Word Association

Last week, in what has variously been described as a “great day for multiculturalism in Australia” and an “absolutely sickening” “disregard [for] Australia’s constitution”, Ed Husic, federal Labor MP for Chifley, was sworn in to two parliamentary positions using a Koran. Whilst some of the commentary on this event was appropriately respectful and even congratulatory for a first-generation migrant achieving such high office, also making the news was the volume of vitriol poured in Mr Husic’s direction. The reason: that he swore in on a Koran, rather than a Christian Bible.

Of course, the entire purpose for swearing in on a Bible is not in endorsement of the values and beliefs espoused by Christianity, but rather is akin to swearing “on my honour” or “on the lives of my children” – a commitment on something that the swearer values. The whole idea of “swearing in” is a bit of an antiquated principle in itself, something that became amply clear with commenters mentioning that sworn-in witnesses to a criminal trial lied through their teeth, whilst a Muslim, having sworn on a Koran, told the unblemished truth. In a country where well under ten per cent of the population are regular church attendees (church attendance may be an unrealistic signifier of Christian attitudes, but good enough to go on), the reverence with which the other 90% of the population hold the Bible has to be open to question.

So swearing in a devout Muslim on a Koran has got to be at least as fit-for-purpose as swearing in an agnostic, atheist or non-practicing lapsed-catholic on a Bible. You might as well ask whether the specific bible in question is a King James or The Message. But let’s put that aside for now.

What is more revealing in the invective against Mr Husic’s choice to swear in on a Koran (and the fact that he was allowed to do so) is the strong undercurrent of disquiet, that this is part of a push by global Islam to overthrow good, God-fearing democracies the world over and replace them with sharia law and an adherence to the world caliphate. You might be forgiven for thinking that this sort of thought belongs to the rantings of extremists, but talkback radio and the sheer volume of such comments on Mr Husic’s Facebook page indicate that it’s a scarily common belief.

It is certainly true that some Muslims want to see the whole world under the reign of the Islamic caliphate and an end to secular or Christian societies everywhere. It is also certainly true that some Christians are kiddie-fiddlers. That does not mean that most, or even many, Muslims are advocates of violent jihad, and it does not mean that most, or even many, Christians abuse children. Both of these are cherry picking generalisations, and both of them show, if evidence were needed, that large groups of people can be tarnished by the actions of a very small subset of rotten apples.

Ed Husic was abused, in reality, not for swearing on a Koran, but for having the temerity to be a Muslim (and not hide it). Whatever you think about violent jihad and Islam, most commentators and experts argue that moderate Islam, as opposed to various extremist strands, does not approve of nor lead to violent behaviour, much less terrorism. (I don’t have statistics as to the various flavours of Islam and their number of proponents – although this might be very interesting information.) But say the word “Muslim” and thoughts immediately turn towards hijacked planes and suicide bombers. Every time an act of jihad is reported – even those which got no further than some inchoate ideas and rough planning – this association is reinforced. And stories of Muslim moderates serving their communities, or acting as loving, doting parents, or accepting their adopted home’s standards to the point of being selected as parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister of Australia, are either not reported or dismissed as fraudulent or mendacious.

Say the words “Catholic Priest” and, for many Australians, the first thing that comes to mind is “child abuse”. This is despite various estimates that accusations of child abuse by priests in the catholic church are no higher, and possibly significantly lower, than of males in the general population. (A conservative estimate of child abuse in US males has been put at 10%. At the same time, a 2004 study estimated that only 4% of catholic priests since 1950 had been accused (not convicted) of child abuse. This 4% rate is likely an underestimate, as many victims will not be reported, and the Church itself has a history of protecting some perpetrators. Regardless, most experts suggest that it is unlikely that abuse by Catholic priests is significantly higher than the general population of males.)

The association of “catholic priest” with “child molester” suffuses so that it seems that the rider “catholic” is becoming less of a differentiator. The disgust and disdain with which the Australian public greets each revelation of the church buying the silence of victims, or shuffling perpetrators from diocese to diocese, or refusing to bring cases directly to the authorities, becomes attached to people’s thoughts of Christianity as a whole.

So how do you clean the image? How do you rebrand “Muslim” so that it no longer means “terrorist”? How do you rebrand “priest” to no longer identify as “abuser”? Can it even be done?

The answer may lie in another word association: “Labor” = “Union Power”. The recent return to the leadership of Kevin Rudd has triggered a flurry of very visible reform intended to break the power of the unions and the “faceless men” over the modern Labor party. It is very clear that this is intended to be very public indeed. In effect, Rudd’s actions are claiming that this was indeed a problem as everyone had thought, but that a) he, Rudd, is now in charge, and b) drastic, final and very substantial change is being enforced. An authoritative figure is taking responsibility and enforcing irresistible reform.

Is this approach possible in the context of Islam and of Christianity?

Perhaps, to some extent, for the latter. The Catholic church in particular is strongly hierarchical. But a suspicious public has watched for some time as senior Catholics hedged and issue carefully conditional statements, and I think it would take a remarkably strong set of conditions now to address the lingering cynicism, to convince people that the church really has changed and isn’t just wishing the whole thing would go away.

For Islam, I suspect the problem is even more intractable. Islam is no more a unified, single set of beliefs and attitudes than is Christianity, but while (in the western world) there may be at least some understanding that Anglicans are not Catholics and neither of those are Baptists, the level of knowledge of Islam may be more shallow. And in at least some of the “denominations” of Islam, the drive for violent jihad against the west does exist. When a religion is divided against itself, it may be impossible for any authority to redefine the public perception of what it stands for.


Relative proportions of child abuse amongst Catholic priests and the general population:


Strands of Islam:


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