From the Rationalist Journal December 2016
On August 8 2016, over 100 mourners gathered at the Quetta Civil Hospital in Pakistan following the shooting death of the president of the Balochistan Bar Association, Bilal Anwar Kasi.
Nearby, an unknown member of the Taliban affiliated group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), was strapping eight kilograms of explosives filled with ball bearings and shrapnel to his body. Soon, a sickening explosion ripped apart the emergency services ward of the hospital, killing 70 mourners and injuring over 120.
One of Pakistan’s most loved musicians, Amhad Sabri, was famous for performing devotional songs from the Sufi tradition dating back to the 13th century. He was shot dead by two men on motorcycles on June 22 2016, because the Taliban consider his music blasphemous.
A month later, in a church in Rouen, France, a priest’s throat was cut and four nuns were taken hostage before the two assailants were shot by police. They were later reported to have been “two soldiers of the Islamic State”.
A satellite view sees the Earth rocked by Islamist attacks on almost a daily basis. These always involve a multitude of different motivations: local, political, ethnic, religious, sectarian and other, but they are held together by a common and identifiable thread – fundamentalist, literalist Islam.
While suicide attacks usually happen a long way away, and the chance of being killed by a local attack is small, it’s not irrational to hold some concern over the growth of militant Islam. In a post 9/11 world, where frequent Islamist atrocities coincide with an exodus of refugees from Muslim countries caused by a war being waged in the name of Islam, it would be astonishing if such concerns did not exist. The horror of Islamic terror – its distinctive methods, such as suicide vests and beheading, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including women and children – is a language which articulates a clash of cultures in an undeniable way. Even the most illiterate of observers cannot fail to notice.
The concerns and fears which fuelled the Brexit movement and the rise of hard right politics in Europe is made comprehensible by the proximity of millions of mostly Muslim refugees. In contrast, the rise of Donald Trump and our own home-grown groups such as Reclaim Australia and One Nation, come from exploiting and exaggerating these fears. Populist policies have been rewarded by the quadrupling in Hanson’s support, and polls suggesting nearly half Australians want to ban Muslim immigration. This poll is not so surprising after considering Pew’s 2016 survey, which noted a median 43% of the populations of European countries have an unfavourable view of Muslims. A 2013 Ipsos survey commissioned by the newspaper Le Monde noted 74% felt Islam was incompatible with French society. Despite the rhetoric of western politicians who’ve promulgated the nothing-to-do-with-Islam narrative, public perception consistently forms the view that jihadism has everything to do with Islam.
Nativist attitudes are exacerbated by the excuses presented for terrorism. Extremism is excused by Western aggression, the invasion of Iraq, and a long list of other complaints. The Grand Mufti of Australia blamed the 2015 Paris terror attacks on “causative factors such as racism, Islamophobia, curtailing freedoms through securitisation, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention”. It’s difficult to ignore the veiled threat in his warning that “any discourse which attempts to apportion blame” to a “certain segment of society” would “undermine community harmony and safety”.
The explainer for extremist views is radicalisation. Somehow we’re meant to imagine that no sane person could hold such views unless they come under the hypnotic spell of evil recruiters. And, that most people who rush to join ISIS or join terror cells are already vulnerable to radicalisation because they have been brutalised, racially abused or disenfranchised by their own country. “Radicalisation” joins hands with the “nothing-to-do-with-Islam” narrative obscuring the unpalatable truth that terrorism is undertaken by rational actors pursuing an explicit religio-political ideology.
Reflecting upon this, we must acknowledge that the religion and culture of Islam is a broader church than Christianity. Commentators and apologists are right to criticise those who associate all Muslims with terrorism. We can and should focus on the specific groups and ideologies within Islam who explicitly advocate war with the west. Most modern Muslims view the Quran and the Hadith’s in a similar way to the way Christians view the violent episodes in the Bible. It’s those who do not who represent the problem.
“Radicalisation” joins hands with the “nothing-to-do-with-Islam” narrative obscuring the unpalatable truth that terrorism is undertaken by rational actors pursuing an explicit religio-political ideology.
