Palestinians. I hope that the more we hear these kinds of voices, the more changes will come about.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Just peace or just peachy?

24 April 2012

On Thursday 19 April the Hawke Centre hosted an event entitled ‘Paths to a just peace for Israel and Palestine’, a dialogue between Izzat Abdulhadi, Head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, and Meir Itzchaki, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Israeli embassy. For anyone familiar with comments from Palestinian delegations and Israeli government officials, the discussion was nothing more than a reiteration of official propaganda. Mr Abdulhadi spoke at length about entering into negotiations with Israel as the only reasonable path to an end to the conflict, whilst Mr Itzchaki argued that Israel would not enter into negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until the PLO removed the ‘terrorist organisation’ Hamas from its coalition.

However, to Mr Abdulhadi’s credit, he did point out that an end to settlement expansion was a legal precondition to renewed negotiations. But when this issue was handballed over to Mr Itzchaki, he talked in abstract terms, wanting to know the definition of ‘trust’, ‘confidence’, ‘peace’ and ‘just’ before proceeding to real negotiations. Additionally, he argued that there is no set definition of what constitutes a settlement (which was roundly accompanied by sarcastic laughter) and then asked if the enlargement of a balcony is settlement expansion, or is it the construction of entirely new houses. This sort of propaganda does nothing to advance meaningful debate on the issue.

The problem with these sorts of ‘discussions’ is that, being diplomats/politicians within a political party or state structure, individuals are constrained in what they can say: they most toe the party line. This inflexibility inevitably leads to the creation of a particular lexicon and phrasebook that politicians can reference when they need to make their point. The niceties of organised political debate mean that a certain vocabulary has been adopted by both sides, and arguments have become formulaic to the extent that each argument made by, say, the Israelis has a corresponding rebuttal from the Palestinians. Having subscribed to this vocabulary, both parties are stuck in a perpetual cycle of meaningless debate which serves no other purpose than to add a title to a university’s list of upcoming events.

The formula of having two participants from opposing parties discuss an issue remains a favourite of privately organised events for public viewing, but indeed does little to advance the debate itself other than to give a skewed education to those with little knowledge of the topic of discussion. For educational purposes, a lecture on the history of an issue would be a better option, necessarily dumping the propaganda associated with diplomats. This is not just a criticism of Israel–Palestine debates. The television show Q&A on the ABC is engineered in a similar formula. Almost every episode has a politician from both the Labor and Liberal parties, and when domestic political issues are inevitably discussed both politicians revert to the official party lines, making no new arguments and giving up no ground to their opponent. Although questions may be asked of them and they get ‘grilled’ by the audience, neither politician is compelled to tell the truth and they can dodge the essence of a question by obfuscating in the abstract.

These sorts of debates should be seen as counter to advancing a resolution to the conflict, and as such should be generally avoided. Future events on this issue would be better served by the inclusion of speakers from activist networks and NGOs, or former politicians, journalists and academics, all of whom usually have less connection to the centres of governmental power and conformity, and therefore greater freedom in their analysis of the issue.

By Alasdair Hynd

The Melbourne conference: discussion continues

24 April 2012

On 17–18 March 2012, like my colleague Alasdair Hynd, I attended the conference entitled The Middle East in Revolt: The First Anniversary. The conference was not directly related to my research, but I thought it would be worth attending since I was in Melbourne that weekend to give seminars at two universities. In one of my earlier commentaries, Egypt’s Arab Spring: will the flowers blossom?, I mentioned that I was enthralled by the peaceful protests carried out by young Egyptians (and Tunisians) and that their courage should be commended.

As Alasdair remarked, on the first day of the conference in Melbourne there was a minor hiccup between the former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, and the University of San Francisco’s Professor Stephen Zunes which also took me by surprise. I have seen people having differences of opinion in academic conferences, but it is not usually confrontational. Overall, the conference accommodated interesting papers on countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Turkey.

