Christopher Pyne’s national schools syllabus has made a promising start. It is, of course, still early days—only October—as I write this piece for December publication. A project so complex and important as the national syllabus will require fine-tuning and revision—no wonder. But I am comforted that its fundamental orientation is correct: it is pointed firmly backwards, not forwards; we can see and lament where ardent progressivism has landed us over the last seventy years, and we have had enough.
I earnestly pray that Pyne’s “back to basics” machine, as soon as it is tuned up, will be set in high-speed reverse, and run non-stop until it reaches somewhere about 1939. I think that is the year I left school, together with the kid sharing the two-seater class desk with me, Frank Hughes. We had both, aged sixteen, qualified for the Victorian school leaving certificate, and qualified to matriculate at Melbourne, Victoria’s sole university. Within a few short years, Frank was one of the most highly decorated aircrew with the RAF’s famous “Pathfinders”. Come peacetime, he swiftly became one of the most remarkable exploration geologists in Australia’s mining history; his discoveries (a single example: Argyle diamonds) put billions of dollars into the pockets of all Australians. Our school was small and shabby old Malvern Grammar, a poverty-stricken Anglican school in Glen Iris.
Left a breath still to breathe, there can be no question of my ever forgetting Frank Hughes, and besides, a splendid portrait smiles out from my study wall. Alas, he died in 2004. It may seem bizarre that the special reason he is so keenly in my mind today is the evil confrontation Australia faces with the Muslim world.
One of our set books was a compact anthology of English verse. I can’t recall the name of the editor, but it was published by Methuen. The poets and their poems had been selected with such sound judgment that any teenager with a grasp of that collection had set firm feet on a path to a “sense” for English poetry as a whole. Here Frank and I were much struck by the discovery of G.K. Chesterton, and by his famous poem “Lepanto”. This was the name of a great naval battle fought in the Mediterranean in 1571, between Muslims and Christians. Pope Pius V had sponsored and helped finance the strong Christian fleet prepared by the Emperor Charles V to defend Vienna against Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s long-expressed determination, by aggressive warfare, to drive the Christians first out of Vienna, and then out of the whole of Europe. And that was just for starters.
Apart from its “milestone” status in the stupendous tale of Muslim–Western relations, Lepanto is interesting in itself. For example, naval architecture showed a great advance in the fleet of the Emperor Charles V. Gone from his new galleys was the cumbersome iron beak used to smash enemy craft to matchwood by brute impact; instead, a lighter, lower prow now allowed forward-firing cannon to start inflicting Muslim casualties from a distance. A galley might have a complement of some forty sailors and 300 oarsmen, the latter often chained criminals or slaves.
Among the Emperor’s crews, as an ordinary Spanish man-at-arms, served that late-ripening literary genius, Miguel Cervantes, creator of the “Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance”, Don Quixote himself. It is hard to imagine literature without him. Come to that, it is hard to imagine the English language (and several other European languages) without the adjective quixotic, to which I can think of no precise synonym. We owe it to a mere incident in the Battle of Lepanto: in the fighting, Cervantes suffered impairment in the use of a hand; mercifully, it was the left one.
In its crushing success (Christian ships lost, twenty; Muslims, 210) the victorious leader was Don John of Austria, the twenty-two-year-old bastard son of the Emperor Charles V. You can hear the sonorous resonances of Chesterton barracking for him all the way:
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war …
Intrigued first by Lepanto, Frank and I delved deeper into Muslim matters. Few scholars (if it is not droll to flatter two beardless sixteen-year-olds with the title) began so far behind: we had a juvenile acquaintance with the Arabian Nights; we had begun an adolescent approach to the bibulous and amatory verses of Omar Khayyam, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer of the tenth century AD. But, starting with encyclopaedia articles, we read (and tried hard to understand) what further scrappy sources we could find. Few places on earth could have been less promising for Muslim studies in 1939: almost the whole of our exiguous “Muslim demographic” comprised a few useful and amiable Afghan camel-drivers away in our north; if there was one mosque in Melbourne—and there may have been—I had never heard of it.
Today there are around half a million Australian Muslims, many of them born here. Three parliamentary seats in suburban Melbourne are held by Labor by virtue of Muslim votes. This is social change on truly tectonic scale, all in the short space between one man’s schooldays and (I speak, of course, of myself) his senility.
