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REFLECTIONS ON OUR EXISTENTIAL STRUGGLE WITH ISLAMISM

 

An address at the Land Warfare Development Centre

Kokoda Barracks

Puckapunyal

23 November 2005.

 

            Last year, I had the privilege of addressing this colloquium on the strategic environment in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century. I concentrated on the work of Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles; suggesting that it offered a thought provoking perspective on the challenges we face after what he called ‘the long war’ of the 20th century - the struggle against communism and fascism. Two months ago, I was in Washington, to run a workshop for the CIA’s Sherman Kent school. At Dulles International Airport, on my way home, I fell into conversation with Doug Englund, a senior US Defence official, who was on his way to Central Asia. He works on decommissioning or safeguarding former Soviet stockpiles of WMD, lest they fall into the hands of Islamists or other incendiaries, with dire consequences. This is the world in which we now live. It is an honour to have been invited back to address you again. Much has happened in the intervening twelve months and I want to take this opportunity, therefore, to look again at the challenges we face, in the light of recent events.

            I have called my address to you this evening ‘Reflections on Our Existential Struggle with Islamism’, and it had been my intention to reflect on the work of the Israeli specialist Boaz Ganor, especially in his book, The Counterterrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decisionmakers, published earlier this year. This is chiefly because I had the pleasure of meeting Boaz  and hearing him speak, on 11 September this year, at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, in Herzliya on the Sea, Israel. However, when I set about preparing this speech, a number of remarks Boaz makes in his Preface so seized my imagination that I was diverted from my original intention, leading me to focus less on what we should do than on whether we adequately understand what we confront.

            Let me quote to you the remarks by Boaz Ganor that diverted me. “On September 11, 2001, international terrorism crossed the Rubicon and became unrecognizable, following the attacks in the United States. The force of the attack, the targets chosen, the terrorists’ daring and their sophisticated planning, the way in which all accepted conventions were shattered, while boundaries and limits were crossed and, most of all, the enormous scope of the damage and the number of victims - all of these turned international terrorism into an immediate, tangible and existential danger to modern civilization and the entire world.” He went on to say, “Terrorism is no longer merely a local problem to be dealt with by one country or other. Rather, it has become an unprecedented danger to world peace, resulting from a radical Islamic terror network that has spread worldwide and is focused on fulfilling the divine religious command of holy war - jihad - by means of terror attacks.”[i]

            In just the past fortnight, we have had this driven home to us here in Australia, with the ASIO and police raids in Melbourne and Sydney that appear to have aborted plans for major terrorist attacks in metropolitan Australia, with far worse implications than the two Bali bombings. In yesterday morning’s paper, there was a headline reading ‘Radicals’ pan-Asia Islamic state plan’ and beside it a picture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with the accompanying headline ‘US sceptical on talk of Zarqawi’s death.’[ii] But we have been caught up in this matter since 2001, being one of the countries which responded most readily to the call by the United States for allies in striking back against this danger. Our involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq have stirred passionate controversy domestically and the passage of legislation intended to better enable our security services to do their work has occasioned outcries from various quarters about heavy handedness, dangers to civil liberties and even incipient fascism.

            This was the problem I sought to address in this forum last year and in regard to which I found Philip Bobbitt’s work so thought provoking. It was Bobbitt’s opinion, writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that if we disregarded the implications of those attacks we could stumble into “a world-rending cataclysm” as global institutions fractured, states lapsed into turmoil, weapons of mass destruction proliferated and were used and civil law was warped by fear into new authoritarian forms. We cannot afford complacency, I warned in October last year, for the dangers looming in front of us are, in their own way, every bit as grave as those of the 20th century. “We must prepare ourselves to deal with them or risk coming to grief in grimly unfamiliar ways.” What I found especially interesting about Bobbitt’s reflections was that they had been based on sustained conceptual work done not after the 9/11 attacks, but before them.

            Boaz Ganor has a similar message to Bobbitt’s. “In face of this grave threat,” he wrote earlier this year, “the world stands confused and divided. Most people are unaware of just how great the danger is, and in any case they lack the skills required to deal with this new breed of terrorism. While soldiers, police officers and security forces must drill and train long and hard in order to be able to cope with the enemy on the field of battle, it would appear that government bodies - ministers and members of parliament, policymakers and heads of security networks - act and make decisions about terrorism without the proper background, without previous knowledge regarding the major dilemmas they must address, while making decisions under the stress of public pressure and tremendous time constraints.”[iii]

            Rohan Gunaratna, the Singapore based specialist on terrorism, who has a roving brief now to keep everyone on their toes, declared on 21 November that a terrorist attack in Australia is inevitable. There are terrorist cells in this country, he claimed, and they have been able to develop because of - and I quote - “the Federal government’s reluctance to interfere in cultural affairs. It is very clear,” he claimed, “that for many years the Australian political leaders wanted to be politically correct, so they did not wish to disrupt the preachers of faith or the radicalization that was taking place in the Australian mosques and the Australian Muslim associations.”[iv]

