Thursday, March 13, 2008

Education and emancipation

I recently interviewed Mohsen al Attar - a new lecturer at the University of Auckland Faculty of Law. You can read my interview here
Mohsen has also just written an opinion piece, an edited version of which was published in the New Zealand Herald and is reproduced below:

Mohsen al Attar: Muslims struggle to find sense of belonging

5:00AM Friday March 14, 2008
By Mohsen al Attar

Migrant Muslim communities in Western nations such as New Zealand and Australia are facing a psychological and spiritual crisis.

Post-September 11, Bali and London events and actions by Western governments, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have produced widespread suspicion, detention and deportation of Muslim migrants and nationals.

And the highly xenophobic and hateful rhetoric of media pundits and politicians has produced a climate in which many Muslims feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their homes.

But this is only half the story. We cannot disregard the fierce and hateful narrative of many Muslim fundamentalist groups - Islamists as they are termed by the West.

These groups adopt an absolutist stance on religious form and duty that sandwiches Muslims between support for the violent and morally schizophrenic tactics of the movement and opposition to these tactics, often leading to accusations (and sometimes feelings) of betrayal to Islam.

Many Western racists have exploited this double bind by questioning the loyalties of Kiwi-Muslims, Australian-Muslims, British-Muslims and, of course, American-Muslims.

Likewise, many Muslim fundamentalist groups have capitalised on Western bigotry to advance their personal clash of civilisation thesis by highlighting how quickly Muslims have been reduced to second-class citizens - not unlike what was done to Japanese migrants and citizens in Canada, America, and even New Zealand during World War II.

Dual subjection to Islamophobia from the West on one side and reactionary currents within the Muslim community on the other has produced a situation in which many Muslims have lost a sense of who they are.

Feelings of belonging to a nation have been replaced by feelings of fear and paranoia, causing many to withdraw into themselves and self-segregate within their communities.

Lack of knowledge of the self inevitably produces a loss of confidence, a common feature of many Muslim communities today which, quite naturally, stimulates a powerful desire for physical and moral security.

For some, this security is found in religious norms and, ominously, in the strict adherence thereto. Blind adherence to norms is detrimental to a community because it forces its members to overlook the meanings underpinning the norms and the spiritual foundation that informs the entire belief structure.

Contrary to many fundamentalist and Western representations, Islam is not a religion of rules but a religion of reason. Multiple passages in the Koran and historical anecdotes derived from the prophetic traditions (eg "Use your brain about matters that perplex you" and "Wisdom is the last bastion of the Muslim") illustrate the depth to which reason and critique have traditionally been revered in Muslim societies. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about many contemporary Muslim currents.

Oxford professor and Islamic theologian Tariq Ramadan had just been in New Zealand as a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of Ethnic Affairs. His visit was an opportunity for New Zealanders of all ethnic affiliations to acquire a better understanding of some of the opportunities and challenges that Muslim migration presents for New Zealand.

Professor Ramadan met MPs, academia and the media, and gave several public talks to New Zealanders of Maori, Pakeha and Muslim descent. His message was one of reconciliation.

Migration can produce dislocations on physical, cultural and spiritual levels. For migrants, an underlying feeling of alienation almost perpetually lurks in the shadows as they try to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the unknown in their new home, while longing for the comfort of familiarity.

There is little in Kiwi society that prevents Muslim or other migrants from remaining true to their faith while integrating and gradually contributing as citizens of their new nation.

For instance, as many Western states became venomously suspicious of their Muslim communities post-September 11, New Zealanders re-elected Dr Ashraf Choudhary to Parliament, demonstrating New Zealand can be a welcoming place even to those who do not fit the mould of Kiwiana.

Reconciliation must thus happen on both an individual and communal level as Muslim migrants attune their spiritual preferences with their physical location.

Reconciliation must also happen on a national level. Muslim migration to New Zealand has a long history.

From Chinese Muslim miners in the late 19th century, to tradespeople of Gujarat at the turn of the 20th century, to Fiji-Indian workers in the 1950s, to Malaysian and Indonesian professionals in the 1980s, to refugees from Kosovo, Iraq and Somalia today, there is a strong Muslim presence in New Zealand totalling, by some estimates, nearly 50,000.

Despite their long history of peaceful participation in Kiwi society, the posturing of anti-Islamic reactionaries and the ad hominem persecution of Ahmed Zaoui have had an impact.

And New Zealand's continued participation in Afghanistan despite a large number of civilian casualties has not gone unnoticed in Muslim communities.

