For many people around the world, ISIS represents a new terrorist phenomenon. The truth is, however, that militant groups like ISIS are not new, and nor are their bloody tactics in the Middle East. What ISIS is doing today is no different from what the Taliban did in the late 1980s and 1990s in Afghanistan, or Saddam Hussein during the 1970s in Iraq to consolidate his power.
What then should be the response of Western powers, and particularly Australia, which has no direct interest in the Middle East region but is involved as a part of an international coalition?
For Australia there are two concerns: an internal one in the form of domestic radicalisation of Muslims, and an external one to do with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. As radical as it may sound, in response to both these concerns, the Australian Government should take a step back, breathe, and do nothing.
The Government needs to go back to basics and distinguish between the threat posed by ISIS and home grown radicalisation, because that's where things have gone wrong. In its attempt to simplify the problem for the larger audience, the Australian Government has jumbled up, even at the policy level, Islamic radicalisation and the threat of ISIS, which are two completely separate things.
In reality, Islamic radicalisation is more of an internal ideological, religious and political struggle within the Muslim world which has been going on for centuries. The assassinations of Islamic Caliphs, the Sunni–Shia feud and violent movements to topple Muslim leaderships, are reflections of this radicalisation throughout Islamic history.
The radicalisation of Muslims in Australia, especially those who end up joining ISIS, is a continuation of the historical phenomenon and has little to do with hate of Australia or its policies, and more to do with problems in the Middle East. This radicalisation, ideological in nature and focusing on the Islamic world, is being inflated as a threat to Australian society, despite the fact that there has been no serious attempt by Muslims in Australia to sabotage peace in the country or engage in organised terrorist activities. Joining ISIS out of some misplaced ideological conviction or harbouring radical views on Middle East politics is one thing, and acting against Australia is completely another – a distinction that is missing in both the media and policy discourse.
Equally damaging is viewing the issue of Muslim integration in Australian society through the lens of radicalisation, and construing it as a potential terrorist 'threat'. As a result, the Australian Government has been spending millions of dollars on Muslim deradicalisation programs, which has singled out the community and in the process, given life to a threat that may not really exist.
The Australian Government must shift its narrative and its overwhelming focus on counter-radicalisation programs, and recognise that Islamic radicalisation has less to do with Muslims against the West, and a lot more to do with Muslims against Muslims. Explaining Islam in terms of one 'version' or another, as the Australian Government has attempted in the past, will only mire it in a centuries-old feud within the Muslim world, and is likely to be viewed as an inappropriate interference in religion by a secular government.
In the face of the external threat of ISIS, it's about time the Muslim countries were asked to lead the war from the front; the Western powers, Australia included, should only play a containing role. As Rodger Shanahan has rightly observed, none of the Muslim countries that are directly threatened by ISIS are doing much to counter it – perhaps they see it as a problem to be dealt by the West? Not simply the product of failed American involvement in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is a result of brutal dictatorships, illegitimate regimes and Muslim resentment of Muslims on the ground in the Middle East. The Australian Government should be cautious about getting itself deeply involved in the affairs of the Middle East and instead let Muslim countries tackle the spread of ISIS for a long-term sustainable solution.
Drawing a distinction between home-grown radicalisation and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the Australian Government will be better placed to avoid becoming embroiled in a war that is internal to Muslims. Billions of dollars have been spent by many countries in counter-radicalisation efforts with no results. Australia should try doing nothing for a change and let Muslims resolve their internal issues over time.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.