Culturalising the Abject: Islam, Law and Moral Panic in the West

By Humphrey, Michael | Australian Journal of Social Issues, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Culturalising the Abject: Islam, Law and Moral Panic in the West


Humphrey, Michael, Australian Journal of Social Issues


Muslim immigrant communities are in crisis in the secular West confronting the conditionality of their citizenship, even in the second generation. After the enormous growth in migration and settlement of Muslims in Australia, Western Europe and North America over the past 20 years and the emergence of second-generation communities, Islam is increasingly viewed as culturally incompatible and, post September 11, Muslims immigrants seen as a potential political threat to national security. The impact of international jihadist terrorism has been to entrench the view that for Muslims, even in the second generation, religion and politics remain irredeemably intertwined and that Islam stands in opposition to secular modernity.: Moreover the terrorist incidents carried out by immigrants in the West such as the murder of Theo Van Gogh in Holland for a film considered blasphemous to Islam, the bombing of Spanish commuter trains in Madrid by Moroccan born migrants and the London commuter train bombings by second generation Pakistani Britons have helped create the impression that Islam is now a de-territorialised ideology and at war with the West.

As Islam is increasingly constructed as standing in opposition to secular modernity, so Muslim immigrants are judged as having failed the national 'integration' test. In September 2006 the Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, stated: '"There's a small section of the Islamic population which is unwilling to integrate and I have said generally all migrants ... the), have to integrate"' (Kerbaj 2006). Integration here is used as a measure of migrant 'performance' in becoming Australian. The 'good migrant'/'bad migrant' discourse judges migrants' according to their ability, to fit in with the dominant society and achieve success. Bad migrants suffer from high levels of unemployment and welfare dependence, poor English language, crime and culturally separate themselves from the dominant society'. On this basis Muslim immigrants have been seen as "bad migrants' and their problems blamed on their culture and their strong attachment to Islamic values. The focus on the cultural incompatibility of Islam in the West is in practice a focus on national identity (Roy 2006).

But what is the measure of integration being applied to Muslims' participation in Western societies? If the level of legal or cultural conflict over Islamic religious practice is taken as a measure then it is hard to argue Muslims have not successfully integrated[ In most Western countries Muslim immigrants have found there are few areas in which their actual practice of (Shari'a) Islamic law or ritual practice has not been accommodated. The main conflict of laws for Muslim immigrants has occurred in relation to family law matters of marriage, and divorce (Humphrey 1998). This is largely because in their countries of origin the jurisdiction of Shari'a was restricted to matters of personal status law, a legacy" of European colonisation and national constitution making. In a review of multiculturalism and the law by the Australian Law Reform Commission, family law was the only area of Shari'a that Muslims put forward as a possible source of plural law: Even Islamic ritual practice such as prayer, fasting, veiling and burial have on the whole been successfully negotiated with the relevant public authorities such as schools and workplaces as part of multicultural tolerance of difference or in the last resort through laws against discrimination. Suburban opposition to mosque building has also been handled as an administrative rather than political issue at the level of local government or on appeal in an administrative court--in New South Wales the Land and Environment Court. In other words Islamic cultural practice and worship has been negotiated on the basis of administrative law.

Even though conflict between secular and Islamic law has been limited and, for the most part, Islamic ritual practice accepted and/or accommodated in multicultural Australia, most Muslims are experiencing the essentialisation of their Islamic culture and identity as antagonistic to, if not in conflict with, secular modernity. …

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