Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pass me a Shoe Please!

Forget about brickbats and bouquets at the ABC, it's shoes and shmaltz!
Last night I was privileged to witness evidence of Australia's famed freedom of speech and truly egalitarian nature. The live episode of Q & A gave me renewed pride in being a resident of this wonderful country. I watched as John Howard, former Prime Minister, was challenged by David Hicks
- a man he had accused of terrorism, and questioned by ordinary people on many of his controversial decisions. His answers invariably confirmed to his detractors just how bigoted and arrogant those decisions were and are, as he avowedly still supported every one of them. In comparison his nemesis - Kevin Rudd - appeared morally whiter than white and certainly more humble.
While Howard was able to dodge the flying shoes of an angry audience member as deftly as his hero George Bush, the assailant was not brutally beaten or locked up, but left the set in a controlled and orderly fashion. Howard continued to happily justify each of his decisions to the numerous questioners - from the invasion of Iraq, the locking up of David Hicks (without even considering a response to David's question as to whether such treatment was humane), the invasion of Afghanistan, children overboard, Tampa, to the refusal to utter the word "I'm Sorry" for the generation of indigenous children stolen from their mothers. In fact, he even went so far as to say that for a section of these children it was actually good for them.
The tweets running across the screen seemed fairly even divided, just as the audience was, between Howard's diehard supporters who missed his uncompromising leadership, and those who hoped time had taught him just how disgusted and ashamed they were of the direction of his leadership.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this amazing display of free speech. The first thing that struck me was the restrained passion of the participants. Apart from the shoe throwing, followed by a civilised walkout of the shoeless assailant, each side ventured its passion through clapping support at the appropriate occasion. Having not long returned from Europe and a short visit to Morocco, such civility is truly awesome. There I was more accustomed to angry shouting and spectator crowds over issues as minor as the changing of a bus seat, or unwillingess to pay the bus fare. Even Jenny Brockie, who has bravely sailed into such dangerous waters by inviting our less civilised community members to debate sensitive issues, struggles to allow audience members even to be heard in the melee of shouting that has regularly erupted in recent shows.
There is in fact a growing demand from within the Australian born members of the community - and here I am referring specifically to my own Muslim community - to shed the first generation's tendency to frequent outbursts of anger and defensive argument when challenged on matters of ethics or justice. It has been a hard lesson to learn, with some of our most inspiring leaders working with the best of intentions, but avoiding the type of scrutiny dished up on Q & A. As a result, working without that regular accountability, the ends have sometimes justified the means, and now some of these highly regarded leaders are serving time behind bars to the wholesale shock of their followers.
Some of our best intentions can be misguided, and let's face it, power has nearly always successfully corrupted. Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd as Prime Ministers considered themselves to be working for the greater good, and both did not bow to populist sentiment. They made tough decisions on occasions that were not always well received. Both suffered the consequences - Howard losing his seat and the election, Rudd being rolled in his first term of office. Although I believe Rudd has a far greater moral status, both distanced themselves too far from their voters.
The ABC's Q & A has managed to deliver arguably one of the highest levels of accountability of its leaders, of any country in the world, while generally maintaining an atmosphere of passionate but controlled civility. This is the kind of moral value that Australians can rightfully claim as their own - the kind of moral value that we should all aspire to. Historically it used to exist throughout the Muslim community - before kings, sultans and dictators stepped in. Here in Australia we Muslims can learn to reclaim this moral virtue.
In fact, I can already imagine in front of me a panel of community leaders who have lorded over our organisations for the past generation or two - with little or no accountability. I will restrain myself to clapping during the appropriate questions, and hopefully not ask "Pass me a shoe please!!"

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