Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Kipling, the Mufti and the Clash of Values

Photo: Rudyard Kipling

Neil (Ninglun) had am interesting post triggered by the latest controversy around Sheikh Hilaly. I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with Neil. So, and consistent with Neil's point about the need for perspective, I thought that I would try to come at the points raised by Neil from a different perspective.

To begin with, I agree with Neil's key point about the need to keep a sense of perspective on Mr Hilaly's remarks. We can think of this at two levels, one of values, the second political process.

The comments that follow draw from previous posts. I will not have time this morning to insert the links, but will try to do so later.

Political process first, because this is in some ways the easier issue.

I have written a number of posts about the sometimes pernicious way in which the media, current dominant values and our politicians interact.

The Pauline Hanson phenomenon is an example. To a substantial degree One Nation was created by the interaction between media and politicians. This fed the Party's growth. We can also see this in the case of Tamworth and the refugees. There the Australian metro media turned a complicated local issue into a major international story to this country's detriment.

We can see something of the same process at work in the sometimes almost hysterical responses to the Mufti's words, especially in the broad sheets.

In the case of Tamworth, I pleaded for time and space to allow the local community to work the issues through. The same things holds for Australia's Muslim community, although things are more complicated here simply because the community is not really a community at all, but a number of very different communities linked in some way by a common religion that is itself not a single entity.

The danger for us all lies in the risk that the interactions between media and politics may create the very things we fear.

We can tease this out if we now look at values.

Freedom of speech is a if not the core value in a democracy, a core bulwark standing between us and oppression. Not surpisingly, as in Stalin's USSR, Hitler's Germany or more recently Sadam's Iraq or Mugabe's Zimbabwe, control over freedom of speech is central to the maintenance of totalitarian power.

So I think that if we are to maintain freedom of speech we have to start from the pre-supposition that Mr Hilaly is entitled to say what he likes even though some find his views repugnant. Now this is likely to draw an immediate response. Surely, people will argue, a society has a right to control views that are repugnant to and threaten that society?

Now this is where things get really slippery because it brings you to what has always been the core problem with free speech, where do you draw the line and when? Here Sheikh Hilaly has created an especial problem because he has managed to offend both those holding certain moral values (they find his comments repugnant) and those with concerns flowing from the perceived threat from Islamic extremists.

No one doubts that there are Islamic extremists. Equally, no one doubts that there are organised terrorist groups. Few would challenge the right of Governments to take action to protect their citizens. The problem for Governments is to define what they can and should do. The risks are that those actions may create or encourage the very thing they are intended to fight while also eroding the civil liberties of citizens.

Controlling or attempting to control what people say because their views are repugnant and conflict with other people's deeply held values is a very different issue. This an area where we have to be very careful indeed especially where, as in the case of Mr Hilaly, expressed views risk being interpreted through the prism created by concerns about Islamic extremism.

Let me be clear here. I am not talking about what Mr Hilaly said, just about the way in which people interpret or respond to what is being said. We can see this in the more extreme responses such as suggestions that he should be deported.

I am out of time on this post. I will post what I have written so far and then continue the discussion tonight.


First, thanks to Neil for advising me that he has updated his post.

I was also very sorry to hear that Lord Malcolm has only a few days to go, glad to hear that the Department of Housing issue has been sorted out. I did not say so before but perhaps should now that I am presently doing some work in part of that Department. Knowing my colleagues if only for a short while, I was sure that it would be sorted.

One of the things that I really like about Neil's approach to blogging is not just the conversation, but the way he provides links so that his comments can be further evaluated.

Now here I want to extend my discussions on values and politics by taking the case of the Kashmiri Nomad, a site I found through Neil.

I should say up front that this is not one of my favourite sites because I find it a bit like a broken record with its emphasis on the wrongs of the West.

I should also say in fairness that Kasmiri Nomad has had a positive influence on my own writing by pointing to the difference between the Australian and European treatment of migration, thus triggering my migration matters series as well as my emphasis on the need for Australians to recognise the unique elements in their own experience (the Australian Way) instead of simply importing and applying overseas views and concepts.

Neil referred to a post by the Kashmiri Nomad reading in part:

Western civilization no longer defines itself for reasons of political correctness in terms of race but none the less views it as a collective duty upon itself to civilise those less fortunate than itself. The language in which imperial conquest is couched in may have changed but the effects are still the same. No longer is there mention of the White Man’s Burden or the Manifest Destiny but rather platitudes regarding globalisation, free markets and democracy are now the oft repeated mantras.

