Islam Should Accept a Secular State

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The sustained and mass violence in Sydney last weekend represents a failure of Australia's immigration and integration policies and demands a reappraisal from our political elites and Islamic community leaders working together.

There are two important saving graces. Our political leaders did not overreact and indulge in anti-Islamic populism. And the event has been treated as a crisis by Muslim leaders who united in Sydney yesterday in an appeal for calm and warning that such extremism is unacceptable in their communities.

These declarations are essential. Yet the path back is a long journey and the fear is that political leaders grasp neither the urgency nor the depth of the problem given many of the perpetrators were Australian born.

The Australian public will not tolerate violence that flows from the abusive manipulation of religious causes. Claims that the violence was terrible merely because it risked inflaming Australian racism are ludicrous. Such behaviour is unacceptable to the whole Australian community -- that is the real problem. The events will raise fresh doubts about the role of Islam in Australia's future and such doubts are justified.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell identified a core problem particular to Islam as a faith: "What we have here is a fool in the United States who's made an incredibly offensive online video about Mohammed. Think about if it was Christ or Buddha or Krishna or someone, we would still be incredibly outraged by it. But that doesn't justify the sort of violence we saw in Sydney."

The violence proves that Australia is not quarantined from Islamic outrage around the world facilitated by social media and triggered by negative depictions of Mohammed. Yet there is a potentially unlimited market for these provocations.

The incident reminds of the 2005 Danish cartoons with their mocking depictions of the Prophet that generated worldwide protests and many killings. For most Australians the recent video has no significance and no interest. Yet it provoked huge weekend violence in the centre of Sydney.

Within much of Islam reactions to the video range from offensive to insulting to justifying revenge. In Australia, however, most other religions, somewhat reluctantly, are reconciled to how free expression can permit religious disrespect and even blasphemy. It is never pleasant and usually ugly.

Our political leaders were taken by surprise at this weekend's eruption. Yet the pattern is now established. It is wrong to think Australia is gifted immunity from the global tides and incidents that provoke Islamic violence. Indeed, such tides will only intensify given the triumph of radicals in the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Iran nuclear flashpoint and the ongoing crusade by violent Islamists against the US and its allies.

Next month is the 10th anniversary of the killing of 88 Australians at Bali by Islamist terrorists.

The current video itself is not the point. The video became a political and religious weapon to be exploited by Islamists around the world.

The motives and emotions of people vary across nations and include many different ingredients -- the desire to consolidate power, promotion of the Muslim victimisation narrative, giving vent to grievance and alienation, seeking to denigrate the US, fanning the clash of civilisations and striving to radicalise the populace.

In Sydney there was another element: the presence of people known to police as thugs and law-breakers.

It is correct and necessary for politicians to say that only a small minority of Muslims resorted to violence. In fact, this phenomenon has two generic dimensions. First, agitators who preach, sanction or engage in violence should face the full force of the law in a "no tolerance" policy enforced by politicians and police and, in the case of non-citizens, possible visa cancellation and deportation.

The second dimension is more subtle -- it concerns the successful integration of Muslims into Western society on the foundation of the secular state. While the West's evolution is based built upon Church-state separation, Islam is accustomed to the state as upholder and champion of religion. These competing ideas are incompatible.

Since Australia cannot compromise its secular state the adjustments required by Muslims to non-negotiable Australian norms are substantial, difficult and will take time. It is the price required to join this society.

There is a related political dimension -- the foundation of multiculturalism is respect for cultural origins but loyalty to the norms of Australia. This means finding a reconciliation between respect for Islam and respect for Australia.

It goes to the responsibility on Muslim leaders -- but there is a matching responsibility on Australia's political, social and religious leaders to reach out and to assist Islam in this journey.

It was impossible to listen to the statement yesterday from Islamic leaders at Lakemba without feeling that progress is being made.

The Lebanese Muslim Association's Samier Dandan said his community valued religious freedom in Australia, rejected extremism, called for no further rallies and wanted a new focus on disaffected youth.

It is equally important, however, to acknowledge the secular state is under assault not just from religious crusaders but from secularists. In Australia today racist language is a taboo, yet attacks on religious belief are frequent and almost fashionable.

The sanction extended to media displays of contempt for people with religious belief, notably Christianity, seems to reflect a new prejudice by people many of whom aspire to drive religion from the public square into the exclusively private realm.

Perhaps they do not comprehend, but this is a direct assault upon the secular state and the terms of peaceful co-existence between the state and religion. In this concept, the state became neutral between believers and non-believers and neutral among different types of believers. The reason for such neutrality was to allow all types of faith to flourish without war.

Any proposal to move the state from being neutral to being actively anti-religious would constitute a betrayal of this mission and guarantee new and bitter divisions throughout the community.

So great principles are at stake in the integration of Islam into Western democracy. In Australia, political extremism promoting violence is contrary to our democracy and the compact that underwrote our mass immigration program. The message for Islam and other religions is the need to uphold Australia's secular state and, in so doing, find a common cause in all faiths against the approaching assault on the secular state from non-believers.

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