A simple but key distinction remains. Within the religion of Islam, specific groups under the umbrella of Salafism reliably spout hateful, intolerant, violent and misogynist philosophies. The subset of Wahhabism, the form of Salafism exported to the world by the oil money of Saudia Arabia represents the revivalist ideology in its most puritanical form. Salafist groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS (ISIL), Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, the Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba all promote a similar insular ideology predicated on the universal application of hard-line sharia law and an apocalyptic vision where Islam finally conquers the world. Regarding other Muslims such as Shias, Sufis, liberal Muslims and other sects as kafir or heretics, terror groups engage in regular sectarian attacks against them.
These groups and ideas are plain to see. There’s no reason why an attitude of tolerance and acceptance must be extended to the small yet identifiable ideologies within Islam that plot our own destruction. To accept that not all Germans were Nazi’s would not have justified tolerating the violence and anti-Semitism of the growing Nazi party.
Several studies on jihadism in France, indicate that deep religious convictions may not be crucial to becoming radicalised. Most recruits are young, some are religious novices, and many are recent converts to Islam. Olivier Roy 2015 writes that jihadism represents “the only cause on the global market”, and “if you kill yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’ you are sure to make the national headlines”.
Even so, these studies provide little succour to those who fear Islamic attacks. It’s remains the case that the ideology of Salafism dictates the goals and the methods used to bring terror. Arising usually from within Islamic communities, jihadists attend mosques, observe Islam, often becoming part of a terror cell which is exclusively dedicated to propagating political Islam.
Similarly, scant consolation is derived from the adage that the victims of Islamic attacks are predominantly Muslims. This only indicates the sectarian nature of the conflict, and bears out the enormous span of the Islamic faith. This platitude if often used to emphasize prosaically that not all Muslims are terrorists. Yes, but if we could just get past this simplistic distinction, we’d acknowledge the sectarian nature of the violence suggests that it has everything to do with the perfervid pursuit of a religious and political ideology.
Moreover, little comfort is found in the fact these atrocities are committed by small minorities within the Islamic community. Yet again, let’s acknowledge that not all Muslims are Islamists, but that jihadists come from attributable groups within the Muslim community.
And since we know the names and character of these ideologies, nothing should stop us from openly discussing them. We should discriminate and mitigate against those who profess them, while guarding against the stereotyping of Muslims.
Further, there’s no reason why it should be unacceptable to discuss which cultural or religious beliefs hold pride of place in our society. We have no trouble discussing and enforcing acceptable community attitudes to sexism or racism or free speech. But we have a curious reluctance to discuss religion, and Islam particularly. If a secular group demanded the right to wear clothing which demeaned women there would be an open discussion. If a secular group wanted to install a separate legal system for its own adherents this would be met with derision. (Yet, sharia councils exist within the UK). Christian views on the sanctity of marriage, right to life, or euthanasia are often the subject of vociferous criticism. Whether a person agrees with these views or not, suppressing debate about them because of religious or cultural sensitivities is bound to result in unresolved tensions building beneath the surface.
For such a small minority at 2.2% of the Australian community, Islam receives undue media attention, but also undue deference. Whether this is because of the success of the “Islamophobia” campaign or fear of reprisals and fatwa’s it’s difficult to know. It’s worth noting the anti-racism leader who coined the phrase “Islamophobia”, UK Labour politician Trevor Phillips, now says, “he got almost everything wrong” on Muslim immigration, with migrants fostering “nations within nations”.
Rather than daring to speak openly about militant Islam, we have government policy operating by stealth. Immigration is offered to other parts of the world rather than trouble spots in the middle east. Malcolm Turnbull proclaims that we have a non-discriminatory immigration policy. But the government has no intention of allowing open slather for Muslim migrants.
If we want to curtail the rise of the xenophobic wingnut right, represented by One Nation, we need to listen to the tribe. Without resorting to farcical policies, such as banning Muslim immigration altogether, we need to listen to the concerns and address the issues. Adopting an attitude of nuance and tolerance entails more than relentlessly reasserting the fatuous claim that not all Muslims are jihadists. We need to discard the obligatory accusations of Islamophobia or bigotry, and engage in an honest discussion which acknowledges the challenges of integration, and the genuine problems within Islam.