            This remark by Gunaratna goes to the heart of what diverted me from concentrating on Boaz Ganor’s arguments and giving you a paper on Ganor to complement my paper on Bobbitt. There were two reasons why. First, I found myself thinking that I have never been very politically correct, but I have been more than usually well informed about international security affairs and intelligence matters in this country. Yet I did not pay any serious attention to terrorism in general before 2001, much less to Muslim associations and mosques in Australia. What had really been going on under my nose, as it were, as well as that of the Federal government? Second, by way of getting my bearings for this address, I found myself turning back to the work of the great French specialist on Islam, Gilles Kepel. Here I encountered a deeply informed argument that the attacks of 9/11 were a sign of the failure, weakness and desperation of the Islamists, not their strength. I decided, therefore, to go back over some old ground and attempt to get our current situation into critical perspective.

 

Let me begin by emphasizing how oblivious I was to the dangers just over four years ago, immediately before and even as the ‘Pearl Harbor’ of our time shook the Western world. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and what appears to have been an intended attack on the White House, made such an impression on our collective consciousness that we often talk about world affairs before and after 9/11. People recall where they were and what they were doing when the news came through and recount, in many cases, being fixated in front of their television screens, watching in real time and disbelief as the second plane speared into the World Trade Centre. My own experience was a little peculiar in this respect.

I had spent a long day in the office and, at 8.00 pm, decided to go home and relax watching a video. I chose to watch The Little Drummer Girl, as it happens - the George Roy Hill film of John Le Carre’s novel about Israeli counter-terrorism, starring Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinsky. If you haven’t seen the film, I most heartily recommend it. Hill, who directed such classic comedies as The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, produced a masterpiece of realistic drama in The Little Drummer Girl. I had seen it a number of times before and have seen it several times since, but never fail to find it riveting.

So, on the bright American morning that Mohammed Atta and his co-terrorists were boarding American Airlines flights 11 and 77 and United Airlines flights 175 and 93 in Boston, Washington and Newark, I was sitting in Melbourne, watching a film about Palestinian terrorists killing Israeli diplomats and then being hunted down by Mossad. The film ended about the time the second plane ploughed into the World Trade Centre. I walked a kilometre back to the video store to return the cassette and called into a milk bar on my way home. The chap behind the counter said to me, as I purchased some orange juice for the next morning’s breakfast, “There’s been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.” Scarcely batting an eyelid, because to me, ‘terrorist attack’ meant some nut with a gun, or at worst a car bomb, I responded, “Oh, I’m sure the Pentagon can look after itself for tonight. I’m going home to get some sleep.”

The fellow just smiled faintly, presumably thinking that I was a hardened cynic, and did nothing to enlighten me to the astounding nature of what had just happened on the other side of the world. When I got home, there was a voicemail message from my youngest sister, then an undergraduate Law student at Monash University. “Turn on your TV,” her message said, in an animated voice, “something really dramatic has happened!” ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I thought. ‘She’s just an excitable undergrad. Things can’t be too dramatic on US soil. Whatever.’ I simply went to bed and slept soundly. Nor was that the end of it. I woke in the morning without alarm or radio and so learned nothing of the great drama while I showered and breakfasted. It wasn’t until I was half way to work and picked up the morning paper, with a front page picture of the WTC in flames that I realized the enormity of what had occurred.

I had no sooner got into the office and begun to read the papers than the phone rang. It was the ABC, asking would I come live onto a breakfast show to talk about the attacks and help the public get them in perspective. I begged off, on the grounds that I had only just learned about the attacks and would need at least 24 hours to get them into some kind of perspective myself. I did go on air 24 hours later and make a few remarks - sensible ones, I hope, because I can’t remember now with any precision what I said. A few days later, however, having collected my thoughts, I wrote an essay for the Australian Financial Review, called ‘Seven Theses of War’, which did attempt to put the events into serious perspective.  I’d like to use that essay as a point of departure for reflecting on what has happened since 11 September 2001.

 

Here are the seven theses I advanced immediately after 9/11 and which were published on 21 September 2001:

 

1.                  This is an act of war, not merely a nihilistic crime.

2.                  This is the first serious blow in a long-planned war, by an international coalition of Islamic militants against the West and its allies.

3.                  This blow was long premeditated and its perpetrators have thought ahead several moves.

4.                  This is not the clash of civilizations, but a profound challenge to civilization.

5.                  This is a spectacular case of what Chalmers Johnson, in 2000, called ‘blowback’.

6.                  The attempt to root out and destroy the perpetrators could catalyze a wider disorder.

7.                  This war has begun with a deeply symbolic assault on America. It will be won, if it is won, by an even more powerful symbolic response and not by arms alone.

 

Even now, there is considerable debate as to whether the Islamist assault on the West and its allies is a military problem or a police and intelligence one. My own view - formed within a few days of the 9/11 attacks - was that the Islamists had declared war on us, that they had done so long before the 9/11 attacks, that they believed they could topple not merely the World Trade Centre but Western civilization and that we should take them at their word.

