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Fear and loathing Down Under?

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 9 December 2002


The other day I went for a walk under the Causeway Bridge that crosses the Swan River. Scrawled in chalk on the bridge stanchion were the words "SMASH EVIL ISLAM". Usually the only graffiti are the tags of kids, some of whom are homeless and sleep under the bridge. This graffiti, with its blunt message and its implication of cultural conflict and violence, is a disturbing sign of the times.

The direct cause of this growing fear and hatred is the identification of radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as a global threat. The horrific violence of September 11 and Bali have mobilised a profound emotional revulsion and anger in the Western world. These acts, unacceptable under any moral code, have elicited international condemnation. And because Western culture is based on the individual, the participation of suicide bombers makes the threat all the more chilling.

But the atmosphere of fear and hostility that now underlies this whole issue was first generated well before the violence that occurred in the New York, Washington and Bali. Indeed, the roots of the problem go back to the end of the Cold War. The Cold War had subordinated most conflict to its own bi-polar logic – everything was interpreted as being for or against one of the superpowers. This was why the US supported the very same people who were to go on to form Al Qaida, because they were previously fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.

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Once the Cold War was over, the world had a chance to reconstruct international relations along the lines of collective security and to deal with the simmering issues like the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It also had a chance to recognise and address issues exacerbated by globalisation, such as global inequality, climate change and cultural difference.

Obviously the most important example would be set by the most powerful nation, the United States. By and large, whichever way the US went, so would the rest of the world. In the event, the US did not choose to focus on global reconstruction, instead pushing the ‘Washington consensus’ version of globalisation as the key to global development. At the same time, notions of a peace dividend evaporated as the US declined to seriously reduce military spending.

There were certainly ideas around supporting the triumphalist US position. Even before the Berlin Wall fell Washington intellectual Francis Fukuyama was hailing the "end of history", as, in his view, Western-style liberal democracy claimed the world. Not long after, however, Samuel Huntington – one of the American establishment's ideological point men – proclaimed a coming "class of civilisations" and thus floated the idea that the West had a new conflict on its hands.

Then, in a context of growing concern about the population shifts associated with economic globalisation and a series of wars, we saw the rise of right-wing, anti-immigration parties around the world. Australia’s One Nation was just one such example.

For a couple of years, One Nation frightened the hell out of the major political parties in Australia. Labor never really figured out a proper strategy in response, but the Liberals under John Howard cleverly stole their thunder by adopting an explicitly xenophobic position, specifically in regard to the issue of asylum seekers.

John Howard shaped the character of the Coalition and national attitude even more than most political leaders would. He is an arch conservative in all but economic issues, clearly uncomfortable with cultural difference. He had been openly criticised in the past for a perceived anti-Asian bias, and he consistently refused to move to a more accommodating position on a series of Aboriginal issues. Therefore, his championing of a narrow vision of Australian culture was well in character for him. Whatever the ethics of this position, adroit exploitation of the Tampa affair and the "children overboard" incidents helped to win him the most recent national election when the Coalition had looked in real danger of losing.

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Howard’s unequivocal - some would say unquestioning - support for the ideologically hard-line Bush administration in regard to a whole series of matters, including the "war on terror", has placed him right in line with this harsh approach to a set of complex issues. The arch patriotism and anti-Islamic sentiment that has emerged in the US, and now seemingly in Australia, is clearly promoted if not generated by this attitude.

While the Coalition and Howard cannot be blamed for Islamic terrorism or the Bali blasts, the mood of patriotism and cultural chauvinism that is afoot in Australia definitely suits their interests. Such a posture inevitably suits incumbent governments, especially conservative, nationalistic ones. If nothing else changes, the Coalition, which appears increasingly likely to be led by a more and more comfortable Howard, will probably win the next election on the strength of it.

The price for Australia is the creation a frightened, narrow-minded nation. Liberal democracies cannot defend themselves against determined terrorism without increasingly giving up the very things that make social and commercial interaction free. Terrorism must ultimately be beaten by confronting its root causes. The real answers lie in the developed world accepting that wealth must be better shared; that negotiated, collective security is the only way of ensuring global stability, and that cultural diversity is not only okay, but actually a good thing.

In the absence of these things, the problem will only fester. Politicians and the media will exploit the situation for their own purposes and Australians will feel increasingly edgy in a world seeming to grow ever more hostile. It all feeds our sense of insecurity and isolation, and it is inevitable that some (however ignorant) people will fall prey to simplistic emotional reactions of fear and anger. And they will express those emotions - with slogans on walls, with verbal intimidation, and possibly with violence.

Welcome to an ugly few years. But let us hope sanity will sooner or later prevail, and that this troubled time is only a prelude to some genuine rethinking about how our nation and our world should change in order to solve our real problems.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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