Most of the papers appeared to be very political science oriented. There was very little discussion of women’s role in the Arab Spring, or the treatment of women activists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring (as my colleague Chloe Patton briefly mentioned in her recent blog). Yet I liked some of the presenters' observations. For example, Professor Zunes appreciated the non-violent nature of the 'revolution' and how this revolution showed that democracy can come in the Middle East without US intervention. He also commended Tunisia for its smooth transition to democracy compared to Egypt and Libya. Professor Samer Soliman pointed out some of the challenges Egypt is facing. He discussed the complexities arising from the intervention by both the far right and the far left and speculated whether the Egyptian constitution would enshrine secularism in the future.

But the piece that caught my attention the most was the paper by Professor Greg Barton and Ms Derya Akguner entitled 'Is Turkey a role model for democratic reform in the Middle East?' As I listened it all sounded positive as Turkey was presented as a role model for democratic reforms in the Middle East. Yet two questions remain to be addressed: the Kurdish and the Muslim women questions. Last year when I attended a conference in Istanbul, there were discussions about how Kurdish Turks hide their identity while seeking jobs in Turkey, and how Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf) are viewed as the 'other' by their Turkish counterparts. Of course, the conferences are venues that may have one specific topic for discussion and in this case it was 'The Middle East in Revolt', but such conferences may also open up other areas of critical thinking such as the rights of minorities, and women’s place in a democratic society!

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Conference on the Arab Spring in Melbourne

3 April 2012

Two weeks ago I attended a conference at the University of Melbourne entitled ‘The Middle East in Revolt: The First Anniversary’ (17–18 March). The conference was highly relevant to my own research, as many presenters addressed issues of democratisation, revolution and non-violence in the context of the Arab Spring. The keynote speech was given by Prof Samer Soliman from the American University in Cairo on the topic of the challenges facing Egypt in its post-Mubarak phase. Perhaps slightly embarrassing for the organisers of the event was the verbal stoush that occurred on the morning of the first day between the former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and the University of San Francisco’s Stephen Zunes.

Zunes raised an issue after Evans’ address in which he questioned how Evans could invoke the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine to legitimise western military intervention in Libya and Syria when he, as Australia’s foreign minister, guaranteed to Indonesian officials that Australia would not intervene when Indonesia invaded East Timor and subsequently massacred thousands of Timorese. The convenor of the conference cut Zunes off before he had a chance to finish his question. In a subsequent verbal exchange, Zunes claims that Evans tore off his conference name tag and threatened to assault him. When he decided to make a clarification the next day, Zunes was again stopped by the convenor, who said what he had to say was not relevant. Evans had already left so was unable to put his side of the story. The exchange remained a talking point for the rest of the conference.

This was the second year the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at Melbourne University had hosted the conference. Around the same time last year, whilst the struggles for power in Libya and Yemen were still underway, Melbourne University hurriedly organised and promoted the first conference, which was more an opportunity for many of Australia’s academics in Middle Eastern affairs to meet and discuss the changes that were underway, rather than a more traditional conference. I did not feel that such a hurriedly prepared conference did the uprisings in the Middle East the justice they deserved. In stark contrast, the well-planned formula and extended length of this year’s conference made it a much more enjoyable experience as it provided for a great deal more analysis than the previous year’s allowed.

The greater organisation of this second conference eventuated in much more in-depth discussions on the issues being addressed, thereby avoiding the generalisations about the Arab Spring that were prevalent at the previous conference. My favourite speech was that given by the Australian National University’s Raihan Ismail, a PhD candidate whose talk entitled ‘Political Islam in the new Egypt’ was a piercing analysis of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Nour Party in the current parliament. The subject has important ramifications for my own research, and her explanation of the adversarial relationship between the two parties was a delight and made it the most enjoyable presentation of the entire event. Other presentations that particularly related to my own research were those of Prof Stephen Zunes, ‘Non-violent action and revolutionary change’, and Prof Emma Murphy, ‘Youth, the Arab Spring and the problem of generations’.

