How do we deal with Daesh? The Islamic State (ISIS) has proven to be a brutally formidable force in Syria and Iraq. As we saw recently in Paris, it has spread its vicious tentacles into Europe. It is highly probable that we’ll see it erupt in North America and very possibly again here in Australia, quite soon. It is clear that for all the blood and treasure invested in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria – heavy bombing raids, military advisors/trainers on the ground, intelligence gathering on an apocalyptic scale, all to the tune of billions of dollars – little has been won and much has been lost. Death rates and injuries (especially among civilians) are mounting every day and the refugee crisis is now counted in the millions. What is to be done?
Tony Abbott spent much of his onerous prime ministership weighing into the conceptually confused, strategically clouded, and ultimately futile military debacle in the Middle East. Most of his interventions were designed to invoke fear and loathing, especially of Islam. In his latest (post-prime ministerial) intervention he called on Islam to reform itself. He also proposed a hierarchical theory of cultures – certain cultures, he suggests, are superior to others and Islamic cultures are apparently inferior to Western cultures. The implication is that the most advanced cultures are to be found within his beloved “Anglosphere” which includes America, Britain, and the former white settler British colonies of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Daesh claims to be fighting a series of holy wars. In the process its counterfeit imams are grotesquely distorting an absolutely central component of the historical human experience – viz., that humankind possesses a deeply ingrained religious instinct that the full barrage of modernity’s scientism, rationalism and secularism has failed to obliterate. In fact modernity has a worrying record of misunderstanding and distorting the deeply experienced human drive for searching for transcendental meaning in the face of a cruel and unjust world. Modern critics of religion conventionally view that drive as irrational. Moreover, its myriad distortions (whether self-made or externally inflicted) make it particularly vulnerable to attack. Yet for all its being ridiculed down the years, it has been remarkably resilient despite all of modernity’s secular (and mostly reductive) accounts of what it means to be human.
What do we make of Abbott’s demand that Islam reform itself? First, it shows how ignorant he is about Islam. He clearly does not understand that it is one of the most sophisticated versions of the monotheism to come out of the historical Middle East. Its sister religions are Judaism and Christianity with which it shares many theological insights, ethical principles, prophetic traditions, and historical experiences. And all three of them draw heavily from Hinduism, the central wellspring of advanced religious thought.
Nor does Abbott show any understanding of the historical causes of the contemporary crisis in the Middle East. At the forefront of those causes are the egregious colonial adventures of Britain (the centre of his Anglosphere). The role of the British in dominating Egypt for their own purposes and disregarding Palestinian resistance to the creation of Israel, and their imperial arrogance in other zones in the region, constitute one of the most ignominious eras in all of colonial history. The world is now reaping in the Middle East what the British sowed in centuries past.
Misunderstandings abound among Islam’s critics and enemies, especially those – like Abbott – who want us to believe that it is the fons et origo of Islamist terrorism in contemporary global politics. But this ignores (probably for ulterior purposes) the fact that central to those conflicts are the brutal machinations of tribal warlords, crime bosses, crazed firebrands, mercenaries, naïve fools, angry young men, and insurgents in the contemporary Islamic world. While imposing an Islamist gloss on what in truth are fights about who wields power, occupies territory, monopolizes resources and controls states, the combatants in these conflicts are appropriating a religious identity to which they have no legitimate theological claim. They slander Islam into the bargain. This is by no means the first time a religious tradition has been maligned by being associated with malevolent political causes. Christianity’s record in this is also appalling.
The Koranic tradition teaches that Jihad is an intensely personal struggle with one’s conscience. It entails submitting one’s self-hood to Allah through the teachings of the Prophet. It is fundamentally about being a good human being, compassionate, tolerant and peace loving. As with the Bible, its underlying message requires a deep understanding of its central hermeneutic. And precisely like the Bible, the Koran contains some horrific passages that can be simplistically lifted out of context by malevolent commentators and used as a blanket condemnation of the entire religion. This is evidence of bad faith and appallingly third-rate scholarship. Just as we should expect people like Tony Abbott to respect Christianity’s central message of loving unconditionally – despite the Spanish Inquisition, for example, or those in the Catholic hierarchy today who would cover up for pedophile priests – so we should expect them to recognize the profound dignity of Islam, despite the evil fanaticism of fundamentalist Islamism today.
Abbott’s assertion that some cultures are superior to others is an echo from a dead imperialist past. It belongs to the discredited “class of civilizations” thesis once spruiked by the late Samuel Huntington. Edward Said reminds us that all cultures are intertwined. They all influence and transform each other all the time. All cultures are hybrid. Islam played a major – indeed vital – historical role in curating and contributing to classical Greek philosophy and scientific theorising, ensuring that this knowledge was available to the West at the beginning of the Renaissance. There would have been no Renaissance without it. In short, historical Islam has played a major civilizing role in the evolution of the West. Abbott seems ignorant of this history. His clumsy foray into cultural studies would be risible were it not so crude.
Dealing with Daesh means we have to sort out the religious wheat from the political chaff. It will also require a general acknowledgement that the religious instinct is an unchangeable aspect of the human condition that urgently needs far greater understanding than modernity has so far been able to offer. And it will require an educated awareness that Islam is being dangerously slandered by commentators like Tony Abbott whose own religious backyard is a foul’s own nest if ever there were one.
Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.