I was thinking recently about my first experience of court as a reporter. It was in 2001 and I was still a novice on a local newspaper covering a patch in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. I don’t remember the story, probably something minor, but I found myself at Preston Magistrates Court on a warm summer’s day.
I remember walking into the old courthouse and being met by a whirl of activity. There was a narrow waiting lobby with a long row of seating down the middle and courtrooms on either side. I had arrived quite early for the hearing in which I was interested, so squeezed myself into a seat among the waiting throng.
It would be fair to say I was instantly out of my comfort zone. Many of the people around me seemed well-acquainted with the wrong side of the law, some rough in appearance, others quite edgy and volatile, many probably with experiences of drugs of various kinds. There weren’t just single men there, but whole families with children waiting for one thing or another, forming a miserable and disjointed picture of humanity.
It was the first time I seriously considered the idea of an underclass. It’s not a new concept – Karl Marx had discussed what he called the lumpenproletariat in the 19th century – but that day in Preston the existence of a dysfunctional underbelly of society seemed very real to me. I imagined it to be a class of people on the margins marked by poverty, addictions, abuse and crime, as well as social neglect, exclusion and shame.
I wonder if the notion of an underbelly or shadow would be helpful in understanding and addressing what is seen as the threat of Islamism to the West. Such an explanation would see the extremism not as an external menace or enemy to society, but as inherently belonging to it. Just as an underclass belongs to and is a product of the society as a whole – created by legal, social, historical and political dynamics as well as all the consequences of the choices of individuals – so the danger of Islamism could be seen as one of the outcomes of a globalised community and its tensions. Realising that we are part of a world community could allow us to tackle problems more holistically, drawing every person and every thing within our concern. With appropriate consciousness, no-one need be an “other” to whom we would have no responsibility or care.
What troubles me about the response to the Islamist violence in Paris and other places is the tendency to partiality: to see “us” and “our cause” as just and right, while decrying “their” evil and barbarism. We see ourselves as committed to values, while the “terrorists” are hell-bent on destruction. The reality is, of course, far more complex: even as we praise ourselves for tolerance and freedom, our security forces are operating in a shadowy world of state-sanctioned violence. Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, there has been significant curtailment of civil liberties and enormous growth in a largely secret security apparatus. Could the West’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousands of people dead and ongoing chaos, be attributed to our decency and good values? Or what about our continuing alignment with Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most repressive regimes that has funded and armed the very Islamist groups we are now afraid of?
Behind the tragedy of lives lost is the spectre of power: who has it, who is challenging it, who wants more of it. “We” want to maintain and extend our power while denying it to those outside our circle. Islamism is but one response to global power dynamics, feeding on patterns of injustice. It is not a movement for liberation, for the enrichment of the human community, but a life-denying mirror-image to the worst aspects of Western power.
In the new globalised world our challenge is to move to a consciousness of unity and welfare for all because all of us are citizens of this planet. Liberty, fraternity, equality are not just ideals for me and my group but for everybody and every thing that lives under the great blue canopy of the Earth. We will only produce more wars, more suffering and strife if we continue along the old road of self-interest, grabbing what resources we can for ourselves, dominating because we have the money and power to do so. The underclass, the underbelly will always be in our midst, calling us to face the whole truth and to accept the whole of humanity as one.