By Alasdair Hynd

The politics of surveillance on the Israeli frontier

27 March 2012

As anyone who has travelled across Israeli borders will know, the experience is far from pleasant. Travelling from Gaza into Israel involves schlepping your belongings through a long, metal-clad open-air tunnel (reportedly stifling if you make the journey around midday) via clunky metal turnstiles that make no provision for luggage. If you are lucky enough not to be made to queue for interminably long periods squashed against your fellow travellers, you proceed to have your belongings pored over by plastic-gloved hands. You might then be pulled aside to a room of sorts that consists of a metal grid over a large empty space. This happened to The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. 'From behind a glass window, a female Israeli official asked me through a speaker to take off my jumper and t-shirt and pass them twice through a security scanner', Sherwood said, 'she then gestured to me to unzip my trousers and open the fly wide – "we need to see your stomach," she said through the intercom. After a few minutes in this state of undress, she pointed to the door, indicating I could put my clothes back on and go.'

While the unpleasantness of the bodily experience of the checkpoint system occasionally makes it into the mainstream media, outside Israel and the occupied territories comparatively little is known of the administrative side of Israeli biopolitics. Yesterday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that precisely 101 different kinds of permits exist to govern the movement of people across Israel’s borders. According to a document it obtained from Israel’s Civil Administration, travelling from Israel to a wedding in the West Bank requires a different kind of permit to a journey crossing the same border in the opposite direction. Medics require different paperwork to accompany a patient in an ambulance from that required to simply accompany a patient, while the permit needed is different again depending on whether one is a physician, ambulance driver, 'medical emergency staff' or 'medical emergency staff in the seam zone'. Aside from the headache this is causing international agencies – a UN report found that a whopping 20 per cent of agencies’ working hours are chewed up dealing with permit applications and the inevitable problems arising within such a complex system – Machsom Watch, an Israeli checkpoint monitoring agency, claims that the permit system is being used as a coercive form of intelligence gathering. They say the Shin Bet security service 'invites' Palestinians whose permits have been rejected on security grounds to meetings where 'assistance' with the permit process is offered in exchange for information. In an effort to counter the human rights abuses they say go on at the checkpoints, including the 600 existing within the West Bank (i.e. those that do not exist to police movement into Israel but obstruct freedom of movement between Palestinian towns and villages), Machsom Watch places volunteers at checkpoints to monitor the situation.

By Chloe Patton

From history to identity: why this sudden shift?

27 March 2012

I have been a student of history all my life and I am deeply captivated by the events of the past. In the Indian context, I have enjoyed reading the history of the Mughal period, and when I visited India I deeply appreciated Mughal architecture such as the Taj Mahal. In the Australian context, as I was doing my PhD study on Muslims in Australia from 1860 to 2002, I was fascinated to find out how Afghan cameleers helped Australians in their exploration expeditions, and subsequently how Muslims of diverse ethnicities migrated to Australia.

From 2006 onwards my research focus suddenly shifted to the term 'identity'. A Welsh historian (and also director of research), the late Professor Duncan Tanner of the University of Bangor in North Wales, suggested that I should examine the British Muslims’ identity though, being Welsh, he was more passionate about the Welsh Muslim identity. Initially, I was not keen on the 'identity' terminology, as I linked it with sociology, anthropology or more precisely with behavioural science (psychology). Yet I did not have any choice because I was planning to move to North Wales when my husband was working there. Moving to North Wales might mean that I would have to work with Professor Duncan on the topic of British/Welsh Muslim identity. In the end, however, I did not move to North Wales because my husband returned to Australia but my journey to explore young British Muslims’ identity had begun.