            I suggested that our enemies had thought several moves ahead. They had signified this by nothing so much as their assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, their toughest opponent in Afghanistan, clearly anticipating an American attempt to uproot them there. “In the aftermath of the catastrophe,” I wrote, “a number of people have stated that whoever did this has miscalculated, in that they may have believed they would demoralize and divide the United States and its allies, but they have instead brought them together as almost nothing else could have done. This may be true,” I went on “but we would be unwise to assume so. The commitment of the jihad coalition to its goals may blind it to the real consequences of its own actions, but we would be prudent to assume that the stirring up of enormous anger was exactly what these people sought to achieve. We would do well to surmise that they sought to provoke a massive American response, which would, in turn, enable them to spark upheaval all over the Islamic world and topple pro-Western regimes from North Africa to the Indonesian archipelago.”[v]

            My greatest concern, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, was summed up in thesis six - that the attempt to root out and destroy the perpetrators could catalyze a wider disorder. Here is what I wrote: “The risk is that drastic measures will bring in their train more destabilization, more resentment, more chaos and a swelling of the ranks of the jihad. Given the social conditions in wide parts of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, the use of US military forces, in various parts of these regions, could trigger a landslide into what Robert Kaplan has called ‘the coming anarchy’.” If there is a central concern now, as the US wonders about whether or when and how to withdraw its forces from Iraq, while Iran remains under the iron grip of fanatical theocrats bent on building their own nuclear weapons and Pakistan protects Abdul Qadeer Khan, who facilitated the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology around the Islamic world, from rigorous interrogation, it is still this one - a wider disorder.

The architects of the war against us had a strategy, I suggested, and had not merely lashed out at random. “Their strategy is to draw the US into ill-considered, multiple and unsustainable confrontations. If Che Guevara, in the 1960s, could vow to catalyze ‘one, two, many Vietnams’, then these people may well intend to produce ‘one, two, many Somalias’. Will the US send its forces into Iran? Into a disintegrating Pakistan? Into Iraq? Into Sudan? Where will lines be drawn? And when [Henry] Kissinger calls for military measures directed at the source, we would do well to remember his secret and utterly counter-productive bombing of Cambodia, thirty years ago, and what that catalyzed.” This was written some weeks before the intervention in Afghanistan and eighteen months before the invasion of Iraq.

It was also written before the long series of terrorist attacks around the world, which have generated so much debate about chickens and eggs, causes and effects, ends and means, laws and liberties: the bombings in Bali, in Istanbul, Jakarta and Casablanca, in Madrid and London, the attempted bombings in Singapore and, most recently, in Melbourne and Sydney. All this clearly invites reflection on where we stand now. Is there a wider disorder? Are our efforts to knock out Islamism to blame for catalyzing it? Is the war in Iraq a serious strategic error that has made things worse - another Vietnam? Are we any closer to understanding the nature of the dangers we face? Or are we losing all sense of proportion in reacting as we have to the attacks that have occurred thus far?

The whole thrust of the Bobbitt and Ganor line of reasoning has been that we have been far too complacent and oblivious to our dangers, heedless of the enemies within out midst, and that we must look urgently to our defences. This is a view reinforced by various studies of radical Islam and given dramatic plausibility by the videos and violence of the Islamists themselves. Last September, I had the pleasure of meeting Philip Bobbitt in Washington and asking him how his views had been developing over these past four years. To my fascination, I discovered that he has been unable to complete a book on terrorism and counter-terrorism. He was still working on it, but had become somewhat bogged down conceptually. Yet there are plenty of those who, like Rohan Gunaratna, believe we face a real and present danger - and that it will not soon abate.

My university training was in history and international relations. Much of it was concerned with seeking an understanding of the history of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, modern revolutions and the Cold War. If there is one thing all these studies taught me, it was to be sceptical of sweeping claims and ideological polarities. Watching Rohan Gunaratna on the evening news two nights ago, when he claimed that there are likely to be 300 terrorists in Australia, I could not help but be reminded of Joe McCarthy’s notorious assertion that he had a list of 250 card carrying members of the Communist Party who were working in the United States government in the late 1940s. When I listened to Ameer Ali complain that throwing numbers like this around caused unwarranted alarm, I was reminded of Dean Acheson’s defence of Alger Hiss in the climate of the McCarthy and McCarran hearings.

