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From Blackface to Billy Sing: ‘whitewashing’ not a thing of the past.

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This (hopelessly out of date) post was originally published in 2010. I am re-posting here as part of the online media course I am (kind of) tutoring at the University of Sydney.


The Jazz Singer

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Across the world, fans are protesting as filmmakers ‘whitewash’ ethnic characters, writes Ruby Hamad. 

Does this old photo of Al Jolson wearing blackface  makeup and a curly wig in the silent classic The Jazz Singer make you cringe” How about Boris Karloff as the “yellow peril incarnate“- The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu?

While we may recoil at the casual racism of films past when white actors wore makeup to appear black or Asian,  and reassure ourselves that we wouldn’t allow it to happen today, the outrage over Hey Hey’s blackface skit, is only the most obvious example of contemporary cinematic whitewash.

This year, controversy has surrounded the casting of films and television productions from Sydney to Paris to Hollywood.

Australian director Geoff Davis is feeling the heat for casting his son Josh as Billy Sing in a mini-series based on the life of the legendary WW1 sniper and Gallipoli veteran. The problem? Billy Sing was Chinese-Australian and Josh is, well, white.

Davis told The Australian that it wasn’t his intention to ‘whitewash’ Sing’s racial history but he couldn’t find an older Chinese actor willing to play Sing’s father on deferred payment.

His solution was to cast Caucasian actor Tony Bonner (of Skippy fame) instead, effectively turning Sing into a Caucasian too, in a move that has enraged many in the film community, including actor Haven Tso.

Chances are you may never have heard of Tso, but he is one of Australia’s most prominent Chinese-Australian actors, having featured in the film Home Song Stories and on TV shows including Sea Patrol and All Saints.

Although his agent, Joolee Eadie, says he gets more work than most males his age Tso laments, “I get a lot of casting for Japanese tourist, kitchen hand, restaurant owners etc. There is still a general idea that non-Anglo actors can only play certain parts.”

As a forty-something he was too young to play Sing’s father, though he laughs at Davis’s claim that no actor would be willing to play the part on deferred payment, “There are lots of people doing work for free just to get their name out there”, he says.

That is why the Billy Sing casting has stung the acting community. Not only are heroic ethnic characters so rare, when they do pop up, ethnic actors get overlooked in favour of more bankable Caucasians.

Although she calls the Billy Sing casting “disgraceful”, Eadie admits there does seem to be lack of older Asian-Australian actors. One of her actors, A Japanese-Australian in her forties, won a role on Steven Spielberg’s miniseries, The Pacific, and had to wear special makeup “to age her as they couldn’t find anyone else”.

But is there a lack of roles due to a lack of suitable actors or a lack of actors due to the scarcity of roles? Do actors simply give up after years of rejection?

Hard to tell, says Eadie, “Nothing has changed in the 21 years I’ve been in the business”.

Josh Davis (left) in The Legend of Billy Sing and the real Billy Sing (Image: The Australian)

The Australian put down the reaction to the fact that knowledge of Sing’s extraordinary and tragic story- he died in obscure poverty- is too new to the public to be depicted in this way.

But that doesn’t explain the reaction that similar cases of ‘whitewashing’ in cinema have caused.

Earlier this year, Gerard Depardieu became embroiled in a heated race row over his film, L’Autre Dumas, based on the life of the great French writer Alexandre Dumas. Depardieu is, of course, white, whilst Dumas was the mixed race grandson of a freed Haitian slave.

Like Jolson in The Jazz Singer, Depardieu wears a black wig and darkens his skin for the role. Patrick Lozes, president of the Council of Black Associations of France, complained to the BBC that the film suggests, “we don’t have any black actor who has the talent to play Alexander Dumas”.

Meanwhile, over in Hollywood, The Sixth Sense director, M. Night Shyamalan is causing a stir with his soon to be released mega-budget epic, The Last Airbender, which opens in Australia September 16 and is based on animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The popular show has a loyal following on Foxtel’s Nickelodeon network, and is set in an ancient Asian-inspired fantasy world where the elements, Water, Earth, Wind and Fire are controlled by warriors known as ‘benders.’

However, while the show’s characters are mainly Chinese, the film’s stars are – apart from the villain played by Dev ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Patel – all white.

