While the current climate of Islamaphobia, and racial and religious tension across Australia shows little signs of easing, conversations have turned to finding a solution. Some believe Muslims across several nationalities are being racially vilified and ask for greater religious tolerance. Some call for assimilation, and some point to immigration policy as the driving force behind increasingly strained relationships. With each incident, global and national, the conversation gets louder and less productive and the gap between each side widens and becomes more defined. This approach, it would seem, is flawed.
I listened to a science podcast today with Derek Muller, creator of the Veritasium you tube phenomenon which has had more than 200 million hits. Derek is a myth buster of sorts, delving into the previously poorly developed skill of scientific communication. He takes science to the masses. His methodology for overcoming scientific misinformation in the community is to start with a misconception and from there build a scientific case. He overcomes deeply entrenched misnomers by first asking what people truly believe and then not dismissing their ideas, but building on them.
What does this have to do with race relations and Islamaphobia across Australia? In one of the most difficult places to win hearts and minds over on the most deep seated notions, Muller is kicking huge goals and its a model that we as a community could learn from.
It is easy to understand where the misconception comes from. Non muslims see war zones, hear of fatwas and witness effigies burning on their television screens. They have little knowledge about the cultural nuances of the dozens of Muslim majority nations across the world and even less understanding of the religion of Islam, with all its different sects. In a very real sense, we the non-Muslim community need to be educated better on the foundations on which global conflicts are built. Rather than a history book or even a person from the Islamic faith, we are taught by a media driven by what will get the most attention and to whom truth is a malleable concept. In an age of true freedom of information transfer, we are less informed than ever.
Commonly, people call for Muslim leaders to condemn acts of terror and to speak out against violence by Islamic followers. It is widely acknowledged that those of the Islamic faith are vital to finding a solution to the current problems, but few can agree on how. I would postulate that the non-Islamic community are just as important, but that as yet we have not found a way to win them over.
Words like assimilation get bandied about in the same sentence as the concept of multiculturalism and few people think critically about what those terms mean. To me, assimilation sounds like an outdated idea – like something out of an old Star Trek movie featuring the Borg attempting to turn every human into part of the conscious collective, all acting and appearing to be identical. It’s the very opposite of multiculturalism – the word assimilation itself allows for little individuality. In response, defenders of the Muslim faith, (though I am still unsure as to why it would need defending), juxtapose deaths from terrorism with deaths from one punch violence, domestic violence and in some cases gun violence.
This is also flawed, because it fails to address the real fears within the community. Most people consider terrorism to be violence intended to cause mass terror and pain to a wider community and most importantly, they see it as tied to an ideology. Dismissing the very real fears in the community about terrorism does little to assuage the masses, and most importantly, it does not convince the public that the ideology itself is a mere tool. In the long term, this strategy will be unsuccessful in catalysing any real change in culture or attitude. While harm towards an individual should never be tolerated regardless of their colour or creed, idealogical conversations should also be respectful.
So how do we bridge the gap between the Muslim and Non-Muslim communities?
First, we cannot expect people to think, believe or behave in a particular way simply because we tell them to. Perhaps, if we started with the misconception, acknowledged that the fear is real and only then use reason to make a case it would go some way to win over the community. Opinion makers and change creators need to recognise that making the same argument only louder will not achieve their end because even if their case is built on logic the emotive response of fear is far more innate.
Secondly, a solid foundation of respect for different faiths built into our education system would also go some distance in combatting the effects of less than adequate media coverage of global conflicts as they arise. In years to come, the spotlight will likely shift to another foe and we will be facing the same conundrum. To that end, replacing Special Religious Education with a subject that explored the ideals of all the major faiths would assist in creating a more progressive society in future years. To understand some of the basic fundamental concepts of religions like Islam would surely prevent the community from equating extremism with a specific religious ideal.