Acheson spoke in good faith, but Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent, as it turned out. McCarthy spoke in bad faith, but there were many Communist agents in the US Government. How do we know? VENONA - the highly secret program that decrypted nearly 3,000 Soviet cables picked up by US counter-intelligence in the 1940s and made clear that the KGB and GRU had rings of spies in Washington. The VENONA materials were not declassified until 1995-96, but when they were they “confirmed that there had been a large espionage network centered in the federal government. Among those implicated were Harry Dexter White, Victor Perlo, Laurence Duggan and Alger Hiss.”[vi] VENONA captured only a small fraction of the Soviet intelligence traffic and not all of it was decrypted, but even what was revealed massive Soviet espionage, not only in the United States, but in Britain and even in Australia.[vii]

Let us suppose that there are 300 terrorists in Australia right now, in addition to the eighteen arrested a fortnight ago. How does that fit into our overall assessment of the danger that we face? What is it rational to do in those circumstances? We have been debating nationally the merits of counter terrorism legislation and the significance of our role in the war in Iraq. But let me step back a little from immediate measures to put the matter in the light suggested by Gilles Kepel. The author of  a book called The Roots of Radical Islam, first published in 1984 as The Prophet and Pharaoh and reissued this year under its new title, Kepel has articulated his view of the global situation in two major works: Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (I. B. Tauris, 2002), first published in French in 2000, by Editions Gallimard, under the significant title Jihad: Expansion et Declin de l’Islamisme; and The War For Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Belknap Press, Harvard University, 2004).

Kepel’s argument is that, as of 2000, “the political and moral record of three decades of militant Islam was, to say the least, a far cry from what was hoped for at the outset.”[viii] It had been suppressed in Egypt, despite achieving the assassination of Anwar Sadat on 6 October 1981; it had failed to accomplish much in its struggle with Israel; it had come to power in Iran, only to generate a patently corrupt, brutally tyrannical, economically incompetent and widely unpopular regime; it had generated enormous violence in Algeria, without winning either power or general popular appeal; it had failed to ignite jihad in Bosnia; it was winning only sporadic support across the Muslim world and was increasingly out of favor with the middle classes because of its disruptive and indiscriminate violence.

“Such was the context,” Kepel wrote in 2002, “in which the cataclysm of September 11 took place. In spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, that attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might. The jihadist-salafists who belonged to bin Laden’s mysterious Al Qaeda network imagined themselves as the spark that would ignite the volatile frustration of the disenchanted ones in the Muslim world and stoke a firestorm. They had no patience for the slow building of a movement that would reach out to the masses, mobilize them and guide them on the path to power.” They failed in this endeavour, he claimed: “Within a hundred days, the US army had wiped the Taliban regime from the face of the earth, and bin Laden was on the run, his secret cells dismantled or disbanded.”[ix]

In his latest book, published last year, Kepel argued that “The most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but in [the] communities of believers on the outskirts of London, Paris and other European cities, where Islam is already a growing part of the West. If European societies are able to integrate these Muslim populations, handicapped as they are by dispossession, and steer them toward prosperity, this new generation of Muslims may become the Islamic vanguard of the next decade, offering their co-religionists a new vision of the faith and a way out of the dead-end politics that has paralyzed their countries of origin.”[x]

He took his cue in this matter from the 11 March 2004 Madrid bombings. Much that has happened in the year since he wrote those words would appear to lend support to his argument. The bombings in London, by home-grown Muslim youths; the riots in Paris and other cities of France by disaffected Muslim crowds; and the incidents involving Islamist violence and threats of violence in Denmark and the Netherlands, have all highlighted the potentially very serious problems Europe faces with its large Muslim population. What Rohan Gunaratna has urged upon Australians this week is the realization that we here are not immune from similar problems, not least because, like our European cousins, we have allowed Saudi millions to build mosques dedicated to Wahhabi Islam in Australia’s cities, we have permitted salafists and wahhabis to move around freely in Australia for years and to preach in mosques, calling for purity of Islamic faith and a separate Islamic culture that will not compromise with the infidel culture of the West within which it shelters, calling for jihad abroad and even for militant organization in this country.

Paul Marshall, of Freedom House, in a book called Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005) has drawn attention to the fact that the background to spectacular acts of terrorism has been the sedulous global propagation of Islamism for years.[xi] Until or unless its ideology and its freedom to propagate itself are directly challenged, the true extent of the danger we face will not even be apparent. This is where Kepel’s argument must be met. For he appears to suggest that the careful, patient mobilization of Islamic believers within Western societies should be encouraged as an alternative to the spectacular terrorism we have been seeing. What, in fact, seems necessary is to discourage just such mobilization and to wean Muslims away from the dangerous idea that their faith is the key to their future - much less the key to ours.

 

For a number of reasons, this is a formidable task. Let me, rather than addressing it directly, try to throw it into high relief, by drawing an analogy with the roots of the Cold War. It has, as far as I am able to ascertain, long been forgotten that the socialists, before the First World War, believed they could, by peaceful and patient mobilization, a kind of Fabianism, bring about the transformation of capitalist societies in the Western heartland and prevent a great imperialist war from breaking out, through their control of labour unions and voting blocs in parliaments. They failed spectacularly to achieve any of these things and, in August 1914, thirty years of upheaval began which beggared all their hopes. Even before 1914, there had always been firebrands who believed that violent revolution or spectacular acts of terrorism would be both necessary and even sufficient to bring down the capitalist system. After 1914, such incendiaries or their disciples came to power in much of Europe.

