By Milad Milani
18 Nov 2015
When religion and politics mix, there is inevitably a kind of puppeteering at play: some people are manipulated and others higher up are pulling invisible strings.
In a world obsessed with information - but, sadly, not meaning - what could we possibly know about the reality of any event, let alone the source of our own emotive reaction?
If we don't pause to think about what is happening in the world around us, then how could we possibly achieve sustainable resolution?
The Paris attacks and the subsequent retaliation are yet another example of the politics of religion played within the larger frame of democratic politics. Not only is religion made a scapegoat in the interests of political expediency, but democratic values themselves are held ransom for the sake of political power.
We can see such a power play being enacted nowaround the Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed. The political willingness to paint any attempt to understand the terror attacks as complicity or justification is deeply troubling, because it feeds in to the enemy's strategy to "divide and conquer."
Australians all - whether Muslim or non-Muslim, from whatever religion or no religion - need to be ever mindful of the greater humanitarian crisis at stake and the innocent lives being sacrificed. Seen in this light, the Mufti's comment, in conjunction with the Australian National Imams Council, about the ineffective measures of military intervention as a solution to ending terrorism and radicalisation should not come as a surprise:
"These recent incidents highlight the fact that current strategies to deal with the threat of terrorism are not working. It is therefore imperative that all causative factors such as racism, Islamophobia, curtailing freedoms through securitisation, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention must be comprehensively addressed."
The fact that this is a Muslim leader who takes a more nuanced position than the expected line of condemning terrorist activity immediately puts the Grand Mufti in a precarious position. But his statement should not be the cause of such negative reaction from politicians and officials. His view should not cause such outrage. Indeed, reactions to the Grand Mufti might be symptomatic of an underlying anxiety in hearing criticism about Western military campaigns in the Middle East.
So what is going on?
Much of what is happening today may be hidden in the shadows of politics. But my beloved "science" - the history of ideas - does eventually divulge the truth of a situation, however long it may be forgotten, and however deeply buried in the sands of time.
Let me draw attention to a paper recently written by Emeritus Professor Garry Trompf, a historian of ideas at University of Sydney and a scholar whose life work has been the subject of "payback." The subtly of payback defines the complexity of retributive logic. It is a human condition, no doubt, to reciprocate in kind, and it involves exchange between agents.
In his forthcoming paper (entitled "Of Postcolonial Islam"), Trompf offers wider scope to the present-day issues surrounding "Islam" and "terrorism." He starts by presenting the reader with "the Muslim blindspot" - the missing piece of Islamic imperialism:
"[The] Arab takeover of North African, Eurasian and Iberian lands in that massive early medieval change of the world's religio-political configuration in over little more than a century (630-750)."
This structure is retained for the most part up until the complete collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the modern era. The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire - that once held sway over territories spanning near Vienna to Baghdad and the Yemen and across northern Africa - did not only mean the "letting in of European powers to have Mandate control over territories previously held by the Turks," it also led to "Turkey's internal crisis by way of disruptions to longstanding Islamic institutions." For Trompf, this inflicted the dual injury of the loss of "Allah's Dar al-Islam" (or regional territories under Muslim control) as well as the "serious sacrifices made to 'the Islamic way of life' through 'modern (Western-dominated) politics'."
Notwithstanding notions about the "decline of the Muslim world," it is undeniable that the Muslim world experienced an extraordinary resurgence in the post-War period, engaging with modernity and producing a range of responses. One of these, of course, was the current of thought that sponsored the idealised recovery of Islam as a total way of life with the full capacity to govern in the shadow of God.
More to the point, there is a narrative at play in all this: what Trompf calls, myth or macro-history, which ties in to the effect of a "final retribution - 'the ultimate payback' - against the enemies of God." This narrative is equally found present in the sociological imagination of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and any other tradition with millenarian components in their belief systems.
The issue is not about the religion of Islam, but the politics of "Islam." The recent Paris attacks and the subsequent French air strikes reaffirm what must be an obvious truth: both religion and democracy "can inspire and justify not only the best but also the worst of human behaviour."
The politicisation of religion has unremitting consequences that must never to be taken lightly. As Trompf reminds us:
"Religion always has a sting in its tail, and it hurts. Better to work for conditions of 'a peaceable kingdom' that will make recourse to revolutionary violence an utter self-betrayal."
Milad Milani is a historian of religion and political thought at Western Sydney University.