Yes, I’ve had to add a new category of post: “terrorism.” It’s sad. When I wrote about the Nice attack yesterday, I suspected that the perpetrator, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, might have religious motivations, or at least be working for an organization like ISIS, but there was little information. This morning I learned from CNN that ISIS has now claimed credit for the murders:
In an online statement by the terror group’s media agency Amaq and circulated by its supporters, it said the person behind the attack is an ISIS “soldier.”
Five others, including Bouhel’s wife, have been arrested: the CNN piece gives more detail. It’s not clear whether Bouhel was actually sent by ISIS to do the deed, or was a sympathizer working under their direction. Or, I suppose, ISIS could be lying, but I’m not aware that they’ve falsely taken credit for an attack.
Violent Islamist extremism appears to have reached a crisis point in Europe with a “perfect storm” of circumstances, Malcolm Turnbull has said.
These were failed or neglected integration, foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, porous borders, and intelligence and security bodies struggling to keep pace with the scope and breadth of the threat.
This combination had been described as creating a favourable ecosystem for an Islamist milieu, he said.
“For all intents and purposes there are no internal borders in Europe … and their external borders are difficult to manage,” Turnbull told the Lowy Institute on Wednesday night. Recent intelligence indicated that Islamic State “is using the refugee crisis to send its operatives into Europe”.
Turnbull contrasted Australia, which was “better placed” than many European countries to deal with the threat “because of the strength of our intelligence and security agencies, our secure borders and our successful multicultural society, one that manages to be both secure and free”.
Australia’s national security laws were regarded by its allies as among the world’s best, he said.
“The advantage of our island geography, our effective border protection systems and counter-terrorism agencies mean we have confidence that we know who is arriving.
“Strong borders, vigilant security agencies governed by the rule of law, and a steadfast commitment to the shared values of freedom and mutual respect – these are the ingredients of multicultural success, which is what we have achieved in Australia.”
Earlier, Turnbull said that while it was impossible to guarantee absolutely against a terrorist incident here, “I can assure Australians that our security system, our border protection, our domestic security arrangements, are much stronger than they are in Europe where regrettably they allowed security to slip”.
He told the Lowy Institute Australia was united with Belgium in the battle against terror. “Just as our forebears were 100 years ago on the fields of Flanders in the first world war, we are in the same struggle and we stand with you shoulder to shoulder.”
The scourge of terrorism was a global one, he said. In this fight, Australia was fully committed to playing a leading role in finding political and military solutions in the Middle East, working with our regional counterparts, particularly Indonesia and other ASEAN partners, and continuing to remain vigilant at home.
The terrorist attacks in Europe underscored “the importance of our military contribution against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, in which we have been the second largest contributor to the coalition effort.
“ISIL’s ability to inspire let alone direct terrorism around the world will be largely eliminated if its so-called caliphate is decisively defeated in the field. Its defeat requires military force and a political settlement. We are working with our allies to deliver both.”
Turnbull said that we must “take care not to view our strategic circumstances solely through the prism of counter terrorism.
“Terrorism is an example of the propaganda of the deed – it is designed to frighten and intimidate. It is designed to deter us from our normal way of life.
“That is why [Indonesian] President Joko Widodo was determined to ensure that Jakarta was back to normal within four hours of the terrorist bombing in that city in February, and why Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel is determined to return Brussels back to business as soon as possible.”
Despite what we’re told, religion isn’t inherently peaceful. The assumption is largely based on the Protestant idea that religion is something spiritual and internal to the individual and that it’s corrupted by politics and other mundane matters.
But people kill in the name of religion, just as they love in its name. To claim that one of these alternatives is more authentic than the other is not only problematic, it’s historically incorrect.
This is because religion is based on the metaphysical notion that there are believers (in one’s own religion) and non-believers. This distinction is predicated on “good” versus “evil”, and can be neatly packaged into a narrative to be used and abused by various groups.
An imagined past
One such group is Islamic State (IS), which is inherently violent and claims it mirrors the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia.
A central ideal for IS is that of restoring the caliphate. A geopolitical entity, the caliphate was the Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West, to India in the East. It symbolises Islam at its most powerful.
The destruction is to begin with a battle between the forces of good (Muslim) versus those of evil. And IS has adopted this apocalyptic vision.
Again, though, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that the majority of Muslims today don’t buy into this apocalyptic vision; it’s mainly something recycled by groups such as Islamic State.
Second, such an “end of days” vision is by no means unique to Islam; we also see it in Judaism and Christianity. In these other two traditions, as in Islam, such groups certainly do not represent orthodox belief.
But apocalypse aside, was Islam particularly violent in the seventh century? One could certainly point to three of the first four of Muhammad’s successors (caliphs) having been assassinated.
One could also point to the tremendous theological debates over who was or was not a Muslim. And such debates included the status of the soul of grave sinners. Was such a sinner a Muslim or did his sin put him outside the community of believers?
