(Image: Australian police via Shutterstock)I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains …
Since it was written 110 years ago, Dorothea Mackellar‘s stirring poem has been sung and recited by generations of Australian schoolchildren, myself included, and it always touches a chord. But lately, there has been something very strange happening in this innocent corner of the world: Not so long ago, the so-called terror alert was lifted to “high,” and heavily armed, black-clad police appeared at football grand finals (see the scary photo on that link) to prevent terrorist attacks against the very essence of our way of life. Nothing happened, of course, but since then we have been told we are at such risk that the government needs to introduce draconian laws to prevent us being murdered in our beds. Reporters, for example, face ten years in jail if they reveal the existence of suppression orders. Newspapers are full of dramatic raids, one of which involved no less than 800 state and federal police in two states, who managed to get one minor conviction out of it – and a plastic sword (see Alastair Sloan’s excellent commentary on the farce). Here in dreamy Brisbane, all stops have been pulled out for the impending G20 meeting. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the hysteria (here and here; top prize for juvenile hysteria goes to the prime minister for threatening to bop Mr Putin) but the stage show is costing an enormous sum of money. Day by day, minute by minute, we are being militarised and securitised, but now we are being told to prepare for a hundred years of war.
Beware, the Foreign Devils Are Coming
According to Prof. (formerly General) Peter Leahy, Muslims the world over have suddenly decided to go on a rampage and take over the world
Hang on? Who would be sufficiently interested in this far-off land of sun, sin, sand and sore eyes to bother fighting us for half an hour, let alone a century? Who, for that matter, among the swarming, festering hordes of crazed fanatics on the verge of taking over the world, could even point to Australia on a map? Even the Japanese in 1942 knew they couldn’t actually occupy this place; they were just trying to prevent US forces using the northern ports. And if the jihadists were to come here, wouldn’t they do what everybody else does and head for the sun-drenched Great Barrier Reef to sprawl on the beach with a beer (OK, ginger beer)? Apparently not: according to Prof (formerly General) Peter Leahy, Muslims the world over have suddenly decided to go on a rampage and take over the world
“The former chief of the Australian Army says that Australia is in the early stages of a war with radical Islam that could last for the rest of the century and beyond. Peter Leahy, director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said the “very real potential for terror attacks at home” was likely to persist because “the internet dumps unconstrained radical propaganda across the globe”. “Terrorism is but a symptom of a broader conflict in which the fundamental threat is from radical Islamists who are intent on establishing Islam as the foundation of a new world order,” he wrote in a report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.”
Ah, so it’s all the internet’s fault, is it? OK, let’s do what all those caring security people want to do and close it down. Those excitable ethnic youths wouldn’t be able to read their “unconstrained radical propaganda” and will go back to blowing bubbles in their hookah while we get on with wrecking the Barrier Reef. Problem solved. But surely it’s more complicated than that?
Leahy continues: “In his book, The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt aggregated the wars of the 20th century into a single ‘Long War’ that lasted from 1914 to 1990. He combined the separate events into a war to determine which system of government would prevail: fascism, communism or parliamentarianism.” This surprised me: I always thought 1914-18 was about a clash of empires, that fascism and communism hadn’t been invented and parliamentary rule was taking a long holiday, but let’s not spoil a good story, because here’s his punchline: “(These things) invite a consideration of whether the current conflicts at the dawn of the 21st century are the opening battles of another long war – this time between secular states and radical Islamists to determine which system of government will prevail in the 21st century: secular or sharia.”
If you look at it from the point of view of a former general and current employee of an entity called the “National Security Institute,” that makes perfect sense. All conflict is the result of them baddies attacking us goodies (cue GW Bush: “They hate us for our freedom“) and they need to be whacked down. His solution:
“… efforts must be taken to deter those planning attacks and to protect vital infrastructure through defensive measures. This will in part depend on timely, accurate and distributed intelligence. … identifying, understanding and articulating the threat … a well-resourced and extensive international and domestic effort at counter-radicalisation and deradicalisation must begin. Internationally, nations under the most substantial threat from radical Islamists must be supported while care is taken not to inflame local tensions.”
Doubtless, our successes at not inflaming local tensions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia etc. will be taken as the case models.
Doubtless, our successes at not inflaming local tensions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia etc. will be taken as the case models. Presumably, preventive deterrence means torture and firing Hellfire missiles at citizens in foreign countries, killing about 20 people for every proven combatant. As for timely and accurate intelligence, clearly he has the 9/11 attacks in mind, Saddam’s WMD, Crimea, the rise of ISIL and the like. But let’s not quibble. The problems are home-grown, inherent in the world of Islam, and “…the West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty.” Again, I understood the inhabitants of the Islamic Crescent rubbed along fairly well until oil was discovered and Western countries muscled in, but maybe I’m reading too much into the 1500-year survival of Copts, Jews, Druze and so many others in the heart of Sunni or Shiite territory. Sure, Shiites and Sunni aren’t always the best of friends but none of their previous squabbles were as horrific as Saddam’s invasion of Iran – actively aided, armed and assisted at every turn by none other than the US of A. Unwary and complicit, yes; bystander, be damned.
Drifting Into War, Eyes Wide Shut
But put all this aside: a comment by Prof. Leahy caught my eye: “Our secular communities (meaning the West) don’t yet fully understand the nature of the war they have entered.” Again I’m surprised. I always thought my understanding of war was pretty good: War is an abomination, so keep your nose right out of other people’s business. So is it true that we are suddenly at grave risk, worse than in the Reds-under-the-bed scares of the 1950s? Did the explosion of jihadism “just happen,” like Topsy or Hurricane Katrina? (Even if you argue the hurricane just happened, the disaster was undeniably man-made). In short, is the threat of permanent war real or just a self-reinforcing figment of a gaggle of febrile imaginations? Let’s look at two questions Prof. Leahy conveniently overlooks: Why has Islamist fanaticism arisen recently, and what do they want?