In 2008 I was awarded my second early career researchers grant by my former university, Edith Cowan University in Perth. The same year I made several trips to Britain, and interviewed 216 Muslims (mostly 15–30 years) from London, Leicester, Bradford, Leeds and Cardiff. In 2009 I moved to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, USA as a visiting fellow and continued writing my manuscript. In October 2010 my book, Young British Muslims: Identity, Culture, Politics and the Media was published. When I was about to give this exciting news to Professor Tanner, I found out that he had passed away in February 2010. As Professor Tanner had introduced me to this beacon of knowledge (the concept of identity), I continued to cherish it.

Now that I am placed in the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia, I feel privileged to continue my research on 'identity' and extend my research focus with my colleagues to other areas that need attention.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

My talks on identity

27 March 2012

My book Young British Muslims: Identity, Culture, Politics and the Media, though focused on Britain, generated a lot of interest in academic circles in the USA and Australia. I was invited by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program and Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, USA to give a talk on my book on 10 February 2011. At that time, I was also a visiting fellow at the Islam in the West program at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, USA.

It seems that, after a year, some people are still interested in my findings on young British Muslims’ identity, though this time it was not in the USA but in Australia. Recently I received invitations from two universities in Melbourne to give talks on my book, Young British Muslims: Identity, Culture, Politics and the Media. As always, I felt very honoured.

On 16 March 2012 I gave a talk at the Migration and Mobility Research Network at RMIT. On this occasion I spoke specifically about one chapter of my book entitled 'To be or not to be British'. On 19 March 2012 I spoke generally on my book at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies Australia (NCEIS) at the University of Melbourne.

In all three instances, in the USA and Australia, the audience ranged from members of the general public, through postgraduate students, independent researchers and academics. At NCEIS there were also people from the government sector.

The questions from the audience varied – for example at Harvard there were questions about how the Islamophobic activities of the British National Party can have an impact in the construction of young Muslims’ identity since they still do not hold any seats in the British Houses of Parliament (though they have seats in the European Parliament). Why did I choose samples from marginalised areas, and why did a Bangladeshi mosque photo have date trees on its premises (as they saw that image in my PowerPoint presentation)? Does the mosque have any Saudi influence? And what did I think of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment on 'state multiculturalism'.

In Australia, there were specific questions on identity, for example whether some of my participants were suffering from an identity crisis, and how did the different age groups’ (15–17 years and 18–30 years) responses vary. One interesting question was whether I would interview a Muslim participant who had an anglicised name. There were questions on the media representation of Muslims and if there was a significant endorsement of the niqab by British Muslim women as a protest against some politicians’ statements. There was also a question on whether I thought the London riots in August 2011 were inevitable.

Overall, in three venues, the questions were different but quite engaging. Yet all three venues had one common question: 'Could you please tell us about the similarities and differences in your findings in Australia, the UK and the USA?' or 'How would you compare the three countries on the question of “Muslim identity”?' This is a valid question … I may soon write a journal article addressing it!

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Land for welfare

27 March 2012

Indigenous communities in south-west Western Australia are facing a tough challenge in the form of a government deal that requires they relinquish all future claims to native title rights in exchange for $1 billion of funding to address pressing social issues. The South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council welcomes the deal, believing it will ‘close the gap’ between the local Nyoongar people and non-Indigenous communities in and around Perth. Others do not believe that Nyoongar communities will see much of that money and are firmly asserting that the SWALSC does not represent all Nyoongar perspectives. They say that they have never ceded sovereignty over their land to the Crown and call upon the government to produce a ‘bill of sale’ to prove transfer of ownership. Earlier this year protesters established a tent embassy to voice these concerns and link the Nyoongar struggle with the broader issue of land rights in Australia. So far the mainstream media has fixated on police efforts to move the embassy occupants on, completely overlooking the protestors’ stated reasons for occupying the land they claim is rightfully theirs or their experiences of the violent police raids on the embassy, the most recent occurring last Thursday. Aside from the media’s apparent complicity with the WA government on this issue, there is an important question at stake here: why should funding for Indigenous health and welfare have to come with strings attached? Surely it is time that the gap was closed simply because the gap exists, not because it can serve as leverage in attempts to force Indigenous Australians to yield to government demands, whatever they may be.

