On Friday night Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott delivered an incisive talk on Islam and the war on terror. An edited version of the talk appears in today’s Australian (September 18, 2006). In the article, “Ask the hard questions,” he makes the point that while there are plenty of Western critics of the West, there are very few Muslim critics of Islam.
He begins his article with this perceptive observation: “At a student leadership forum in Canberra earlier this month, one of the participants was haranguing the Prime Minister for allegedly exploiting community fears about Islam. Another participant, a former Tampa boatperson who had spent time in immigration detention, intervened. He said how proud he was to have become an Australian and to be able to engage in dialogue with the Prime Minister because nothing like it would ever have happened in his native Afghanistan.”
Quite right. The ability to criticise one’s government marks a fundamental distinction between the free West and closed Islamic societies. Continues Abbott: “To me, this story helps to illustrate how certain fundamentals, such as respect for persons, belief in a framework of rules, and a degree of political classlessness, are not cultural constructs but part of the universal aspiration of mankind. Still, it must be accepted, in the week of the fifth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre, that the world is threatened by perverted versions of the quest for grace.”
The struggle we are in is very real indeed. “The war on terror is not a figment of George W. Bush’s imagination. It is indeed a war against people who are determined to do us harm; as Bali, Madrid, and London, on top of September 11, clearly illustrate. It is a war against terrorism, not a war against Islam. It is a war against terrorists, not against Muslims. As events in Iraq have made crystal clear, the vast majority of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim.”
Parts of this last remark, along with his next remark, are open to debate. He may have been polite or political here, but he might be wrong as well. This is what he goes on to say: “As Tony Blair has said, this is not a battle between civilisations but a battle for civilisation. The problem is not Islam. The problem is a tiny minority of Muslims who believe it is their religious duty to kill those who do not share their particular version of Islam. Hence the war on terror does not pit Islam against the world, still less the West against the rest, but a misguided minority of Muslims against their fellow Muslims and everyone else.”
I would like to think he is right here. But many other observers have said that Islam is the problem. That is, jihad seems to be justified by the Koran, by the founder of Islam, and by its historical development. All three lend credibility to the notion that one can kill Allah’s enemies.
But leaving aside this debate, Mr Abbott continues to make some trenchant observations. “Islamic terrorism poses a challenge unlike anything faced before. It cannot be ended by concessions because its objective appears to be the establishment of a particularly ferocious type of universal caliphate. It cannot be quarantined to particular battle zones because of the range and destructive power of modern technology. Everyone is a potential combatant. Everywhere is a potential war zone.”
And the West is not fully free of blame here: “Combating terrorism means facing up to all the ways in which Western societies fall short of their professed ideals. How can alienated Muslim males be expected to respect women, for instance, when this city’s bookstands, billboards and TV shows proclaim that women are sex objects? How can devout Muslims be expected to regard Western societies as the flowering of civilisation when so much of modern music, art and writing is obsessed with the banal and the degrading?”
The Western world has many faults. But the blessing of democracy allows open debate and the possibility of reform. Closed Islamic societies do not. “If Western societies have been improved because every perceived truth has been subjected to critical scrutiny and every problem has been constantly re-examined for better potential solutions, it’s worth asking whether Muslim societies and communities might not benefit from similar critical self-examination.”
“To an outsider, Islam lacks a well-developed concept of pluralism or a clear distinction between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. I respectfully put it to Muslims that some practices they dislike might be considered sins rather than crimes. Other practices they dislike might be regarded as tasteless or indulgent rather than against the moral law.”
Some Muslim self-criticism could go a long way: “It would be easier for Australians to respect Islam if Islamic leaders seemed readier to condemn terrorism rather than explain how the West has contributed to it, important though that may be. As a non-Muslim, I’d be relieved to hear more often from Islamic leaders that it is never right to kill in the name of God; that sometimes force might be necessary to resist aggression, to end injustice, or to defend the vulnerable but never to assert the superiority of one religion over another. Religion is something we should argue about, not fight over.”
He concludes: “We know that it’s possible to be an Australian and a Muslim (rather than an Australian or a Muslim) because that’s been the practical experience of hundreds of thousands of people. What seems to be lacking – and what I hope Australian Muslims might urgently try to formulate – is a philosophy to validate what most people instinctively want. “
It is hoped that these sensible remarks will be welcomed by the moderate Muslims living in our midst. Governments can go only so far in seeking to accommodate those who choose to come here. Mr Abbott has extended the olive branch, and it needs to be received. We await eagerly the Muslim response.