Will we ever learn from the war on terror?



It’s a typical suburban Australian story. A person born overseas arrives in Australia at age five. She lives with her 'ethnic' parents in the outer suburbs. She has a surname most find hard to pronounce correctly. She doesn’t quite fit into either parent’s culture. By age 21, she just don’t feel Australian. To find herself, she heads overseas.  

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (right) during Senate Business in the Senate at Parliament House (Getty Images/Sam Mooy)

In the eyes of some politicians and pundits, this young person is a possible threat to national security. She needs to be watched, deradicalized. She might just blow herself up one day. She is an explosive cultural cocktail who may end up with a criminal record. Who knows what her intentions are when she heads overseas.

If she had at least one Muslim parent or was a convert, we all know what we’d be expected to think. If her mum was born in Dunfermline and her dad in Warsaw, it wouldn’t matter. But if she turned out not to be deemed Muslim but an hilarious Australian comic legend named Magda Szubansky, she’d be fine.

During the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’, we were force-fed headlines such as the one splashed on the cover of The Australian: We’ll fight Islam 100 years’. (Which was later reported to be misquoted.)

We were taught the battle had nothing to do with Muslims. The war was against terrorism. ‘Not all Muslims are terrorists, but heck, how many terrorists aren’t Muslims?’ was the typical refrain. And there was something supposedly inherent in this tradition that lends itself to violence, terrorism, misogyny, extremism and lots of other nasty stuff.

The strange thing is that those chest-beating about terrorism rarely made an issue of when terrorists of the modernist Islamist variety (such as al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and ISIL) attacked mosques, Muslim shrines and Muslim congregations. Nor do they report of just how fringe and hated these groups are in their own countries where the bulk of their attacks take place.


'I have a great familiarity with the victims of terrorism, whether they be the Muslim and non-Muslim family members of Kiwi victims or the Indonesian and other victims of various faiths of the Bali bombings. This is what happens when you find yourself sitting on the cultural fence.'


At times, even quietist Sufi practices are described in terms of terrorism and violence. In an article in The Australian dated 18 September 2008, the simple act of declaring allegiance to a Sufi teacher (known as bay’ah) was described as a ‘Muslim terrorist vow’. The origins of the bay’ah date back thousands of years. In pre-Islamic Arabia, it was given by members of a tribe to their leader as a kind of substitute to voting. In those days, when Arabia was racked by tribal and internecine wars lasting generations, such pledges were necessary to keep people on side. Today, the bay’ah is a pledge you take before joining a Sufi order. Whirling Dervishes in former Ottoman territories take the bay’ah. Hardly a terrorist vow.

The irony is that now some are finding it hard to accept that non-Muslims can be deemed terrorists. Their own cynical prejudices have become personal convictions.

They don't recognise the way this undefinable category of violence has been used to commit genocidal violence against minorities by dictatorships and illiberal democrats in India, the People’s Republic of China and Myanmar. It is also used by dictators against political opponents in Bahrain, Egypt and Russia. Basically any type of human rights abuse can be justified by labelling the victims as terrorists.

And we dare not suggest terrorists can share a more extreme version of the politics of Australia’s Coalition parties. Hence when the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) told a Senate Committee that right wing extremists had gained increasing ground in Australia over the past three years, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (pictured) objected to the label ‘right wing extremists’. She remarked: ‘Right is associated with conservatism in this country and there are many people of conservative background who take exception with being tarred with the brush’.

The increasing interest in Right/White/conservative terrorism is understandable given that a white male non-Muslim nominally Christian Australian was involved in New Zealand’s worst ever terrorist attack when two mosque congregations were attacked in Christchurch.

Personally, I feel uncomfortable describing the Christchurch terrorist as being in any way Christian or even conservative. Perhaps that’s due to my own personal familiarity with these two leanings. Maybe familiarity helps to overcome prejudice. But I also have a great familiarity with the victims of terrorism, whether they be the Muslim and non-Muslim family members of Kiwi victims or the Indonesian and other victims of various faiths of the Bali bombings. This is what happens when you find yourself sitting on the cultural fence.

Muslims make up around one quarter of humanity. A war on terror, which effectively meant a war on Muslims, is a war that is unwinnable. You’d think we would have learned by now from the excesses of this crazy war.



Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Main image: Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (right) during Senate Business in the Senate at Parliament House (Getty Images/Sam Mooy)

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Islam, conservative, right, terrorism, Christchurch, war on terror



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Existing comments

Irfan, I endorse your commentary. Religion in the name of Allah, God, the Buddha and other deities is often used by Terrorist groups as a cover for their atrocities , often as in the case of Muslim extremists, against their own co religionists and in their own homelands . I am of Irish background. I have been to Ireland and seen first hand the hatred between two supposedly Christian communities . We in the West need to better understand the real situation in the Middle East and South Asia. Just maybe next time we will see the real situation and avoid becoming a target out of ignorance of the real facts.
Gavin O'Brien | 22 September 2020

Terrorism: indiscriminate, arbitrary, unpredictable. It was 'official' under Stalin, or is 'unofficial' in underground groups/individuals. It induces fear. It is a scourge on all of society and terrorism in no way reflects true religion. Our humanity calls for a better response than has so far been offered.
Pam | 22 September 2020

"Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells ... objected to the label ‘right wing extremists’. ... ‘Right is associated with conservatism in this country and there are many people of conservative background who take exception with being tarred with the brush’." The senator's inability to see beyond her comfortable understanding of the words, 'right', 'conservative', 'extremist', 'terrorist', would be of little concern if it wasn't so widely shared. Irfan Yusuf's awareness of cultural/religious diversity in Australia and New Zealand, awareness gained from lived experience, is a perspective far more appropriate to the culturally/religiously diverse societies of our two nations.
Ian Fraser | 23 September 2020