What would become mainstream Muslim opinion is that it was up to God to decide and not humans. But groups such as Islamic State want to make this distinction for God. In this, they certainly stray from orthodox Muslim belief.
While this doesn’t make them “un-Islamic”, to say groups such as IS represent medieval interpretations of Islam is not fair to medieval Islam.
Manuscript with depiction by Yahya ibn Vaseti found in the Maqama of Hariri depicts the image of a library with pupils in it, Baghdad 1237. Wikimedia Commons
The eighth century, for example, witnessed the establishment, in Baghdad, of the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which symbolised the so-called golden age of Islamic civilisation. This period witnessed, among other things, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studying the philosophical and scientific texts of Greek antiquity.
These scholars also made many advances in disciplines, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, to name only a few. Within a century of its founding, Islam represented a cosmopolitan empire that was nothing like the rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the religion seen in the likes of IS.
A powerful tool
Observers in the West who want to claim that Islam is to blame for IS and use it as further proof that the religion is inherently violent, ignore other root causes of the moment.
These include the history of European colonialism in the area; US and European support for a number of ruthless Middle Eastern dictators; and the instability created by the American invasion of Iraq after the events of September 11, 2001.
It’s juxtaposed against these recent events that groups such as IS dream of reconstituting what they romantically imagine as the powerful Islamic caliphate.
The fact is that religion’s ability to neatly differentiate between “believer” and unbeliever”, and between “right” and “wrong”, makes it a powerful ideology. In the hands of demagogues, religious discourses – used selectively and manipulated to achieve a set of desired ends – are very powerful.
While it would be incorrect to say that the discourses used by IS are un-Islamic, it’s important to note it represents one particular Islamic discourse and that it’s not the mainstream one.
Andrew Ferguson Neil (born 21 May 1949) is a Scottish journalist and broadcaster, who was editor of The Sunday Times for 11 years, and currently presents live political programmes, Sunday Politics and This Week on BBC One and Daily Politics on BBC Two.
It’s been a week since the terrorist attacks in Paris and the hacktivist group Anonymous has further expanded its online confrontation with the Islamic State (IS). Its campaign was originally captured under the #OpISIS banner, but is now titled #OpParis.
While on the surface this seems like an overall positive outcome against IS, given its highly regarded and consequential online presence, the reality is much more complex and nuanced. It demonstrates the risks of vigilante style action being undertaken in areas of sensitive national security matters.
When not to take down IS content
Action in this domain, regardless of its quality and the implications, can be seen as inherently beneficial. But an absence of context, proper understanding and incongruent purposes can make the counter efforts of the state more difficult.
When a government is looking at IS content online, the context varies depending on the outcome it seeks to achieve and for the department or agency involved. In a law enforcement context, IS content can be used to form the basis of a search warrant or a control order, or as evidence in a prosecution.
For an intelligence agency, an IS website may prove to be a vital element in ongoing surveillance, or form part of a broader assessment of an individual or a cell’s behaviour.
Beyond this, even the military may make use of IS online content as part of offensive information warfare targeting.
The distinction here is that the mere presence of IS content, while negative in the discreet sense, is part of the broader apparatus that is IS. It is multifaceted and complex, as is the response to it by the agencies of national security.
It is simplistic to think that merely removing IS content from cyberspace is sufficient, or even necessarily positive in the overall sense. There can often be a greater good achieved by leaving certain pieces of content in play.
This greater good is not supported by the interdiction of people unaware of the broader operations of government agencies, flawed and less than perfect as they may be.
For the public’s safety
The purpose for which Anonymous removes IS content is relatively narrow when contrasted with the public protection purposes of the state.
When a government, in collaboration with those companies responsible, removes online content, it is because it has been deemed both detrimental to public safety and security. It’s also because it’s considered that the content does not serve any other additional purposes, such as those mentioned above.
But Anonymous removes IS videos because IS disagrees with, and acts against, free speech. This presents both an ironic contradiction and also a much more self-interested motivation for Anonymous’ actions.
Tolerating vigilante style action by people affiliated with Anonymous would be an easier exercise if they were in some way representative, rather than a self-appointed vanguard, acting in the name of a public good they have determined to be overwhelmingly important.
When things goes wrong
The actions of Anonymous are also undertaken in a publicity-seeking manner. As further details are revealed in relation to #OpParis, it has been demonstrated that some of the personal details hacked and publicised by Anonymous were inaccurate.
While the state is not free of these types of errors, democratic states are at least accountable to some form of electoral and rule-of-law consequences.
In this heightened political and societal environment in the aftermath of a terrorist attacks, when a group such as Anonymous errs in identifying an individual as an IS recruiter or financier, it places those individuals in substantial danger while remaining largely free of consequences.
