In the aftermath of every latest Islamist assault on civil society, mainstream news coverage and commentary invariably follows the same path. First, after the initial horror, there is a restriction on language: one may speak of Islam or of terror, but not in the same breath. Break this rule and expect to be charged with Islamophobia at best, rank and racist bigotry at worst. Next, the death toll of the incident is balanced against the many alleged depredations of the West which, of course, is said to be the cause of all terrorism in the first place. For intellectual support, voices crying “Perspective! Perspective!” drift down from the ivory tower. Weeks after 9/11, a Melbourne University academic was conceding that, yes, it had been a jolly nasty sort of day, but such a fuss! Smart people like herself understood that bad hamburgers kill more people than terrorists. Always, amid the moral relativism and equivalence, we are the real monsters.
To put it in a nutshell, the left’s response to terror is an aggressive denial borne of a civilizational self-hatred. In the so-called ‘quality press’, a category that most certainly includes our publicly funded ABC, such sentiments are artfully portrayed — take the ubiquitous Waleed Aly, for example, who reacted to the bomb slaughter at Boston’s marathon by dismissing it as “an irritation” and positing that it was, most likely, the work of white rednecks.
Further downmarket, we encounter publications such as New Matilda, a digital scrapbook often mistaken for a news source, whose principal merit, if I can lend the word a measure of charity, is in its headlines. Even in the current depths of its dying days, Fairfax’s subs would never have been so gauche as to headline Aly’s effort with a bluntly accurate, ‘Terrorism: nothing to worry about (except if white men did it)’. New Matilda, by contrast, prefers language to match in bluntness the imbecility of the article below. It is an editorial style that exalts in a telling precision. For example, Sam Oldham’s response to last year’s atrocity in Paris was bannered, The Awful Truth About France: The Citizens are Innocent Victims. The State is Not. Not much doubt about who had it coming. I also recall John Salisbury’s personal essay reflecting on his march from Sydney to Canberra in support of Palestinian rights. Now, however, he is sparing the shoe leather: Why I Won’t Walk to Protest Against Islamic State.
Now that you have some idea of New Matilda’s editorial and foreign policies, consider Michael Brull’s recent column, The Truth About Modern Jihad: It’s Not Really About Religion. It is nonsense, but that is New Matilda‘s stock in trade when it rises above the sleazy. This is the “news” site that rifled Barry Spurr’s private emails and splashed the stolen details of a private scholarship awarded to Tony Abbott’s daughter — all trumpeted in “the public interest”, it goes without saying. Not that association with sleaze is an obstacle to membership and influence within the New Establishment. New Matilda’s publisher and editor, Chris Graham, is an “industry nominee” on the Press Council.
But back to jihadists. Contrary to Brull’s headline assertion, they work very hard to clarify their intentions and motivations: the eschatological enthusiasm with which they start their day, the desire for paradise and conquest, and the hatred of non-Muslims. The restoration of the lost Islamic Caliphate is no longer the daydream of one man, bin Laden, and his small band of followers, but a violent and alluring reality for many. Perhaps, before we give jihadists the martyrdom they seek, we could demonstrate the courtesy of taking them at their word.
Why does New Matilda rush to offer an acquittal which Islamists never sought and do not want? Brull begins with some throat-clearing: “When it comes to the acts of individual jihadis recruited by ISIS to blow up people in the West, there is much that is beyond our understanding.” Such a lack of intellectual grasp is less than convincing, given that he spends the rest of his essay quite sure of having understood everything.
To make his case, Brull enlists two scholars, and his essay consists largely of lengthy quotations punctuated by nods of fond agreement. The first is the French academic Olivier Roy, and the argument runs as follows: the jihadists desirous of committing murder through suicide can scarcely be called Muslims, but are better described as petty criminals or hapless victims of an identity crisis; further, their cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ prior to detonation exemplify the attention-seeking behaviour of wannabe heroes, rather than expressions of sanguinary piety. As to Islamic State’s call to protect and defend the Ummah from infidels (by extirpation if necessary), this reflects the basic human need for social compatibility within a group setting, which — and let’s be honest here — we all want.
Well, bully for you, Mr Brull! You’re writing of jihadis, but what you have actually done is hit upon the psychology of unreasonable adolescents the world over. Some listen to heavy metal, or dye their hair, or join the Greens. But only the Koran-quoting ones fantasise about, and commit when possible, mass murder.
Brull, who also writes for the ABC and other left-brained organs, and concedes that jihad is “expressed in religious terms”, but this is no reason to invoke Islam, unlike the jihadists he defends. For Brull, and perhaps less so for Roy, the favoured phrase is something along the lines of ‘it’s all really about politics’, with much loose chatter about Islam as the language through which secular, personal and political goals find expression.
Such piffle need not detain us. Brull’s cheap apologetics are part of a failing attempt to exculpate Islam from a fairly minor charge: it very often belongs in the same sentence as terrorism, whether that sentence is uttered by some TV talking head or not. Only the Left has proven characteristically mulish on this topic. It’s hardly controversial elsewhere. This includes a number of brave Muslims and even braver apostates, who acknowledge that aspects of the faith are problematic, to put it mildly, and push for much needed reform.
Brull genuflects towards a second purported scholar, ISIS weird beard in chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. You might surmise that his academic credentials in Islamic Studies destroy the ‘nothing to do with religion’ thesis, but it’s always a mistake to demand coherence from a New Matilda article. Brull quotes Baghdadi generously and, or so it strikes this reader, approvingly. Baghdadi fulminates against the collapse of the earlier Islamic empire and the Muslim humiliation and suffering that eventuated during the twentieth century. The remedy, then, is revenge against the West and the unification of all Muslims under the new Caliphate. True, Brull has a quibble with the nasty and genocidal tone, but he doesn’t flinch from admitting that Baghdadi is basically correct: the Islamic State is persuasive because it offers Muslims “a coherent narrative which is rooted in political arguments about injustice.” In his conclusion, Brull puts forward a solution with an unmistakably Chomsky-like flourish:
“If we in the West are determined to challenge the ‘main motivation’ of jihad, perhaps we should address the reason young men are interested in avenging the Muslim Ummah. That is, perhaps we should consider addressing their grievances.”
This is an extraordinary statement. Suppose one grants that the Western powers are exclusively capable of immoral and criminal action. Suppose, next, that Muslims have indeed tallied up quite a few legitimate grievances. Allow that all this makes suicide terror explicable enough, and that speaking of Islam is a non sequitur. Suppose all this, and one would still be unable to plumb the depths of Brull’s decadence. It requires a special loathing for one’s own society to argue its enemy’s case. Here, left-wing masochism fuses with Islamist self-pity, a comradeship of the craven and obscene.
What would it mean to take Brull’s counsel? I note, only in passing, that the Islamic State has a grievance against the existence of Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, homosexuals, and just about any other minority in the region. Jihadists certainly don’t like the limitations placed on their ability to enslave and rape Yazidi women and children. In the speech that Brull quotes so deferentially, Baghdadi resents both the emancipation of women and free expression in the West, among other things. That is to say, the goal isn’t merely the destitution and misery of his own subjects; he has plans for our society, too. This is the cause to which Brull lends his empathetic understanding.
A twisted solidarity is at work here, one that demonstrates not merely the left’s intellectual decay but its abrogation of principles it once championed as universal rights and truths. Once, now a fading memory, the left was for the rights of women, minorities and free speech. Now, as we await the next massacre, its purpose, as distilled by New Matilda, is to weave sophistries into the whole cloth of a dissembling drapery that it tailors to obscure the obvious.