No place for medieval practice in our society

Some conservative Muslims treat women as chattels.

Some conservative Muslims struggle in a liberal society and sometimes, especially among young men, contempt for the host society bubbles to the surface.

So why do liberals cry for religious freedom when that freedom leads to the treatment of women as second-class citizens and emboldens young men? I, for one, will not defend another’s right to be illiberal.

Muslims of Middle Eastern origins are most visible in the struggle to integrate into liberal societies. Liberal Australia’s job is inclusion by liberation, not inclusion by acceptance of tribal and oppressive cultures dressed up as religion.

Religious practices, and some beliefs, are socially determined. The only Christians who pray five times a day in 2014 are confined to religious orders, and they are not as devoted as they once were.

Medieval religious practices in Australia should not remain unchanged. The state may not use its power to interfere with a religion but others should. Has that desire to liberate not been at the heart of our liberal revolution?

Australia can and should choose to liberate newcomers, and it should choose to ease the burden of integration by keeping the number of new entrants who are conservatives small.

As for the reaction to the parliamentary presiding officer’s separation of those wearing burkas, such women are segregated in their daily lives.

Some years ago I watched a burka-clad woman at breakfast in a Singapore hotel. She followed her husband, many steps behind, and sat at a table. I was fascinated as to how she would eat. When the time came she lifted the veil away from her face, remaining covered, and spooned in the food. It was ­demeaning.

Muslim women from Malaysia, for example, students that I observe in cities in Australia, wear a hijab, a scarf that surrounds the head but leaves the face uncovered. I also observe such women wearing jeans and, as the mood takes them, laughing out loud in public.

The burka is not something of deep religious significance; it is a symbol of oppression. Cultural and religious excuses are ways of fending off inquiry, of avoiding justification that would not be given any leeway if debate were among “our own”. So, guess what, to defend illiberalism among Muslims is discriminatory and often racist.

If a woman dressed in a burka were in trouble, confronted by an assailant physically or verbally, I would come to her aid. I will condemn, however, the wearing of the burka and all it symbolises.

About 17 million Australians were born in Australia. About six million Australians were born overseas. About 350,000 Australians were born in the Middle East or North Africa.

Many more are children of earlier migrants from these regions and born in Aus­tralia. The Middle Eastern diaspora is not uniformly Muslim, nor is it of one Muslim sect, but the number is an indication of the potential numbers that may struggle to integrate.

Any migrant group may take time to integrate. When the second generation fails to integrate, however, as is the case with some conservative Muslims of Middle Eastern origin, Australia has a problem.

When Islam is at war with itself, as it is in the Middle East, Australia should be very wary of importing tribes and tribal mores.

Australia’s immigration has almost always had a legacy of conflict. The Irish and English have thankfully resolved old wars; the same is true for Anglicans and ­Catholics.

Each religion is now more liberal than was once the case.

Australia’s top 10 trading partners are a mix of Anglo and Asian: the US, Britain and New Zealand, and China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, Thailand and Malaysia. Australia’s aid budget increasingly is being spent in the region. This is our playing field, this is where we make and spend our money.

So what the hell are we doing in the Middle East again? Mostly, as always, it is about keeping close to the US, the leader of the free world. This is no mere slogan; it counts to be on the side of the angels. There is also a humanitarian objective to help save lives threatened by Islamic State murderers.

But it is not clear, much beyond that, what the objective is. It is near impossible to embed democracy in a warring state and among warring tribes.

Australia has a Middle Eastern legacy; it should walk away from further heroics in the region and liberalise the legacy of earlier failed interventions.

This article was first published in The Australian.