Monday, 6 October 2014

Australia and Islamic State: put it in perspective

Hugh Mackay                             Sydney Morning Herald               October 4, 2014

Given the unfolding events in Iraq and Syria and the acts of barbarism being committed by Islamic State militants, it's tempting to throw up our hands and see this as the greatest threat to civilisation since … which threat shall we choose? Oliver Cromwell in Ireland? Pol Pot in Cambodia? Adolf Hitler?

A mere 75 years ago, Nazi Germany had even grander territorial goals than ISIL: control of Europe, not just Iraq and Syria. Like ISIL, the Nazis were determined to suppress dissent and exterminate "others". Many Nazis were Christians who believed God was on their side: Hitler himself was a Catholic. On the other hand, many Christians inside and outside Germany were bitterly opposed to Nazism, just like the many Muslims who abhor the extremism and violence of both ISIL and al-Qaeda (who are, of course, at war with each other).

At a time like this, it's important to keep things in perspective. We are not being "over-run" by Muslims in Australia. The vast majority of asylum-seekers are not Muslims. The fastest-growing religion in Australia is not Islam (it's Hinduism, though off a low base). Muslims represent just 2.2 per cent of the Australian population, compared with 61 per cent identifying themselves as Christian.

Anxiety about security should remind us that governments tend not to discourage rumours of war because they know any talk of military action fuels our insecurity and that, in turn, strengthens their grip on power (think Thatcher and Falklands; think Howard and Iraq). Our heightened fears are bad for us, but good for them. Advertisement

So we would do well to resist the excesses of simplistic tribalism and remind ourselves that our common humanity is more powerful than our individual differences. We are social creatures who are defined more by our interdependence than our independence, though the popular cult of "Me-ism" would deny that.

All this points to the classic human quandary: we are individuals with a strong sense of our independent personal identity and we are members of families, groups and communities with an equally strong sense of social identity, fed by our intense desire to belong. This tension between the two sides of our nature explains why we sometimes act against the interests of the very communities we depend on.

There are plenty of signs of "attacks" on our way of life, but they are not coming from forces beyond our control, or from some external threat to our values. We ourselves are making the changes that are reshaping our way of life, and many of them do indeed work against the stable and cohesive communities we aspire to belong to.

For example, the disruptions and upheavals caused by our changing patterns of marriage and divorce demand difficult adjustments for many families, and for the social networks they belong to. Roughly one million dependent children live with only one of their natural parents, and half of them are caught in a pattern of weekly or fortnightly migration between the homes of custodial and non-custodial parents. Almost one-quarter of homes with dependent children are single-parent households. None of that is plain sailing for anyone.

Here's another radical shift: relative to total population, we are producing the smallest number of children Australia has ever seen. Our low birthrate diminishes the role children have traditionally played as a social lubricant in local neighbourhoods. But no one did that to us; we are doing it to ourselves.

In Australia, like the United States, we move house, on average, once every six years, and such mobility inevitably destabilises neighbourhoods. Universal car ownership reduces local footpath traffic and decreases the chance of those encounters and everyday courtesies that strengthen the bonds of community. Meanwhile, the IT revolution makes it easier for us not to see each other, while creating the illusion of connectedness.

The cumulative effect of such changes takes its toll on us and our communities, and the sense of an external threat only exacerbates it. We need to connect, to associate, to engage. Joining a service club, giving a neighbour your undivided attention, responding to the needs of strangers … all such actions help build the social capital that makes us strong. Communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us. Social cohesion is simply about treating each other with kindness and respect. [Abridged]

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