Why last night’s Q&A needed a Muslim panelist

Let’s be honest, last night’s Q&A panel was a bit of a clusterfuck. A philosopher, a poet, an ambassador/MSF guy, a Middle East expert and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. All international figures centred around the theme of “nothing in particular.”

But of course, when you’re inviting the most famous ex-Muslim in the world onto your program, Islam is quickly going to move to the forefront of the debate. In this completely, many prominent figures in the Muslim community took to Twitter to voice their discontent that this was allowed to happen without a Muslim representative.

I totally agree with these concerns. Had a member of the Muslim community been present on the panel, the debate may have been much more interesting and perhaps covered new ground, rather than rehashing old arguments. The theological and practical details of those Islamic practices which are of significant concern to proponents of liberal democracy could have been explored in detail and, critically, as they pertain to Australian society. Hopefully in the future, we can have these sorts of discussions at length in public forums.

Sadly, this is as far as my agreement reaches. The Lebanese Muslim Association issued a statement about the event today. Here it is in its entirety:

For a start, levelling the charge of bigotry against Ayaan Hirsi Ali is unhelpful and inaccurate. While many of her views are relatively conservative, Ayaan is a champion of liberal society, and someone whose opinions are coloured more by the attitudes and behaviours of individuals than the religious banner under which they fall. This is not the behaviour of a bigot. This is the behaviour of someone who has the lived experience of being oppressed by a vicious Islamic community, and who has emerged from that experience to become one of the most elegant and intellectually powerful speakers in Europe.

Secondly, the LMA statement describes the Prophet as “the most beloved and revered figure to Muslims” as though this is some sort of provision which excludes a historical figure from criticism. We aren’t all too friendly to the Pope or George Pell, nor do Australian Buddhists expect that a bad word never be said against Siddhartha Gautama. The Islamic Prophet is no exception. Ayaan has every right to criticise Muhammad, as we all do. In the name of preventing the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims against which the LMA’s response so sternly warns, a level playing field for the criticism of figures and ideas must be established and maintained.

The most grievous transgression against logic that this statement perpetrates is the condemnation of the phrase “moderate Muslims:”

The LMA wishes to distance itself from the use of terms like ‘moderate Muslims’, which implies that to be accepted, a Muslim must be moderate in their practicing of the religion and forsake certain elements deemed unpalatable to certain individuals in society.

I agree that “moderate Muslims” is a relatively useless term (it’s much better to classify religious practice as conservative or liberal, so I’d prefer the term “liberal Muslims”). But here’s the thing: there’s some truth in the implication of the term “moderate.” You can’t be a complete, literal fundamentalist member of any of the Abrahamic religions and comfortably fit into a modern liberal democracy. An Orthodox Jew who wants to reconvene the Sanhedrin in order to hold the world to the most archaic tenets of Mosaic law to the wider population would be no more welcome in a progressive society than someone who believes in the piety of throwing homosexuals from the highest building in the city. Similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who believes in the implementation of the originally prescribed punishments for breaching the Ten Commandments (usually death, in case you’re wondering). For evidence of this, take a look at the wider Australian attitude to the Australian Christian Lobby. We are a profoundly secular population which is generally opposed to the mixing of religious beliefs and political action, and who usually take a lighter-hearted attitude to religious observance.

And yes, there are certain doctrines within the canon of Islam which are unpalatable to most Australians. The idea that a women’s testimony is worth half of a man’s springs to mind, as does rejection of “effeminate” men, and attitude to atheists and polytheists that permeates the Qur’an and Hadithat. As with every other religion, there is an expectation that outdated or irrelevant clauses be disregarded or reinterpreted in order to promote social cohesion. This is not bigotry, it’s just a sociological reality of religious observance in the 21st Century.

The most interesting part of this discussion is the division that arises from it. I saw this statement on Twitter care of Lydia Shelly, a community activist and lawyer. While I can’t speak with absolute authority, her Twitter feed makes it pretty clear that she and I share a political orientation and a number of key interests. She seems to be passionate about Indigenous Australia, mental health, the environment, and refugee rights. We have the same attitude to the West’s peculiar relationship to Saudi Arabia. And I couldn’t agree more about her definition of good citizenship:

The point is, if you pick a political or ethical issue at random, we will very likely be on the same side of the discussion. Strange then, that when it comes to this debate, and the highly personal interests which dominate it, we would find little common ground. It’s sad to live in a world where progressives are divided along such narrow lines, and where the difference between being a “bigot” and a critical thinker is the transgression of an invented boundary.

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