Embodying Ambivalence: Muslim Australians as 'Other'

Article excerpt

This article explores the ways in which Muslim Australians are attributed with 'otherness', and how such constructions are articulated in social practices. More precisely, it sketches out how contemporary social constructions of Muslim Australians, and their social expressions, constitute a means of restoring existential control among non-Muslim Australians post--September 11. Generic misrepresentations of Muslims throughout the western world can be identified within the current Australian milieu, where many Muslim Australians are treated as pariahs. In this social context, orientalist tropes are selectively played out in the representation of Muslims in media and public arenas, a process that has contributed significantly to 'Islamophobia'. However, the current Australian Islamophobic practices do not merely serve to perpetuate the constructions of Muslims as Other but are also prompted by the national concern for redressive action.

The polemics of ambiguity and control

In his insightful book Minima Ethnographica (1998), (1) the anthropologist Michael Jackson explores how otherness is constructed and experienced intersubjectively. Jackson views the Other as allowing the restoration of existential control through the disarmament of its perceived or actual threat. (2) For Jackson, the ambivalence that is often ascribed to the Other violates our taken-for-granted lifeworlds. Consequently, the self is prompted to strategise ways for maintaining its integrity. Any encounter with the Other entails 'ontological risk', which must be redressed. (3) Seen in this way, the 'Other', for Zygmunt Bauman, evokes a polemics of risk and loss: (4) 'The threat he [the other] ... carries is more terrifying than that which one can fear from the enemy'. (5) This 'horror of indetermination' (6) the Other provokes precipitates what Jackson calls 'existential stratagems' of control. (7)

Jackson's and Bauman's descriptions of the Other as a source of ambivalence suggest a postmodern condition of the type suggested by Ziauddin Sardar. (8) Where modernism's fetish is the meta-narrative, postmodernism's hallmark is the apotheosis of indeterminacy. The bane of indeterminacy is not new. Heidegger spoke of it in terms of 'throwness' (geworfenheit); human beings are born into the world not of their choosing, a world that existed prior to them and which will continue to exist after their passing. Jackson opines that human beings revoke the indeterminacy of their 'throwness' through various strategies, including resistance, fantasy, manipulation, coercion, criticism and fabrication. (9)

Richard Rorty takes the idea of the porous nature of reality further by constructing a world predisposed to magical realism. Truth is a narrative--the inventory of maya (illusion). (10) Using Rorty's theorem, the stranger who does not adhere to our version of the truth must not be permitted to deny our sense of existence. As a consequence, the Other must be dispossessed of his/her 'irrational' power. In a similar vein, Bauman concludes, 'If the stranger cannot be made nonexistent, he can at least be made untouchable'. (11) For instance, when Cynthia Ozick speaks of the German 'final solution' as a 'job of editing', (12) it does not preclude untouchability (the forced exclusion of European Jews) as a method of effacing Jewish ties from the German psyche prior to their ultimate extermination.

The German final solution was a landmark in the aesthetics of magical realism. Never before had the Other been made so irrationalised by the myths of the state propaganda machine. Similarly, as I will show, the construction of Muslim Australians as Other is also tainted by negative projections, and such construction has led to a rise in xenophobic practices by non-Muslim Australians.

Australian Muslims as 'matter out of place'

In her seminal text Purity and Pollution (1969), Mary Douglas demonstrates people's apparent fixation with conceptually ordering their lifeworlds according to categories of cleanliness and dirt. …