Well-respected ASIO chief Duncan Lewis has advised MPs to use soothing language when publicly discussing Islam, apparently to prevent a backlash. Malcolm Turnbull’s tacit support for the advice is not merely an error of judgment, it is profoundly misconceived.
During the past week, the government has changed the parameters of the public debate on Islamism in Australia. Along with ASIO, it has reframed the debate to propose the cause of militant Islam is, in part, our response to it.
Lewis wants MPs to use more soothing language when responding to Islam. Targets of his advice include Andrew Hastie, a former Special Air Service captain who defended the free world by fighting Islamists, including the Taliban and Islamic State.
Given Hastie’s experience and education in militant Islam, one might expect the government to solicit and consider his advice alongside that of Lewis. Hastie argues that unless the militantly monotheistic teachings of Islam are reformed, it will fail to develop productive capacity in the pluralistic, open society of Australia.
Hastie’s plain-speaking advice provides great opportunity for Muslims to enter the public sphere in support of reforming Islam to ensure the more peaceable schools of the religion can survive a world besieged by genocidal jihadists. However, the aperture has been closed prematurely by MPs and bureaucrats who appear slow to grasp that jihadism is not an act of lone wolves but a global movement rooted in the religion of fundamentalist Islam.
The contention that Australian MPs should modify their message on Islam to mollify militant Muslims plays right into the hands of the global jihadist movement. Islamic State’s playbook, The Management of Savagery, states that ideally, jihadism should be a military, economic and political strategy. The political purpose of jihadism is to strike terror into the hearts of innocents so as to “place them in a constant state of apprehension and desire for reconciliation”. The moment Australians censor honest debate on Islamism for fear of a violent backlash, we become victims of political jihad.
As yet, there is no indication about what intelligence led ASIO or the Prime Minister to believe that counselling MPs into a measure of self-censorship on Islamism constitutes sound policy on national security. But they are not alone in criticising recent calls to reform Islam so that militant fundamentalism plays no part in its future.
Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Concetta Fierravanti-Wells recently claimed proposals for a reformation of Islam were simplistic. Instead, she suggested imams were best placed to cultivate moderate Islam, commending the appointment of Shady Alsuleiman to the presidency of the Australian National Imams Council as “an important resetting point”.
The claim is questionable. In a podcast entitled The Path of Knowledge , Alsuleiman appears to praise jihadism conducted in the name of Allah shouting: “If you’re going to struggle or sacrifice or go in the jihad, make sure this is for the sake of Allah! … Don’t you ever think, don’t you ever imagine, that the ones that fight and die in the path of Allah are dead! They are with Allah, alive … They are so happy with what Allah has granted them and given them.”
Such preaching is neither complex nor moderate. It is consistent with strains of Islamist ideology where jihadism is praised as a path to paradise.
The Weekend Australian has revealed that some members and associates of the Australian National Imams Council hold militant Islamist views. The problem is not limited to Australia. Last week, the British government published extraordinary findings on how Islamist organisation the Muslim Brotherhood has influenced the development of Muslim community groups in the UK. It found that the Brotherhood and associates secretly wielded significant influence in the establishment of “public facing and apparently national organisations in the UK to promote their views”. By doing so, they obtained access to government.
For decades, Western governments have sought to reconcile liberal democracy to Islamism, often by soliciting the advice of individuals and groups claiming to represent moderate Islamic communities. For some reason, Western politicians are prone to profound naivety about the legitimacy of such representatives, as though the three words “Muslim community leader” constitute a self-evident truth. But the leaders are not democratically elected and frequently represent Sunni Islam to the exclusion of Muslims from other denominations.
The problem of Islamism cannot be resolved by urging MPs to censor the truth about it or soliciting advice from individuals and organisations who justify jihadist activity in its military, economic or political forms.
Australia needs plain- speaking politicians willing to risk censure by telling the truth about political Islam not as they are told to tell it but as it is.
Jennifer Oriel is a political scientist and commentator.