If we are to manage the shifts that increased migration produces and counter the feelings of alienation that Islamophobia and fundamentalism inflame, we must adopt a proactive stance as opposed to a passive one; to transcend mutual suspicion and embrace mutual trust.

This was the essence of Professor Ramadan's timely message to New Zealand and the world.


Blogger Richard said...

That's an interesting interview - I remember reading Malcolm X's biog. - he was criminal and converted to the Muslim religion I think - then he took to propaganda - his book is good ... I always remember that when he was a criminal he would never enter a house where the a toilet light was on - as you didn't ever know if a man was sitting in there with a gun.

But during jail he read a lot of politics etc. Tragically he was assassinated - I don't know anything about Gramsci.
interesting the way his family encouaged discussion...would the ask the question - "Perhaps all this religion (Moslem, Christian, Hebrew any other) is all nonsense? Maybe there is no God at all?"

My parents and family didn't really discuss much - but we were all basically atheists - except one of my sisters converted from Atheism to Christianity!! I don't even know hat church she is in! But it was probably a reaction to my father's pontificating (he didn't talk much about religion though - the assumption was and I agree that most of it was drivel)) - he wasn't too bad - but maybe also it was kind of social outlet for her as she met her husband at the church...

But we never really discussed "deep" issues - and that was in the 5os and early 60s before TV came to the idea of discussing things so much in a family is good.

10:40 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The Imperialist Powers always need an enemy - they invent them as they go (or install them into power - Marshall Key in Vietnam, Norriega in Panama or Saddam Hussein - when I was young we were bombarded here by intense anti-communist propaganda - evil Red China (it was always called Red China and was about to takeover the world - an army bloke told us that is why we did the (very minor) military training that we did as high schol) but the US media - Readers Digest Time Mag etc etc; the NZ Herald and Truth were full of bigoted raving about how Russia and China were trying to destroy Western civilisation - Muldoon profited by invoking anti-communism all the time - the Unions - many of whom were corrupt and worked with the bosses - cooperated to the extent that such as the head of the FOL (Federation of Labour) Skinner was pretty well known to be a great mate of Muldoon's - terse so called worker friends would call a strike (so Muldoon etc could rave about communist disruption by the unions -and in those days there was often an attack on "Poms" (as many Irish, Scottish, and other British workers were in the unions and many were in fact good unionists)) then call it off when it suited them ibit when we tried to strike for real things - genuine issues - e.g. at the freezing works I saw this happen - the union officials would often bully us back to work, and Skinner (who got paid by being the head of several useless unions) did not support paint workers strike I was in for wages and conditions ...and the NZ Govt was (and still is) right behind the US 100% on everything it has been and still is involved in (the RSA warmongers etc seem to love wars and and US bombing of civilians etc)

In fact NZ is more hypocritical than say Australia - we go through the motions of not being involved in Bush's insane wars or invasions and mad rhetoric about Muslims and terrorists etc but we back him to the hilt - Clark's Govt have always been very involved in Iraq as well as Afghaninstan ...

Islamo-Fascism (for 'brainy people' a long word )and Terrorism for the ordinary kiwis... has replaced Communism etc

I wouldn't be too sure that NZ is so non racist - it was shown to be very racist and corrupt in 1981 when the rugby fascists allowed the 1981 Spring Bok Tour to proceed which almost turned into a civil war...

Maori and all other ethnic groups should feel wary - there is a lot of potential and actual racism here.

Sure it is perhaps not as intense as in the US (but that country which is supposedly "democratic" and 'free' is full of madmen, bible bashers and other religious crack pots, corrupt politicians, and cant look after its own internal problems of massive poverty, mental disease, economic meltdown, and (consequent) racism and crime etc) but give the politicians and the racists here time - they will all creep from their various places in the rotten woodwork... they can catch up with the US.

2:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really interesting interview. The article was pretty bog standard for the mainstream media; we're all the same colour on the inside, Muslims can be good kiwis/aussies/etc. but the message needs to be repeated, as anodyne as it is to radicals.

The flipside of the discourse of the problem/radical/terrorist/fundamentalist Muslim is, of course, the model minority Muslim; the one happy to see Islam co-opted into liberal capitalism. As an admirer of Malcolm X, al Attar will hopefully avoid this. Unlike most bourgeois Arabs & Muslims, he seems to have understood the difference Malcolm sees between "training" and "education", with the latter having bugger all to do with letters after one's name.

Enjoying the blog.

3:03 pm  
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5:38 am  

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