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Arab and Muslim academics, self criticism and balancing on a tightrope

By Abe Ata - posted Friday, 25 November 2016


Earlier this year Bashir Goth, a Muslim journalist and writer, wrote: “Though as Muslims we may claim to possess all the virtues in the world, we definitely lack a very important one - that of self-criticism – which the West at least is blessed with”.

Self-criticism, we are told, is a cornerstone to a healthy civilization. For most of the thinkers in the Arab and Muslim world, and by extension those in the Diaspora, the concept is yet to be fully realised.  A few weeks ago Muslim women thinkers and activists in Australia rose to the challenge. They demanded equal treatment by Australia’s top cleric. In comparison to their tsunami-like demand for equal rights, the voice of their male counterparts remained relatively muted, though afew professional and non-professional thinkers have become more publicly vocal and self-critical.

It is true that Muslim thinkers are tilting in the direction of increased integration and participation in civic life, and this has implications for their willingness to question traditional attitudes. But there are obstacles. An Australian-Muslim academic, Kamal Siddiqi, notes that many of the overseas resident clerics who come to Australia have little knowledge of the local culture, and may inadvertently do a disservice to the community. He believes that not only do they stand in the way of home-grown clerics but they continue to look to their experience of their home country to address local problems.

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Exceptions aside, reaction from an estimated 500 Arab/Muslim intellectuals in Australian post- secondary institutions has been marked by uncertainty.  Their position has been marked by an identity crisis, marked by culturally determined beliefs, the absence of an articulate and assertive public presence, intimidation from community leaders and a fear of job loss. Of these the issue of identity is the most important, and involves certain cultural assumptions which in turn have a bearing on intellectuals’ willingness to criticise their own community.

Such assumptions tend to be found in the terms ‘Arab’ , ‘Arabness’ and the ‘Arab world,’ which presuppose a cultural and linguistic uniformity peculiar to a certain geographic area. But this supposed uniformity conceals complexity and ambiguity.

There is a version of Arabness which assumes that the Levant was void of cultures and people when the Muslim/Arab expansion took place during the 7th Century, or that whoever lived there were replaced or expunged. History and the living world attest otherwise. Egyptian Copts, Maronite Lebanese, Iraqi Assyrians, Syrian Druze, Maronites, Chaldeans, Melkites, Jews, and Aramaic/Orthodox Palestinians are a testimony that the inhabitants were anything but uniform and homogeneous. These communities, currently estimated at 20 million, lived in that part of the world for centuries before the Islamic conquest. They believe, as most Australians do, that they may define their own identity. By the same token, of course, those who feel that their Arab identity is paramount have the right to define themselves accordingly.

To negate or reshape the self-identity of those minorities by using the term ‘Arab’ is tantamount to a cultural suppression – a form of ethnic cleansing . Australian media is equally culpable in using the term ‘Arab’ for these minorities and thus negating their cultural distinctiveness.

Certain Arab/Muslim intellectuals are found wanting in three ways. First, they believe that  the Arabic language is a conclusive marker of identity and that being born in the Middle East confirms this. They would find it difficult, for example, to accept the analogy of German, a language spoken not merely by Germans but by Austrians and Swiss. Yet the Arabic language is used in much the same way. Like English it spread through conquests whereby minorities had to use it to survive.

Secondly, there is a consensus amongst certain ‘Arabists’ that the definition of Arab is based on religion, in this case Islam. They assume, perhaps, that this will marginalize internal minorities and minimize the danger of their being a conduit for Western ideas. It also works against diversity in other ways, in concert with certain established cultural habits. As a Muslim academic said recently at a Sydney conference : “Arab culture tends to promote a rather severe deference to authority which discourages initiative among subordinates. It promotes conformity with group norms over innovation and independent thinking. It also tends to promote a fierce loyalty to the group which encourages individuals to shield friends and relatives from shame and reinforces the emphasis on conformity”.

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Thirdly, questions frequently raised in public forums, schools and the media about the disengagement of Arab/Muslim communities from the mainstream have often been met with silence. When such questions spring from ignorance or hostility, it is all the more necessary for Arab/Muslim intellectuals to answer them. They include the following:

Why are Muslims so little in evidence in the public, social and cultural life of this country – in the arts, in common leisure activities, in fashion, in sport?   Why don’t Australian Muslims condemn unequivocally the crimes against innocent Muslims in Darfour, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan? Why do Islamic governments have greater power and authority over their subjects than in the past? Why are liberal elements in much of the Muslim world, including Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, on the defensive? Why doesn’t the Muslim community protest about mockery of Christianity in the way that many other Australians have protested against anti-Islamic cartoons?

It is ironic that in both the Western and Islamic traditions the intellectual is by definition enlightened and hence often liberal in inclination. It is my hope that the silence of so many of Australia’s Muslim academics and intellectuals is a temporary period of introspection. 

Clearly the significant social and cultural differences between the Muslim and other religious communities should be acknowledged. Differences of interpretation should be respected and addressed on both sides, because they have concrete implications for both communities in the shared space of this country.

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About the Author

Abe W Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a Senior Fellow Institute for the Advancement of Research, and lectures in Psychology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). Dr Ata is a 9th generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem.

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