The Conversation that Isn’t

gagged speech

Islam-is-violence or Islam-is-peace? Take your pick because there is no third option available to those who would like to see debate and policy based on a rational, informed and unbiased approach to Islam’s history and interpretations

As attacks inspired by Islamist ideology continue to erupt around the globe — Paris, San Bernardino, Africa, stick a pin the map and stayed tuned– the tourniquet on the Islam-and-terrorism conversation is tight and getting tighter. The popularity of #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, in response to the London Underground stabbings, bolstered by President Obama’s latest glib insistence that ‘ISIL does not speak for Islam’, highlight just how, since 9/11 and earlier, the West has imposed tacit and active restrictions on what can and cannot be said about Islam and its multiple interpretations.

Browsing the web for perspectives, I came across an article on The Conversation which, at first glance, appeared to promise a refreshing view. Entitled “Yes, let’s have a frank and open discussion about the causes of extremism and terrorism“, the conversation-provoking headline quickly inspired a deep sense of frustration as the limits on that “frank and open discussion” were revealed in the very article itself.

The author, academic Adrian Cherney, presented four causes why Muslims would engage in terrorist acts: personal and collective grievances; networks and interpersonal ties; political and religious ideologies; and enabling environments and support structures. Cherney takes as his starting point the assertion that Islam has been “overplayed” in the West as a root cause of terrorism. This a surprising revelation, considering what amounts to the shunning in the politically correct West of any comment that equates, or even raises, the three-cornered nexus of Islamic doctrine, history and violence.

So, I would ask Cherney, who exactly is ‘overplaying’ the importance of religion as a cause for Islamic terrorism? Groups like the United Patriots Front and Reclaim Australia? Or is it, perhaps, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump with his wild suggestions? Trouble is, between the extremes of ‘Islam is peace’, and ‘Islam is violence’ — the middle ground where most Australians are likely situated — there is no conversation at all. How can it be that Islam is ‘overplayed’ as a motivation for terrorism when there is no real discussion.

Clearly, this overplaying is not the work of a mainstream media. If you want happy-clappy cliches and feel-good feature stories about diversity and tolerance, you’ll find those reports on very nearly a daily basis. When members of the Fourth Estate do venture into the shadowlands of religion, they mostly brush aside its influence as insignificant or drape themselves in the robes of two-dollar theologians. The prolix Michelle Grattan, for instance, has never been known to file ten words when 100 will do, but on the subject of Islam she is the essence of pithiness in asserting, also at the The Conversation, that ‘IS promotes a perverted form of Islam.’ That’s a big statement and it needs evidence. With no proof nor argument to back her case, that statement could be cited in journalism schools as an example of wishful thinking or hearsay, not rigorous reporting. Then again, perhaps not. Having departed the failing Fairfax newspapers, Grattan is now herself a journalism academic.

Grattan could have said that ‘IS promotes a form of Islam that most modern Muslims consider perverted.’ Let us assume her throw-away line was borne of innocent ignorance, rather than a Pavlovian impulse to bark the expected nostrums in immediate response to the latest Islamist slaughters. Whatever the reason, as one of Australia’s much-honoured and most venerable political commentators, her choice of words indicates the poor standard of the alleged “conversation” about Islam and terror.

Here, once again, let us pause to consider the unoccupied middle ground of “the conversation” about Islam. At one pole, the likes of Grattan with their bland and immediate dismissals. At the other extreme, those who insist that ISIS, bin Laden and their ilk represents the only valid interpretation of Islam, that they are the real Muslims and that there are actually no ‘moderate’ Muslims. True dialogue vanishes into the gulf between these diametrically opposed perceptions as quickly as do the rationalisers, such as Waleed Aly, race to the nearest microphone after every fresh massacre. Meanwhile, a highly complex reality goes unexamined. You’ll find no room for disagreement in either extreme camp, only tightly closed minds.

Going beyond shallowness and gross simplification– making genuine and honest efforts to grapple with complexity — is what this alleged “conversation” lacks. If we could get beyond that, all the talk about Islam and violence might actually get us somewhere. Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.


This article first appeared on Quadrant Magazine Online.

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