In a recent cartoon in The Age, Michael Leunig posed the question: ‘Should heads be cut off or blown off?’ He was so cheeky as to play around with the would-be civilisational divisions that now sit at the centre of the Abbott government’s war rhetoric. Evil, pure evil and primitivism beneath a sabre; humanitarianism and civilisation beneath a bomb.
Might we then expect Leunig to be condemned and The Age proscribed when Tony Abbott’s planned terror-support legislation comes into effect later this year? I ask this because Leunig’s question seems awfully like the response of Wassim Doureihi of Hizb ut-Tahrir to Emma Alberici’s first shrill question in an interview on Lateline on 9 October. Alberici went in hard from the start, asking if Doureihi condemned the tactics of ISIS. Doureihi attempted to deflect the question to point to a larger background history of Western involvement in the Middle East. One could say he was attempting to bring some kind of balance to the implicit framework from which Alberici was operating. But the ‘interview’ continued as a slanging match, never recovering from the first insult to the interviewee or, though I hesitate to say it, the viewer. With Tony Abbott next day on 3AW complimenting Alberici and Alberici accepting his ‘endorsement’, the joke going around was that the ABC will do better than expected in its next round of funding. The common judgement in the media seems largely to have been that Alberici was brave and dogged, as a woman and as a journalist.
The problem is that Alberici as a journalist squandered perhaps the only opportunity on mainstream television to dig in to how members of Hizb ut-Tahrir really think and just what their position is. She speaks during the interview about Doureihi refusing to answer her questions. But really, she was going to skewer the interviewee from the start. Here were tactics, not merely a set of questions. What more emotive, goading question could be asked than, ‘Are you outraged by the image of an Australian-born [Muslim] child of seven-years-old holding up severed heads like trophies…?’, a question with civilisational undertones and strangely reminiscent of the accusation that Muslims would throw children overboard. The consequence of both parties’ digging in was that the whole interview became a self-fulfilling prophecy: we were going from the start to see it, and then it was proven: terror itself on Aussie TV. It seems Lateline had drawn a line in relation to Hizb ut-Tahrir, just as the organisation is now a defining case for the resolve of the Abbott government in showing who’s in and who’s out of Team Australia. (It should be noted that some distance into the interview Doureihi did say that Islam condemned violence against ‘innocents’—a point that could have been explored, but wasn’t.)
So the lines are forming. It is a classic situation of a war government gathering support on the home front by creating divisions and binding loyalties, and of a shallow media setting up feared figures then knocking them over in preemptive ways in what we are expected to see as civilised media behaviour. (Lateline has a history here: its role in shaping the small-‘l’ liberal response to John Howard’s Intervention into NT Aboriginal communities, especially through the construction of the ‘male Aboriginal child abuser’, is notorious, at least among Aboriginal people.) The government, and so too the liberal media, will defend itself against accusations of Muslim-baiting by pointing out that it supports ‘moderate’ Muslim leaders and even programs to discourage ‘young Muslim men’ from becoming ‘politicised’ (humanitarian aid, with various caveats, was also offered to the Aboriginal communities identified as pathological). But there is massive posturing around these statements from the very large number of committed socially conservative Catholics in this government and cabinet, and in any case the decision to humiliate some Muslim groups without fair discussion of their views sows seeds of discontent beyond the proscribed group. It also tends to confirm the mainstream’s incipient racism, which has been seen for a long time in its incapacity to make educated distinctions between the political differences within ‘othered’ ethnic and religious groupings.
And, ultimately, why shouldn’t young Muslim men and women be ‘politicised’? This is a complicated euphemism. It is typically used to mean politicised into Islamic radicalism, as noted above. Yet if we are also to imbibe the word’s actual meaning, on the face of it, it says that Muslim youth should not have opinions and should not act but rather should be quiescent. For fear of frightening the Australian public? Because Australian youth in general are mostly apolitical or content with the society we have? What other grouping in Australia would be told not to become political?
