Threats from the self-styled Islamic State to kill Australians randomly on the street or wherever by any means possible have shocked us all. The threats were not just against Australians, nor only against westerners, but against other Muslims, even Sunnis who refused to bow to the IS, and especially against the modernising Muslims and the political elites in Muslim countries.
It appears that Islamic State is trying to unleash a global war between Muslims and non-Muslims, believing that the final apocalyptic battle against the ‘crusaders’ or ‘Romans’ to be fought at Dabiq in northern Iraq will usher in a new golden age. Many Muslims in the Middle East believe that this battle will occur within decades.
A war by any other name…
The response of the Australian government has been to urge western intervention and even to despatch fighter aircraft and 200 special forces commandos to help destroy IS forces. Urgent action was certainly needed to prevent the slaughter of minority groups, including Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds. But it is not clear why Australian forces are needed so far from home, and commentators have been troubled by what appeared as overreach by Australia and grandstanding by our politicians.
Australia is partly responsible for the chaos and disintegration in Iraq, since Australia was one of only three countries to invade Iraq in 2003, despite widespread public dissension in western countries, and strenuous opposition by Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders. As they feared, the consequences have been that hundreds of thousands have died, millions have fled Iraq or been internally displaced, and most in the ancient Christian communities, over a million, have left the country which has been riven by sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia.
Yet many of the very politicians who determined to invade Iraq in the mistaken belief that Saddam posed a threat with nuclear weapons are now plunging us back into this crisis. Former Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, now says he was ‘embarrassed’ that no weapons of mass destruction were found, despite his earlier insistence that they had certain evidence. Australians still do not know how or why the government was so mistaken, and our politicians have failed to make any apology for helping precipitate this long and disastrous war.
A cynical view might hold that politicians today trailing badly in the polls will readily wrap themselves in the flag of nationalism and embrace a military venture to restore their electoral fortunes. Not surprisingly, the Labor Party is trying not to be wedged on this issue, and is largely endorsing Prime Minister Abbott’s interventions.
The ‘crusade’ rhetoric
One of the blunders some western leaders made, especially President George W Bush, was to demonise Saddam’s regime and even talk of a new crusade.
Tony Abbott talks of a ‘hideous death cult’, a group of ‘ideologues of a new and hideous variety, who don’t just do evil but they exult in doing evil’. He explained that the atrocities enacted by IS stemmed from ‘an infatuation with death’. In declaring itself a caliphate, IS ‘has declared war on the world’. Mr Abbott warned that Australian Muslims would be acting ‘against God’ if they joined IS.
Our political leaders need to be very careful not to talk of the conflict in terms reminiscent of a crusade, or as a struggle between the forces of outright good and evil. Yes, IS fighters have committed barbarous atrocities against thousands of innocent people, including many women and children. Perpetrators of these crimes need to be brought to justice and tried according to the laws of war as massive human rights abuses. But the perpetrators remain human beings. Though they have done atrocious acts, they are not the embodiment of Evil.
This is not a trivial point. A danger is that we in the West would fall into a mentality that depicts IS and similar Islamist groups as ‘pure evil’ or a demonic force that has to be eradicated. In the Muslim world, this draws on memories of the crusades, with both sides fighting in the name of God against opponents seen as being the forces of anti-God.
This religious wrapping can also take on non-religious forms, as in the struggle against communism when depicted in extreme forms as a life-or-death struggle against the embodiment of Evil combatting the forces of Good, the West.
This was particularly the issue during the Spanish Civil War, when both sides tended to see themselves in terms of absolutes, of Good versus Evil, almost as embodiments of metaphysical forces. With its long history of crusades, Spain appeared particularly vulnerable to this perception, on both sides, and even in parts of the Catholic Church.
The French political philosopher and activist, Jacques Maritain, called this the ‘crusade mentality’ and blamed it in part for the ferocity and extremism of the Spanish Civil War. If enemies are depicted in terms of ‘total evil’, they are no longer being seen as human beings who still retain human rights when captured and need to be treated humanely. The crusade mentality involves a commitment to total war without compromise or political resolution.
Maritain denounced any religious legitimation for war, insisting that it risked blasphemy to kill in the name of Christ. His call was taken up strongly by later popes, including Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis, reiterating that though a just war is possible, especially to protect innocent people against groups like IS, it must not be seen as a war of religion.
Pope Francis has appealed to ‘stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the word “stop”. I don’t say bomb, make war – stop him’, remembering how often powerful nations have dominated others in wars of conquest. In Albania on 21 September, he reiterated: ‘No one must use the name of God to commit violence! To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.’
No military solution possible
It is a mistake to think IS can be defeated simply militarily. Islamic State has emerged from deep disillusionment among disaffected Muslims in crumbling states about the failure of modernising efforts to bring employment and prosperity to their peoples. Instead, it has invented an imaginary future drawn from a supposed golden era of Islam for how Sharia law could usher in an era of peace and justice.
However, its cruelty and atrocities have mobilised the international community against IS. Its beheading and crucifying of opponents have been particularly odious. But do not forget the huge human toll of the invasion of Iraq, followed by systematic use of torture, so disturbing Muslims among many others. The invasion was preceded by the UN sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 children.
In addition, foreign intervention exacerbates older notions in Islamic belief that if non-Muslims attack a Muslim country, Muslims elsewhere are required to come to the defence of the realm of Faith and repel invaders. This helps explain why the Islamists are able to attract tens of thousands of overseas Muslims to fight, and perhaps die. You can see how counter-productive Australian military intervention in Iraq might be in such a context.
Instead of rushing into military engagement in Iraq, Australia should be pushing diplomatic initiatives through the United Nations and perhaps supporting an arms embargo. Instead of ending our development assistance to Iraq recently and committing hundreds of millions of dollars to military action, Australia could play a significant humanitarian role funding urgent relief for millions of refugees, and expanding our refugee intake back up to 20,000 instead of the recent reduction down to 13,750.
It will be up to the wider Muslim community to resolve the jihadist movements, interpreting the Koran and Muslim traditions for contemporary circumstances in ways that can sustain peace and justice not just in the worldwide Muslim community, but in all others as well. These jihadist groups bring disgrace on themselves and dishonour their faith in the eyes of the world.