The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
 FORMER MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS, AUSTRALIA

Speech to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry

Terrorism: Our Common Struggle

27 November, Melbourne

Introduction

Thank you Joshua Frydenberg.

I want to speak this morning about the most serious political struggle facing our country-and in fact-the greatest political struggle facing our generation. And that is the struggle against terrorism and violent extremism.

The ECAJ has made a strong stand on this issue, condemning terrorism and playing an important role in building understanding across faiths.

But I think not enough people in the Australian community realise that the fight against terrorism is our common struggle. Many do not realise that this struggle against violent extremism is a fight to defend the values that we hold dear.

Australians and people of good will around the world value reason, moderation, tolerance and pluralism. We value freedom of speech, religious freedom and freedom from state intimidation.

Against this, terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah exploit the freedoms of our society. The terrorists pervert the tenets of Islam using extreme religious interpretations to justify tactics like killing innocent civilians and suicide bombing. They draw selectively from the writings of Islamists like the Egyptian militant Sayyid Qutb ignoring the authoritative mainstream views of the Islamic world.

Instead of supporting liberal, democratic societies, the terrorists are waging a global campaign to install totalitarian regimes based on an ideology that is dogmatic, intolerant and violent.

Now, as I speak this morning I want to make absolutely clear that the fight against terrorism is not a fight against Islam. Islam is one of the world's great religions. And many of the world's religions share similar values and share the same respect for human life.

Muslim scholars tell us that the Koran elaborates a range of rights, including: the right to life, respect and equity, justice and liberty, the right to acquire knowledge, to work and the right to basic needs and to privacy.

All Australians would recognise these rights and support the fundamentally decent values that they reflect. Terrorists do not. They hate these values and they hate even more those Muslims who expound them, branding them apostates.

What I'd like Australians to understand is that if we let terrorist values go unchallenged, more and more people, mainly young men, risk being recruited into terrorist causes.

This is happening in the Middle East, it is happening in South East Asia and is happening in Western societies. Recently, in Britain, the Director General of MI5 Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said some 1,600 individuals were actively engaged in plotting or facilitating attacks in Britain and elsewhere. She said MI5 knew of 30 plots to kill people and damage the economy.

The Government has committed over $8 billion to counter terrorism activities since September 11. This is essential. But no amount of painstaking police work or intelligence will be effective unless our ideas are potent enough to counter the terrorist narrative.

Let there be no doubt who our opponents are. There's a notion that these extremists are somehow totally alien and don't understand how the West works, how it thinks and what its political dynamics are like. On the contrary, they know very well how the West works.

The terrorists who preach the extremist message are politically much smarter than we give them credit. They watch their enemy-that's us-very closely. They see our freedoms as a vulnerability to exploit.

As an example, consider how terrorists use mediums like the internet to try to convert mainstream Muslims to extremist Islamism. In Iraq, terrorist attacks are regularly videoed and the footage is put onto the Internet within 30 minutes. This gets edited virtually, translated into English and other languages and packaged for a global audience. This online production process produces chilling videos used to recruit new suicide bombers.

As terrorism expert Professor Audrey Cronin of Oxford University has pointed out-and I quote, "Blogs are today's revolutionary pamphlets, websites are the new dailies and list-servers are today's broadsides."

So it will take a concerted campaign from politicians and opinion leaders from all countries to discredit terrorist ideology. We won't succeed if we are perceived to be weak, or if people think we just don't care. Silence is not an option; it is a sign of submission.

The Extremist Narrative

So what is Extremist Islamism and how does it indoctrinate passive sympathisers to commit atrocities such as suicide bombing?

Let me take a few minutes to outline what the terrorists believe and what they want. These are often woven together and form what is sometimes called the terrorist narrative:

The terrorists argue that the only way to unify the "Islamic nation" is by eliminating all Western influence in Muslim countries and overthrowing the current regimes. The means to do this is violent Jihad, which is a religious duty. They argue that since the Muslim world lacks the military and technological means to win this conflict, terrorism is a legitimate tactic.

The words of Osama Bin Laden, posted on an Islamist website, speak for themselves-and I quote-"death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers among us." He goes on to say-and I quote-"fear God, try to please him and do not consult with anyone regarding the killing of those unbelievers."

That is the tactic. And ultimately, what the terrorists want is to expel all foreign influence from Muslim countries and to found a new political order - Islamic states based on extreme interpretations of religious Sharia Law. Some dream of recreating the Islamic Caliphate that existed in the seventh century and extending this into our region.

The vast majority of Muslims reject the nihilistic terrorist ideology and condemn their murderous methods. But the terrorist narrative does still seem to strike a chord in many Muslim communities and it does win recruits. This is partly because it masquerades as religious piety - something admired in the Muslim world.

It also capitalises on the lack of economic progress and political freedoms in many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East. It distorts the role of foreign forces in Muslim nations. It cleverly draws strength from the natural tendency of people to turn to religion in times of change and uncertainty. And it offers simple, utopian solutions to complex problems, a method that has attracted recruits to radical causes down through the ages.

Countering the Extremist Narrative

So how can we best combat this ideology? I'd like to outline three broad ways in which we can challenge the Extremist Islamist world view.

First, we need to make very plain the bleak results of this extremist ideology in practice.

Incredible as it might seem, Afghanistan under the Taliban is held up as an example of the sort of society the extremists would like to establish. The Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir says - and I quote - "the closest we ever got to an Islamic state was the Taliban government in Afghanistan".