Of course we all do have a stake in how people become political—what values and visions they adopt, what ends and means they and we see as rational and ethical, with some recognised, some not, in the political institutions that have taken shape over the last three centuries. But this raises complicated issues too. On the one hand, the West as an emergent secular societal form instituted the various organs of a public sphere where debate across established political (and religious) lines and interests became formally possible. On the other, more radical visions of how social life might be different (universal suffrage or state welfare, for instance) have had to engage and convince publics over extended periods outside the mainstream institutions, some ultimately helping to reshape mainstream agendas, but some remaining in a liminal realm, with their promulgators’ efforts held in deep suspicion or made illegal. Fundamental challenges to modern capitalism, or today to the neoliberal high-tech form, don’t easily find a place in the public realm, given that institutions in that realm can for long periods be locked into the essential interests, with only minor variations, of the societal form overall. Some might say that it would be just as difficult for the radical Left to get a proper showing on mainstream television today as for certain Muslim groups.
When you don’t agree with the basic terms of reference, as Doureihi didn’t, what course of action is open to you? Not media-savvy, it’s just far too ‘academic’ in form and tone to attempt to switch the fundamental framework. Mainstream journalists don’t get it and don’t like it. When, to take the example of another ABC television current-affairs program, Q & A did have the so-presented radical rejectionist Slavoj Zizek on its panel of speakers, he was treated as an amusing eccentric, buffoonish, and not really to be fully engaged with as someone with basic insights that might seriously shift the terms of debate. Nevertheless, in all these cases, even Zizek’s, we see still only the problems and visions of in-groups and out-groups within their own cultural-political setting—that is, the West’s.
It is a massive problem for anyone outside the frame seeking to ask questions about the West’s sense of itself as moral arbiter and champion of civilisation to get past Western assumptions of superiority. Assumptions. Which form and guard elements of deep identity, lying at the base not just of more or less accessible belief systems but also bodily orientations and practices, social and physical technologies, spatio-temporal configurations; in other words, embedded culture, which typically reaches across social-class and political identifications. Superiority. Which in taking on a moral gloss—not just superior might, for instance—assumes a moral universalism; a set of values by which one might adopt a superordinate purview that subsumes all differences within its hierarchy of value abstractions. Differences are never grasped in their specificity and multiplicity but must always be subjected to that overarching hierarchy. As both poststructuralists, and now post-moderns like John Gray, have pointed out, colonialism is a central pillar of a proselytising Western Progress at the peripheries and of metropolitan power at the centre. Whether we talk of Aboriginal Australia or the colonisation of North Africa and the Middle East, however undermined those cultures may presently be, they have something to tell us in the West about the Western way of life.
What is it that the West cannot bear to know? Why can’t Hizb ut-Tahrir tell us that the oppression of the Palestinians is an injustice other Muslims can’t bear? Why can’t it tell us about Western interests in the Middle East today? What must we not know in order for the Powers to maintain their colonialist disregard for the lives of others whose cultural universes we don’t understand and won’t try to?
One of the things Leunig’s cartoon pointed to was of course the radical difference in technological scope and power possessed by the two sides in our would-be ‘civilisational’ struggle. Beheadings are horrible, utterly gruesome, fearsomely terrible, but they nowhere reach the level of barbarity achieved by the West’s ‘clean’ warfare: neither the kill power of ‘precision’ warfare nor, actually, the collateral damage it typically spreads. In any case, why should killing at a distance be valorised, again as Leunig’s cartoon suggests it is in the contemporary West, over embodied killing or bloody execution? While the act of killing is cleaner for those who press a button to release a bomb or interface with a screen to program or guide a drone, the actual ‘death at a distance’ isn’t—it’s still going to be gruesome.
Finally, while the ISIS beheadings cannot be defended on any grounds, they are not ‘medieval’. They are highly staged, very modern media stunts engineered by people who know exactly who is being affected and how, and by what modern-media means the images will be distributed. Let’s also remember certain images from Abu Ghraib: of the sexualised poses of Arab detainees photographed by American soldiers and shared among mates (very civilised); of attack dogs terrifying inmates (very culturally sensitive); of waterboarding (a terrifying torture). Humiliation goes a long way to explaining radical Muslim sentiment; and as any history of the Maghreb and the Middle East will inform you, it was a key, if very stupid tactic used in the long history of repression and colonisation in those regions.
It is not a good idea to stupidly go in hard.