Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
— Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’
SHOULD YOU decide to join in the general frenzy of Muslim-bashing & start bullying women in Islamic dress at bus-stations or supermarket queues, be aware that other, more important, things are taking place at the same time. First, you are helping to make Australia a nastier place for all of us than it already is. Second, you will make your victim and her family ten times more determined to embrace their faith than they might have been, and ten times more hostile and suspicious towards anyone who doesn’t. Third, far from celebrating your own power and national identity, you will be revealing yourself and your culture as even more impotent than you might have feared. Fourth, you will be doing exactly what our rulers want you to do. You might believe your actions bold and original, but in fact you will merely be following a script, and a very old script it is too.
The best book I ever read about Nazi Germany didn’t mention Hitler by name, or the National Socialists except generally, until the last 20 or so of its 400-odd meticulously researched pages. I refer to The Pursuit of the Millenium, Norman S. Cohen’s account of witch-hunting in the Middle Ages. I was lucky enough to hear Professor Cohen give a visiting lecture at Queen’s, my Canadian alma mater, and his knowledge of history, languages & people was simply overwhelming. This quiet, white-haired old scholar was as much of a Nazi-hunter in his own way as Simon Wiesenthal; he simply used a different starting-point to get to his topic.
Dredging through five centuries in every major European tongue, with many of his sources pre-dating print, Cohen follows the burning of witches, gypsies and Jews all across Europe from the 12th century onward. In Germany, Italy, France, Hungary , Spain, England, the Low Countries, Poland and England, the same bizarre tale recurs. Plague, famine, flood, war beset the land. Cattle miscarry, crops fail, peasants are driven off their land. Omens and portents abound. Comets are seen, blood-red moons abound, eclipses terrify the masses, fear of Armageddon is everywhere. At such point a leader mysteriously arises. Some are soldiers, some priests, some peasants; all have mystical auras and alarming rhetorical skills; several are plainly mad, but this doesn’t seem to signify. A popular movement builds up. Demands are made, revolt brews, rulers begin to feel nervous. Soon enough a scapegoat is sought. Witches can’t always be found, and gypsies by their nature are elusive. But you can always find a Jew –
Not until you’ve read a dozen or so such narratives does the penny drop; then, because you’ve had to make the effort of puzzling out the book’s thesis, it strikes home all that much more forcefully. Cohen is saying two terrifying things. First, that the horrors of the mid-20th century cannot simply be explained away as a German problem, the product of one demonic individual being somehow able to hypnotise 100 million people into following him down into Hell. Cohen wants us to look at what happened as a Christian Holocaust, an event for which Europe had been rehearsing for 1000 years. Second, he wants us to understand history not as a matter of kings and emperors, generals and statesmen, but as a continuous struggle between competing economic forces. When those forces are in turmoil, he warns, unscrupulous people will always emerge to turn other people’s misery and confusion to their own profit.
The Nazis out there swaggering in their black uniforms aren’t the ones we have to worry about – it’s the Nazi in all of us that allows such things to happen. “We have met the enemy, and he is us”, as the man said in ‘Pogo’ back in the 60s. Hitler and Goebbels didn’t personally pull the trigger or turn on the Zyklon B jets six million times – they had willing helpers, a continent full of them. Demagogues know they can always count on bigotry and anger to do their dirty work for them.
In our time the West has judged it expedient to demonize Islam, and for our citizens to hate and fear individual Muslims. It matters little that the people we armed and financed yesterday (Saddam, Osama, ISIS) turn out to be today’s AntiChrist. What then are we really saying when we criticize Islam?
Muslims in Western countries, like the Jews in Europe’s shtetls and ghettoes, seem to go out of their way to make it impossible for the locals to like them. Their clothing, customs, speech and lifestyles set them apart. They are clannish, breed almost entirely among themselves, show no interest in integrating. They avoid eye contact, and when it is made the looks they exchange are often hostile. They often speak in their own native language, or mangle the local lingo if they’ve bothered to learn it. They are obviously other, and as such summon forth the nastier elements of our basic tribalism.
Opinion is free, knowledge sacred. Before you launch into a debate about those bloody Muslims and their bloody burkhas, ask yourself whether the person you are talking or listening to actually knows anything worth hearing. Pubs and clubs, football grounds and commercial radio stations are full of people telling you what they think. People telling you what they know are much harder to find. What, for instance, do the words Islam and Muslim mean? What are the principal duties of a Muslim? How many times a day are they required to pray, and when? What are the principal differences between Shia & Sunni? What do these words refer to? How many of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are Caucasian? Is Islam the only religion that assigns a secondary role to women? What do the Koran’s teachings owe to the Bible? To the Hammurabic Code? Why are Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism the only major faiths to insist on the existence of the Devil? What do the words burka, niqab, hijab refer to? Are they interchangeable ?And so on – if the person you are talking to has a reasonable idea about most of these issues, a reasonable discussion may well ensue. If not, why bother?
In my view fear of Islam is a racial issue more than a theological one. You can’t really claim to criticize a body of belief if you know nothing of it. Not only do followers of Mohammad dress differently from the rest of us, they almost always have darker skins. Since hatred for non-Caucasians is intrinsic to much of Australian life, & always has been, the nastier side of our national character can be given free rein by referring to ‘Christian values’ or the defence of our traditional way of life – whatever that means.
My contempt for organised religion is well-documented, visceral, lifelong. The men and women I’ve known whose adherence to this or that faith was a quietly personal matter have often been brilliant, honourable souls. But once faith becomes vocal, once the need to belief transmutes into the need to impose, we meet some seriously creepy people. I hesitate to universalise, here as elsewhere, but it’s been my experience that the more loudly a person proclaims his or her religion, using that religion as a shield or banner to defend and justify actions, the more likely that person is to be dishonest, vicious, vengeful, dangerous. Nixon was a Quaker, Abbott and Stalin seminarians. Blair, George Dubya, Howard, Morrison – need I go on?
The horrible events in Martin Place this week have released both the best & the worst aspects of Australian life. Calls for more handguns, or for the bail system to be used as a weapon of vengeance, are predictable, and dismal. Yet the ‘I’ll Ride with You’ movement should give the fair-minded among us hope that there is something worth saving in this muddled old country after all. Before you launch into another hate-filled rant about Islam, ask yourself which particular aspects of Christianity you think are being attacked, or defended.