'Clash of civilisations' rhetoric distorts cultural differences

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'Clash of civilisations' rhetoric distorts cultural differences A perturbing public discourse referring to amorphous Australian values is driving contemporary politics.

The Howard Government has argued that it has no need to apologise for telling Muslims that they need to embrace Australian values. This so-called cultural war against foreign or alien influences has the intention of elevating an unwavering set of distinctive Aussie values. Yet the government's preoccupation with the "Australian way" has based itself in a binary form of identity politics. Declarations of allegiance to a unique set of Australian norms and standards reinforce a message that growing social tensions will be the result of a titanic clash of cultures.

In recent years, Australia has been recalculating its "national interest" with newfound intensity. The protection of home-grown values has become a rallying cry for those wishing to hawk their patriotic credentials.

As a result of a campaign to promote Australian values, anti-Muslim hostility is increasingly being accepted as normal. The government's determination to attack "mushy, misguided" multiculturalism is intertwined, in part, with the wider strategic culture of white Australia—past historical and social experiences grounded in the "tyranny of distance" and a concomitant sense of isolation. It can be argued that Australia has always been a "frightened" country. The underlying dynamic of the government's agenda also appears to be strongly linked to a wider preoccupation with the grossly underdeveloped "clash of civilisations" thesis.

In 1993, author Samuel Huntington predicted increasing hostility between different cultures, particularly between the West and Islam. He claimed that the fundamental source of conflict in a post-Cold War world would not be ideological, but cultural. Culture would emerge to be the great divider among peoples. Islam was seen as a single bloc, aggressive and unresponsive to new realities.

'Clash of civilisations' rhetoric distorts cultural differences While Huntington's interpretation did acknowledge some of the emerging political, social and cultural dynamics in today's world, his notion of a clash of mutually dichotomous cultures contained a number of fundamental deficiencies and biases.

Firstly, culture cannot be viewed as monolithic. Huntington's analysis presents an ahistorical and unduly simplified conception of culture.

Internal tensions are simply overlooked. Divergence exists not only between nations, but also within nations. Muslims or Catholics or Hindus, for example, do not speak with one unified voice nor do they share a single unequivocal ideology. Within any one civilisation there are often significant differences and extensive debate.

Cultural differences continue to be important, but they cannot be usefully understood through one-dimensional stereotypes. One must be careful to avoid any oversimplified connection between Muslims, fundamentalism and Islamic culture. The cultural influence of Islam in shaping distinctive beliefs and rules has been encompassed by a diversity of contrasted forms and disputed interpretations. Monotheism is a not clear guide to faith or religion; it is complex in both practice and explanation.

'Clash of civilisations' rhetoric distorts cultural differences Secondly, culture is not static but a dynamic arena. Argument can be made that Huntington underestimated the widespread impact on cultural identity due to developments such as increased inter-religious dialogue, technological innovation, transportation and education. Islamic countries and Muslim peoples are part of this increasingly interconnected, interactive global system.

Finally, it can be argued that Huntington's attempt to create a monstrous global threat was for a more cyclical, self-serving end. With the collapse of the Soviet sphere, culturally adverse and aggressive enemies were to replace the communist "evil empire".

The extension of such a monolithic threat perception has been used to justify America's right to operate unconstrained on the world stage and the maintenance of American hegemony. In the sense that the US remained the linchpin of the "new" world order, there is nothing original in Huntington's shift of a global balance from the "old" world order—the preservation of American dominance remained paramount.

'Clash of civilisations' rhetoric distorts cultural differences Islam has re-emerged as a powerful force in politics. Yet the study of Islam requires an examination beyond the simplistic idea that Australian values, whatever, exactly, they are, will be contrary to Islamic heritage. Grossly offensive outbursts such as those expressed by Australia’s supreme cleric, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali—that include comparing women to meat—are both inciteful and deplorable. But such a primitive outlook is not unique to Islam. Further, many Muslim leaders and their congregations, including the Islamic Council of Victoria, have criticised him strongly. Rather than present the furore as proof that Australian values and Islam are incompatible, this latest provocation can be interpreted as not a clash between civilisations but one that signals the clash between progressive and fundamentalist forces within one great civilisation.

The government's attachment to, and extension of, the Huntington debate exacerbates existing community tensions and runs the risk of fostering deep-rooted division and anxiety. Rebel MP Petro Georgiou has correctly warned that the war against terrorism highlights the need to support moderates within Islam in their struggle against extremist elements.

Australian values have re-emerged as a subject of political debate and controversy. Rather than painting Islam as other and separate, people of Muslim background share many cultural, religious and social norms that promote charity, peace, pluralism and "mateship". Any "clash of civilisations" rhetoric or claim to moral authority on the matter of national values should simply be dismissed as a populist slogan that serves to distort rather than define real challenges and the facilitation rational debate.



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I have been an Australian for seventy-five years and my family migrated to this country from England one hundred and fifty years ago. I am about as Australian as any white skinned anglo-saxon can be. I do not believe in the Australian values espoused by John Howard if they include the arousing of hatred against other citizens of this country, whatever their origins or their beliefs. I have my own personal set of values and they are clearly not shared by a lot of my fellow Australians. There is something about the past fortnight which is resonanant of the "kristal nacht" in the Berlin of the 1930s.
Rodney E Lever | 02 November 2006


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