On the eve of the Great War, even the Tsar’s secret police did not think the Bolsheviks were a serious threat. They and their Menshevik allies had been crushed in 1905 and most of their leaders were in prison or in exile. Terrorists like the People’s Will and the Social Revolutionaries had killed a number of public figures, but they, too, had been hunted down and were thought to be in check. Nor, so far as I am aware, did anyone in Germany seriously entertain the thought that the bourgeoisie and the Prussian officer corps would, within two decades, be dominated by or enlisted in the support of a totalitarian, genocidal and strategically irrational party of thugs and buffoons. In China, between 1927 and 1937, or even in 1945, it was barely credible to think that the Communists, who had been hounded across China by Chiang Kai-shek’s armies and hunted down ruthlessly in its cities by his secret police would rise up to take power and impose a totalitarian dictatorship on the country by 1949.

There were exploited and impoverished workers and peasants in Russia and China before 1917 and 1949, respectively, but the victories of Bolshevism and Maoism were not foreordained and were not the triumph of virtue and liberation over tyranny and injustice, but the triumph of totalitarian ruthlessness and mobilization over inept authoritarian regimes thrown into disarray by foreign war and economic regression. There are hundreds of millions of exploited and impoverished, or otherwise disenchanted and disgruntled Muslims in the world today. Gilles Kepel thinks that the Islamic equivalent of Social Democracy will reconcile them to the modern world. He believes the firebrands are discredited and on the run. I am concerned that, whether or not this is so right now, we may merely be seeing a pre-1914 or pre-1929 situation and that the seeds of really serious trouble are, like dragon seed, well and truly planted in the ground, both in the Muslim world at large and even in our own countries in the West.

This brings me back to my seven theses of September 2001. What we face, I suggested then, is not a clash of civilizations but a profound challenge to civilization as such. In writing this, I was echoing the words of President Woodrow Wilson, speaking to his close aide Colonel Edward House, in December 1918, en route to Versailles. He told House, “The conservatives do not realize what forces are loose in the world at the present time. Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos - from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…Liberalism must be more liberal than ever before, it must even be radical, if civilization is to escape the typhoon.” I think that Islamism confronts us with a challenge of that magnitude and that merely being on our guard against acts of terrorism, or even intervening in rogue or failed states to clear out the breeding grounds and training camps of terrorists will not be enough to deal with that challenge.

What is required is the assimilation of Islam into a coherent and constructive vision for 21st century global civilization. This is something partly congruent with Kepel’s argument, except that I am very wary of his implication that Islam in and of itself is unproblematic. I think it is deeply problematic. What troubles me more is that the West itself has been struggling, in the 20th century, with working out a coherent and constructive vision of civilization - and fundamentalist Christianity has been making considerable inroads in our more or less secular society for some time now, in consequence of this. This is especially so in the United States. In much of the West now there is something of a cultural malaise, not altogether dissimilar to that which can be seen in the decades before 1914 in Europe. In such circumstances, what can we offer to Muslims with any real conviction that would draw them out beyond their traditional beliefs or counter-balance the appeals of their radical firebrands?

 

When I think about the challenge of Islam, many images and historical episodes spring to mind. The most powerful, especially since 2001 and the realization that Osama bin Laden and his co-religionists were bent on triggering an upheaval in the Muslim world that would enable them to overthrow the existing order of things and re-establish the Caliphate, is the history of the first upheaval, in which the existing order of the Roman and Persian Empires was overthrown and the original Caliphate built on their ruins. Reminded dimly of things I had read many years before, I turned back in 2001, to chapters 46 and 50 to 52 of Edward Gibbon’s classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where he recounted first the exhausting struggle between the Roman and Persian Empires, at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries of the Common Era, then the manner in which, caught weakened and off their guard, they were both overrun by the Arab Muslims in the middle and later part of the seventh century.

Immediately after 9/11, I was struck by the uncanny parallel between the Cold War, with its struggle between the USA and the USSR, and the ancient war between the Roman and Persian Empires. The account of this, in detail, by Gibbon, is so beautifully written that I recommend it to you as educational on that ground alone; but it is instructive also in our present circumstances, as a piece of ancient history which enables us to set our current dangers and dilemmas in deep perspective. Gibbon related how, during the incompetent reign of the Roman Emperor Phocas, the Persian Great King, Chosroes, overran the whole of the Middle East, subjected Egypt to Persian rule for the first time since Alexander the Great, nine hundred before, and laid siege to Constantinople itself. Even as he accomplished all these things, the historian wrote, “he received an epistle from an obscure citizen of Mecca, inviting him to acknowledge Mohammed as the apostle of God. He rejected the invitation and tore the epistle. ‘It is thus’, declared the Arabian prophet, ‘that God will tear the kingdom and reject the supplications of Chosroes.’ Placed on the verge of the two great empires of the East, Mohammed observed with secret joy the progress of their mutual destruction; and in the midst of the Persian triumphs he ventured to foretell that before many years should elapse, victory would again return to the banners of the Romans.”

