We have had a lot of apocalyptic talk about IS – we are at war, it is a death cult, it threatens civilisation. Unfortunately these exaggerations don’t help a measured and holistic response. These exaggerations play into the hands of terrorists who hope for our over-reaction and the promotion of fear.
We know from experience that terrorism ebbs and flows over the years in intensity. We must be ready for the long haul.
There is no doubt that IS is a threat but we need to consider carefully some important facts and to put the matter in perspective.
One important fact is that climate change is really an existential threat and vastly more serious than the terrorist threat.
Many politicians seize opportunities to exploit fear. It is noteworthy that those who decry government spending in so many areas are the first to propose substantial increases in spending for intelligence and police agencies. Terrorism is good politics for conservative politicians although Malcolm Turnbull seems more sensible than most.
The Paris attack was one of many. A larger number of people were killed in the IS bombing of a Russian aircraft over Sinai. Only a few days before the Paris attacks, there were large numbers killed in Lebanon. The most violent of all is probably Boko Haram which has conducted mass abductions and killed over 17,000 people since 2009 in Africa. Columnist David Brooks, reports in the New York Times that since 1984 an estimated 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamic terrorists in Sudan. There is also not much doubt that in the birthplace of Christianity, the future of Christian communities is extremely bleak.
As an important news hub, Paris attracts a great deal of media attention, but the atrocities have been much worse elsewhere. We do have a ‘white man’s media’ in Australia. Just recall the almost never-ending coverage of the bombings of the Boston marathon.
It is also no consolation to remind ourselves that the threat of terrorism in Australia is small compared with the other threats we face in daily life.
The IS threat has grown out of centuries of Western involvement and humiliation of the people of the Middle East. That involvement was accelerated by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. From that time on Western countries have occupied, plundered and exploited the resources and the people of the Middle East. The most recent calamity was the invasion of Iraq by the US, the UK and ourselves. That invasion has cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. Our intervention, which our media choses to forget, sowed the seeds of the bitter harvest that we are now reaping.
With a history of ethnic, sectarian and political conflict, our participation in the invasion of Iraq triggered so much of the catastrophe we face today.
And we are so unfamiliar with the determination of IS fighters. They see themselves as martyrs and the more they sacrifice and die, the more they feel justified and rewarded. Dying is seen as desirable.
There must be a political settlement and hopefully the US and Russia can support a transitional government that will reflect the interests of all the people in the region and most importantly of all, reconcile Shia and Sunni antagonists. The Iraq war effectively disenfranchised tens of millions of Sunnis in the region. We may be called to support a peace-keeping operation. We should be willing to do that in the right circumstances.
The powers of the regional patrons, Saudi Arabia and Iran, must be encouraged to find an accommodation and a cease-fire.
It is also unlikely that there can be peace in the Middle East without a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
On the domestic front, we need more proactive domestic programs to focus young Muslims away from terrorist possibilities. Muslim leaders and elders are essential in this process. They have not done well.
Clearly, our intelligence and police agencies are keys in helping to keep us safe. They have received large increases in funding. Their powers have been increased. But what we saw in the Lindt Café siege points to the need for much improved performance and supervision.
We will have to learn to live with terrorism for a while. Picking soft targets is in the view of terrorists a legitimate and necessary response to overwhelming military power. Too often IS and other terrorists succeed in provoking an over-reaction which helps the terrorist cause. The French reaction to the attacks by dramatically increasing bombing in Syria is likely to be counter-productive. In frustration the French took the IS bait.
Our response needs to be holistic and the most important response must be political, backed possibly by some UN military intervention, improved performance by our intelligence agencies and police, and active participation by the elders and leaders in our Muslim community.