Introduction Special Edition: Australian Muslims and Secularism

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, Samuel Huntington (1996) solidified his contentious diagnosis that the world was entering a new phase of geopolitical dynamics, characterized by a clash of primordial civilizations. Academically, his thesis drew scathing criticisms, not least because of his essentialist and ahistorical reification of civilizational blocks (Berman 2003, Said 2001). At a more popular level, however, the image he drew of a globe divided along clear civilizational lines, with Islam and the European/North American/ Australian West representing two of the major opponents, has attained a mythic quality. Indeed, the niceties of academic critique aside, the putative fault line between 'the Islamic world' and 'the West' now serves as a rhetorical justification for what is undoubtedly one of the driving political and social forces of our time, the 'war against terror'. It is equally forcefully used by some Muslim militants to justify engaging in terrorist activities.

In an increasingly integrated world, reading and constructing social space in terms of hermetically sealed civilizational blocks has a significant effect on everyone. The most direct impact, however, is on those who find themselves situated at the fault line, Muslim Australians amongst them. Certainly, latent tensions between 'Muslim' and "Australian' identifies have long been present in Australian nationalist discourses; but since September 2001, the two parts of the designation Muslim Australian have seemed to pull in diametrically opposed directions. For the people who bear that designation, this means having to negotiate their identity against a novel and often hostile social map.

There are no doubt highly convincing reasons for this shift in the way Western countries like Australia have forged an ideational link between Islam and political violence and threat, specifically the appeal to Islam that those responsible for the September 11, Madrid, Bali and London bombings invoked. In truth, however, the link between faith commitments and terrorist activity, is as remote for most Muslim Australians as it is for most Christian, atheist or agnostic Australians. Nevertheless, Muslim Australians are now living in an environment where the significance of their ascribed religion is being reshaped through media discourses, public policy and, at a conceptual level, the newfound salience of the apparent incompatibility of Islam and modern secular political forms and societies. In turn, these shifts in the putative significance of Islam are made manifest both in public institutions (including laws) and the lived experience of Muslims.

Muslim Australians, however, just like any other citizens, are not passive recipients of changes in public discourses about their identifies. They are actively responding to the situation by reshaping the public significance of their religious ascription themselves. For some, this has meant vigorously asserting the compatibility of their faith commitments with full and active Australian citizenship. For others, as this volume disturbingly documents, it has meant turning to sources of information and discourses that place Islam at the centre, not at the margins, taking refuge in a more closed and separate sense of identity, and in some cases, imposing these more closed inflexible interpretations of Islamic identity on others, principally women.

This special issue of the AJSI originally grew out of a symposium on Islam and Secularism held at the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam at Melbourne University at the end of 2005. Some of the papers in this volume were originally presented at that symposium, others, consistent with the concerns of the volume were written subsequently. While the current collection of papers takes a broader focus than the issue of secularism itself, the question of both the compatibility between Islam and secularism and popular perceptions of this compatibility remains a strong theme throughout. …