By Chloe Patton

International Women’s Day 2012

20 March 2012

In my experience, formal events organised to mark International Women’s Day tend to polarise around two kinds of activities aimed at virtually mutually exclusive audiences: sit-down luncheons and marches. As a university employee, I’m probably among the few women who eat with the business women and public service elites who make up the pearls and tea dress luncheon crowd then walk and shout it off a few hours later with the hoi polloi at demonstrations in support of adequate paid maternity leave, freedom to go about our business at night, or simply to show that the women’s rights movement still exists. This year, as usual, I had the opportunity to do both, but being tired after the luncheon I guiltily skipped the evening march to Parliament House and went home for a rest, feeling rather bourgeois.

Unlike me, large numbers of Egyptian women took to the street this IWD. Among their concerns was the treatment of women who demonstrated at last year’s IWD protest, held just a month after the Mubarak regime toppled. Far from basking in the warm glow of newly emerging democracy, the women were arrested by the ruling military junta and subjected to torture and sexual assault in the form of enforced virginity tests. In a cruel and twisted display of irony, an Egyptian General deemed the virginity tests necessary to prevent the women from accusing the soldiers who detained them of rape. 'We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place', he said. 'The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents molotov cocktails and [drugs].' On Sunday a military court exonerated the army doctor who ordered the virginity tests.

If the military junta’s attitude towards women isn’t bad enough, western media reports that the recently elected Freedom and Justice Party want to dismantle Egypt’s National Council of Women, which has been responsible for significant personal status law reform including no-fault divorce, suggest that Islamists have women’s rights squarely in their crosshairs. But the situation is far more complex than that. The NCW was the pet project of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak and Mrs Mubarak’s cronies are still reportedly influential within it. Accusing it of corruption, a coalition of Egyptian grassroots women’s rights organisations has demanded that it refrain from representing them at international gatherings and called for its dissolution. As Egyptian women’s rights activists have confirmed, the greatest problem the Egyptian women’s rights movement currently faces comes not so much from the Muslim Brotherhood, but the public perception that feminism is the sole domain of the old regime’s pearls and tea dress set.

By Chloe Patton

Racists without borders

6 March 2012

Far-right groups from across Europe will be gathering in Denmark this month for a 'European Counter-Jihad Meeting', a move The Independent reckons will see the birth of a European Defence League. That prediction looks to be correct, as the English Defence League has posted to its website a 'Memorandum of Understanding relating to the formation of a European network of advocates for human rights and personal freedoms, in opposition to Shariah Law and other forms of oppression', alongside a poster for the Denmark event featuring a medieval armour-clad Nordic warrior and the slogan 'no surrender!'

While the establishment of a European-wide fascist umbrella organisation may sound like a menacing new development, it isn’t likely to change much in terms of what these groups actually do. Defence leagues are basically street movements, with rallies, demonstrations and marches their bread and butter activities. At this level the groups are already operating across European national borders. EDL members convicted of an attack on a mosque late last year, for example, had attended a rally in Amsterdam together, while the Norwegian Defence League’s highest profile member, Anders Breivik, reportedly attended rallies in the UK and claimed to have 600 EDL members among his Facebook friends. The total membership of these groups is difficult to gauge, as they tend to avoid formal membership. However, the EDL estimates that it has 300 people who will readily turn up to its events, while The Guardian puts the figure at 3000. Whatever the case, the EDL’s Facebook page had over 80 000 followers before the Norway massacre, after which it was banned for a time. While Norway is an example of the carnage to which these groups’ anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hate rhetoric can lead, it is perhaps the extraordinary number of people who casually clicked their support for that message that is more worrying.

