In the PR war, don’t mention the R-word
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In the PR war, don’t mention the R-word

In the PR war, don’t mention the R-word

Rodger Shanahan

The Australian

10 October 2015

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Executive Summary

Trying to avoid using the R-word, NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione noted during his press conference about the Parramatta police shooting last weekend that “we believe (teenage gunman Farhad Jabar’s) actions were politically motivated and therefore linked to terrorism”. There was no mention of the nature of that political motivation or why religion wasn’t considered to be a motive.

The federal Criminal Code Act 1995 defines a terrorist act as ­advancing a political, ideological or religious goal.

The following day, Fairfax Media columnist Tim Dick spoke of the shock of the act and that it was not so much the murderer’s “obscure political purpose”, but his age that was of concern.

Without doubt his age was concerning, but again there was no mention of what that political purpose was, or any thought that it could equally have involved an ­obscure religious purpose.

Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Concetta Fierravanti-Wells recently claimed that some young people were attracted to becoming foreign fighters because they had been lured with promises of drugs, women and weapons, while others went with criminal intent so they could rape, plunder and pillage.

Nowhere in any of this is there a sense that the motivation may be religious, or that most videos glorifying the fight in Syria and Iraq are about helping Islam to victory over the unbelievers, idolators and apostates the jihadists claim are arrayed against them, and to impose ­Islamic law over the lands it conquers.

The unpalatable reality is that the actions of domestic terrorists and foreign fighters and their facilitators are not politically motivated, they are religiously motivated.

People aren’t attracted to fighting in Syria or Iraq because they’re Arab nationalists or Syrian-Australian dual citizens or would-be humanitarian workers or because it’s cool. They’re attracted because it gives them a sense of empowerment through their religious identity. Recruiters portray such jihad as part of a distorted sense of religious obligation and social media is awash with religious ­references to the fighting.

When as influential a religious figure as Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric watched by tens of millions on TV network Al Jazeera Arabic, told a rally in Qatar in May 2013 that every Muslim trained and capable of fighting should do so in Syria, then you know that this is about religion.

Police and politicians naturally tread cautiously in ascribing intent to violent actions before they have sufficient information, and politicians want to lower the temperature by avoiding besmirching entire communities for the actions of a few. This is understandable and commendable, but if we don’t acknowledge the religious aspect to the radicalisation process then we will have no hope of understanding or resolving this phenomenon.

There are two forces of radicalisation in Australian (and other Western) Muslim communities: disengagement from mainstream society and engagement with an interpretation of Islam that condones, if not demands, the killing of others. The first of these forces is the one security agencies and the community concentrate on, with good reason.

There is vigorous debate about whether such disengagement should be considered a social policy issue. This is largely valid. The ability of communities to integrate into Australia shouldn’t be taken as a given. There is a strong role for the government and the broader community in making it happen.

We should be good at it by now; Australia has been successfully absorbing immigrant communities for generations, and there have always been elements within any community that find engagement difficult. It can take generations for communal identities to weaken so that their old identities become enmeshed into a broader Australian one.

The second force, engagement with a religious identity that is intolerant of others to the extent of demanding violence against them, is entirely new territory and one in which Australia is thankfully not experienced. This force, unfortunately, has emerged from the contemporary Muslim community.

Authorities are concerned that attraction to this intolerant strain of Islam is spreading to an increasingly younger demographic. But we shouldn’t equate what we are seeing with normal teenage contrarianism, as some have tried to do. While teenagers are programmed to rebel, secular, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian adolescents in Australia are not rebelling by seeking to kill people in far-off lands in the name of religion, or plotting to kill their fellow countrymen for the same reason. The overwhelming majority of Muslim teenagers are not seeking to kill people either, but the uncomfortable fact is that some are.

So the question needs to be asked and answered: why have some interpretations of Islam motivated hundreds of Australian and thousands of European Muslims to go to the Middle East to kill others, or seek to kill on home soil?

Such a question is an uncomfortable one to ask in a multicultural society such as ours. To ask it is not to be an Islamophobe. Indeed, I would argue that not to address the issue leaves the field open to Islamophobes to vent their intolerant and uninformed views.

Addressing these issues of religious identity is one in which not only the government and Islamic community leaders have a role, but the Islamic clerical leadership too. The authorities can talk all they like about inclusiveness and tolerance and multiculturalism, but they have no religious credentials and can’t quote the sunnah or hadith to invalidate erroneous Islamic concepts. This is the preserve of Islamic clerics.

And while the clerics undoubtedly say the right things in the closed confines of the Friday khutbah at mosque and the radicalised fringe will ignore them, they are virtually absent from the broader national debate and effectively invisible to the broader public.

Muslim community leaders frequently accuse the government of failing to undertake meaningful dialogue with them, but a similar accusation could be levelled at the community itself. It is fragmented largely along ethnic lines, there is a plethora of genuine and self-appointed spokespeople, and no Muslim cleric has a public profile in the wider Australian community. When media organisations look for commentary on Islamic issues or issues to do with the Muslim community, they usually go to people such as Jamal Rifi, a general practitioner from Sydney; Jihad Dib, former school principal turned NSW state MP; Kuranda Seyit, Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman; or opportunists such as Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association.

Virtually absent from the debate is the Grand Mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, appointed by the Australian National Imams Council and resident in Sydney; senior clerics such as the imam of the Lakemba mosque; or any of the Turkish imams appointed and paid for by Turkey.

Part of this is due to language difficulties, part of it is not wishing to be seen to be critical of any part of the community or faith, and part of it is down to good old-fashioned intra-communal politics.

Yesterday’s press conference involving some community leaders, including the Grand Mufti, was a welcome move. But the broader Muslim community, and the wider Australian community, needs to hear from an Australian Islamic clerical leadership that engages in robust public debate and is not simply mouthing defensive platitudes. Engagement is not simply about the government talking with Muslim community leaders. Community leaders and senior clerics must lead the national debate rather than react to it.

Being a religious leader requires one to lead. Clerical leaders need to engage with the public and explain why some Muslims are attracted to the idea of killing in the name of religion. They need to explain what they are doing to promote the peaceful interpretation of Islam. Advocacy for fighting in the name of Islam is not coming just from Google, Twitter and Facebook, as the Grand Mufti claimed. It is also coming from foreign and local clerics.

So a more aggressive counter-narrative needs to be adopted, including the public criticism of other Islamic scholars when necessary. The clerics, for example, could have loudly and publicly repudiated the views of Qaradawi. They could have attacked the irreligious nature of minor clerics such as Australian citizen Mustapha Majzoub, who fought and died in Syria, rather than let him be portrayed as some form of humanitarian worker.

What we need are more examples of that Australian national characteristic: straight talking.


Rodger Shanahan is an associate professor at the National Security College at the Australian National University and a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Areas of expertise: Middle East security issues; Political Islam; Shi’a Islam