Rudyard Kipling was quoted as an example of the previous view.

The views expressed by Kashmiri Nomad are widespread. Here I came across an interesting example on Al Jazeera, a discussion forum on Zimbabwe.

Neil in his post referred, as he has done before, to Zimbabwe's problems. Under his influence I followed through on some of his links to view blogs on Zimbabwe.

One of my real difficulties has been to understand why Mugabe was still getting support given everything I could learn. Leaving aside the odd case of Iran paying for a jamming station, why was Angola prepared to send paramilitary police, why was there still support for him from at least some of the ANC leadership when South Africa itself was groaning under the strain of a reported 3 million refugees.

The Al Jazeera forum shows some of the reasons why, the presence of a very different world view. Willy from the Cameroon can be taken as an example. He wrote:

I would like you to understand that Zimbabwe and Africa do not want any involvement into Zimbabwe affairs by Europe, Europe's current actions in the world speaks for themselves; Europe has military bases all over the world into other peoples countries, for what? If Europe is the kind place you pretending it to be, just to name that example. Your version of facts about Zimbabwe is not true, Zimbabwe was all right until president Mugabe did justice by getting our brothers land back, then Europe started to destabilize Zimbabwe, again tell your governments and people to stay out of our business, that is not much asking. It has been scientifically proven that Europe is the cause of all our present and past problems, there is nothing Zimbabwe wants from Europe, just leave our brothers alone, then we can have a life too.

Willy's views are not very sensible, but in their expression have not dissimilar messages to those expressed by the Kashmiri Nomad. Both link back to the ending of the colonial period

I think that there is no doubt that western governments and their respective citizens are inclined to want to impose views and approaches that they believe are right, nor is this new. Further, many at least in Australia become very uncomfortable when they hear alternative views and especially faith based views that conflict with their own beliefs and values.

Here I feel, and this is an opinion, that Australians have become less accommodating of alternative views since the start of the seventies. I base this opinion on the combination of my own experiences with my analysis of changes in our society and culture. To the degree that this assertion is true, it does us no harm to be forced to recognise that many majority views in Australia are minority views elsewhere.

None of this means that we should move away from our views and values. The reverse is true. Linking back to my opening point, we need to protect our core values including tolerance and freedom of speech.

But I think that we need to go further than this. I think that we need to analyse, to properly understand, alternative views. To illustrate this, I want to finish with Rudyard Kipling.

In his post, Kashmiri Nomad quotes Kipling's White Mans Burden in full as an example of the previous racist attitudes now replaced by the modern imperialist equivalent. He says in part: Kipling wrote the poem entitled "The White Man's Burden" as way of rousing the American nation to civilise the native Filipinos, teach them western ways and allow them to join the community of civilised nations. In doing so, he completely misses the irony in the poem, an irony dating back in part to Kipling's still recent US experiences.

Born in India in 1865, dieing in England in 1936, Kipling lived at the height of the British Empire. He was, indeed, an Imperial writer. And what, indeed, is wrong with that? We all write within a prism set by the circumtsances of our time. But Kipling was no mere Imperial writer.

Published in 1899, Stalky & Co is a thinly disguised autobiographical account of his time at school in Devon. Kipling himself is the eggregious Beatle, bookish, overweight with glasses.

I loved that book. I was being bullied at the time and the book gave me hope. Yes, the Imperial element was there. But so was a keen eye to the world. The pompous politician who tried to set up a cadet corp but failed because the boys saw through his cant.

India and Empire were always there in Stalky & Co in part because the school trained boys for imperial service. But Kipling loved India, even though India today may not love him.

Published in 1901, Kim is a both a gripping spy story set in the midst of Great Power rivalries and a graphic picture of Indian life as Kim and his master travel along the great road in search of the mystic river. Sure the story is written from the perspective of the British spy service, but this was the Brittish Empire.

For a man of his time, Kiipling was remarkably free of either racial prejudice or religious intolerance. Kim deals pretty fairly, I think, with all ethnic groups and religions. They are just there, accepted.

Loyalty and service were also central to his writing. Officials and officers were there to serve the local people as well as the Empire. They did so in often thankless conditions, dieing in their tens of thousands far from home.

This is where the irony comes in in the poem. Kipling is telling the US that now they have become a colonial power, then they must be prepared to accept the burden of so doing. In this sense, Kashmiri Nomad completely misses the point.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did a long update on that entry...