Meanwhile, back on Australian shores, globally minded Australian bigots are causing a ruckus in Brisbane over plans to host an international neo-Nazi music festival. Media reports that the event will draw white supremacists from around the world are dubious at best, given that it has been held on the Gold Coast for the past few years and has largely gone unnoticed. However, the group concerned certainly is part of a global alliance of neo-Nazi skinhead organisations, the Spanish chapter of which was banned in 2009 for its promotion of hatred and violence.

By Chloe Patton

Is Islam a threat or are the perpetrators ignorant?

6 March 2012

The 9/11 Twin Towers bombings, 2002 Bali bombings and the 7/7 London bombings carried out by some militant Muslims have had a negative impact on mainstream Australian Muslims. Some people in the wider society view Muslims as a threat. Again, in the national context, some imams have further distorted the image of Islam with their divisive comments. For example, Melbourne-based Sheikh Omran believed that the 9/11 incident was a US conspiracy against Muslims, the convicted imam Abu Nacer Benbrika was involved in terrorist organisations and Australian-born imam Sheikh Faiz Mohammad allegedly urged children to kill the enemies of Islam and praised martyrs with a violent interpretation of jihad.

Through some media, people are informed that violence against women (such as honour killing) is specific to Islam, veiled Muslim women are oppressed, and the Shia–Sunni conflict in places such as Iraq is generalised to be universal. News about hardline Muslims travels fast, for example: The Taliban’s restrictions on women's education, the radicalisation of young Muslims in the madrassas in South Asia, and the practice of huhud (the criminal aspect of the Sharia law) such as stoning women to death for adultery.

In a climate of fear and anxiety, some mosques are vandalised in Australia, children are bullied in schools, people are rejected in workplaces and visible Muslim women (wearing the hijab, burqa or niqab) are perhaps the worst victims of vilification. The perpetrators’ motive may be guided by ignorance or the threat that there are 'enemies' amongst us. Recently, there have been unpleasant incidents in mosques in Newcastle, NSW and Deer Park, Victoria. Two people allegedly attempted to break into the Newcastle Mosque, threw objects at the mosque and shouted at the people praying there. And in the Deer Park mosque, the attacker allegedly desecrated the Holy Quran and verbally assaulted a person inside the building. Though these are isolated incidents, it still begs me to ask if Islam is considered a threat or whether the perpetrators are ignorant.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

The Asian future of higher education

6 March 2012

Last week, I attended the Future of Higher Education Conference, organised by the National Tertiary Education Union. Speakers there described a university sector that is increasingly fragmented, driven by competing interests and cross-cutting pressures, and no longer hopeful for more government funding. It appears that in this fragmented future Asian international students will become even more crucial to Australian universities. Yet they, like all other sector stakeholders, are more exposed than ever to the market pressures bearing on them.

On the one hand, international students are full-fee paying education consumers, who are encouraged to view their teachers as individually responsible for education quality. At the same time, their representatives argue that teachers are frequently the only people they can rely on, given that they may experience exclusion on campus, in the workforce and in the community. They may also be exposed to periodic spikes in anti-Asian rhetoric, and occasional violence.

On the other hand, most small-group university teaching is performed by casuals. Paid by the hour and under pressure to build research profiles, casuals may limit the extra time they spend with students; unless they aspire to teaching-only positions. These form another growth niche in a sector in which research metrics strongly shape institutional and individual decision making. Further, Australian universities can pay little attention to the diverse backgrounds, needs and motivations of Asian students, and the complex and dynamic societies from which they originate. Some might make assumptions about uncritical Asian pedagogies and the superior quality of ‘western’ education, which they may understand as timeless and constant push and pull factors informing how international students, not Australian universities, must adapt to belong.

Ultimately, however, Asian universities are themselves growing, and enjoying greater investment in their size, quality and research capacity. They will train a greater share of the world’s graduates, and they frequently outrank Australian universities on global league tables. Between them, these changes are further transforming both the competitive and the ontological stakes in how we understand Asian students and their position in the globalised market in higher education.

