The Hon. LYNDA VOLTZ
[1.11 a.m.]: Recently I was performing my normal Saturday morning ritual, which involves getting out of bed early to read the papers before the house degenerates into mayhem. This is a leisurely pastime during which writers will anger me or outrage me. Some articles I read just for amusement. David Dale's Tribal Mind column normally falls into the latter category, but that morning I was particularly struck by his turn of phrase. He was making a point about when people conform to stereotypes—the penny pinching Scot, naive Irish, New Zealand sheep lover or a Muslim who sympathises with terrorism. That Muslims are suddenly not identified by their country but grouped together, that those from the Philippines share the same culture and civilisation as that of Muslims from Albania, Morocco, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, struck me as an extraordinary leap for a cultural commentator
David Dale professes to "meditate on patterns in popular culture", according to his webpage for the Sydney Morning Herald.
It is extraordinary that David Dale has not kept abreast of the cultural move within the language and narrative on terrorism. Our fear of terrorism is cultural. We see it in television series, in stage plays and obliquely in novels. Pinning down the terrorist threat might be as much about reading our own fears as about understanding their plans. If David Dale is right and what we watch, listen to and read offers surprising insights into Australian attitudes, then we should also be assessing where this culture is taking us. In the debate on terrorism, to paraphrase Umberto Eco, only words count and the rest is mere chattering. Linguistic habits are frequently symptoms of underlying feelings. The narrative does matter.
Terms such as "Islamic extremism" and "Jihadism" succeed in combining terrorism with mainstream Islam, therefore casting all Muslims as potential terrorists. These terms become distorted and loaded with innuendo. Since his election as President of the United States of America, Barak Obama has shifted the narrative. To quote Barak Obama, "The language we use matters." He has further stated that he will be:
... very clear in distinguishing between organizations like Al Qaeda—that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it—and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful.
The narrative of Islamic terrorism is profoundly unhelpful, not least because it is highly politicised, intellectually contestable, counter-productive and damaging. Like the other Abrahamic faiths—Judaism and Christianity—the fundamental tenets of Islam are rooted in compassion, kindness, forgiveness and social justice. Likewise the term "Jihad" literally means a "striving" and is often expressed in the context "Jihad fi sabil Illah", or striving in the path of God. Jihad consists of some act of piety and often refers to some act of social or personal improvement, such as raising money for a community project or the giving of alms. Islamic teachings often stress the importance of the greater spiritual jihad over the lesser physical jihad.
Nearly one-fourth of the world's population is Muslim, and Arabs comprise only 15 per cent of the Muslim population. As the rest of the world has moved on from the simplistic narrative of the Bush administration and conformist stereotypes, it is time that both the Australian media and members of this House also moved on, if they wish to remain relevant to the ongoing debate.