With Australia apparently days away from joining air strikes against ISIL forces in Iraq, an even more important part of this battle was sagely identified by The Australian’s Greg Sheridan over the weekend.
Sheridan’s lengthy analysis of the rise of ISIL is essential reading. I might normally add, “for anyone who wants to understand the conflict in Iraq and Syria”, but in this case “for anyone” will suffice.
Because, as Sheridan points out, based on his long-term reading of the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, the real threat is not in the deserts of Iraq but in the mass communication systems ISIL and others plan to use to destroy what they see as a decadent, flawed and ultimately doomed civilisation -- ours.
He writes: “You cannot begin to understand its long-term threat until you take into account the long, historical gestation of its ideology, the wide geographic spread of its support, and the technically brilliant way it has mastered the techniques of mass communication and information technology.”
To illustrate that long gestation, more than 20 years ago in Europe I was fortunate to know and to be able to discuss general security issues with a British SAS officer. In conversation, I suggested that the major headache for the West was the rash of conflicts underway in parts of the former Yugoslavia.
I found it incredible, then, when he replied that the special forces and military intelligence were looking way beyond those conflicts and were far more worried about Islamic extremism. Within a decade, with 9/11 beginning a string of acts of terrorism, it didn’t seem so incredible after all.
Sheridan makes another astute observation in his analysis, when he says: “It is as if the West has turned up for a boxing match but the terrorists are practicing judo.”
ISIL, or whatever other name they are known by, are led by highly intelligent men whose strategic and tactical decisions are indeed similar to those of a judo practitioner -- using an opponent’s strength to defeat them.
And two of the great strengths of western civilisation in the past century (or more) have been colossal military power, and a similar power for leading national opinion through mass-media channels.
If the men and women who controlled those two powers were models of restraint, a number of brutal and fruitless conflicts of the 20th century would not have been waged.
The Vietnam War, for instance, was fuelled in its early years by an uncritical media that had not delved far enough into the various strains of nationalism that were allied to communism in that country. The war just wasn’t what it seemed.
Fifty years later, the network of terror groups Sheridan identifies --“al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram, al-Shabab...” -- has a new media environment in which to wage an information war against its enemies, characterised by video-on-demand, social media, and encrypted information-sharing networks.
Most importantly, however, it wants its enemies, in this new media environment, to supply all the muscle. That is where Sheridan hits the nail on the head.
Just as a judo practitioner harnesses an opponent’s muscular strength to throw him onto the mat, so ISIL and its conspirators wish to see us flex our military power and big-media power. The more forcefully we attack, the quicker we end up on the mat.
Some national commentators have argued that under ‘our system’ it is not appropriate to debate Middle East intervention in parliament as the Canadians and British have done --‘our system’ being the more paternalistic, and less democratic by that very fact.
In the US, a nation already flexing its muscles with bombing raids in Iraq, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, told the (American) ABC News over the weekend that: “The president typically in a situation like this would call for an authorisation vote and go sell that to the American people and send a resolution to [Capitol] Hill. The president has not done that. He believes he has authority under existing resolutions to do what he's done."
Boehner says he would be "happy" for a debate and vote to be held in Congress.
As discussed previously, there is little doubt President Obama does have authority for the current round of bombing -- and many of ISIL’s victims will be very glad he does.
However, not taking the issue to Congress, flexing its powerful muscles without the counterbalancing care for democracy and justice at home, hands a victory to ISIL.
But drawing out our military strength is only one of the two ‘muscle groups’ that ISIL wants to use against us. The outbreak of divisive, Islamophobic stories in the national media --backed up with openly racist ranting on social media -- provides the real muscle that will soon have us on the mat.
In this case, ‘being on the mat’ means fighting round after round of terror attacks at home, in a vicious cycle of prejudice, leading to radicalisation, more attacks, more prejudice and so on.
A national commentator grilling Labor’s Anthony Albanese over the weekend about his plans for better cities said: “Some of your members, of course, you know, Tony Burke, they’re representing seats with 20 per cent-plus Muslim voters. Now, I would have thought that sort of clumping is not actually healthy, you’re not getting the mix.”
Healthy? It certainly won’t be healthy if the media continue to imply that Muslims living in ‘clumps’ have some kind of inherent connection to extremism. There is no surer way to radicalise young members of those communities than having the mainstream media questioning whether living around your own ethnic group is ‘healthy’.
It is a circular argument. Sydney’s Lakemba, which gets most of the media attention as a hot-bed of radicalism, provided many of the Muslim malcontents who travelled to fight Anglo-Celtic youths at Cronulla during the riots of 2005 -- a district, as it happens, with a good ‘clumping’ of nationalistic thugs.
So which path would ISIL's leadership prefer Australian journalists to take?
The path that highlights our achievements in the rule of law, open and civil democratic debate, and the positive contribution of law-abiding ethnic groups in our major cities?
Or the path that crudely implies that ‘clumps’ of Muslims are, by their very ethnicity, trouble makers who are just itching to join with extremist elements from abroad?
In too many cases we are taking that latter path, and we are giving the extremist leaders everything they need to spread out, recruit, and bring their ghastly fight into our communities.
Simply bombing a distant desert and then hanging up a giant ‘Mission accomplished’ banner, as George W Bush did in 2003, won't work. We need to remember that the mission to achieve a just, prosperous, liberal democracy, is never accomplished. It is ongoing, and it is conducted at home.