This post was originally written for the Attorney General's blog, 'Living Safe Together'. Given recent events, I thought I would publish it here as well. It seems a little incongruous now, given the urgency of the current discussion, particularly around young Muslims in Australia...but I will let you be a judge of that.
‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me...’
A fine sentiment, but one that is not quite accurate, particularly when it comes to being labelled by society. An entire life being pigeonholed by a set of criteria you haven’t chosen can be uncomfortable and at times, counterproductive. The effect may be quite unintentional; although words like ‘radical’, ‘extreme’, ‘fundamental’, are obviously polarising, even tags like ‘moderate’ or ‘mainstream’ are descriptors chosen by others to describe the Muslim community and individuals within it – tags that don’t necessarily sit well with Muslims themselves.
It’s easy to labele someone - myself, for example - a ‘moderate’ or ‘mainstream’, as if that is a compliment, as if that indicates that I am not like ‘the others’; those ‘crazier’ extreme types that wish harm on the country and culture we live in.
However, what does moderate or mainstream mean exactly? Does it mean that my brand of Islam or practice as a Muslim is inoffensive enough to not make those around me feel uncomfortable? Does it mean I have given up just enough of my beliefs and culture to become ‘mainstream’, whatever that means in Australia? Does it mean I don’t follow the ‘fundamentals’ of the religion, as otherwise I would be seen as a ‘fundamentalist?’ These are not necessarily easy questions to answer, and not meant to be taken as accusations, but the importance of semantics in this discussion should not be underestimated. Labels have a way of being a self-fulfilling prophecy, for better or for worse.
Being described as moderate stirs up conflicting emotions. On one hand, appreciation of the fact that ‘we’, as Muslims, pose no harm, juxtaposed against an annoyance that this is a sentiment that needs to be expressed. On the other hand, it arouses an uneasiness about being described as ‘average’, in intensity or quality. It implies that well, we’re not a very good Muslim at all. We are just average, and average is all that is acceptable. To be any more devout or religious would be straying into ‘fundamental’ territory, and society can’t have that.
It must be acknowledged that of course, in a land of policy writing and position statements, well-understood labels are the easiest way to describe a group. Labels are the symbolic monikers, shorthand for definitions the community understands. However, across the board that has the potential to make us lazy in our thinking about the people we are talking about. It poses the danger of giving us the space to fall into well-worn thinking patterns, patterns which will only ever produce the same results they always have. To change an entire discourse is no simple matter though, and so it requires careful reflection and a healthy dose of pragmatism. How do you change what a word means to a community?
What is needed is a fundamental shift in thinking. Underlying the conversation is the understanding that there are ‘extreme’ Muslims, and ‘moderate’ Muslims. However, perhaps it should be understood that there are ‘extreme’ Muslims, and then, well, just Muslims. In the same way that there are Christians and Jews, and then there are extremes in both - the same concept applies. There is no one moderate Muslim community. In fact, there is no one single Muslim community at all; that is part of the richness of the faith. However, one view that is widely prevalent among various groups is the reluctance to be framed by a label that has been bestowed on us in an effort to determine friend from foe.
What needs to be remembered is that we (Muslims) are all part of the community as well, and are in invested in seeing it remain a safe place for us all to live in. Rather than frame the conversation in a dichotomous fashion, we (Australian society broadly) should focus on supporting each other and the young people in our community. Empowerment can be found in fulfilment through education, religion, meaningful employment and providing reasons not to become disengaged and disenfranchised. Obviously there is more to the story, but we must start somewhere. It’s the same in any community - those who are vulnerable are those most likely to fall prey to manipulation. If they do, it is a failure on us as a society and as a community for failing to support and enabling growth in a constructive way.
Those that are currently feared may be the very ones that need our help the most.