In an information age with an overloaded server of opinion and questionable journalism, we must question everything we see, but more importantly, question how this globalised chatter affects people, communities and the image they walk with on the streets every day. With the death of Osama bin Laden, it was assumed the terror crisis occurring in the middle-east would come to an end, troops would be pulled out and now the image of Islam could be the focus. Finally Muslims could begin to represent themselves without a choice of ‘are you with us or against us?’
This hope came crashing down when Syria moved into civil war and new groups and extreme organisations saw the strife as an opportunity. Again, the Muslim community had to take a global stance and be placed on the apologetic back foot. Instead of being given the platform on their terms, their loyalty was again coming into question and sides once again had to be chosen. For the Australian Muslim community, this escalated with the threat of a terror attack being upgraded to ‘High’ and PM Tony Abbott committing our forces to Iraq once more.
A new media barrage has again engulfed the community with harsh terms about proving loyalty. We are once more asked to explain if Islam is really like this, with ‘experts’ saying “of course it is violent. I have read their Qur’an!” Words are thrown about with linguistic and phonetic questionability. This has long been a struggle with the media and government: terminology.
Some may call it semantics; they have to use some sort of term for what is happening, don’t they? But what happens when they pick up Islamic terms and then use them when discussing extreme groups of people as if they represent Islam, when in fact they are off the beaten track? Muslims then find themselves caught in a bit of a pickle with non-Muslim colleagues, friends, family and strangers. Most of it being that you are siding with extremists by using the terms used by media outlets to discuss extremists, such as Islamic State, Sharia, Caliphate or Khilafah.
It is interesting to note that these wayward groups claim they are enacting ‘Allah’s will’ and ‘Allah’s justice’. This claim in itself is excessive and extreme. Some important understandings of Islam they clearly passed by in their studies of the religion are ‘only Allah knows’ and ‘He is the Most Just’. To declare themselves deliverers of said justice means they in fact fall counter to their claims, because it is indeed impossible as ‘only Allah knows’.
Symbols of Islam are now taken as Terrorist Insignias
We see then that a simple Islamic concept has been taken to represent something un-Islamic. This means that each mention of this concept in passing or in a critical conversation causes one to become an apologist and defender of the faith, redefining the term or concept. It is not for the religion to reframe itself and use alternative terminology, as words used by extreme groups are regularly invoked out of context and inappropriately. We have seen the same done to other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, took the Swastika (a symbol of peace of Hindu and Buddhist origins) flipped the image, tilted it on its axis and claimed it as his symbol of unity. As many do, even when you see it in its original form, you can’t help but assume you are seeing the Nazi party symbol. On a second glance you would realise you are wrong. Though how many of us take a second glance?
What Islam lacks in pictorial symbols, it makes up for in the power of the word. The group calling itself ‘Islamic State’, abbreviated to ‘IS’ (this writer does not yield to this title for it is a misrepresentation of the group and the term), has, like other groups, taken the shahadah flag to be their symbol. Just as the Nazis turned the swastika from a peace symbol into a symbol of violence, hate and murder, so too has ‘IS’ turned the shahadah flag into something similar.
While this article could run through all the misunderstood terms used by extreme groups to justify their legitimacy, this is really beside the point. What needs to be understood is how these words and concepts are now perceived in the wider public, not just within Australia, but globally. It is easy to gauge this through social media discussions, blogs and forums. Simply look at Islamic terms and when they are used in journals and news articles. They are placed next to people like ISIS, Al Qaida and Boko Haram. The discourse is negative.
What the Muslim community needs to accept is that the negative representation of their religion is not something done only to them. It is but a condition of the political powers of propaganda at the time of an intellectual-physical war. The dehumanising of the ‘enemy’ has been done by each side battling the other for whatever reason, be it land, money, family or all of these, since the time of Cain and Abel. Did Cain not attempt to portray a negative image of Abel, that he was trying to make him look sorrowful in front of God and his father? And this was the case of Cain killing Abel?
As populations grow, land and resources become a concerning issue. It was not too long ago that the Cold War had the Capitalists portraying the Socialist powerhouse, the Soviet Union, as a literal beast, a bear trying to bring destruction and mayhem to the democratic, capitalist way of life.
During the First and Second World Wars, Germans were represented as hideous creatures who would boil babies alive, grind human bones for glue and wanted to take advantage of all women in the West. George W. Bush declared the ‘war on terror’ after the attacks of 9/11. So it was for certain, at that point, that the Islamic faith and Muslims were in for a similar treatment of dehumanisation and racial vilification. Once accepting these precedents, the Muslim community can grow, and remove its grief and anger over what is politically natural towards a perceived threat and focus on changing perceptions in the appropriate manner.
The question that now comes to mind is, “What would Muhammad ﷺ do?”
There is a common and old example that comes to mind, which is when the Prophet ﷺ spoke to the Bedouin man who had asked what Allah meant to him as a Bedouin. This story tells us that when speaking to people we must first understand their language to be able to speak to them in that language. This is a social language that can often be misunderstood if the different scopes of society never meet and discuss ideas and concepts.
Firstly, when the Muslim community engages with the non-Muslim community it is important that they understand what ideas and concepts are coming with that community. Secondly, we must recognise that there is a large first generation migrant community in Australia. The concepts, therefore, when engaging in discussion, will often not be based on a ‘homegrown’ Muslim attitude, but one that stems from concerns brought from community constructs in that migrant’s place of birth. Thirdly, we have a community of young Australian ‘homegrown’ Muslims who are caught between the old world and the new, so to speak.
We know that, while engaging in discussion, the Prophet ﷺ did not engage those who were confused by his message with anger, violence and hate. Instead the Prophet was mindful, careful, considerate and always willing to discuss ideas and opinions, without jumping to a harsh response. Something not often realised is that the harsh response equals a dismissive response. A soft and gentle response filled with confidence and affirmation is an opinion which will be met with acceptance and interest.
How can these lessons be used to reclaim that which was stolen?
It is time for the community to get active, and not reactive but proactive. By understanding the political minefield and historical propaganda, the Muslim community can advance from the defensive back-foot and can move forward to reclaim the symbols that have been lost to them. Part of this reclaiming is in understanding the symbols lost, what they originally meant and to ensure published media, whether social, televised, radio or printed, comprehend the correct meaning and not those being pushed by extreme groups in our global society. Through the methods of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a starting point, the Australian and global Muslim communities will begin that first, big step towards positive social and community progress.