The risk today in Australia is that rising community unease about terrorist attacks will turn into anger. That risk heightens when public spokespeople dissimulate. Honesty is important — not the platitudes of niceness about Islam being a peaceful religion
As the frequency and intensity of terrorist acts increase, without any tempering in sight, community tolerance in Australia comes under greater pressure. More, this is a case in which terrorist acts in other advanced Western countries—notably Britain and France—are identified as if they were attacks on Australia. They compound the sense of communities, and innocent citizens, under threat, helpless in the face of relentlessly spiralling expressions of gratuitous and murderous anarchy. For the first time in the nation’s modern history, one group of citizens is targeting innocent others, and trying to assassinate police and members of the armed services.
To date, the Australian response has been in keeping with tradition. A broad consensus—one that includes governments, police and most media—has striven to minimise conflict developing along ethnic or religious lines, while at the same time increasing surveillance, intelligence and police powers. Public authorities have rightly worked to keep the communal temperature low. The generally easy-going Australian attitude to differences of ethnicity and religion has blended with the Christian ethic of turn the other cheek; or keep calm, turn a blind eye, under the assumption that the problem will slowly go away. However, this problem is not going away. Liberal tolerance does not seem to be working.
There may be a tipping point, at which the shrug of the shoulders gives way to demands for punitive measures, in the mode of Pauline Hanson’s militant exclusionism. We have no relevant experience, at least in living memory, that might help to predict such a tearing of the social fabric, or register its consequences. There was a rough kind of parallel in hostility to Chinese settlers that flared up around the time of Federation, which led to the White Australia policy; in that case, prejudice was translated into policy. But persecution of Chinese citizens happened too long ago, in a very different time, and in a much less multicultural society.
This essay appears in the November edition of Quadrant.
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There is already widespread public abuse of Muslim Australians—the extent of which, of course, we don’t know. It takes the form of hostile comments on trains, buses and trams, from total strangers, to the effect that the individual is alien and not welcome in this country; or screamed-out obscenity from passing cars in the open street—in one reported case, aimed at a woman in a head-scarf, walking hand-in-hand with a child. Verbal assault is a crime, but this kind of instance is near impossible to police, even were the shocked woman to have the composure, and courage, to report the incident.
Fanaticism of any colouring is alien to the secular modern sensibility that prevails in liberal democracies like Australia. In particular, every fundamentalism is characterised by the paranoid psychological disposition that divides the world into us and them, good and evil, the saintly children of God and the devilish agents of Satan. From this perspective, everybody is cast as either-or, one or the other. (The same disposition is found in some modern political extremes, like the quasi-religious fanaticism of climate change true-believers.) By contrast, the prevailing disposition of the modern world is to find less and less that is black and white, in both morals and metaphysics; and more that is grey. Doubt pervades. Fundamentalisms stand at the opposite pole, driven by the need to construct a secure mental fortress within which all doubt is banished.
In the Western sphere, other religious fundamentalisms stick to themselves, their preferred mode being retreat from the mainstream secular order. Accordingly, they have been easily accommodated within the liberal democratic philosophy of live-and let-live, in relation to what anyone does in private. The most discordant notes are trivial, such as puzzlement at people who appear in the streets dressed in funny clothes; and, less visibly, children attending schools that preach cultic, pre-modern doctrine.
Islamism is crucially different today from fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Judaism. It is driven by feelings of grievance against a very powerful enemy—oppressive and humiliating—that it imagines surrounding it. That enemy is secular modernity, not Christianity, as was illustrated by Osama bin Laden’s choice of targets on September 11—not the Vatican, or Westminster Abbey, or an American synagogue, but emblems of Western capitalism. What humiliates is Western success—which means Western prosperity and power.
The risk today in Australia is that rising community unease about terrorist attacks will turn into anger. That risk heightens when public spokespeople dissimulate. Honesty is important, not the platitudes of niceness about Islam being a peaceful religion.
Islam has two quite different sides. One is, indeed, other-worldly and devoutly religious, with deeply pious and mystical strains. Over the centuries, it has been sublimated into a fine aesthetic tradition, as exemplified by the exquisite beauty of the Alhambra palace and gardens in Granada. There is too the fineness of Islamic calligraphy; and a very sophisticated legal tradition that appeared during the Islamic Renaissance, in date coinciding with the European Middle Ages.
The other side of Islam is militant expansionist jihad, and from the foundation. Mohammed was a warrior, dedicated to conquest—to holy war. The beginnings of this religion were quite different from those of Christianity. Jesus was a teacher, not a warrior, with one of his most important messages—one of major significance for the future development of the West—that religion and politics do not belong together. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Islam has no equivalent teaching about the separation of church and state.
In the wake of Jesus’s teaching, the West developed two streams of law, one civil and one ecclesiastical. The latter has withered over time, with increasing secularisation. Sharia law is pre-modern, incompatible with liberal democratic tradition. It is unassimilable, and will be hard to adapt to modernity, given the absence of any Islamic tradition of an independent state creating its own legal structure. Mind, a revolution that introduced a secular state did occur in Turkey at the close of the First World War.
But the biggest challenge facing liberal-democratic polities is what David Cameron, when British Prime Minister, called “non-violent extremism”. The wider Muslim community in Britain wilfully clings to a self-serving delusion about current global reality. Greg Sheridan, in the Australian, has raised concerns about what was revealed in a recent Policy Exchange poll of British Muslims in relation to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York. The situation here may be different, but it is unlikely to be categorically so.