Marissa Lee, a young Chinese-American fan was so outraged, she created Racebending.com (a play on the ‘Airbender’ title), which has organised a nation-wide boycott to protest Airbender’s US release in July. She claims the casting is racist and deprives Asian-Americans of role models and ethnic actors of rare starring roles,  “If they can’t even play characters of their own ethnicity, what opportunities are available for them?”

Famed film critic Roger Ebert agrees, calling the Airbender casting “wrong.” So do the series creators, Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko who have distanced themselves from the film.

Shyamalan, however, dismisses the criticism, calling Airbender, “the most culturally diverse movie ever made… it looks like the U.N. in there”, referring to the fact that native Greenlanders play most of the extras.

To which Lee scoffs, saying, “Just and equal casting is not about restricting actors of colour to extras and villains. The truth is those communities are vastly underrepresented in the media, and representation matters.”

Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender are dismayed that their Asian heroes are replaced by whites in the film, restricting ethnic actors to ‘villains and extras’ as this fan-made picture indicates. Image: Racebending.com

Haven Tso says that whilst the Airbender casting shocked him, the fact it is a fictional story makes it, “not as bad as the Billy Sing case which turned an historical Asian-Australian hero into something else.”

The role of Billy Sing is a lost opportunity. A chance to celebrate the contribution of non-Anglo Australians and a chance for an actor to escape from behind the dishwasher or shop counter have both been wasted.

But perhaps the public outcry regarding these films, each from a different corner of the globe, indicates that the tide is finally turning.

As Eadie muses, “Maybe it’s what people can relate to and, as our population becomes more diverse, we may be able to relate to a wider field of ethnicities. If enough people get together and fight it, there may be a chance of change.”

Don’t expect a change too soon though. Last month Prince of Persia, another swashbuckling blockbuster opened in Australia. Who plays the Prince? The very un-Persian Jake Gyllenhaal.


Written by Ruby

September 12, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Film, Media, Racism, Television

The three myths of Israel

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There are three attributes for which Israel is frequently praised. First, that it is the Middle East’s only democracy. Second, that it is a nation built up from nothing to miraculously become one of the world’s most advanced nations, and third, that as a tiny, solitary state it punches far above its weight in its never-ending battle for survival.

Problem is, none of these are entirely true. Not that anyone who had watched last Monday’s (August 21) episode of Q&A would be any the wiser, when all three of these mythological praises of Israel were sung by two of the panel’s guests.What’s worse, with the possible exception of the first, none of these assertions were challenged by the other members of the panel. This is indicative of the wider mainstream media’s consistent failure to provide accurate contextual information vital to a true understanding of this most acrimonious of conflicts.

Visiting American conservative blogger, Daniel Pipes, was the first panellist to sing Israel’s democratic praises, claiming the Jewish State provided a strong role model for the Arab Spring. Here he was briefly challenged by author Hanifa Deen, who, despite calling Pipe’s viewpoint a fantasy, wasn’t able to go into any detail as to how Israel fails in its claim to be a true liberal democracy. Deen could have pointed out the segregation that, amongst other things, deems certain roads for “Jews only” and forbids the Palestinian spouses of Israelis from gaining Israeli citizenship.Then there is the fact that unlike actual liberal democracies, Israel does not even have a constitution.

Whilst Israel’s democratic status is arguable, it is the other two myths are perhaps the most damaging and long-running. As part of my master’s degree I recently researched how the Israel-Palestine conflict was reported in the US media. There have been many such studies before mine, and they continuously turn up the same results: that the media exhibits a strong, pro-Israel bias.

According to media researchers from the famed Glasgow Media Group (GMG),  the media plays a key role in extending the conflict by not providing two crucial historical facts. The first takes us back to Israel’s formation in 1948. Far from being built from ‘nothing’ as former liberal Senator Nick Minchin claimed on Q&A, Israel was founded on land that had been continually occupied for many hundreds of years by indigenous Arabs. Tens of thousands of these occupants were displaced, some forced from their homes, others fleeing the impending violence, but all taking their keys with them. Many of these displaced families still hold onto these keys, desperately clinging to the hope they will make their way home again. The keys, which have come to symbolise the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees, even get passed down from generation to generation.

The GMG reports that this information; that the Palestinian refugees exist, and that the United Nations has consistently upheld their Right of Return by the United Nations for 63 years, is largely missing from the common media narrative. Without this vital piece of information, it is not surprising that media audiences believe it when commentators such as Minchin insist that Israel appeared, as if by magic.

