Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Bull, red or otherwise: What Greg Sheridan gets wrong about religion, war and Duncan Lewis

Bull, red or otherwise: What Greg Sheridan gets wrong about religion, war and Duncan Lewis
Published 17 Dec 2015 

Is Red Bull the beverage of choice down at News Limited? Greg Sheridan's excited commentary on ASI0 Director-General Duncan Lewis's interview with Samantha Maiden might suggest that stimulants have an impact on the interface between reason and the written word.

The introductory sentence of his opinion piece in The Australian today displays a level of hyperbole that transcends Mr Sheridan's standard offering. Employing a technique that is curiously reminiscent of the approach favoured by a variety of present-day pressure groups (the NRA and global warming deniers, for instance, not to mention some politically motivated groups elsewhere), Mr Sheridan directs his fire at both the message and the messenger.

Auburn Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney. (Flickr/llee_wu)

He is correct in suggesting that ASIO's Directors General have not generally provided commentary on contemporary issues. As one who has known all of ASIO's Directors General personally, I can say that every one of them has held informed and subtle views on current affairs affecting national security. Some have made no secret of their political views, both within the organisation and privately. Others have been painfully discreet. Some have protected their anonymity, while others have exploited their invisibility. But they have all been extraordinarily well informed.

So it is a refreshing development that Duncan Lewis, with whom I must immediately disclose a long and valued association, has 'gone on the record'. Just as Martin Parkinson made substantial contributions to the public discourse during his tenure as Treasury Secretary, so Duncan Lewis has offered a practitioner's counterpoint to the often confused and misleading (where it is not downright wrong) commentary on the relationship between Islam and terrorism.

The connection between religion and war is as ancient as it is complex. [fold]

Creed has so often been the rallying point around which opposing groups coalesce, giving them identity, cohesion and separateness. The Thirty Years War was a savage affair, with Protestants and Catholics embarked upon mutual destruction. But was Christianity responsible for the deaths of between 3 and 10 million French and Germans? Its resolution, the Peace of Westphalia, suggests that the underlying issues were political rather than 'the Reformation'. World War I similarly saw Catholic pitted against Catholic, Protestant against Protestant and Orthodox against Orthodox. But it would be a brave historian to argue that the World War I was driven by a murderous pathology within Christianity.

As Waleed Aly argued in a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece last week, Islam has been undergoing a process of reformation (maybe transformation would be a better word) for the last couple of centuries. Indeed its first reformation (or was it simply a schism?) followed almost immediately upon the death of Mohamed. Just as the Ottoman Empire's death-throes continue to plague the Middle East, so the ongoing philosophical and theological tensions within Islam are both fueled by and contribute to a massive political upheaval stretching from north Africa to central Asia. But the congeries of civil wars affecting the Middle East reflect economic, ethnic, tribal and political forces quite distinct from, though connected with, Islam.

That is the reality that informed Duncan Lewis's conversation with Samantha Maiden. In what is, after all, a fairly short article, Mr Lewis is quoted as saying 'I don't buy the notion that the issue of Islamic extremism is in some way fostered or sponsored or supported by the Muslim religion'. I find it hard to see what Mr Sheridan takes exception to in that remark. While many individual Muslims may support the goal of a Caliphate and the use of asymmetric warfare (which is what terrorism really is) to achieve that end, Islam as a religion is not the culprit. Rather, Islam is used as the political ideology to generate popular support for what is, after all, a power bid by political leaders, just as Catholicism was used as the ideological motivator for the suffering inflicted upon the Huguenots in the French religious wars of the sixteenth century.

In passing, it should be noted that it was Samantha Maiden, not Duncan Lewis, who drew the link to former Prime Minister Abbott's foray into social commentary. Nor did Mr Lewis make any comment on what he may or may not regard as standards of acceptable speech. To attack him on those grounds is hardly more than straw man journalism, or post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis.

Those of us who have been professionally involved in counter-terrorism over an extended period of time understand that recognition of the social dynamics of both terrorism and measures to counter it goes to the heart of a sound counter-terrorism strategy. Intelligence and law enforcement are necessary tools. But 'nipping trouble in the bud' is both more effective and less expensive than mopping up after the event. And this, essentially, was the gravamen of Duncan Lewis's remarks. His comments reinforce the view that the entire community, not just government agencies, has a part to play in addressing the problems affecting alienated and socially dislocated youth who happen to be Muslims.

For my part, I hope that the Director General of ASIO, together with the other heads of agency involved in this important and delicate area, continues to 'go on the record' to keep all of us engaged in an issue that goes to the core of our open and democratic society. That would give Mr Sheridan cause to crack open more Red Bull.

Disclosure: ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.

You may also be interested in