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.
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.
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
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.