This was, indeed, what transpired, as the extraordinary Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Younger, retrieved the fortunes of the Empire by a series of desperate and daring expeditions, ending in the complete reconquest of the East and the downfall of his rival Chosroes, who was overthrown and murdered by one of his own sons. In Gibbon’s words, “The glory of the house of Sassan ended with the life of Chosroes; his unnatural son enjoyed only eight months the fruits of his crimes; and in the space of four years the regal title was assumed by nine candidates, who disputed with the sword or dagger the fragments of an exhausted monarchy. Every province and each city of Persia was the scene of independence, of discord and of blood; and the state of anarchy prevailed about eight years longer, till the factions were silenced and united under the common yoke of the Arabian caliphs.”

And what of Rome, or at least Constantinople - that more secure Rome, to which Constantine had moved the capital of the Empire 300 years before? “While the emperor triumphed at Constantinople or Jerusalem, an obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens and they cut in pieces some troops who advanced to its relief; an ordinary and trifling occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These robbers were the apostles of Mohammed; their fanatic valour had emerged from the desert; and in the last eight years of his reign Heraclius lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the Persians.” I had last read those lines in 1981, as an undergraduate, but they leaped back to mind twenty years later, a decade after the end of the Cold War, when I contemplated the implications of the Islamist declaration of war against the United States, following the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Those Saracen raiders put me in mind of the raiders who were launching themselves with fanatical commitment against the citadels of Western power, convinced by their prophet, Osama bin Laden, the rebel of Arabia, that it was Muslim faith and arms that had brought down the Soviet Union, using as a pivot for this great act of leverage, the central Asian state of Afghanistan. I do not wish to suggest that we draw too close an analogy between the events of the seventh century and those of the early twenty first. I wish only to suggest that we remind ourselves of those distant events and of the way in which they fire the imaginations of our avowed enemies. When the Islamists of our time imagine the recreation of a Caliphate the triumph of Islam over the jahiliyya - the unbelievers, which is to say us - it is this historical antecedent that constitutes their vision of what is possible. Unless we recapture that history, from the inside, we cannot get inside their imaginations.

 

Now, it is an open question whether the parallel between the ancient empires and the modern superpowers is an apt one. Our own self-assurance, in fact, must depend on a belief that it is not. Was the West, and the United States in particular, exhausted in the 1990s, as the Roman Empire was by the middle of the seventh century? The preponderance of evidence would suggest otherwise. In the 1990s, the United States enjoyed a decade of unprecedented supremacy and prosperity. While the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia’s population went into decline and Central Asia reverted to semi-Islamic rule, the United States basked in the glory of its triumph and, for a few years, even looked as though it might rise to unprecedented heights of economic prosperity, with budget surpluses promising to wipe out the country’s stupendous debts. ‘History’, Frank Fukuyama assured us, was at an end and the global completion of liberal civilization was imminent.

That things have not entirely worked out that way and might yet go seriously awry is something we would do well to ponder. But the really unsettling aspect of the current ‘Saracen’ challenge is the context in which it is occurring - the era of globalization and the unresolved problem of weapons of mass destruction. These convergent issues are what so concern Bobbitt and Ganor, from whose prescriptions for action I have departed in order to offer you these thoughts this evening. In his arresting little book of 2001, The Unfinished Twentieth Century: The Crisis of Weapons f Mass Destruction, Jonathan Schell argued that the arsenals of weapons of mass destruction left over from the Cold War posed the most acute moral and strategic dangers in the 21st century.

Schell called for their abolition and cited Hannah Arendt as having observed, in 1951, that the true predicaments of our time might well assume their most authentic form only when the danger of totalitarianism had in fact passed away. He was writing just before 9/11. In a highly thoughtful reflection written immediately in its wake, Derek Leebaert dubbed his retrospective assessment The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory. He argued that, necessary as it had been to defeat totalitarianism, the costs had been higher than generally realized and that the West badly needed to take stock and heal its wounds if it was to rise to a higher level in the 21s century. In these reflections, I see the ghost of the Emperor Heraclius hovering over us now. In the huge stockpiles of WMD still sitting in Russia poorly guarded, with Iran and North Korea defying the international community and building nuclear arsenals, with Islamists utilizing all the technologies of the 21st century and all the civil rights of the liberal democracies to propagate their cause and conceal their designs, in the millions of Muslims living unassimilated within the borders of those liberal democracies, in the hundreds of millions of people in the Muslim world itself living in deprivation and governed by corrupt and cynical regimes, I see our counterpart to the vulnerability of the Roman order in the Middle East in 632 CE.