The second factor missing from the media’s narrative of the conflict is the reality of Israel’s military occupation. On Q&A, Pipes and Minchin sought to blame “the Palestinians” for all the violence in Israel/Palestine. To do to so they drew on the common narrative that Israel is locked in an existential battle for its very survival, and as such, its actions are purely retaliatory.

This too is a myth. Both Pipes and Minchin, conveniently overlooked the fact that Israel continues to occupy, in a manner deemed illegal by international law, the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem, territory it first captured in 1967. The West Bank also happens to be where so many of the original refugees had fled to in 1948. Furthermore, Israel continues to build and expand residential settlements in these territories, again in defiance of international law. Not only does Israel divert water to these settlements, it also confiscates Palestinian farms to allow for this expansion, with some Palestinian farmers suffering the humiliation of working as farmhands on land that has been in their family for generations. The Jewish settlements are linked to each other and to Israel proper by an intricate system of roads forbidden to Palestinians who are literally cut off from one another, further diminishing the hopes of a continuous Palestinian state.

Without this information the public accepts the so-called “Washington Consensus” that is forwarded by the media: that both sides are to blame in their own way (Palestinians by being aggressive, Israel through disproportionate response); that the US is not a direct party to the conflict; and that it is up to both sides to reach a solution.This approach has merit only if one fails to consider the billions of dollars in aid the US supplies Israel and the diplomatic cover it provides in the UN. Israel is in absolutely no danger of being “wiped off the map”. It has nuclear weapons (the only Middle Eastern country to do so), the fourth strongest military in the world, and the unrelenting support of the world’s only superpower.  If anything, it is the Palestinians hope for a homeland that is being scrubbed away.

These three persistent myths, all of which were presented on Q&A, ignore the basic motivations of the conflict’s participants: Palestinians seek to overthrow Israel’s 44-year military occupation, whilst Israel aims to maintain it. The media’s failure to highlight this simple fact is clearly to Israel’s favour and the Palestinians detriment, as Israel has far more to gain from continuing the conflict and the Palestinians from ending it.

Written by Ruby

August 30, 2011 at 4:28 am

Journalism as endorsement

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This article in today’s Australian, ostensibly an ‘objective’ report on fur’s resurgence in the fashion industry is little more than extended advertisement for the ‘luxury’ item with a dash of good ol’ fearmongering and smearing thrown in.

Catherine Caines wastes no time in letting us know who the enemy is, using the very first line to single out People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for ‘targeting’ fashion designers who work with fur. Although adopting a neutral tone, in keeping with ‘impartial’ journalistic standards, Caines subtly, or not so subtly if you tend to look out for these things firmly casts PETA and other animal rights activists as violent and irrational actors who cause such fear amongst the sartorialists that some who spoke with the journalist chose not “to be named for fear of reprisals from fur protesters”.

Whilst it is true PETA often uses questionable tactics in its anti-animal cruelty crusade, what this article is missing is a truly balanced perspective. Caines will likely claim the ‘balance’ is provided by the contrast between the desires of the ‘edgy’ fashion industry and the aims and actions of PETA, what Caines fails to consider is what the fur industry actually entails. Live skinning, death by electrocution, close confinement, the list goes on. What is clear is that the fur trade continues to be a particularly cruel one.

This omission makes statements such as this

Baker says fur’s big comeback reflects consumers’ confidence about breaking rules.

“Emotionally, there is something decadent and slightly forbidden about fur that makes the experience of wearing it very luxurious,” Baker says.

all the more gobsmacking.

Written by Ruby

July 28, 2011 at 5:13 am

Media Failed Us on Bin Laden Kill

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Media Failed Us On Bin Laden Kill.

As part of my masters degree in Media Practice, I am researching and writing a dissertation on press criticism and the role it plays in promoting/maintaining a functioning and democratic press. Whilst my thesis is focused on the New York Times’ and how it rates its own coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over the last week and a half I have been struck by how suitable the coverage of the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has been for systematic criticism.

The death of bin Laden, and subsequent media circus, is an ideal opportunity for the news media to assess its own performance and function. In our western media system, the news media and democracy are inextricably linked; with some journalism academics go as far as to say they are one and the same. In such a context, the news media must provide the public with all the information they require to be free, informed and functioning citizens.