By Amrita Malhi

Conference on surveillance in Sydney

28 February 2012

I’ve just come back from the Surveillance and/in Everyday Life Conference at the University of Sydney, which featured keynotes from Prof David Lyon and Prof Kevin Haggerty. The conference ran smoothly due to a rather organised and extraordinarily generous organising committee. My interest in the conference stems from my work on everyday cultures of security, which incorporates surveillance but also extends beyond that. I was somewhat surprised there weren’t more papers around race and surveillance, particularly given recent homeland security measures – through which surveillance has intensified domestically and globally – and their direct relationship to the rise of Islamophobia. But, to be fair, that wasn’t the purpose of the conference and the Surveillance and Everyday Life Research Group at Sydney University have planned other symposia that incorporate that discussion.

No, what struck me most was the ease of conversation and debate in a thoroughly interdisciplinary crowd and the stark contrast between this and similar conferences I’ve been to, where ‘interdisciplinary’ debate feels stilted and where the disjuncture between disciplines is more obstructive than productive. From what I could surmise, the success of interdisciplinarity in the surveillance conference was fostered by research leaders who were willing to engage each other in good faith. Even without a common theoretical ground such openness fostered an environment of engagement. Research leaders do more than lead research; they lead research discussions and therefore shape the tone of debate. They model behaviours that shape what kinds of scholars their students and junior colleagues can become. I hope we have more conferences like this.

By Gilbert Caluya

Australia: love it or leave

28 February 2012

If the antics of a man who used his naked bottom to grip the flag he cheerfully waved at the Queen’s motorcade during the Brisbane leg of her visit to Australia were not bad enough, the Australian flag has recently been the subject of more bad press in the international media. Last month the British Muslim News carried a story about the media storm following Australian former test cricketer Rodney Hogg’s failed attempt at what he called ‘Australian humour’. 'Just put out my Aussie flag for Australia Day but I wasn’t sure if it would offend Muslims … So I wrote "Allah is a shit" on it to make sure', he posted to Twitter. While it is tempting to dismiss it as the rambling of an unfortunately high-profile bigot, as many did, the comment points to a disturbing recent change in the way the symbolism of nationhood is invoked in Australia more generally. Hogg’s notion that a particular section of the community may find the flag offensive harks back to the 'political correctness gone mad' outrage following the 2007 announcement that the organisers of an annual rock concert held on Australia Day had banned the flag from the event. Prime Minister John Howard declared the ban ‘stupid’, saying that the 'proposition that the display of the Australian flag should ever be banned anywhere in Australia is offensive and it will be to millions of Australians', while State Premier Morris Iemma joined forces with the Daily Telegraph in egging on concert goers to defy the ban.

The problem was, however, that the concert organisers had never actually banned the flag; they had simply asked that people refrain from bringing flags to the event due to the problems it had caused the previous year when, just a month after the Cronulla riots, it became a rallying point for racist violence. One victim told the ABC that 'there was a guy walking down the whole line with a flag, putting the flag in front of people's faces asking them to kiss it, and everyone did until me and I refused and some words exchanged and then I got belted in the face twice … I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn't necessarily nationalistic pride for him, rather a more, possibly a more racist type of thing.' In 2007 concert goers heeded the media and politicians’ call to arms and turned up brandishing the flag on all things from sunglasses and picnic blankets to boob tubes, boxer shorts and bikinis. Some took their cue from the Cronulla riots and wore it as a cape, while others bore it on t-shirts accompanied by slogans such as 'Support it or fuck off', and 'if you don’t love it leave'. The event was relatively trouble free because, according to The Australian, few people were willing to challenge the aggressive sentiments of the 50,000-strong mostly Anglo crowd.