Irfan I agree. Sympathy for the victims of the attacks, whether perpetrated by splinter groups, hardliners, Isis or so called white supremacists goes without saying. The root of the problem is the education system which gives rise to the religious prejudice. Eg the Crusades or even the English Reformation which victimised Catholics. In all cases the victims are innocent, unarmed, usually in some mosque, church or synagogue and unaware of their danger. We believe in religious tolerance and we pay lip service to religious freedom. All these places of worship should now expect attacks and tighten up security accordingly.
Francis Armstrong | 23 September 2020

It would, I think, be quite possible to describe apartheid South Africa as a terrorist state in that it disenfranchised most of its inhabitants and kept them under violent repression. Going from there how would we describe Ascendancy Ireland? In exactly the same way, I suggest. Elizabethan England terrorised and executed its Catholic citizens who did not comply with the Established Church. Many countries repress and terrorise their minorities. Some countries, like North Korea, repress and terrorise their own citizens. I think many dangerous right wing groups mirror the pattern in ISIS et sim. Hitler did come to power on an extreme right wing platform. It is a dangerous world. There are Brenton Tarrants among us. Not in huge numbers but the internet helps spawn them. ASIO is not failing in its surveillance of these people. Our democracy is not as yet threatened and I hope it never will be but I think we need to be eternally vigilant. Sadly, the current state of the Muslim World seems to breed organisations like Isis because of the corrupt regimes which rule them.
Edward Fido | 23 September 2020

...seems we live in a world where we just love to profile people and their behaviors based on some distinguishing factor; "right wing extremist" and "radical left" is the usual nomenclature that categorize some, if we can add racial and religious descriptors we're really nailing them down for an open and shut case. Of course, if they're a Capricorn as well or have a mustache that's the wrong shape they're obviously guilty as charged. "Learning" from the war on terror is much debatable; f'rinstance, we may know that the war on Iraq and Saddam Hussein was ill-founded but the public were baying for blood after 9/11. Saddam was hanged for other crimes but despite the public being misled on WOMD and financing Al Qaeda "we" (the public) know yet choose not to learn. We were influenced. Despite our ever-so sophisticated adoption of religious freedoms and rejection of racism we're still easily influenced to prejudices in relation to political persuasions and characterizing accordingly if not appropriately; senator Fierravanti-Wells statement is quite fitting. We have a great track record of getting things wrong and the one consolation is being able to blame the opposing faction.
ray | 24 September 2020

The Senator is mistaken because (I'm pretty sure) the Oklahoma Republican Party would accept the existence of such a creature as a 'right wing terrorist'. They might quibble with 'conservative terrorist', but nobody's brandishing that phrase as a label.
roy chen yee | 25 September 2020

A thoughtful argument and particularly eloquent to those of us old enough to recall the Jewish guerrilla forces which operated in Israel. They were Zionists. Indeed terrorism is not part of any religion.
Juliet | 25 September 2020

Interesting, when President George W Bush launched what he called "The War on Terror" it was immediately rechristened "The War on Islam" by some. The invasion of Iraq caused immense suffering. Sadly, in some people's imaginations, we do, supposedly have at least a cultural "war" between Islam and the West. This is a gross oversimplification of a complex, multi-faceted relationship.
Edward Fido | 28 September 2020

Irfan thank you for your important insights on terrorism. I think it needs to be said that George W. Bush's War on Terror was itself terrorism and greatly contributed to the formation of ISIS. It was responsible for widespread death, suffering and destruction - far in excess of the 2900 who died in the 11.09.2001 attack on Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Bush with the help of Tony Blair sought support for the war based on the argument that Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction" which proved to be illusionary. They were determined to have a war But we have to ask why Iraq became Bush's major target. The members of al-Qaeda who carried out the attack on Twin Towers were Afghanis. This group which was founded by Osama bin Laden in the 12970s to defeat the Afghani government that was being supported by the Soviet Union. It is important for the leaders in the West who blame Islamist militants for the terrorism in the world today to look at the role of the US and its actions in the world today. The US has been the major instigator of wars since WW2 and has also been involved in moves to undermine democratic governments. The CIA assistance of the Indonesian mulitary (TNI) in the overthrow of former president Sukarno led to 33 years of fascist dictatorship led by General Suharto. The bloodbath that followed claimed the lives of about 3 million people and led to the genocide and human rights abuses in Indonesia, West Papua, East Timor and Acheh. These actions were condoned by the US and its allies as have been those carried out by some od its client states eg Israel against the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia against Yemen, the mass murder carried out by Pimochet in Chile, the Contras in Nicaragua, etc. etc And, we should never forget the horrific US war in Indochina. In 1961 during his retirement speech, former US president Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people of the danger to its democracy posed by the US Military Industrial Complex. And many would deem that this threat has become a reality and frequently poses a danger to peace and democracy. It is more important now that people of goodwill take a stand against all regimes that use terrorism to further their ends - whether they be Stalinist, extreme right wing/fascist, Islamist jihadists or the US Military Industrial Complex. Australians of goodwill should be pressuring our government to make our nation free, non-aligned and independent. This could be a first step to Australia becoming a nation that positively works for peace, social justice and human rights internationally instead of carrying out the bad deeds of imperial powers.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 01 October 2020


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