The job of a journalist is to question, to demand answers and to verify information, particularly that obtained from politicians. To keep the bastards honest, in other words. So why, in just over a week of bin Laden death coverage has the mainstream media functioned largely as a mouthpiece for the US government?

The death of Bin Laden was witnessed by no one other than the American operatives and their (mostly dead) victims. It was relayed to the world in a shock announcement by the US president, Barrack Obama, who proudly advanced the cause of American exceptionalism by declaring America can indeed do anything it wants to (he must have been paying attention to Gillard’s’ speech in the congress earlier this year). The world’s media immediately reported the death as fact, even though it had occurred, in the words of Guy Rundle, ‘in the President’s words and nowhere else.’

Whatever happened to the word ‘allegedly’? Since when has the media existed only to regurgitate the claims of the government and declare them true without independent verification? Turns out, questions were just were what was required, given the ever-changing details of the surreptious raid. Was the Obama administration ‘correcting facts’, as the Sydney Morning Herald politely claims, or merely making them up as they go along?

Scepticism should not be confused with conspiracy propagation. Yet, conspiracy theorists is exactly what the many in the media, whose very job description calls for healthy scepticism, were quick to label anyone who dared ask questions. The fact the raid came hot on the tails of the release of Obama’s long form birth certificate prompted many to liken sceptics over the US government version of events to the notorious ‘birthers’, who refuse to believe the president is a natural-born US citizen. This is a preposterous comparison. Conspiracy theorists ardently stick to their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The evidence for Obama’s citizenship was both abundant and in the public domain. The evidence for the death and deep-sea burial of bin Laden exists only in the hands of the Obama administration, evidence they still refuse to release. It is not conspiracy propagation to doubt the veracity of the statements made by a government that had just enacted a kill operation in total secrecy in a foreign country- without that country’s knowledge. It is simply asking for transparency.

Had the media acted more critically, perhaps it would not have been left up lawyers  and academics  to question the morality and legality of the raid, let alone the claim that ‘justice had been served.’ A claim first put forward by former lawyer Obama himself, faithfully repeated by western leaders including PM Gillard, and disseminated by the media. The irony of a life-long opponent of the death penalty ‘welcoming the news’ of the manner of bin Laden’s demise seemed to be lost on the great chunk of the local media, save for the usual inquiring suspects including Crikey, Eureka St and New Matilda.

To be clear, I am not implying that the government is lying about all aspects of the operation, nor do I mean to suggest that bin Laden is still alive or not buried at sea. Rather, I mean to stress that demanding verification and evidence is both right and proper when it comes to any story, particularly ones which appear to be as one-sided as this. It is the only way in which the public can hope to know anything approximating the truth. As more details emerge, and change, making yesterday’s facts today’s misinformation, the news media should use this as an opportunity to assess their own performance.

Whilst few may have any sympathy for bin Laden, what is at stake is bigger than the life and death of a single man. The news media cannot go down the road of accepting, without question, any claim by any government, much less that of a foreign administration. It directly contradicts the function of the press and sets a dangerous precedent where the media exists not serve the public but to advance the interest of the ruling elite. Nor can the media shy away from criticism such as this. Press criticism is a vital aspect of assessing whether the media is fulfilling its function. Our democracy depends on it.

Written by Ruby

May 10, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Media, Terrorism, USA

Tagged with , , , ,

Atlas Shrugs: A lesson in how not to comprehend English

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Pamela Geller, owner of Ayn Rand-inspired blog Atlas Shrugs hates Barack Obama. I mean really, really hates him. So it’s not surprise to see this recent post on her blog accusing him of being “a communist.”

As ‘evidence’ she presents a speech he gave to the US Chamber of Commerce, in which he proclaims:

“If we’re fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports, the benefits cannot just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top. They have to be shared by American workers, who need to know that opening markets will lift their standard of living as well as your bottom line.”

Geller and her readers, who don’t so much comprehend the English language as disregard it, accuse Obama of revealing his Marxist tendencies. See! Obama wants workers to share the profits!

Um no. Obama clearly states wants workers to share in the benefits of the said profits. It is a testament to how much the far right in America despise Obama when a clearly capitalist statement- he even mentions trickle down economics ‘lifting the standard of living’ for crying out loud-can be twisted to colour him Red.

Opening markets. Standard of living. Bottom line. Could it be any clearer? Geller is either extremely dishonest or extremely unintelligent. And for someone with her amount of influence, I don’t know which is worse.