John Howard pointed to the polysemous nature of the national flag when he remarked that 'flags don't have legs and arm, if anyone was breaking the law at Cronulla, or breaks the law at any time in the future, they should be dealt with by the authorities'. This is correct, but it carefully avoids acknowledgement of the extent to which the national flag has recently become the symbol of an aggressive nationalism that is racist, pure and simple. Those self-styled Anglo-Australian superheroes patrolling the boundaries of the nation in their flags-cum-capes inspire fear in many, and for good reason. As recent research carried out by anthropologist Farida Fozdar found, eager flag flyers tend to hold more racist views than the rest of the population, with many supporting the White Australia Policy and believing that 'Australian culture' is under threat. No-one likes to be called a racist these days so it is fortunate that the nation’s superhero defenders were there quickly to set Prof Fozdar straight. After her findings were publicised she received a barrage of hate mail, including demands that she go back to 'her own country'.

By Chloe Patton

Iranophobia in the US media

28 February 2012

The American news media is currently vehemently making a case for the invasion of Iran, as the next big threat to America. In the year of a presidential election, no politician can afford to be seen as 'soft', thereby limiting political responses to the Iranian situation to masculinist military posturing. For a related piece on the Iran situation, see Alasdair Hynd’s commentary. As 'Iranophobia' develops in the media, Al-Jazeera offers its take on such conjectural journalism in its show 'Listening Post'. The story can be viewed here, in the first 8 minutes of the video. The story ends with a stark visual, namely a map of Iran surrounded by 44 American military bases and asks a potent question: who is a threat to whom?

By Shvetal Vyas

Western values, human rights and child welfare

15 February 2012

Non-western immigrants the world over are being told to assimilate to western ways, or face physical and psychological consequences. Here is a telling case.

The two children of an Indian couple were taken away from them by Norwegian social workers. There are four counts against the parents, namely:

  1. The older child, a boy of 3, slept with his parents in the same bed.
  2. The mother fed the boy with her hands, which was classified as ‘force-feeding’.
  3. The son was displaying ‘erratic behaviour’ in school.
  4. The mother hit the son once, and stopped doing it after she discovered that it was against Norwegian laws.

To most Indians, the first two counts are laughable, since sleeping in one's parents’ bed or eating from their hands is culturally a normal part of Indian childhood. As for the child’s ‘erratic behaviour’ in school, not only is such a judgement subjective, the assumption is that the cause of such behaviour lies in the home rather than in the school itself. As for the final count, physically hitting children is only recently beginning to be seen as wrong or abnormal in India, and is still prevalent in parts of the country.

The matter is sub judice, and the parents are currently being told that the state will raise the children until they are 18. They are trying to get their children back with the help of the Indian government. Further details about the case can be found here.

This issue will frequently be discussed with reference to multiculturalism, with both those favouring and against multiculturalism using aspects of it to make their points. At the heart of the issue, however, is racism and western hegemony, in that it is assumed that only western values are universal, and no other method of child rearing is permissible in a western space. International organisations are quick to intervene in human rights debates in non-western countries: are they also going to intervene to protect the rights of Abhigyan and Aishwarya?

By Shvetal Vyas

What does the image read, and what does the text read?

18 January 2012

A colleague of mine recently emailed me an article posted in openDemocracy in 2007. Before the article begins, it has a picture of a woman’s head covered with a scarf and beside that the slogan ‘16 days against gender violence’. My first reaction was, ‘Here we go again, another case of berating domestic violence in ethnic minorities’. The interesting thing, however, was this: the article did not highlight domestic violence as part of any given community. Instead, the article spoke of it as a global issue.

What I found problematic was the image presented at the beginning of the article, before the text began. Which community wears a head scarf on a mass scale? What does the use of this image signal? My concern is that the majority of the people reading this article will see an image that generates or reinforces a pre-conceived idea of which communities are more at risk of gender-based violence. Why is such an image used when we are speaking of gender-based violence? Is it meant to emphasise a more submissive feminine look?

While analysing this, one must bear in mind that the image might not have been chosen by the article’s author but might be part of the website design. This, however, does not detract from the question: why this image and no other?

By Kam Kaur

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