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Starting point for a Muslim conversation

By Shakira Hussein - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2007

In the years since September 11, following the media has become a depressing compulsion for Australian Muslims. Bombings in London, Bali, Madrid, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Sydney gang rapes and the Cronulla riots: the headlines are seldom cheerful and the media commentary has often been extraordinarily ill-informed.

A particular low point was John Stone condemning the religious intolerance of Muslims and musing on the possibility of establishing a Queen Isabella society, in honour of the woman who overthrew the last Islamic strongholds in Spain. I know Stone is not a historian, but you'd think even an economist would have heard of the Spanish Inquisition's attitude to religious tolerance. It's in Monty Python, for God's sake.

So Waleed Aly's regular appearances on the opinion pages came as a welcome relief. A Melbourne lawyer and member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Aly was young. He was intelligent. He was ... perhaps the most succinct description would be "not Sheik Hilali". His writing was greeted with enthusiasm by many non-Muslims and Muslims alike, myself included. His first book, People Like Us, has been much anticipated.


In his introduction, Aly writes that his intention is to "start a conversation" at a time when people on both sides of the Islamic-Western divide have become increasingly unwilling to admit the legitimacy of human difference.

Instead, they are determined that everyone should become "like them". Aly's conversation starter stakes his claim to bring his identity as a Muslim to discussions on issues such as free speech, secularism and gender. In today's political climate there are many who would not only disagree with his conclusions but deny the legitimacy of the entire enterprise. Aly's insistence on his entitlement to enter social debate without leaving his Muslim identity at the door is bold and important. This remains the case even though, once the conversation begins, I find myself taking a different path from his.

Aly writes (as do I) from the overlap between Islam and the West, a vantage point that he concedes is not a qualification in itself. But it is worth dwelling more deeply on that vantage point and on the ways in which our Muslim-ness is refracted through our Western-ness. We have our own lived experiences of being Muslim, but direct access to key Islamic texts is another matter. Aly proposes that we should "identify, encourage and pursue a classical Islamic response to the challenges of modernity".

He may well be right, but most Muslims, Western and otherwise, lack the Arabic language skills to read the relevant texts. Aly himself relies on secondary sources for his discussions on Farabi, al-Ghazali and other Islamic thinkers. That many of these sources are not Muslim is no reflection on the quality of their scholarship, which is often impeccable. But in a book that discusses the relationship between Islam and the West, it is surely worth exploring that for Muslims such as Aly and myself, Islam is so entwined with the West that much of our knowledge about our religious tradition is mediated via non-Muslim Western scholars who have attained the skills we lack.

Just as Aly does not fully explore the extent to which his relationship to Islam is Western, he does not recognise it as secular. Secularism, he writes, played an important role in European history but is largely meaningless in an Islamic context, because Islam lacks an institutional church from which the state should separate. Yet secularism is a live issue in many Muslim countries, with discussion focused not on the relationship between church and state but on issues of law. Secular and religious legal systems often exist side by side, and the question of which issues and people should come under the jurisdiction of which system is hotly contested.

I accept some elements of Aly's critique of secularism: that secular societies are not the only historical examples of pluralism and tolerance, and that some secular societies have displayed brutality and intolerance that would put any theocracy to shame. Unlike Aly, however, I describe myself as secular. Whether we recognise it or not, secularism runs in the bloodstream of Australian Muslims. We have absorbed its language, its way of seeing the world. Even those who claim to be most hostile to it (and Aly is not one of them) frame their claims to belonging in Australian society in secular terms.


My differences with Aly are compounded by the chapter on women, an issue that is further complicated by the fact that Aly draws on my work to an extent that is not transparent in the text (although I am listed in the notes on sources). While rejecting the misogyny of Muslims such as Taj din al-Hilali, Aly also wishes to explain why Muslim women have rejected "secular feminism" (sometimes refined as "Western secular feminism"). Here, he deploys my critique of the US-based Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan campaign, which reduced Afghan women to exotic bit players in their own drama, with little opportunity to express their opinions. Aly uses this and similar examples to argue that Muslim women need to tread their own path to gender reform, a claim that I would support up to a point.

I do not agree, however, with the way Aly builds fences between secular and religious-based feminism, when many Muslim women work simultaneously within both frameworks, according to the needs of the moment. And as a (Muslim) secular feminist, whatever that means, I am taken aback to find my work being used to help prop up an argument against secular feminism. It seems a particularly presumptuous appropriation in a chapter that argues strenuously for the need to respect Muslim women's voices.

Aly's conclusion is titled "Seeking the human", but the human is oddly absent from this book, which instead inhabits a world of media, survey results and texts. There is undoubtedly value in taking some of the international analysis and framing it in an Australian context. But it is important to do this in such a way as to make it sound fresh and vigorous.

There is no freshness in Aly observing that the ambition of radical Islamists to "remake the human condition" is shared with "Lenin, Bakunin, Marx, Mao and Fukuyama", not when John Gray (listed in the notes on sources but not cited in the text) has written about those who believe that they can remake the human condition: "the new world envisaged by al-Qaida is no different from the fantasies projected by Marx and Bakunin, by Lenin and Mao, and by the neo-liberal evangelists who so recently announced the end of history" (a reference to Fukuyama). It is depressing to read Aly talk about the parallels between the planned attack on the Greenwich observatory in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and al-Qaida's attack on the World Trade Centre when this, too, is a parallel that Gray has already made.

In the end, I found myself longing for a greater level of engagement with people unlike us. Only two Muslims are profiled at first hand, and as it happens I know and like both of them. They have interesting things to say, but they are only a tiny piece of the picture. They are people like me - people like us - people who may have different religious identities, but who are alike in being educated, middle-class readers of the opinion pages and the book reviews. It is arrogant (to use one of Aly's favourite words) to limit our discussion to "people like us", however "we" are defined.

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First published in The Australian on September 1, 2007. Book review: People Like Us by Waleed Aly published by Picador, $32.95.

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About the Author

Shakira Hussein is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne specialising in Muslim women, gendered violence and racism.

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