In his memoir, A Journey Through the Cold War, Raymond Garthoff remarked, in 2001, that “The Cold War led to a gross over simplification of our views of world politics…Afghanistan is a good example. Once the Soviet Union intervened directly in 1979, US policy in the 1980s was reduced to the single aim of bleeding the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and pillorying the Soviets in world forums, without regard to the role of Pakistan (our ally) or others, without regard to the internal political dynamics of Afghanistan, and without regard to what would follow when the Soviet Union had withdrawn.” What followed was first the triumph of the Taliban in a bloody civil war, then the flowering of terrorism on a base set up with considerable US encouragement during the Cold War - from which sprang the attacks of 9/11. The overall lesson here is that a great deal lurks beneath the surface of history and of the apparent victory of the liberal democratic West in the Cold War which could yet come back to haunt us.

            Not the least of these lurking dangers is the largely forgotten history of the West’s subordination of the Islamic world, between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. The jihadists like to accuse us of being Crusaders, but this is a misleading way of looking at the real question. For the Crusaders, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, may have established a foothold in Islamic territory, but they were driven out of Palestine and a fresh wave of Islamic conquests, in the fifteenth century, under the Ottomans, extended Muslim rule into the heart of Europe, beginning with the fall of Constantinople at last, in 1453. It was only after that, beginning with Vasco da Gama’s daring voyages around Africa and into the Indian Ocean in 1498 that the Islamic world started to confront an enemy it could not defeat. Over the following four hundred years, Islam was steadily encroached upon by the Western powers, until, in the wake of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and the present political order in the Middle East was carved out by Western statesmen.

It was Archibald Wavell, who had served under Edmund Allenby in Palestine, who remarked that those who had fought a war to end all war had, at Versailles, made a peace to end all peace. It was from this quip by a British officer that David Fromkin derived the title of his book, A Peace to End all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Middle East, published in 1989, just as the Cold War ended. His history makes startling reading at the present time, for it suggests a number of indirect parallels between the British aspiration to remake the Middle East in the 1920s and the American aspiration to do so in the 2000s. Writing half a century and more after the events he describes, Fromkin remarked mordantly that the official Russian, French and British accounts of what they were doing in the Middle East “works of propaganda” and “untruthful.” As for the famous Arab revolt, it “occurred”, he related, “not so much in reality as in the wonderful imagination of T. E. Lawrence, a teller of fantastic tales.” Only the opening of the archives made it possible to begin to piece together the truth of what had taken place.

In the passionate debates across the Western world about the war in Iraq, most of this history lies beneath the surface and even the most dispassionate of analysts finds himself swept along by the current, barely able to keep his nose above the swirling waters in order to look around and backwards. The common error of intellectuals, of course, is to suppose that they can look around, understand things adequately, and then expect those caught up in current passions or policy challenges to listen to them and change course. It has certainly been the besetting sin of intellectuals on the Left, for over a hundred years, to think that they can understand History and identify themselves with its inevitable or just course - in revolutions and rebellions against a more conservative order of things.

It would, therefore, be presumptuous of me to proffer too sweeping a vision of what should be done in our present circumstances; sweeping as my reflections on how we reached these circumstances may have been. But I did give these remarks the title ‘Reflections on Our Existential Struggle with Islamism’ and, thus far, I have said nothing at all about the role of the ADF in this struggle. Had I confined myself to reflecting on the work of Boaz Ganor, I should have had more to say about the ADF, by comparison with the IDF. I venture to hope, however, that what I have said has been food for thought about the strategic environment in which the ADF has been operating for some years now and in which it is likely to remain committed for some time yet. What we face is not merely a police and intelligence problem, as some still argue, but a comprehensive security challenge. We have little control over when or how the challenge will escalate off shore, but we cannot shelter from such escalation by playing the ostrich. Above all, we need depth of strategic perspective and resilience as regards the defence and enlargement of modern civilization. And in all of that, I should think, the training of the ADF and its morale are deeply implicated.

I have spoken almost long enough. Let me conclude by juxtaposing the rhetoric of our avowed enemies with the poetry of Omar Khayyam, which transcends the religion of Islam entirely and breathes the spirit of the kind of civilization we must, in my judgment, defend and enlarge against our enemies in the years ahead. In July this year, the new President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared, “Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution…will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.”[xii] A little more recently, Abu Bakar Bashir, the smiling spiritual mentor of Jemaah Islamiya, in Indonesia, told a Western journalist, “As long as there is no intention to fight it and Islam continues to grow, there will be peace. This is the doctrine of Islam. Islam can’t be ruled by others. Allah’s law can’t be under human law. Allah’s law must stand above human law. All laws must be under Islamic law…There is no case of Islam and infidels, the right and the wrong, living together in peace.”