Is this what we want? And will it be a better Australia when we can’t go for a swim in our local municipal baths this afternoon, because the pool is reserved exclusively for Muslims just then? Do we welcome a neighbourhood situation where we have never seen the lady who has just moved in next door, and aren’t ever likely to, under that burqa? (For all we can tell, it’s a bloke!) We should echo the immortal Laurence Sterne who, in 1768, in his Sentimental Journey, pronounced that “They order this matter better in France.”
In 2010 French law was changed, to make concealment under a veil illegal. Recently, the cast of the French Opera spotted from the stage a burqa comfortably relaxed among the audience. They stopped singing until the burqa-wearer left, after a quiet suggestion had been made to her (him?). There had been no unseemliness; interruption to the program was brief. Full marks to the French.
Step by step, as Frank and I learned more about Islam, at equal pace our reservations about it grew: a narrow, harsh theocracy, from which hitherto unknown figures called Ayatollahs and Imams decreed death (beheading, or stoning by the mob—take your pick); where women were oppressed in every article of their lives, from genital mutilation to marriages commanded upon them in tender years to husbands unknown and unmet. These objectionable things, and many more, it claimed the right to enforce across every nation in the world, and sometimes tried to. Remember years ago, the early case which shocked us so, of Salman Rushdie?
I dare say, put to the test, Frank and I might not have presented a brilliant articulation of the virtues of “Western”, liberal, secular, democratic society. That was because it was simply the way things were, the state of affairs we took for granted at home. But I recall our sharp realisation that Islam was “other”, “alien”, “different”—and unthinkable.
How we would have welcomed a reputable book which had done all our research for us. Alas, it was not published until this year. It is Rodney Stark’s How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books).
This is an admirable volume, but first two serious caveats. First, there is not one map in a book which cries out for liberal cartographic support. (Black mark for the publisher, too.) Second, the title grossly claims too much. The West has not “won”. At best it may be “winning”, as devoutly I hope it is. But if it has won already, why are we even now despatching our RAAF fighter jets and our SAS specialist troops to the Middle East? And why has Army Chief Peter (now Professor) Leahy delivered a warning, blunt and dire, of the long and perilous war ahead?
Nevertheless, Stark has given us an admirable conspectus of the almost invariably dismal events which have marked the inharmonious co-existence between Islam and the West, ever since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 612 AD. (A basic insight for us is that much of the trouble arises from Muslims’ inability to agree even among themselves. Sectarian savagery between Sunni and Shia can exceed even the ready hate between Christian and Muslim.)
Our debt to Stark is deepened by his impressive scholarly apparatus of references, indexes, notes and sources. Quadrant readers will not be surprised to find their own thrice-sainted editor, Keith Windschuttle, as one of the authorities Stark consults, in this case for his expertise on how the ancient Aztecs constructed their weapons of war; remarkable! Renaissance man will always be represented on earth while Keith remains with us.
Terrorism poses an appreciable risk to Australians today, and it seems to me that some local Muslim leaders are far too complacent (or perhaps it is not complacent?). Some of them brushed off an offer of a candid discussion of issues from Australia’s Prime Minister with a hoity-toity disdain which I found nationally offensive.
And we have our groups of bien pensants or merely the mealy-mouthed (mostly, but not wholly academics, clergy or lawyers). “Let’s not be horrid to the Muslims at any cost. We must respect their sensitive (homicidal) feelings … our own higher principles commit us to a soft answer …” A soft answer? To those jolly decent fellows who obliged us with the Bali bombing, right handy on our doorstep?
However trite and threadbare, we must quote yet again the much-quoted Cicero: Salus populi suprema est lex (The people’s safety is the supreme law). Does any government dare deny it? If they do, let them own up, so that we can vote them instantly out of office.
It is childish to pretend that prudent strengthening of our security when we are in danger would instantly convert Australia into raging totalitarianism. And the average citizen has a growing sense that something should be done, soon.
On its front page of October 14 the Australian printed a photograph of the street façade of the Al-Furqan Islamic Centre in Melbourne’s suburban Springvale: for sale were Islamic Books, Attire, Perfumes … On a bare panel of concrete, a graffitist’s brush had painted: “If you don’t like Australia, F*** OFF”.
I would perhaps not have expressed myself in the same sturdy vernacular, nor upon a public wall, but I know how the painter feels, and I agree with him (her? Women—with reason—have been very strong here, such as Janet Albrechtsen and Emma Alberici).
A so-far torpid federal government might be shocked by the current state of voter sentiment.