When 250 people are killed and hundreds more wounded while worshipping in churches on Easter Sunday or queueing for breakfast at hotels, people want answers. Answers to questions such as who was responsible, what was known beforehand and whether it could it have been prevented. But the question that is least likely to be asked is what drives people to do this.
The first three questions are relatively straightforward to answer. Regarding the first, Islamic State has claimed responsibility, but the concept of responsibility is more nuanced today than it used to be. In the days of nationalist terrorist groups such as the IRA, responsibility mean that the organisation had planned, ordered and conducted the terrorist act. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world however, simply providing inspiration is enough to claim the act as one of theirs. Of course videos with the attackers pledging allegiance to your leader reinforces the perception of omnipotence.
There is also information available that partially answers the next two questions. Foreign intelligence passed on information about attack planning in Sri Lanka elicited from a terrorism suspect that they had interrogated. The information wasn’t perfect, but it did provide some people’s names and mention Catholic churches as possible targets. Intelligence is rarely if ever perfect, and governments are called upon to take action based on such imperfect information. On the face of it, there was sufficient information to boost protection at Catholic churches (particularly over Easter) and to perhaps search for and question persons of interest. The attacks may not have been prevented, but there is a good chance that some of the attacks and/or the attack planning could have been disrupted and therefore the consequences reduced.
The last question is the most difficult to answer because the answer is both confronting and confusing. Confronting because it requires us to ask why, in the 21st century, one of the world’s great religions can throw up a fringe element so full of hatred for other faiths that its followers can detonate bombs in Catholic churches in Sri Lanka, slit the throat of a Catholic priest in France, and kill nuns running an aged care home in Yemen. Or kill worshippers in Shi’a mosques in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. But it is also confusing because the vast majority of the religion lives free from, and condemns the radical interpretation of the ideologues that influence radical Islamism.
It is a difficult issue for politicians to address; condemning interpretations of a faith about which few have any experience, without condemning the religion itself or giving oxygen to bigots who do. But it is a security issue that can’t be ignored. Since the year 2000, Australian citizens have been killed in attacks by radical Islamists in the United States, the United Kingdom, Tunisia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Spain, and now Sri Lanka. And as disconcerting as this is, even more disconcerting is the fact that up to 200 of their fellow citizens have travelled to the Middle East to join the very same groups that carried out these killings, while dozens more Australians have been charged for supporting these same groups.
The end of Islamic State’s caliphate was simply the end of an experiment in creating an intolerant and triumphalist physical Islamic society. Radical jihadism has long existed In an intolerant and triumphalist virtual society. Clusters of Islamists who adhere to the jihadist grand narrative in which Islam is under physical and cultural attack from a host of unbelievers exist all around the world. The Sri Lanka attacks for example, regardless of what external support or direction they received, used a local group of radical Islamists. Just as the participants in an unsuccessful Islamic State attack carries out in Zulfi, Saudi Arabia the same day as the Sri Lanka attacks were also locals.
The dismantling of the caliphate has not dismantled the radical Islamist ideology that spawned it. In an interconnected and increasingly globalised world, the influencers of radical Islam do not necessarily need a physical presence – the internet is their platform and their audience. But it is wrong to think of them as some anonymous Sheikh Google as some community leaders are wont to do. The radical Islamists and their regional acolytes who preach in real locations have real names. It is time that a more aggressive counter-ideological battle is waged against the physical and virtual purveyors of religious intolerance by Muslim religious leaders in the West whose fellow citizens have been killed through the efforts of such ideologues. Rather than condemning generic groups or anonymous people for misinterpreting the sources of Islamic law, these Salafist-Jihadist ideologues should be named and their religious interpretations traduced in public. Politicians are ill-equipped for this task, and Australia’s Muslim leaders should take a leading role in fighting back against those who seek to hijack their faith for the most vile of purposes.