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The digital future and my everlasting love-hate for Islam
The digital future and my everlasting love-hate for Islam by Solomon Wakeling
Sx years on and “Confronting Islam”, my first and only foray into (half-ironic) hate speech, still gives me grief, thanks to the persistency of the “Google” search engine in linking some of my younger foolishness to my name, and making it available to anyone who might care to inquire about me. Not that anyone has ever mentioned it, but in the words of Hannibal Lecter: “People don’t always tell you what they’re thinking – they just see that you don’tadvance in life.”
It’s a persistent, if receding anxiety, that I might be misunderstood as racist for something I said (even if I should have known better) a long time ago. Alas, it was my own facility in inflammatory rhetoric which blasted the comments up high enough (454) to ensure that, most of the time, this piece is what people will find first when they decide to stalk me.
(It was a sweet little bouquet of ironies to discover on one occasion Webdiary advertising “Muslim personals” on the page, given how in living memory under Margo Kingston’s stewardship, Webdiary agonised over advertising on the site and the degradation of newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald with their focus on online dating. I don’t mind at all: in the unlikely event one Muslim couple found love because of me, there’s my redemption.)
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff states in Program or be programmed: ten commands for a digital age: “Sadly for young people, the digital realm is permanent. This robs them of the free experimentation that defines adolescence. Whilst parents might not relish pondering what happens between teens in the back seats of their cars or behind the bleachers on a Friday night, this experimentation isn’t being recorded in a database likely to outlast whatever was chiselled onto the walls of the Parthenon.”[i]
I am not entirely convinced just yet that this is true, and that the permanence involved is not merely an illusion, that the content of the internet is like the markings on a white board of the great long corporate seminar we’ve all been subjected to for the past fifteen years. Hit the delete button and the content is inaccessible and irretrievable, unless someone is keeping watch over it.
Everything on the internet takes up digital space, and, like hardcopy archives, they exist so long as people are willing to maintain them and preserve them. I think we’ve all had the experience of looking for content online which we remember but which is no longer there. The genius of Wikileaks was to re-route through servers in Switzerland when their service was suspended[ii]; the archive here was under siege and displays a deep fragility when it becomes politically inconvenient to the powers-that-be.
Nevertheless it is true for most of us that for the immediately foreseeable future that whatever we publish online isn’t going to go away, and, more significantly, is going to be searchable in a way that microfiche of a newspaper archive is not.
In Webdiary’s case the good angel watching over the archive is the national library of Australia’s Pandora archive, meaning that what we say here, truly will last as long as the national library of Australia exists.[iii]
Blink and you will have missed it but the Eatock v [Andrew] Boltcase[iv] contained a significant finding by Bromberg J about maintaining the integrity of the online archives in the public interest. This principle stands even where the content of those archives is not deemed to have any public interest value and amounts to racial vilification. The old practise of the law to remove noxious material from circulation was found to be obsolete in our digital age (at 463):
In relation to the order sought that HWT [The Herald and Weekly Times pty ltd] remove offending articles from any online site under its control or direction, HWT contends that it would not be appropriate for that order to extend to the internet archives of the Herald Sun. It was contended, and I accept, that the internet archives of a significant media organisation such as the Herald Sun serves an important public interest by preserving and making available historical records of news and information: Times Newspapers Limited (Nos 1 and 2) v United Kingdom  EMLR 14, 45-48.
And further, (at 464):
I can well appreciate Ms Eatock’s purpose in seeking to have the Newspaper Articles removed from the online archive of the Herald Sun. There is good reason to try and restrict continued access to, and dissemination of, the Newspaper Articles by the public. However, it seems to me that, in the age in which we live, any attempt made to restrict access to an internet publication is likely to be circumvented by access being made available on online sites beyond the control of HWT. Ms Eatock’s legitimate objective would be better served by maintaining the Newspaper Articles on the online site to which people looking for them are most likely to go and including at that place a notice of the kind offered by HWT and to which I will refer further below.
My own efforts at racial vilification centred around Sura 4, Verse 34 (Women) of the Qur’an and my own anger at violence against women, leading me to argue for a prohibition on headscarves in schools. With 1.6 billion Muslims[v] currently on earth and endless more to come in perpetuity, the question of what the Qur’ansays about domestic violence and women’s rights is an important one for women and for men, and it was one for which there are no easy answers.
I was relying on a translation by N.J. Dawood from 1956:
Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.
Tarif Khalidi translates this passage differently in his 2008 translation:
Men are legally responsible for women, inasmuch as God has preferred some over others in bounty, and because of what they spend from their wealth. Thus, virtuous women are obedient, and preserve their trusts, such as God wishes them to be preserved. And those you fear may rebel, admonish, and abandon them in their beds, and smack them. If they obey you, seek no other way against them. God is Highest and Mightiest.
According to George Sale’s 1793 translation, helpfully archived by Project Gutenberg, the passage reads:
Men shall have the preeminence above women, because of those advantages wherein GOD hath caused the one of them to excel the other, and for that which they expend of their substance in maintaining their wives. The honest women are obedient. careful in the absence of their husbands, for that GOD preserveth them, by committing them to the care and protection of the men. But those, whose perverseness ye shall be apprehensive of, rebuke; and remove them into separate apartments, and chastise them. But if they shall be obedient unto you, seek not an occasion of quarrel against them: for GOD is high and great.
This passage, if taken literally, does indicate a level of repressive behaviour which our society cannot sanction. Differing and more nuanced translations go a long way to resolving such conflicts but ultimately words do need to have some objective meaning or else the whole business of translation is pointless. However laws to counteract such dogmas need to stop at the point where they cease to be about addressing specific wrongs and become arbitrary. A piece of cloth, however it is worn, and whatever dogma is behind it, does not make you oppressed; being beaten by your husband or confined to your home does, and Australian law will protect you no matter who you are; this is what equality for women truly means and what section 116 of our constitution seeks to protect when it prohibits the Commonwealth from making laws imposing religious observance. My own attribution of Turkish secularism as spear-headed by Ataturk as the solution was short-sighted in the extreme; Human Rights Watch reported in 2011 on the insidious culture of family violence in Turkish society.[vi] I don’t shrink from confronting violence against women but this is not an issue unique to Islam, nor does it have anything to do with religious dress. The two issues have no connection and what I said was deeply offensive. I was wrong and I’m sorry.
Many times I wrote lovingly of Islam on Webdiary (See: Cultural diversity and photography), but this is unlikely to be what endures under present conditions in connection with my name. This is something I have to live with. Nevertheless the hard lesson that theorists like Rushkoff ask of us has a lot of resonance for me: be yourself, use your own name, own your own words and it will go a long way to re-personalising a de-personalised online environment. I’m proud of myself for writing with my own name and not anonymously and glad that long, long ago, Margo Kingston realised we all should, too, if we wanted to really connect across social divides in a civilised online debate. If we do this, eventually, every door shuts but the path to healing.i
[i] page 88