‘This is for Syria’

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In a New York bookshop a few years ago I heard a customer ask for Bibles. The assistant directed him, and he went to inspect them. ‘Hey Miss’, he then called, ‘Who’s they by?’

Good question. In spite of similar doubt about its authorship, the Koran in English translation has never been in such demand. One thing militant Islam has achieved in the last three decades is an outpouring in the West of commentaries on the religion, on Islamic terrorism, and on what drives young Muslims to join up for wars. Debates proliferate about the nature and purpose of jihad, and about the causes and effects of terrorist attacks. The Islamic world has captured our full attention.

Most Western beholders, not surprisingly, see that world through their own eyes. Some want to force it to change to be more ‘like us’, which seems to be what supporters of an Islamic caliphate want too. Tony Abbott declares Islamic civilisation to be inferior to our own, says it needs a Reformation, and calls for a ground invasion of Syria, apparently in the hope of achieving it. (Daily Telegraph 9 December 2015) Republican Senator Ted Cruz exhorts President Obama to ‘carpet-bomb them into oblivion’. Donald Trump wants ‘a complete shutdown’ of all Arab Muslim immigration to the United States. Ayaan Hirsi Ali asserts that Islam should be reformed or crushed (Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, 2015). Her partner, historian Niall Ferguson, in Civilisation: The West and the Rest (2011) shares her belief that the West is superior, and more civilised.  President Hollande, rising to the defence of France and its civilisation, calls the 13 November attacks in Paris an ‘act of war’ which must be ‘mercilessly’ countered, saying ‘France will be pitiless concerning the barbarity of Daesh.’ Prime Minister David Cameron takes advantage of that event to press for the RAF to bomb Syria, which Parliament had refused to approve in November 2013.

Other leaders are more wary about being lured into destroying Muslim societies in order to save them. They worry that invasion will attract even more hatred, and make foreign forces the common target of opposing sects in a war over religion with no end in sight. In spite of the shootings in San Bernadino on 4 December, President Obama has maintained his restraint and been criticised for that, but unlike in 2001, there has been no international outpouring of enthusiasm for American retaliation. Canada’s new government had pulled its air force out of Syria just weeks before. Australia, unlike the British who were constrained by Parliament in 2013, already has the RAAF in action in Iraq and Syria, thanks to Tony Abbott. But Malcolm Turnbull appears to be resisting right-wing pressure to do more, and the Defence website suggests Australia has made no bombing raid in Syria since he has been PM (James O’Neill,  ‘Australia and Syria: Continuing Obfuscation’, New Eastern Outlook, forthcoming).

In a third group are those who observe Islam from the inside. Malay scholar Clive Kessler takes the long view (Weekend Australian, 5/6 December 2015), dividing it into three historical periods, in the latest of which zealous Muslims seek to restore the dignity and power of their faith, and to claim global dominance. From the early nineteenth century, as Pankaj Mishra shows in From the Ruins of Empire (2012), Muslim intellectuals in Egypt, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria and what is now Iran avidly studied European practices in government, education, and philosophy. They called on their compatriots to adopt Western modernity and ‘arise from the sleep of neglect’. They were particularly encouraged by the Indian Mutiny to hope that if Muslims could catch up with the West they could shake off its oppression and recreate Islam’s glorious past. Pan-Islamism, says Mishra, flourished wherever Muslims ‘considered themselves oppressed by Europeans and hankered for their own universal civilisation’, and it spread as far as Indonesia. There it coincided with Pan-Asianism, and many found inspiration in journalist Tokutomi Soho’s words in 1895, ‘Civilisation is not a monopoly of the white man,’ followed by Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905.

Writing recently in the New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi observes a new determination among many of today’s Muslims to give up seeking to adapt their civilisation to that of the West, and to have Islam rule as it is, or as they believe it was in the 7th century. Texts from the Prophet are circulated and cited among the faithful, affirming that Islam will be victorious after an apocalyptic battle, and even naming Dabiq and al-Amaq as the locations in Syria where it will be fought. Ironically, large numbers of fundamentalist Christians hold similar beliefs about the ’end-times’ and Armageddon.

If the clash between Islamic and Western civilisations which Huntington predicted in 1993 is now happening, it is only the latest episode in a centuries-old, continuing struggle. But three elements are new. First, the promotion of a revived Islamic civilisation to inspire the young to fight the enemies of Islam. Second, the use of terrorism as a political means to entrap the West into retaliation and defeat. Western analysts who try to explain radicalisation and terrorism often neglect a third element: the obligation Muslims have to go to the defence of any Islamic country that is invaded and to pursue its attackers. Chalmers Johnson (Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2000) and Robert Pape (Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, 1996) showed that this was the motivation for revenge attacks well before 2001. All the Western countries where recent Islamist terrorist attacks have occurred ─ the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Russia, Denmark and France ─ are those seen by Muslims to have assaulted the faithful, their homelands or their Prophet. France had been bombing Syria for two years before the 13 November attacks, and as Noam Chomsky pointed out, IS itself explained them: ‘If you bomb us we’ll attack you.’ Abu Bakar Bashir recently reminded Indonesians of this, reportedly telling a court that ‘terrorists’ were trained in Aceh to defend Islam and Muslims in Indonesia and overseas, as ‘an obligation Muslims must fulfil because it is God’s order’ (Australian, 13 January 2016: 6).

Let us not forget that Australians were targeted in Bali in 2002, just after the Howard government had sent troops into Afghanistan and was preparing to invade Iraq. In 2014 and 2015, when the Abbott government sent more troops to Iraq, Australians were attacked again in Melbourne and Sydney. It is significant that Spain withdrew from Iraq after the 2004 Milan bombing and has not been attacked since, while Turkey’s Kurdish areas and now Istanbul’s tourist centre have been attacked. We should not ignore what the terrorist at London’s Leytonstone station on 5 December was reportedly heard to say: ‘This is for Syria.’

Those who want to rid the world of terrorism cannot assume that cause and effect, aggression and retaliation are all one-way processes. Bombing of villages, cities, schools, hospitals and wedding parties anywhere, whoever does it, is experienced by people on the ground as terrorism, and is never forgotten. If we sympathise with Hollande’s retaliation, we should equally expect that terrified Syrians who remain in their country and those who have fled French bombing will feel vengeful. Unless and until we face the consequences of invading and attacking Muslim countries, and stop doing it, Muslims will continue joining groups like IS and fighting back. To cite Chomsky again:

If we seriously want to end the plagues of terrorism, we know how to do it. First, end our own role as perpetrators…Second, attend to the grievances that are typically in the background, and if they are legitimate, do something about them. Third, if an act of terror occurs, deal with it as a criminal act: identify and apprehend the suspects and carry out an honest judicial process. That actually works: in contrast, the techniques that are employed enhance the threat of terror (Chomsky, ‘Scourge of Terrorism,’ 2010).

So it is not surprising that several Western governments are trapped between seeking to obliterate IS and wanting to avoid both Islamic retaliation and the Middle Eastern quagmire. Some of them admit the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a disaster, yet they are being urged by their own belligerent citizens and provoked by IS to repeat it. Only when they recognise the futility of wars over religion, and acknowledge the West’s litany of invasion, colonisation and oppression of Muslim countries, and put an end to it, will support for radical Islamic groups lose its attraction.

Alison Broinowski

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