This is separate from the fact that much of the process of obtaining the data in the first instance is likely criminal.
While the actions of Anonymous in a range of domains, and in relation to many issues, can be seen as an overall positive, there are some very sensible reasons as to why its followers perhaps ought not to play in the national security space.
The takedown of IS content is generally viewed as being of fairly low impact when governments are involved, let alone when a vigilante style organisation adds additional risks of exposing innocent people, and undermining broader efforts to counter IS.
Perhaps most importantly, it does nothing for the people of Syria or Iraq, or those suffering within the controlled territory of IS.
Levi J. West, Lecturer, Terrorism and Security Studies; Program Manager, Masters of Terrorism and Security Studies
Sam Harris, an atheist, author and neuroscientist, and Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir who went on to found anti-extremist think-tank The Quilliam Foundation, have come together to write a book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: a Dialogue.
In a discussion on the ABC’s Lateline, they confronted what they said was Islam’s failure to modernise and they challenged liberal left thinkers who they accused of defending extremism in the name of cultural tolerance.
No-one doubts that Europe, or more specifically the European Union, has got more than its fair share of problems. Even before home-grown jihadists inflicted their version of divine retribution on an unambiguously irreverent group of archetypically Parisian artists and intellectuals, the EU was wracked with political, economic and social problems.
Paradoxically enough, though, the spectre of religious intolerance may yet bring out the best in Europe. Recent events may remind Europe’s leaders – and the rest of us, for that matter – just what Europe represents and why it remains the greatest experiment in transnational political cooperation the world has ever seen.
For all Europe’s problems, if it fails and falls apart, the symbolic consequences may come to outweigh the practical chaos.
No doubt many readers are already rolling their eyes in disbelief. Isn’t the EU synonymous with a bloated bureaucracy, unaccountable, overpaid (if not corrupt) officials, and chronic inefficiency? Perhaps so. But the EU is also the most enduring reminder of the possibility of co-operation across borders and of the active creation of an enduring peace where none existed before.
It is worth remembering that Europe has already been responsible for some of the most important turning points in the history of the world. Hyperbole? I think not. Whatever you may think about the system of sovereign states that now dominates the international political system, for example, it had its origins in Western Europe.
If there’s one date undergraduate international relations students manage to commit to memory it is 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia established the principles of sovereign rule and put an end to the interminable blood-letting associated with Europe’s religious wars.
Modern Europeans’ ancestors could teach the jihadists a thing or two about gratuitous, pointless, cold-blooded murder on an epic scale – all in the name of God, of course – or some theological difference we have thankfully forgotten about or no longer take seriously.
Political pluralism and tolerance were painfully won, important artifacts of centuries of conflict and slaughter. They remain profoundly important parts of the architecture of European political and social life to this day. It is precisely this unprecedented achievement that is at stake now.
To be sure, having more or less solved the religious problem, Europeans subsequently found other reasons to tear each other apart. The First and Second World Wars had their origins in Europe and remain the gold standard for megalomania, folly and carnage on a truly epic scale. And yet, Europeans also seem to have gone a long way toward solving the hitherto insoluble problem of war, too.
The sight of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande walking together in solidarity will no doubt be dismissed by some as meaningless political theatrically. I think this would be a mistake. No doubt Hollande will be pleased about the up-tick in his personal approval ratings, but there was still something of great symbolic importance about the leaders of France and Germany expressing common purpose in this way.
I don’t think it is too fanciful or hubristic to say that the response of many of Europe’s leaders and peoples is an expression of something rather important – even magnificent – about “Western civilization”. Even to invoke this phrase will no doubt invoke howls of protest and derision. And yet if Western civilisation is about anything, it is about a hard fought respect for, and protection of, individual rights, tolerance and pluralism.
Yes, I know what Gandhi said about Western civilisation, and he was right: it does sound like a good idea. The challenge, as ever, has been translating good intentions and noble principles into reality. But it is worth considering the alternative: religious zealots and theocratic states leave little room for the unbelievers and the radicals – to say nothing of gays and women, of course.
I also recognise that imperial Europe pioneered new forms of control over, exploitation of, and violence toward the rest of the world’s population. But that was then and this, as they say, is now. We must deal with the world as it is and try to identify forms of political and social organisation that at least hold out the prospect – in principle, anyway – of providing individuals with the chance to live their lives as they wish.
We should not be squeamish or reluctant to say that some values and principles are more likely to bring this about. Universal suffrage, racial equality, the emancipation of women, religious and ideological tolerance and – yes! – freedom of speech are all good, universally applicable principles and unambiguously better than the alternatives.
At great cost and with immense effort, Western Europe has gone further and played a more prominent role than any other part of the world in developing and implementing such values. Europeans – and the rest of us – need to remember that it this unprecedented, unlikely achievement that is at the heart of all that is best and most important about Europe. Long may it continue. Je suis European.