As regular as clockwork, a new week brings a new poll showing Australians are questioning whether Islam is compatible with liberal democracy. Just as predictable are the blistering responses from commentators, politicians and human rights bodies dismissing the findings along with those who dare to harbour such thoughts.
Reflecting the zeitgeist of the elite in an interview on ABC radio’s Religion and Ethics Report the man responsible for the poll that showed nearly half of Australians were asking this question, Peter Lewis, dismissed the findings by saying that he thought the issue was, ‘much more an economic issue than a cultural issue.’ With that simple statement, as is so often done, the people’s concerns are ignored and the public conversation moves on.
Yet we live in a world with many religions and cultures. To wonder aloud whether some may be incompatible with others is an inescapable truth of global diversity.
By brushing over complex questions of whether all communities can integrate into Australian society or should Australian values be universally embraced we are simply kicking the can down the road to a point in time when our race relations will reflect those in the United States or France.
Tanya Plibersek appears to have recognised this when she said in response to the poll, ‘We’re not doing a good enough job as national leaders to bring harmony and cohesion to our community’.
But to do this we need political leaders who are willing to engage in a debate, listen to all sides and seek out a nuanced solution. But the base of each political party has narrowed to such a degree that no politician could risk holding a nuanced view for fear of losing support, not of the electorate, but of the Party membership that pre-selects them.
The media too has forsaken its role as a medium for balanced debate. From Waleed Aly’s disingenuous approach of repeatedly stating, to paraphrase, ‘nothing to see here folks, just move right along’, whenever an Islamic terrorist attack occurs to Channel Seven’s recent race baiting exercise. Sunday Night flew Zeynab Alshelh to France to entice French authorities to strangely enough, uphold their laws. Instead of providing a balanced story on the contentious debate and why France’s socialist government has chosen to crack down on what they believe to be errant interpretations of Islam, Channel Seven chose to dumb down the issue, chase ratings and in the process add fuel to the fire.
This failure to acknowledge the concerns of half of Australia and openly and respectfully engage in a discussion has resulted in a tribalism of opinion with each side slowly entrenching their positions unwilling to give any ground.
We need to break this stalemate.
We need cultural progressive politicians and media personalities to broaden their weekend reading list. To begin with they could read American sociologist Rodney Stark who bristles at how we ignore the role Christianity played in Western liberalism. Or Professor Timur Kuran from Duke University who shows how Islam has shaped a different state-society compact and governance structure to what emerged in the West. Both would argue that each religion contributes something unique to society and discussing what this may be and how it fits into a country’s history doesn’t make someone a racist.
Similarly, we need cultural conservatives who are intent on waging a jihad against Islam to realise that calling Australians to the battlements isn’t the same as working to find a solution. Actually it works to build the exact opposite. The more animosity that is created the greater a sense of isolation felt by several hundred thousand Australia Muslims which in turn leads to withdrawal from society and a furthering of everything that cultural conservatives fear—unemployment, ghettos and radicalisation.
A way forward can only come about if both sides agree to seek out a solution rather than walk away as the Greens did when Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech. This is a debate that will shape our future. We can’t walk away from it. We can’t allow the status quo to remain as only the fringe of politics benefits.
As a start we need an honest broker. We need the Race Discrimination Commissioner to step up and mediate a balanced debate. With politicians and media personalities taking sides, more than ever we need institutions such as the Human Rights Commission to lead the way, not by seeking out grievances as if to meet some corporate KPIs, but by facilitating a fruitful debate.
Australians can and must have an honest and open debate on race relations, but at the moment we lack voices who are willing to take up the challenge. Until the people who occupy these positions of influence acknowledge the validity of some opposing opinions we won’t have the discussion the country so desperately needs.
Denis Dragovic is an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne a former humanitarian aid worker and author of the book ‘Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives’. More of his work can be found on his website denisdragovic.com.