More than half responded in Britain that they didn’t know who was responsible for the September 11 attack. A staggering one in three believed the United States government was behind it. Seven per cent thought it was a Jewish plot, more than the trifling 5 per cent who believed that Al Qaeda had hijacked the planes and destroyed the buildings, killing 3000 innocent people. Given exhaustive investigation into the attack, and by multiple agencies inside and outside the United States, the facts are indisputable, and have been accepted for more than a decade around the world. Al Qaeda itself boasted about carrying out the attacks, and directly through broadcasts delivered by its leader.
In the case of Islam today, the paranoid psychological disposition that separates the world into black and white, us and them, is not limited to a small minority of violent extremists. It is manifest much more widely, and in varied forms, from the 4 per cent of British Muslims who sympathise with suicide bombers, to the majority for whom a muffled cloak of prejudice distorts perception, triggers denials of uncomfortable realities, and prompts a view of the world that is transparently false.
Given this, it is understandable that some mainstream Muslim organisations in Britain refuse to co-operate with the government’s de-radicalisation programs; nor will some Muslim schools co-operate. For as long as there remains resistance, tending to deny that there is a terrorist issue at all; for as long as there is a climate of opinion that turns a blind eye to problems within; the one place in which real progress might be made in combatting home-grown terrorism is limited. And tensions about living in tolerable harmony within liberal societies, like Britain and Australia, which requires adaptation to codes of inclusion and fitting in, are only likely to become worse.
Here, de-radicalisation programs have, to date, also failed, and likely for the same reason. On the other hand, Australian security agencies report that one of their best sources of intelligence is from within sections of the Muslim population itself. Significant covert support does exist. Reinforcing this support, and overtly, some leaders of Muslim organisations have signalled that they like the Australian way of life, and would defend it against any type of extremism.
At issue is the collective conscience. Since 1945, Australia has been brilliant at assimilating millions of people from hundreds of different ethnic, religious and language backgrounds. This has been facilitated by a sense of self that is easy-going and vaguely defined. But we are in danger of entering new territory in which schisms emerge, fracturing the social vessel.
Increasingly anxious governments are seeking to become proactive. In terms of the solutions that have been canvassed, the only obvious conclusion is that there is no simple way. Four measures are open to consideration in Australia, all of them prudent.
First, restrict immigration. Australia has always controlled who came into the country, mainly from behind the scenes. It is not difficult to slew choice of migrants, which is indeed already happening, with the majority now sourced from China and India. It is not wise, for as long as home-grown terrorism continues, given the current social malaise, to significantly increase the 3 per cent of the population that is Muslim.
Second, toughen citizenship requirements, as the Turnbull government is proposing. The move to extend the minimum period of residency from one to four years, before a person is eligible to apply for citizenship, seems merited to me. In general, people have more respect for a club that is difficult to join.
Also, the introduction of an English-language requirement increases the pressure for assimilation, and reduces the likelihood of ethnic enclaves perpetuating themselves. But the type of test needs careful consideration: the proposed IELTS 6 test, which is currently used for entry into university, is too severe, and skewed in an academic direction that would not suit many excellent prospective citizens.
Third, and most importantly of all, increase covert surveillance of mosques and Islamic schools. Inhibiting the preaching of jihad, by controlling potential public platforms, will, at least, make the emergence more difficult for charismatic leaders like Abdul Nacer Benbrika, now serving a fifteen-year jail term in Melbourne. The climate of grievance loses much of its fuel without the preaching and teaching of us–them polarities. Such preaching and teaching is especially potent when it clothes rancour in a grand and heroic, apocalyptic meta-story.
Four, the reassertion of Western civilisation. It is time to reaffirm the customs and beliefs that have formed the West, underpinning its progress, and making it the place people from much of the rest of the world want to join. The list includes a culture of individual rights being universal, without differentiation for sex, age, ethnicity or religion; respect for private property; separation of church and state; rule of secular law; freedom of speech; and minimal interference of the state in the lives of individuals. The reintroduction of civics and British history into schools would make a good start.
Oddly, such self-assertion will be most difficult to achieve, given lack of self-belief across swathes of the better-educated; given the attitudes of most university lecturers, especially in the humanities and social sciences; among school teachers; and across the media and the arts. The cultural masochism that bedevils the Western world has no more striking current manifestation than sympathy, even amongst feminists, for militant Islam and its treatment of women, on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
The defeat of the IRA and the end of terrorism in Northern Ireland in the 1990s may provide lessons. Three factors combined. Margaret Thatcher promised that independence from the United Kingdom was in the hands of the Northern Irish themselves: if a majority voted to join Ireland, then separation from Britain would be granted. Second, the English stoically went about their normal lives in periods when the IRA were detonating bombs in their cities. Finally, astute intelligence-gathering and policing in Northern Ireland led to the steady killing off or imprisonment of most of the IRA leadership.
Here, to date, we have had the stoicism and the policing. But the IRA was easier to defeat in that it was an organisation with a hierarchy; to destroy its leadership was to undermine its morale. For as long as Islamic terrorism remains low-scale—carried out by lone wolves and small cells—it will prove much more difficult to detect and intercept.
The main message from Ireland, however, is in the local equivalent to the Thatcher defusing of the politics of independence from Britain in the wider Northern Ireland population. That would involve, here, the development of an anti-terrorist consensus among Australian Muslims. A greater consciousness among people who have chosen to live here, that they are Australians first, and they like the Australian way, should automatically lead to a decline in the us–them view of the world.
The low-key assimilationist Australian manner is vastly preferable to any other in response to social dissent. And, in answer to my opening questions, we can merely hope that a tipping point never comes. To be proactive means to stay calm, and continue to work on intelligence, increase surveillance of mosques and Muslim schools, provide encouragement and support for moderate local Islamic leadership, and firmly defend the Australian tradition.
John Carroll is Professor Emeritus at La Trobe University. His most recent book, Land of the Golden Cities, was published in September by Connor Court.