Dissent intolerable

Academics in the field of terrorism studies at two Australian universities have responded to a critique of their work by Dr Mervyn Bendle in Quadrant’s September edition by trying to close down debate and punish its author. They have approached Bendle’s employers at James Cook University in Townsville to recommend he be investigated for academic misconduct and suitability for academic employment.

Within a week of the publication of Bendle’s article, the left-wing academics he criticised approached the JCU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sandra Harding, to take action against him and suggested his head of department, Professor Richard Lansdown, re-think Bendle’s fitness for academic employment. At the same time, they also demanded the September edition of Quadrant be recalled and pulped, and that Quadrant Online remove the article in question from the internet.

These actions represent disturbing developments not only for academic freedom but also national security. They demonstrate that members of the academic left now:

• refuse to tolerate dissent from their own views, even while urging everyone else to tolerate cultural diversity
• have high confidence that university hierarchies will do their bidding
• are determined to maintain the position they have won in the education of defence and security personnel.

Bendle’s article, Hijacking Terrorism Studies, examines courses and books taught at Australian universities, the Australian Defence Force Academy and other centres providing training in terrorism to our military forces, police, security, and diplomatic personnel. He found the field had been colonised by the postmodern Left, which was assimilating the study of terrorism to its prevailing ideological paradigm of radical multiculturalism, anti-Americanism and cultural relativism, often under the guise of the neo-Marxist “critical terror studies” approach.

Two of the authors analysed in Bendle’s wide-ranging critique, Anthony Burke of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Paul Pickering of the Australian National University, wrote in protest to James Cook University.

Burke told Sandra Harding: “I am not aware of what your processes are in such cases, but you may wish to consider a formal and transparent investigation by JCU as to whether or not it constitutes a case of serious academic misconduct.” The full text of Burke’s letter is here.

Pickering told Richard Lansdown: “The reason that I am bringing Dr Bendle’s allegations to your attention is that they represent an appalling standard of scholarship at its most basic level … Dr Bendle’s published review thus calls in question the standards of scholarship upheld in your Department. I would hope that JCU would be more concerned about its academic reputation than this.” The full text of Pickering’s letter is here.

Bendle’s article is a robust but primarily academic critique of academic writings, with quotations and citations from the authors he analyses. One of his targets is the new book Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008), edited by Michael T. Davis, and Brett Bowden, a senior lecturer at the ADFA. Bendle writes:

The book is presented as a history of terror and terrorism over the past 400 years, with the editors claiming that the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 inaugurated the age of modern terrorism. A close reading reveals the book has the following principal ideological and apologetic objectives. (1) To depict Europe as both the home and principal location of modern terror and terrorism. (2) To make the United Kingdom central to this allegedly Western tradition of extreme political violence. (3) To defend contemporary terrorist groups by claiming that they have been falsely ‘labeled’ as ‘terrorists’ and are merely doing what various European and the English political groups have done throughout their history. (4) To further deflect attention from contemporary non-state terrorist groups by emphasizing the state terror carried out by totalitarian regimes – all in Europe. (5) To insist that the central issue is not actual terrorism but an alleged ‘Islamophobia’.

As guest speaker at a Quadrant dinner on September 11 2008 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Islamist terrorist attacks on the United States, Bendle continued his critique. An interview he recorded afterwards with ABC Radio’s Stephen Crittenden can be heard here.

One of the rejoinders made by Bendle’s opponents is that he lacks expertise and involvement in terrorism studies. In fact, in the past seven years Bendle has produced some 25 academic and newspaper articles, and conference papers on terrorism and related topics. His article “Existential Terrorism: Civil Society and its Enemies,” Australian Journal of Politics and History. 52(1), 2006, pp 114-29, is listed on that journal’s website as one of the top five AJPH articles accessed online. He has also taught the subject History of Terrorism at JCU for the past four years.

As well as teaching at the ADFA, Anthony Burke is the publisher of the postmodernist-postcolonialist online journal Borderlands, where the names on its editorial board – a collection of old academic radicals from the 1960s and younger ideologues from postmodernism and cultural studies – reveal the kind of academic company he keeps. Rather than respond to Bendle in kind in his own journal, Burke sent a letter to the editor of Quadrant, and threatened defamation proceedings:

My terms would be the following:
— that unsold copies of the issue be recalled and pulped, and Dr Bendle’s article removed from Quadrant’s website;
— that an apology refuting the imputation be published using text agreed between us.