Is the threat of permanent war real or just a self-reinforcing figment of a gaggle of febrile imaginations?
Osama Bin Laden was absolutely explicit in what he wanted: He wanted the West out of Islamic lands, a return to proper (read Sharia) law, and decent standards of morality in the homelands. His successor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri was equally clear: “In the military sector, focus should be maintained on constantly weakening (America) until it bleeds to death both militarily and financially, its human resources are drained and it withdraws to its own shell after reaching a stage of retreat and seclusion.” Nothing unexpected about that: Get out of our town, take your pornography and corruption, your booze and drugs, and be gone. He most explicitly does not say “..and invade and occupy then convert or put to the sword all the infidels.” An Englishman’s home is his castle and Americans are allowed to shoot (black) people if they feel “threatened,” or even if they don’t, so why can’t Muslims also have the right to live as they wish? Seems they can’t.
There is the very clearest historical correlation for anybody who wishes to look at it: the more foreign intrusion and disruption there is, the more the locals will react with animosity. The more people’s legitimate aspirations are suppressed by brutal, Western-backed autocracies, the more traction extremists gain. That is, of course, the definition of extremism: somebody beyond the edge of legitimacy, somebody adopting harsh views and methods that the great majority reject. But when the majority of people feel crushed, ignored and oppressed and believe their courteous requests to be left alone have achieved nothing, then an increasing proportion of ordinary citizens will say: “Break out the weapons.” That is inevitable. If a foreign country occupied my homeland and oppressed us (and don’t say it already has), then I too would eventually reach the point of exasperation. I don’t see anything unpredictable or immoral about that. Did it not happen in 1776?
The more foreign intrusion and disruption there is, the more the locals will react with animosity. The more people’s legitimate aspirations are suppressed by brutal, Western-backed autocracies, the more traction extremists gain.
Gen. Leahy may retort, “Ah yes, but look at the Islamist plots in Australia, and how people have joined the fanatics of ISIL. That proves we need 100% surveillance of the population at all times.” Slow down. Consider the facts. There are 470,000 people in Australia who profess Islam. As in the rest of the population, about 0.9 percent (4,250) of them will have severe mental disorders in which delusions of persecution and conspiracy, grandiosity and religio-political preoccupations predominate. This is in addition to the usual crop of misfits, cranks and ne’er-do-wells. Many of the mentally bereft are male, alienated and highly resentful, of what they may not be sure, but if somebody says, “All your problems are due to foreign interference, take this knife, lop off a few heads and you’ll be a hero,” some of them will fall for it. Proof? Sure, look at Canada this past week. But they need treatment, not bullets, and it doesn’t mean the entire country should go on a war footing for a century, shredding our hard-earned and enviable civil society in the process.
Saved by the Foreign Devils
In May, the Australian Liberal government released its austerity budget, to almost universal hostility. Just as the outrage was peaking and its polling hit rock-bottom, and after 120,000 deaths in the Syrian civil war, somebody cut off an American’s head. The murderers (not executioners) knew exactly what they were doing. I don’t believe any of them were crazy; and now the US dances to the tune they call. But for our esteemed Liberal government, it was a godsend. This tailor-made drama has pushed the budget disaster from the front pages and given our dismal prime minister a chance to rush to the UN to make belligerent noises, spending lots of money that he couldn’t find for social programs on a war that has nothing to do with us.
Australia is not now and never will be at risk from Muslim people as long as we keep out of their fights and treat them with respect. Do Muslim people from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond have legitimate complaints? I believe they do. Can their complaints be resolved by violence? I believe violence almost never achieves justifiable goals. Do the vast majority of them believe violence is a good idea? They do not. However, if their complaints are ignored, will extremists arise and snatch control of social movements? That is inevitable. Should our response consist of more violence? No. Not now, not ever.
So is it true that we Westerners “…don’t yet fully understand the nature of the war (we) have entered”? Yes, that is definitely true. We have blundered into a catastrophic war of our own making but we have not joined battle against an alien influence that seeks to overthrow our society. Even old OBL himself didn’t want his “caliphate” to extend beyond Indonesia (I doubt he asked the Indonesians); like the Imperial Japanese Army, he saw us as indigestible. The West is not in danger. We do not need governments spying on us (that’s what “timely, accurate and distributed intelligence” means); we do not need rubbish bins at train stations welded shut; nor heavily-armed police at football games, nor 800-man police raids that yield one minor conviction while women can’t get protection for themselves or their children… We are in no danger apart from any we create. Above all, we should not lead anybody to believe that we are a danger to them. That only inflames their sense of persecution and leads to threats of retribution.
Cures for Paranoia #1: Look in a Mirror
The so-called, undeclared “war” we have been dragged into is the product of self-righteous, panicky people with an exaggerated sense of persecution and no ability to look objectively at history. That is, they are paranoid. Because of their bizarre views, paranoid people cause trouble, then they deny responsibility and use the victim’s defensive reaction to justify further aggression. That is exactly the position of the West vis-a-vis the Muslim world.
We are in no danger apart from any we create.
That’s the polite interpretation; the harsher view is that Australia’s Liberal government has latched onto a so-called “humanitarian duty” to push back against ISIL, ignoring other humanitarian needs just because this will distract people from its woeful budget and bind our country more tightly into the Five Eyes axis. I’d feel safer if we went back to being a sunburned country that nobody gives a damn about.
Disclaimer: The author has many worldly Muslim relatives, but his hostility to government lies and brutal stupidity dates back to the 1960s, long before they arrived.
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Niall McLaren is an Australian psychiatrist, author and critic, although not necessarily in that order.