Friday, 23 January 2015

Islamophobia and the Terror Within

Professor Jeff Lewis
Co-director of the Human Security and Disasters Research Program
RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Image via iStock

As western governments and citizens around the world seek explanations for the current wave of Islamist terrorism, the notion of an intractable cultural divide re-emerges. Unsurprisingly, the letter from UK government minister, Eric Pickles, asking Imams to explain Islam’s position in  British culture, has been met with howls of ‘Islamophobia’. The traditions of Islam, we are often told, are entirely incompatible with western democratic freedoms, especially freedom of speech.

Much of this discussion, however, is ill-informed, and exacerbates equally confusing arguments about the presence and role of Muslims in ‘western’ states like Australia, France and Belgium.

Principal among these misunderstandings is the very idea that Islam and the west are significantly different, even repellent, cultural dominions. In truth, the European Enlightenment, with its exaltation of reason, rights, democracy and freedom, has deep roots in Islam and particularly the Islamic Renaissance (800-1200 CE).

Not only did the scholars and scientists of the Islamic Renaissance provide a template for the later rise of western Europe, they translated and preserved much of Classical Greek culture which is so frequently cited as the foundation of modern western science, literature, philosophy and democracy.

Equally dubious are the analyses which explain the current violence in terms of an intractable opposition between modern and traditional cultural dispositions.  Very obviously, Islam and the other Abrahamic religions—Christianity and Judaism—share a contiguous religious and cultural heritage remains forceful in the modern context.

But even militant Islamist ‘fundamentalists’ have been profoundly influenced by modern modes of thinking, and entirely embrace modern communications technologies, weaponry and organisational systems.

ISIS and AQAP, specifically, have mobilised broadcast and social media systems to promote their causes, terrify enemies, and attract recruits. The recent ISIS attacks on US Internet networks represent the work of a thoroughly modern military organisation, one that is deft in cyber as well as conventional military strategies.

Principal among these strategies is the militant’s exercise of their own ‘freedom of speech’, particularly their invocation of a glorious, masculine and heroic past. This propagation of fantasies and ideology deftly mimics the ways in which modern states define themselves and validate their economic, cultural and military power.

The invocation of Gallipoli, ‘Team Australia’ and cultural values like ‘freedom of speech’—are all designed to ground our sense of nation in a glorious but enduring past.

In fact, the recent terror events in Australia and France are more about fantasies of difference, than intractable cultural or religious divergence.  Domestic terrorism, specifically, is principally about the ways in which modern states are dealing with their own social transitions and evolving pluralism. It is about our own progress and modernism.

Significant Muslim migration into western states has been largely driven by economic pragmatism and the putative need to grow and refresh populations. Along with the economic and cultural gratifications that flow from this human mobility, are a range of social disjunctions and adjustment problems.

For example, while only 10% of the French population are Muslim, around 70 % of France’s prison population are Muslim. In Australia, over 75% of Muslims earn less than average income. These figures indicate that Muslims, as a definable group, remain socially and economically constrained within the social and economic hierarchies of many modern societies.

Of course, these inequities don’t of themselves dispose particular groups to the sorts of criminal violence we have seen in Sydney and Paris. But when they are adhered to the political violence that western states and Israel have inflicted on Muslims in the Middle East, these inequities become amplified as political enmity. This enmity re-constructs the past and the imaginary of culture, contributing to the ‘radicalisation’ of young Muslims who are seeking their own forms of justice, freedom and redemption.

Despite their best intentions, therefore, western governments and parts of the media continue to stoke this war against ourselves. They continue to propagate a sense of difference and enmity without sufficient regard to the considerable overlaps and continuities that define our modern, pluralist societies.

This is not a battle over ‘freedom of speech’ so much as it is a battle over what kind of speech and who gets to speak. Rather than censor discussion and debate, as effected through the new anti-terror laws, we need more voices, more speech. That is, we need to acknowledge our complexity and the language wars that inform our modernity.

In this context, debates around the repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are simply a distraction from the real war we are fighting. It is regrettable, and perhaps an indication of our struggling modernity, that minority groups feel the need to be protected from idiot abuse. However, the real war is about ourselves, our own modernity and conceptions of freedom.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The nuclear threat: reflections on the atomic age

By Joseph Siracusa, RMIT University and Frank Gavin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

With the end of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race came to a virtual halt, but the nuclear threat remained. In regional rivalries, such as those in the south Asia subcontinent, northeast Asia, and the Middle East, the bomb still has great influence, while the threat of terrorists with a nuclear capability has become a new global concern.