Quadrant did not accede to these demands but instead offered to publish Burke’s letter to the editor. We had already accepted two other letters from aggrieved academics for publication. On Friday, September 19 we informed Burke by email of our long-standing editorial policy: “Our pages are always open to people who want to respond in a reasonable manner to articles that criticise them.” However, we said that, since he was threatening us with legal action, we would only publish his letter on the basis that it was in full satisfaction of any claim he may have arising out of Bendle’s article. Burke quickly withdrew his threatened legal action. “What I will say is this: if you publish the letter in full, I will be happy with your response, and will not be proceeding with any legal action. That’s a firm undertaking.”

Burke’s letter to the editor can be read here, together with two other letters from Dr Brett Bowden and Professor David Lovell supporting him.

At the same time as we received this correspondence, a further letter, this time praising Bendle’s work, arrived from one of Australia’s most distinguished academics, Kenneth Minogue, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. We are publishing this in our November edition but also here. This was where matters stood on Friday, September 19.

The next day, the front page of The Weekend Australian made this story a national issue. The Australian’s report, titled Culture Wars Bomb Hits the Military, said that, although Burke claimed his views on terrorism had been misrepresented by Bendle, he acknowledged he had written the words attributed to him: “The quotes are accurate, but the characterization is not,” Burke said. He also told The Australian’s reporter, Jamie Walker, that he was now withdrawing his demand that JCU investigate Bendle for academic misconduct. “I still think there is a matter of principle there,” Burke said. “But I don’t believe that asking for administrative action is the best way to respond.”

However, behind the scenes, Burke pressed on with his complaint as if he had never said any of this. On Sunday September 21, he emailed Bendle in much the same terms he had used the week before. He reiterated his threat to take action against Bendle through university channels and again threatened defamation proceedings unless Bendle apologized and withdrew. Burke demanded that Bendle “issue a statement and have it press released nationally through James Cook University”. “I also wish you to publish it in Quadrant”, Burke instructed. The full text is here.

“Should you reject my request to issue the statement, we will pursue the request at the UNSW to JCU official level”. Burke concluded by warning Bendle: “Should you continue to reject the request following that, defamation proceedings against yourself remain an option”.

At the same time, the Melbourne Herald Sun took up the issue. Its edition of Sunday September 21 ran a story by Eleni Haye titled Sympathy for Devils. She reported the response to the controversy of Major-General Jim Molan, the former Chief of Operations of Coalition forces in Iraq, who dismissed Burke’s views as “unmitigated rubbish” and “naïve in the extreme”.

Molan was commenting on quotations from Burke’s book Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other, including the following: “In the wake of 9/11, our critical task is not to help power seek out and destroy the ‘enemies of freedom’ but to question how they were constructed AS enemies of freedom . . . It is to wonder if we, the free, might already be enemies of freedom in the very process of imagining and defending it.” In another book, Fear of Security, Australia’s Invasion Anxiety, Burke said we should “abandon selfish visions of security, sovereignty and national interest”.

The Australian returned to the fray on Monday September 22 with an opinion piece by Bendle himself, Radical Pacifists Deny a Murderous Reality.

That paper’s news pages also had another story by Jamie Walker, Terror Academics Feud to Rage On which reported that JCU vice-chancellor Sandra Harding had sought advice from her human resources department on Burke’s complaint. “But it was decided this was a matter of debate between academics putting their views and opinions forward in the interests of discourse and dialogue.” Criminologist Paul Wilson of Bond University also defended Bendle’s right to address these issues. He wrote to Harding: “I think universities have to be very careful about repressing academic debate on contentious social issues and sanctioning academics who speak out with unpopular positions.”

In the same story, Jamie Walker quoted Burke saying he had written to Quadrant in an effort to rebut the original article’s claims about him but “was yet to hear whether Quadrant would publish him”. This was despite the fact that three days earlier, after Quadrant had agreed to publish his letter to the editor, Burke had told us he was happy with this response and would withdraw his threatened legal action – “That’s a firm undertaking,” he said.

In light of his track record over the past month, however, it is hard to accept anything Burke says as being firm.

To be continued …

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