Barack Obama: Muslim one day. Communist the next. Incredible. And laughable if these people weren’t so plentiful.

Here’s the speech:

Written by Ruby

February 16, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in Media, USA

Tagged with , , , ,

Egypt, Israel and Omelas

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There is a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by American science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin that tells a faintly familiar tale.

Omelas is a Utopia. A warm, prosperous city of festivals, ringing with the sound of music and the laughter of children. The citizens are joyous. Negative emotions like guilt do not exist.

But Omelas harbours a dark secret, one on which its entire existence is predicated; the music, laughter, art and architecture all depend on one abominable thing. That a child, feeble-minded and with a body of festering sores, be kept locked up in a dark basement forever. To release the child, in fact to even speak one kind word would immediately destroy the city and it would never be able to rebuild.

The inhabitants know about the child. Upon being informed of its existence, many demand to see it whilst others, “are content just to know it’s there.” But they all accept that in order for them to thrive, the child must suffer.

I was recently introduced to this story by a journalist and blogger, Yuval Ben-Ami, who seeing in Omelas his own home of Israel, writes:

“Even as a teenager I knew that there were people whose lives were controlled by my nation’s army, and who didn’t even get running water in their houses. I knew that there were people imprisoned for years without fair trials. I knew…Israel was an Omelas, prosperous and happy while keeping children in a basement.”

But now, the revolution underway in Egypt has revealed an even greater extent of suffering. The intensity of the uprising has taken everyone by surprise, not least the Egyptians who protested with the exhilaration of those who have finally found their voice after years of being gagged, and whose exhilaration has just turned to dismay as pro-Mubarak supporters strike back.

The world watches on, not entirely sure what to make of it. Early reports out of the United States spoke of ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder,’ prompting New York based Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy to implore the media stop referring to it as such and call it what it is instead: an uprising, a revolt, an revolution. “Egyptians want to fix Egypt, they don’t want to destroy Egypt,” she told CNN.

Whilst some developments have been decidedly ugly, it was clearly a peaceful uprising until pro-Mubarak supporters struck back, opening fire and beating pro-democracy demonstrators. This has prompted calls from US President Barack Obama and British PM David Cameron for a peaceful and immediate transition.

However, this wasn’t the west’s initial reaction. US vice-President Biden, who stressed Mubarak’s status as a US ally as well as his “normalizing relationship…with Israel” declared that he would “not refer to (Mubarak) as a dictator,” best sums up America’s first response.

Clearly, the media, as they so often do, took their cues from the official, government perspective. So why was the west, and America, in particular so afraid of this revolution? So unwillingly to accept that after decades of despotic regimes the ‘Arab Street’ had finally had enough?

Could it be that, like the fictional city of Omelas, the status of Israel, as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ depends upon the misery and suffering of Arabs?

In the early days of the protests, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had sent messages to its allies, including the United States, to support Mubarak. To prioritise stability over the possibility of an Egyptian democracy.

For decades America, has been propping up the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, whilst simultaneously portraying itself as a champion for worldwide democracy. Israel was deemed worthy of support, its survival imperative because it was a democracy. But what we weren’t told was that in order for Israelis to enjoy their democracy, millions of Arabs must be denied theirs.

Incredibly, Arabs have been blamed for the lack of democracy that was forced on them. For years, given a false choice of secular authoritarianism or religious fundamentalism, the world had come to believe that Arabs and democracy just don’t mix, because of course, “they hate us for our freedom.”

But this revolution has given us insight into the breathtaking hypocrisy that has underlined America’s relationship with the Middle East. As Ben-Ami writes, “Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive?”

Since the uprising began on Jan 25, Al Jazeera has reported a 2000 percent increase in hits to its English language website. Most tellingly, 60 percent of these hits are coming from the United States. Americans, disheartened by the coverage of their own media, and concerned by their government’s military and financial support for a dictator who denied his citizens the very rights Americans claim to be exporting to the world, are turning to the Middle East itself for answers.

In Omelas, not everyone was willing to accept the suffering of the child. They were “the ones who walk away.” No one knew where they were going, but once they knew the truth, they could no longer live in Omelas.

We don’t know what lies ahead for Egypt. But now that we all know the truth, its not enough for some of us to merely walk away.

It’s time to let the child out of the basement.

