Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Want to fight xenophobia? Then speak clearly about Islamism

The rise of abrasive populist figures and movements around the world, including Donald Trump, has featured much demagoguery alleging the Muslim community as a whole shares collective responsibility for the crimes of Islamist extremists.

A good local example is the return to prominence of Pauline Hanson – her first rise in the 1990s featured claims about how Australia was being "swamped by Asians" and allegations about so-called "industries" supposedly providing discriminatory benefits to Aborigines. Today, she claims to promote a "strong stance against Muslims" and "no more Muslims in Australia, no more Muslim refugees in Australia."

Responsibility for such bigotry belongs to the perpetrators - yet there is a strong case to be made that many Western leaders, analysts and commentators are, often with the best of intentions, counter-productively aiding the popularity of anti-Muslim political movements by failing to speak clearly and sensibly about the ideological origins and nature of Islamist extremist terrorism – such as the bloody attack in Nice onThursday.

This ideology is best described as Islamism, a violent, totalitarian ideology which argues all political and social problems can be resolved by returning to an imagined version of the Islamic caliphate which existed in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This ideology is a political belief system – like communism or fascism – and not at all the same as the religion, Islam.

In Australia, we have seen various attacks inspired by Islamism including the siege at Sydney's Lindt cafe, the murder of police accountant Curtis Cheng in Sydney last year and the stabbing attack on two police officers in Melbourne in 2014.

The question of how to respond politically to such Islamist inspired attacks like those in Nice,Orlando, Baghdad, Istanbul, Sydney and elsewhere is only becoming more acute, because IS has been shifting the messaging of its slick propaganda. Facing losses on the battlefield, IS has been urging aspiring Western jihadists to carry out attacks close to home, rather than, as previously, leaving Western countries for Iraq and Syria to fight for and build the self-proclaimed "caliphate".

Expect, therefore, "lone wolf terror" – inspired, but not planned, by IS and its Islamist ideology – in western nations to become worse before it gets better.

Some, apparently including US President Obama and individuals in Australia, argue that it is best not to mention the Islamist ideology and belief system behind such attacks, which drives not only IS, but al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Jemaah Islamyah, Boko Haram, and numerous other violent and ostensibly non-violent groups.

They say that doing so increases xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiment.   They also argue that it makes mainstream Muslim communities uncomfortable, increasing their alienation, which can lead to terrorist recruitment.

However well-intentioned, this strategy is badly misguided for several reasons.

Failing to speak clearly about this ideology even as we see individuals, on a daily basis, carrying out vicious and unconscionable violence which they say is in the name of Islam, actually does no favours to the vast majority of non-Islamist Muslims, Islamism's primary victims. Instead it risks failing to create a clear public distinction between the perverse Islamism that guides attacks and moderate, majority, mainstream Islam.

As noted, rather than decrease anti-Muslim tension, the failure to clearly address the wider ideology behind so many terrorist groups almost certainly fuels the rise of populist groups and reactionaries intent on portraying Islam as a whole, and all its adherents, as the problem.

It also plays into the hands of the Islamists, who like to portray the world as a "clash of civilisations" – a fight between the Islamic Umma (community) and the "crusader" Christians and Jews. In fact, as the Istanbul and Baghdad attacks demonstrate, the Islamist surge is primarily the result of violent extremists who are trying to impose their own extreme version of Islam on other Muslims. Moreover, only other Muslims can effectively counter and discredit this ideology, rooted in extremist interpretations of Islamic sources.

At the same time, fighting the Islamist ideology which underlies IS and other regional and global Islamist groups requires a multi-pronged comprehensive strategy – including law enforcement, diplomacy, aid policy, intelligence and military means – which will likely need to be maintained for decades. Governments must speak clearly about the nature of the Islamist challenge to garner the public support necessary for such measures.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's pre-election comment attributing responsibility to "radical Islamist ideology" for terrorism was therefore especially timely and apposite, as indeed was his post Nice statement about  showing "our resolute solidarity ... in the struggle against Islamist terrorism today" but it is crucial that political leaders from all sides continue to reinforce this point. 

This is why not only Turnbull but also representatives of most major western, democratic governments – including France, Britain, Italy and Germany, and even Muslim-majority Indonesia – use language that publicly recognises the Islamist ideological threat, while also being very careful not to validate the Islamist world view of a "clash of civilisations". This is the only sensible starting point for confronting the ongoing Islamist terror threat. It does not in itself meet the challenge of blood-thirsty terrorism and genocidal impulses emanating from Islamist extremist groups – but it is a necessary pre-condition to developing long-term strategies, policies and diplomatic tools that can.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He was a lecturer at Monash University on Middle East politics.


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