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100 years of war

by Dr Simon Longstaff
19 October 2014
RELIGION;
SOCIETY, RELATIONSHIPS AND CULTURE
With the prospect of a lengthy campaign against extremist Islam, Simon Longstaff argues all absolutist belief systems threaten the foundations of liberal society, irrespective of their political, cultural or religious affiliations. However, the struggle with such belief systems must not lead us to suppress the very liberties that we hold dear.
 
Along with many readers of The Weekend Australian (August 9th and 10th), I was troubled to read Peter Leahy’s reported prediction that Australia faces a century-long war against the foot soldiers of militant Islam. It is a chilling warning from a person whose views should be taken seriously. Leahy is a thoughtful and informed commentator who brings to bear refined experience, solid information and independence of mind. It is warnings of this kind that lie behind the Commonwealth Government’s recent increase in funding for the intelligence services, an expansion of their power and proposals that would increase government access to citizens’ ‘metadata’ (an ill-defined term). Such developments probably fall under Peter Leahy’s definition of pre-emptive action – part of the ‘blood and treasure’ that will be expended in the course of the foreshadowed struggle.

However, will such measures be enough to ensure not only our security but also our way of life?

I want to make a stark and simple point. We may invest in the hardware of self-defence, we may bolster our capacity to identify and neutralise threats from home and abroad – but if that is all we do, then we will never prevail. Instead, we need to develop our cultural resilience – identifying and reinforcing those aspects of Australian society that lie at the heart of a way of living that is worth defending. Additionally, we need to be more precise in identifying the source of danger.
 
I have no doubt that some of the individuals who serve the cause of militant Islam are a threat to life and limb. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that Islam (as such) is the core risk to Australians. Instead, our enemies are all those who embrace fundamentalism of a kind that denies (and despises) the liberal democratic ideals on which modern Australia has been founded. Our enemies are all those who hold to exclusive and absolutist truths: in religion (whether they be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists…), in politics (whether they be totalitarians of the right or left), in science (where such beliefs are anathema) … wherever. What all such people share in common is an uncompromising belief that their view of the world is the only ‘true way’ – whether sanctioned by God, by scripture, by a charismatic preacher or by a demagogue with a catchy ideology and a social network. History tells us that any group with such beliefs is capable of killing – even targeting their own neighbours and family.
I have no doubt that some of the individuals who serve the cause of militant Islam are a threat to life and limb. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that Islam (as such) is the core risk to Australians. Instead, our enemies are all those who embrace fundamentalism of a kind that denies (and despises) the liberal democratic ideals on which modern Australia has been founded.
The founders of modern Australia had the good sense to set aside all of this. It was bad enough that the Europeans had imported with them the old hostilities that once divided Catholics and Protestants. It was their genius to heal those divisions (although it took until the 1970s to achieve this). In doing so, the Europeans drew on the liberal ideals that grew out of the Enlightenment and as a response to their often bloody struggles to ensure the rights of citizens against those of their rulers. The importance of such rights to ‘life, liberty and property’ does not lie solely in the cost of their achievement. Such rights also exemplify a secular, liberal ideal that respects the fundamental dignity of every person and upholds a general right to private belief by maintaining strict state neutrality in relation to such matters.

The ideals of liberal democracy have been betrayed as often as they have been upheld. The treatment of women, migrants and most notably, Indigenous Australians has often been a scandalous repudiation of these principles. But we are now moving in the right direction – and I have some hope that we might one day achieve in practice what we have held so dear in principle. However, the imperfect realisation of an ideal is not reason enough to set it aside. Rather, the times we face require an urgent reinforcement of what underpins the character of Australia – when at its best. As a start, we need to recalibrate our approach to multi-culturalism. We need to make it clear that the liberal democratic ideal lies at the core of Australian society – that those who choose to make their home in Australia come not only to a magnificent continent with abundant material resources – but also to a land with a particular ethos. In saying this, I am not unmindful of the peculiar paradox of liberalism. It demands of us that we seriously engage with all – even those who deny the liberal ideals that assure their right to dissent.

Liberals are required to give ‘air’ to dissenting views, to discuss the ‘undiscussable’. We are required to stand on the precipice of uncertainty – never quite knowing if the voice of our opponents might undermine commitment to our ideal. The one thing that we cannot do is succumb to the temptation to silence our opponents. It is not just that we might drive dissent underground. Worse (by far) is that by denying free voice to others, we become hypocrites without the courage to live with the implications of our beliefs. And that’s exactly what every terrorist and extremist lives to achieve. It is not so much our bodies that they wish to harm (that is just a means to a larger end). Their real aim is to have us do their work – sacrificing our liberties, tearing down the fabric of our way of life (brick-by-brick) all for fear of what they might do. So, this is not an argument for silencing dissent or for imposing a monolithic world-view on all. It is an argument about the importance of knowing what we ultimately stand for and for insisting that our actions accord with and be explained in line with the requirements of liberal democracy.
 
I do not mean to suggest that we should not make hard, prudent decisions to bolster our safety. It would be the worst kind of recklessness to expose people to lethal risk simply in order to make a point about principle. However, we need to reinforce the foundations of our culture as much as we reinforce our security apparatus. And we need to be brave – brave enough to not do some things that might be done if security was our sole concern.
 
Let’s be clear about who the enemy really is. The fight may go on for 100 years – but the enemies of our Australian way of life do not belong to a particular party or religion. Our enemy is a totalitarian way of thinking that knows no religious or cultural allegiance.

 
Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.