Friday, March 23, 2012

Bob Carr's Maiden Speech

Our new foreign minister, Bob Carr, delivered his maiden speech in the Senate on March 21.

While his focus on key environmental concerns and call for religious tolerance are welcome, the core issues of his portfolio, particularly those to do with our Middle Eastern (and more recently African) involvement, receive scant attention.

In this post I examine the relevant sections of Carr's speech in detail:

"I want to address another global challenge. One month ago, US soldiers burnt copies of the Koran at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan."

So what is the US doing in Afghanistan? And why are we there? Carr doesn't say. In fact, the only other reference to Afghanistan in his speech comes when he acknowledges that both Lab and Lib share a common "commitment to Afghanistan." As if the murder and mayhem in US-occupied Afghanistan today can be reduced to an act of desecration.

"Days later, young people destroyed 238 war graves in Benghazi, Libya. Whether intentional insult or error of judgment, such acts look like cultures of war. Senators may recall the sense of cultures being at war that was felt on hearing reports of the terrible dynamiting by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan - those statues carved in stone 15 centuries ago."

No reference to his predecessor, Kevin Rudd, who acted as a one-man cheer squad for Western intervention there? No reflection on the 'wisdom' of that intervention?

"At such times, people might subscribe to the notion that we are being tugged toward the nightmare that the American writer Samuel Huntington predicted in his 1996 book 'The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order'. I remember King Abdullah of Jordan saying at a Davos conference in 2004: Let us avert the clash of civilisations, and help the overlap of cultures. I think those were eloquent words. That notion of an overlap of cultures, I think, is inspiring, especially compared to the alternative notion of monochrome monoliths destroying one another's statuary, smashing one another's grave sites and burning one another's books."

Dragged into a clash of civilisations are we? Or willingly involved in illegal acts of regime change without regard to the cost in lives, resources and treasure? Not a whisper about Iraq, the great crime against humanity that opened the 21st century, just the uncritical invocation of a neocon meme. And strangely, not a whisper about the coming USraeli aggression against Iran despite Carr's characterisation of it on his Thoughtlines blog as "certifiable insanity."

"There have been in the world's history some marvellous cultures of tolerance, and we should dwell on them. In Southern Spain, in medieval times, Moslems, Christians and Jews lived and worked together in the polity known as Al-Andalus. Andalusia, of course, springs from that Arabic noun. One of the caliphs, Abd-ar-Rahman III, who ruled between 912 and 961 - his name has probably not been spoken in this Senate chamber for many years - appointed a devout Jewish scholar, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, as his foreign minister. Why recall this all these centuries later? Simply because of the symbolism. Here was a Moslem ruler who appointed a Jew as his foreign minister. It is what King Abdullah must have had in mind: an overlap of cultures. In that civilisation, Al-Andalus, while Christian Europe's libraries were small, the caliph's library at Cordoba reportedly burst with 400,000 volumes. Jews in this civilisation had their sacred writings translated into Arabic, because they liked the sinuosity of the language. As Maria Rosa Menocal wrote in the Ornament of the World - a beautiful book that I commend to the Senate - this was a society that had the courage to 'live with it's own flagrant contradictions'."*

Certainly the most interesting part of Carr's speech from our perspective. Yes, I think we can say with complete confidence that his reference to Al-Andalus, or any other high point of Islamic civilisation for that matter, is a first for the Australian senate. And yes, he's done well to draw the attention of its unrepresentative swill to such an example. After all, anything that sticks in the craw of Senator Cory Bernardi and his kind is more than welcome.

However, it does rather sit at odds with Carr's lifelong support for the Jewish supremacist state of Israel, which has more in common with the Christian supremacist regimes which followed the reconquest of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 13th century, regimes which culminated in the expulsion of an estimated 300,000 Spanish Muslims between 1609 and 1614 by King Philip III. This was perhaps the largest act of ethnic cleansing ever carried out in Europe up to that time, and a forerunner of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist forces from 1947 to 1950.

"We should ask what we Australians can do, in our modest way, to steer the world away from Koran burnings, the bombing of Buddhas and the despoilation of brave soldiers' graves towards peaceful overlap and pluralism. We can make sure that our multicultural society continues to tick over. I do not think there is a need to fetishise multiculturalism or to give it a capital 'M' but, simply, to relax into our easy going Australian ethnic and cultural diversity based on tolerance and respect. We can redouble our efforts in the Alliance of Civilisations - and earlier this afternoon I met another UN ambassador who was a member of that alliance - sponsored by the governments of Spain and Turkey. We can enhance our work in the region for interfaith dialogue. We can work with Indonesians, the largest Islamic nation in the world, which continues to spurn extremism."

All bandaid solutions I'm afraid. What we as Australians should do is decline to participate in, or better, forthrightly oppose, the kind of American imperial aggressions that set the scene for such behaviour and worse. But that, I'm afraid, is a bridge too far a conga-line suckhole like Carr.

"Running foreign policy is about protecting our national interest. Although by every tenet of diplomatic doctrine that comes first and foremost, it is also about being an exemplary global citizen when it comes to protecting human rights and protecting the world's oceans. To this I would like to add that in foreign policy we may also promote and defend cultural diversity, the idea of a planet of seven billion that celebrates and does not deny its contradictions."

Cultural diversity? Sure, it beats the resurgent Islamophobia of a Nicholas Sarkozy, but is that the best Carr can come up with?

[* Highly recommended: Blood & Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain, Matthew Carr, 2009]

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