Monash University Campus, 1:30pm
During my degree, I can’t remember many politics lectures I stayed awake in. I used to find myself drifting off right around the time my Ipod started its random shuffle cycle. This week, however, I had to confront my past slackness when I went to meet Waleed Aly.
Waleed is known best as a leading academic on the issues of global terrorism and Islam in Melbourne. He regularly appears on television shows such as Q&A and is a regular host of the Conversation Hour on 774 ABC Melbourne.
I confess I was nervous - and spent the epic bus journey out to Monash University trying to think of amusing political anecdotes to impress him.
As it turned out, Waleed was a man of many interests. I perched myself on a chair in his office and became engrossed in my own private oration about terrorism, Australian identity and a band name Robot Child.
I understand you are writing a PhD on global terrorism. How is it going?
Well really, it’s a matter of writing it now.
I’m trying to construct a grand theory to answer where global terrorism comes from. Bin Laden, for example, has a handful of concrete grievances such as; the presence of western troops on Muslim land, the support the US provides for dictatorial regimes and thirdly, the unconditional support the US has for Israel.
The religious aspect of this is vastly overblown. It is a strong identity signifier, but the central grievances are political. What is interesting is we are often told what is motivating Bin Laden, but we don’t often hear from him.
If you could meet Osama Bin Laden what you ask?
I don’t think he is an overly interesting or complicated person and I don’t think he is nearly as important as people make out.
At what point did being a Muslim become a part of your public identity?
There is no doubt the turning point for that was September 11. Muslims weren’t that interesting before. After the London bombing they became as interesting as they had ever been. There was a whole public conversation going on that I felt I had something to contribute.
To another area of interest – you recently wrote a Quarterly Essay about conservatism. What do you think its future is as a social and political ideology?
I’m coming rapidly to the conclusion that conservatism as a philosophical tradition is over. We live in a thoroughly progressive world, which embraces perpetual rapid change, and our interactions with people who are physically distant are much more frequent. In this world, I’m not sure what conservatism has to say, other than to stand back and say this is a disaster.
Australia should maximize the diversity it confronts by having policies of social cohesion. I don’t think we should restrict immigration in a way that might be politically damaging.
Do you think then that multiculturalism is a useful social policy?
We don’t take advantage of multiculturalism in the way the US does. They construct multiculturalism around a civic idea and not their history. People now have choices how to construct their identity. They can be very global or parochial and these movements are happening at the same time.
If you were to move for instance to Egypt, your parents’ birthplace, how would you define your identity?
When I’m in Egypt, I don’t feel particularly Egyptian, but I do feel a connection I don’t feel if I am in say, Italy. I’m an Australian in Egypt and I would be part of the expat community. I would be sensitive to discussions of the west or Australia, and I would be in many ways a minority there.
Some of your views are quite controversial. How does your work impact on your family?
What I do impacts on them because a lot of what I do is public. My wife is a public figure in her own right, but not in the same way I am.
When you are a public figure you become ‘consumed’ by people which is quite odd. There is a public figure who has the same name as me, but who is a different Waleed Aly, someone I don’t know.
Speaking of your public roles, any thoughts of making new Salam Cafe episodes?
I am surprised that people still ask me about it actually, because it wasn’t on that long and it was on SBS. We have disbanded, sort of like the Beatles.
Ah ha music. Tell me about your band, Robot Child.
I’ve always loved music ever since I was a kid playing the recorder in grade 3. I didn’t play anything for a long time and then I took it up again recently.
I play the guitar and song write for Robot Child. The big thing we don’t have is a proper recording so that’s what we are aiming for. We want to do a concept album just like Pink Floyd and the bands of the 1970s. I think we are pretentious enough to do it.
So which version of your public self is playing in the band?
I think, perhaps, it is the most authentic version of me.
You can contact Waleed through Monash University.