The risk of nuclear weapons or fissile materials falling into the wrong hands has greatly increased since September 11. We know that thousands of weapons and tens of thousands of potential weapons – small lumps of highly enriched uranium and plutonium – remain in unsecured facilities in Russia.

These are highly vulnerable to theft by terrorists directly or by criminals who could sell them on to terrorist groups. In the years since the end of the Cold War, there have been numerous cases of theft of nuclear materials in which the thieves were captured, sometimes in Russia, on other occasions in the Czech Republic, Germany and elsewhere.

The grim reality

A sample of statistics from the global nuclear age provides a sobering reminder of the scale of the problem. Upwards of 128,000 nuclear weapons have been produced in the past 68 years, of which about 98% were produced by the US and the former Soviet Union.

The nine current members of the nuclear club still possess 17,265 operational nuclear weapons between them. Thousands are presumably ready to fire at a moment’s notice – enough to destroy the Earth’s inhabitants many, many times over.

As worries about nuclear proliferation have been mounting during the early years of the 21st-century, is there a danger of nuclear alarmism in the US and elsewhere?

Today it is hard to find an analyst or commentator on nuclear proliferation who is not pessimistic about the future. What apparently upsets these experts is that they find little in the current decades that offer means of containing nuclear proliferation.

But we challenge this overly pessimistic outlook. It’s increasingly clear that nuclear alarmism has resulted in overstated claims that emerge from a poor understanding of the history of nuclear proliferation and non-proliferation.
  Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer are acknowledged for their contribution 
         to developing the nuclear bomb. Ron CogswellCC BY-NC


We must learn from the past

There are significant lessons to be harvested from the history of the nuclear weapons era. Because 21st-century proliferation issues have deep roots in the past, for global policies to be successful, an understanding of this history is vital.

A number of myths drive the popular opinion that new nuclear threats are more dangerous than those of the past. For example, many believe that during the Cold War nuclear weapons readily stabilised international politics. Or the converse – that superpower rivalry alone drove proliferation during the same years. But the alarmists have oversimplified strategic dilemmas of the Cold War era and have ignored the regional security issues that contributed to proliferation during these years.

Those analysts who believe that Washington and Moscow alone created the nonproliferation regime ignore the very considerable role played by the international community.

No-one dismisses the fact that nuclear proliferation is an important policy matter. But overreacting to current dangers while wrongly characterising those of the past could drive misguided policies that fail to achieve their desired end. What, then, should be done, and what should leaders and officials consider when determining their nuclear policies and politics?

The future of nuclear thinking

There are two basic ideas that will dominate discussions in the years ahead: expanded nuclear deterrence and applying economic/military sanctions. And from these, we can foresee three general approaches to nuclear non-proliferation.

The carry-over from the First Nuclear Age is the deterrent (and “taboo”) approach that militates against any state’s first use of nuclear weapons. This approach doesn’t rid the world of nuclear weapons, but its supporters argue that it is the most effective way to prevent their aggressive use. However, its most prominent recent proponent and nuclear pessimist par excellence – former US president George W. Bush – clearly had Saddam Hussein in his sights.


Former US president George W. Bush is a believer in nuclear deterrence. EPA

Then there are those exponents of the “global zero” option approach, of which nuclear optimist and Bush’s successor Barack Obama is the chief proponent. These thinkers are persuaded that enforcement is best handled by the nuclear weapons states setting an example. Yet those European nations, Japan, and South Korea for whom the US provides a “nuclear umbrella” worry as the US reduces its nuclear stockpiles, wondering if it is also reducing its commitment to their protection.
The third approach – applying economic, military, and other (cyber/assassination) sanctions – also has its supporters. Economic sanctions are currently employed in the cases of North Korea and Iran.

The idea of military sanctions has also been advanced, such as those that Israel employed in the 1981 Osirak bombing of an Iraqi nuclear facility to destroy Iran’s nuclear power plants if diplomacy fails to bring about a satisfactory agreement. But the effectiveness of military sanctions hinge on the suitability of pre-emptive strikes.

Sanctions, in turn, raise important issues. Do nuclear weapons states have the legal right to interfere with states developing a nuclear weapons program? And are sanctions are effective at all?

Ultimately, the real question is: will any of these approaches actually work in ridding the world of the nuclear threat? We don’t know. But that is no reason not to try.


Joseph Siracusa and Frank Gavin are co-convenors of a conference on the global nuclear order being held at RMIT this week.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.