I suggest that, while we might choose to take these statements with a grain of salt, we would be wise to take them as seriously as the Western democracies and German democrats should have taken Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or as seriously as the Russian Provisional Revolutionary Government should have taken Lenin’s April Theses, in 1917. Neither was taken very seriously and the costs were incalculable. These gentlemen mean what they say and we should not only take them at their word, but do what is needful to suppress them in our own equivalents of 1923 and April 1917, before they acquire any real power. Perhaps in the case of Ahmadinejad it is already very late in the day. Kenneth Timmerman has forcefully advanced the argument, in his newly published book, Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown With Iran (Crown Forum, New York, 2005) that very serious trouble is brewing in the Middle East, with global ramifications. Dealing with such trouble will not be a matter only for ASIO and the AFP - though they, too, are likely to have their work cut out for them.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Ruba’iyyat of Omar Khayyam. It is quite a long poem, made famous in English through the translation by Edward FitzGerald. There is a beautiful and scholarly account of both Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald, by Mehdi Aminrazavi, called The Wine of Wisdom, published just this year, but there is a beautifully recited version of it in a Naxos audio book called Poems of the Orient. Omar Khayyam (1048-1129) was the antithesis of a Islamist fanatic. He had far more in common with the sceptical Stoics and Epicureans of the classical world, whom St Paul encountered in Athens and was unable to convert to his new creed. He did not subscribe to an orthodox theodicy, but thought it a mystery that “a good God would allow so much suffering to be inflicted upon us in the continuous cycle of suffering from birth to death with little choice but to see this world as the promised hell of the scriptures.”[xiii]

Here, then, are a few of my favourite quatrains from FitzGerald’s translation of the great poem, which illustrate Omar Khayyam’s sceptical, Sufi metaphysics and humane eye for the lot of mortals:

 

Then to the lip of this poor earthen urn

I leaned, the secret of my life to learn:

And, lip to lip it murmured - ‘While you live,

-Drink! - for, once dead, you never shall return.’

 

 

I think the vessel, that with fugitive

Articulation answered once did live,

And drink; and, Ah! The passive lip I kissed,

How many kisses might it take - and give!

 

For I remember stopping by the way

To watch a potter thumping his wet clay:

And with its all obliterated tongue

It murmured, ‘Gently, brother, gently pray!’

 

As under cover of departing day

Slunk hunger stricken Ramadan away,

Once more within the potter’s house alone

I stood, surrounded by the shapes of clay.

 

Shapes of all sorts and sizes, great and small

That stood along the floor and by the wall;

And some loquacious vessels were; and some

Listened perhaps, but never talked at all.

 

Said one among them, ‘Surely not in vain

My substance of the common earth was ta’en

And to this figure moulded, to be broke,

Or trampled back to shapeless earth again.’

 

Then said a second, ‘Ne’er a peevish boy

Would break the bowl from which he drank in joy;

And he that with his hand the vessel made

Will surely not in after wrath destroy.’

 

After a momentary silence spake

Some vessel of a more ungainly make;

‘They sneer at me for leaning all awry:

What, did the hand then of the potter shake?’

 

Whereat some one of the loquacious lot -

I think a Sufi pipkin - waxing hot -

All this of pot and potter - tell me then -

Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?

 

‘Why’ said another, ‘some there are who tell

Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell

The luckless pots he marred in making - Pish!

He’s a good fellow and ‘twill all be well.’

 

‘Well’, murmured one, ‘Let whoso make or buy

My clay with long oblivion is gone dry:

But fill me with the old familiar juice,

Methinks I might recover, by and by.’

 

So, while the vessels one by one were speaking,

The little moon looked in that all were seeking:

And then they jogged each other, ‘Brother! Brother!

Now for the porter’s shoulder knot a-creaking!’

 

Our enemies declare themselves in love with death and scorn our hedonism, our tolerance and our religion alike. Yet they do not speak for all of the civilization from which they derive. And we must extend our sense of civilization to the best in that civilization, not out of political correctness, but out of common humanity. That is what the Iranian Mehdi Aminrazavi was hoping for, when, writing from exile in America, he dedicated his book on Omar Khayyam “to the democratic movement of the people of Iran. May Khayyam’s spirit of freethinking prevail in our native land.” Amen to that. And now, I hear the porter’s shoulder knot a-creaking. Let me finish here, therefore, and invite your freethinking questions.

 

 


 

[i] Boaz Ganor The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decisionmakers, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London, 2005, Preface, p. xv.

[ii] The Australian 22 November 2005, p. 6.

[iii] Ganor ibid. pp. xv-xvi.

[iv] The Australian 22 November 2005, p. 6.

[v] Paul Monk ‘Seven Theses of War’ The Australian Financial Review, Review 21 Sept. 2001, p. 1.

[vi] Sam Tanenhaus Whittaker Chambers, Random House, 1997, pp. 519-20.

[vii] Nigel West VENONA: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War, Harper Collins, 1999, 384 pp. See also Lauren Kessler CLEVER GIRL: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era, Harper Collins, 2003, 372 pp.

[viii] Gilles Kepel Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, I. B. Tauris, 2004, p. 374.

[ix] Ibid. pp. 375-76.

[x] Gilles Kepel The War For Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, Belknap Press, Harvard University, 2004, pp. 8-9.

[xi] Paul Marshall (ed) Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, pp. 1-17.

[xii] ‘Islamic revolution to ‘cover the globe’’, The Australian, 01 July 2005, p. 9.

[xiii] Mehdi Aminrazavi The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, One world, Oxford, 2005, p. 99.