Written by Ruby

February 8, 2011 at 2:38 am

My Crikey piece in full

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As I mentioned yesterday, here is my Crikey piece in full. Published Tuesday Feb 1, 2011:

Muslims don’t fit into a simple left v right debate.

In an attempt to undermine Labor’s traditional stronghold with immigrant communities, Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan has cynically taken up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians and their persecution by a portion of the Muslim majority.

Sheehan begins by waxing poetic about a rally held in Martin Place last Wednesday, recalling a, “medieval…forest of crucifixes sprouted among a sea of earnest faces that would look comfortable on ancient coins.” The rally, “drawn from a broader Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora,” was protesting the current wave of terrorist attacks targeting Christians in the Middle East.

Less a meaningful comment on the attacks or the rally itself, and more the opportunity to take pot shots at “the Left” (including “the broadcast arm of the Greens, the ABC”), Sheehan boasts of the three Liberal MPs who spoke whilst scorning Labor’s single attendee Greg Donnelly, who was representing Premier Kristina Keneally.

Referring to Labor as, “the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence,” Sheehan chastises the PM for not preparing a statement, and calls the absence of a Greens representative “predictable.”

Accusing both the Gillard government and the Greens of siding “with Muslims” against Christians, Sheehan gleefully concludes, “support for Labor is showing signs of disintegrating among Australians who take discrimination against Christians seriously.”

Whilst making much of the recent attacks against Egypt’s Copts, Sheehan fails to mention that after the New Year’s Day attack in Alexandria which killed 23 people; thousands of Muslims marched with their Christian compatriots against the radical threat. Many even formed human shields outside churches to allow worshipers to celebrate the Coptic Christmas without the fear of attack.

Sheehan is correct in denouncing violence against Christians. But his failure to acknowledge the support that some Muslims are providing the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians is dishonest in the extreme. Apparently the fact that many Muslims also “take discrimination against Christians seriously,” is not worthy of mention for Sheehan. Ironic in an article whose reason d’ etre is to criticise the omissions and absences of others.

His purposefully inflammatory statements signify so much of what is wrong in the current debate about Islam. Namely that, lacking the nuances of Christianity, Islam is a monolithic entity that is fundamentally incompatible with western values. Proving however, the old adage that a broken clock is right twice a day, there is a grain of truth in Sheehan’s statements.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as it almost always emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

By reflexively denouncing everything from opposition to Park 51 to questioning the place of the burqa in modern society, western leftists are also treating Islam as a monolith and denying Muslims the opportunity to debate these issues themselves.

But when Sheehan simplifies a complex problem by saying, “the left sides with Muslims,” he simultaneously demonises all Muslims and undermines efforts by liberal Muslims to counter the extremism that threatens to engulf them.

His comments also diminish the efforts of those Tunisians who have forced a dictator from his lofty perch. Their revolution has ignited dissent in neighbouring Algeria, Yemen and Egypt, also struggling under authoritarian regimes.

These are not Islamist uprisings, in fact, these dictators held onto power largely by pointing to the radicals waiting in the wings. Like Iran’s failed Green Revolution they are protests by Muslims who don’t seek to replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one, but who crave freedom. Since when has freedom being incompatible with western values?

Those who denounce Islamic ideology as ‘medieval’ would do well to note that the golden age of Islam was actually in the Middle Ages, when art and literature flourished. Muslim women, not yet driven behind the veil, enjoyed rights that were unseen in the west until the 20th century.

While Muslims were excelling in science and mathematics, the Catholic Church was torturing heretics and burning ‘witches’ at the stake.

Fundamentalist Islam is a modern construct, a reaction to secularism and western hegemony. The way to counteract its growing influence is not by decrying Islam itself as evil, but nor is it by dismissing all criticism of it as racist.

It is time for secular and other liberal Muslims in this country to be a given a louder voice, for in the polarising Us v Them framework that Sheehan champions, they are the biggest casualty. Conservative Muslims far outnumber seculars and liberals, and the gulf between them- both in numbers and ideological position -is growing.

But as long as some western voices continue to assume Muslims are homogenous, and other western voices respond by defending fundamentalism at the expense of dissent, then the voices of progressive Muslims who seek to alter their negative image in the west, as well fight the growing radicalisation in their midst are marginalised into irrelevancy.

Written by Ruby

February 2, 2011 at 6:43 am

Posted in Islam, Media

Tagged with , , , , ,