The recent debate over Islamic headscarves in schools has divided the Right. Conservatives believe the virulent isolationism of Islamic minorities justifies a more coercive nationalism. Libertarians contend the correct medication for Islamist medievalism is the bracing air of free expression, not the opiate of state control.
In principle, I agree with the latter group. The brutal humour of free societies has knocked the stuffiness out of other religions in the West.
Consider the treatment of Christianity. From recent art exhibits like a crucifix suspended in urine and a dung-spattered Virgin Mary to the infinitely cleverer Monty Python’s Life of Brian, from the "priest" who advertised McCains microwave dinners to Ned Flanders: remorseless sledging has whittled self-important Bible-bashers down to size.
Nor is Christianity alone: we think nothing of advertisements ridiculing Hindu gurus or showing butchers impersonating Hare Krishnas. Jews have a long and admirable history of self-parodic comedy.
Free expression can work. But in practice, where are the equivalent treatments of Islam? Show me women in burqas dancing the Can-Can while an actor playing Sheik Hilali looks on with a beer. Where is the pork industry advertisement claiming endorsement by an Imam lured into apostasy by a juicy rasher of bacon?
If ever a religious myth were begging for an old-fashioned Aussie sledging, the 70 virgins in paradise would have to be it. Suicide bombers: devout revolutionaries or gullible losers who can’t get a root?
Australians have a long tradition of mocking everyone, especially themselves: witness Kath and Kim. Why have Muslims been left out of the fun?
The first reason is fear. In 1989, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses brought adherents of the "religion of peace" onto the streets of the West, some bearing placards and t-shirts emblazoned with the pithy slogan "Kill Salman Rushdie". Even more moderate members of the Islamic community avoided unqualified condemnation of this sentiment, a reaction with eerie parallels in their response to September 11.
The second reason is the modern scourge of political correctness, which has spared Muslims from the robust treatment meted out to earlier cultural groups to reach our shores en masse. The busybody Bracks Government has even outlawed "incitement of severe ridicule" on the basis of race or religious beliefs. Talk about un-Australian! Now Con the Fruiterer will never be joined by Achmed the Cabbie.
These two factors, fear of violent reprisal and political correctness, have combined to produce an unhealthy deference to Muslim over-sensitivities. While other ethnic and religious groups were given no alternative but to take a joke, we treat one of the world’s funniest religions with kid gloves. The result has been an ever-growing brittleness of Muslim egos, leading to the current climate of resentment.
Instead of banning Muslim clothing, let’s get it on the catwalks. Personally, I have no objection to the hijab, which can look quite alluring on the right woman. But a woman in a burqa looks like a walking tent. If anyone thinks there isn’t a joke in those things, they should visit the "Taliban Online Dating Service" web site I was sent the other day.
If our mainstream media weren’t so twitchy about such humour, we wouldn’t have to ban burqas - they would go the way of the corset, an item of female apparel consigned to extinction by its absurdity.
Similarly, fundamentalist clerics should be laughed at like Fred Nile. One recalls Sydney's Sheik Faiz Mohamad, blaming Australian rape victims for their plight: "strapless, backless, sleeveless, nothing but satanic skirts, slit skirts, translucent blouses, miniskirts, tight jeans: all this to tease man and appeal to his carnal nature". Was that a trickle of saliva running down the Sheik's chin?
Last Wednesday, the ABC's Glasshouse program carried a joke about Cardinal George Pell endorsing the ritual "stoning of the sodomites". Pell has learnt to shrug off such unfair jibes - unfair, because there is only one major world religion still commonly used to justify stonings, and it’s not Catholicism. But Pell recognises that this is part of living in Australia's free society.
When po-faced politicians argue that Muslims must adopt Australian values, they are right: the rule of law, democracy, etc, etc. But Australians will not be convinced by community leaders paying lip service to our system of government. We will know that Muslims are truly integrated when they have learnt that most valuable of Aussie values: the ability to take jokes. And for that to happen, we need to start cracking them.