Let us recall the reality of life under the Taliban. Within twenty-four hours of taking Kabul, the Taliban imposed the most authoritarian system in place anywhere in the world.

All women were banned from work, even though one quarter of Kabul's civil service, the entire primary education system and much of the health system were run by women. Girls' schools and colleges were closed down.

Almost every form of entertainment was banned, including television, videos, satellite dishes, music and all games including chess, football and kite-flying. Taliban soldiers stood on main streets arresting men without beards. Public floggings, stonings and executions were regular events at Kabul's football stadium.

This was a regime that demanded that all Shia Muslims convert to Sunni Islam, leave for Iran or die. Many of these people escaped, including to Australia.

The Taliban went on its own cultural revolution. The great statues of Buddha in the town of Bamian had stood witness to nearly two millennia of history. They had survived even the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan. But they didn't survive the Taliban, who blew them up with artillery and dynamite.

The Taliban had virtually no program to deliver public health and education. In July 1998, they closed down all NGO offices, triggering an exodus of foreign aid-workers from Kabul. More than 1.2 million people relied on NGO assistance, and women and children were the immediate victims when that aid was cut off.

The experience of Afghanistan under the Taliban demonstrates so clearly that a radical and uncompromising approach to society is unworkable. It's also an indication to Muslims everywhere of what life would be like if the extremists achieve their aims.

The average Muslim in Jakarta or Amman clearly would not wish to live in the sort of medieval society that the extremists wish to impose. They may question the status quo, and they may be disappointed in the flaws in the modern world. But the way to deal with modernity is not to retreat into the past.

People everywhere value the opportunities that come with economic development. People value education for their children. They want access to information, whether it's through literature or on the internet. They want to travel and they want to be able to communicate by mobile phone. The terrorists would use new technology to gain power and then switch it off.

Second,we need to emphasise that there is no conflict between the West and Islam. As I said earlier, this is not a fight against Islam. We need to underline the shared common values and aspirations that Muslims and non-Muslims hold dear.

There is more that unites the world's great religions than sets them apart.

I commend the involvement of ECAJ in the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews. And I welcome the participation of ECAJ leaders in the Australian Government's inter-faith dialogue in Indonesia. In our region, we have held two interfaith dialogues already and a third will be held in New Zealand in May next year.

These dialogues are a powerful tool - by bringing religious leaders together they are able to identify how much the major faiths have in common.

In our dialogue on common values we must emphasise one very powerful concept - which I think is the extremists' Achilles heel. That concept is democracy. The extremist vision for organising society is a closed, totalitarian one. There's no getting around it.

We need to explain that democracy does not necessarily mean the same secular version that many Western countries have adopted. Some Muslim-majority countries have modernised very successfully while retaining and preserving the Islamic character of their societies.

The underlying point is that well developed democratic systems are better able to deliver prosperity, security and personal happiness. They have the checks and balances to prevent the sort of abuses witnessed in Afghanistan. Of course, democracy is more than just elections. It requires freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. It means the benefits of development are fairer and less likely to be captured by a ruling elite.

But the danger of not allowing people to have a say, of not allowing people to exercise their rights under democracy and choose their representatives, is that it breeds extremism.

Extremism breeds particularly in places where the performance of Government is less than ideal. Too often we see in the Middle East, where states have failed to provide adequately for their citizens, that the political opposition is in fact the extremist Islamist.

The virtue of democracy is that where there is a capacity for people to offer alternative plans to improve lives, extremist ideology becomes less appealing. But if there aren't alternatives, people will stray to the extremist ideology because extremism offers a simplistic kind of utopian ideal.

The third way to counter the extremist narrative is that we need to be aware that a good part of the debate has to be conducted between Muslims, given the religious mantle the terrorists use to wrap their ideology.

Many eminent Islamic scholars and theologians have condemned the way the extremists appropriate language and concepts drawn from the Muslim religion. After all, Muslims have the greatest stake in the outcome of this conflict; it is very often Muslims who are the victims of terrorist attacks.

And while the controversy and violence over the Pope's recent comments about Islam was unfortunate, some good came of it. Recently, 38 of the foremost religious leaders of the Islamic world wrote an open letter to the Pope.

What is important and uplifting about this letter is both its clear intent to engage in a dialogue founded on reason and tolerance and its clear rejection of the extremist narrative. "Those with utopian dreams", these eminent scholars wrote, have disregarded a long and well-established tradition and "do so of their own accord and without the sanction of God".

All this is not to say that non-Muslims cannot raise their voices with mainstream Muslims in support of the common values I have talked about this morning. Indeed, we have a right and a duty to do so, given the challenge that extremism poses to the values that underwrite all civilised society.

In doing so, we recognise and sympathise with the distress that many Muslims currently feel as a result of the internal and external pressures that are being placed on their faith. When a terrorist atrocity takes place it can all too easily hijack popular perceptions of Islam in the non-Muslim community.

Middle East

I appreciate that what I have said this morning may sound daunting. Most ideological challenges are. After all, it took most of the second half of the last century to see off the challenge of Soviet communism.

So let's not pretend there are easy steps ahead. The terrorist threat may well last a generation. But many parts of the world are struggling with the actions of terrorists every day. One of the fulcrums of this struggle is the Middle East, where extremism is a force for disorder and conflict.

I would like to conclude with some comments about the broad set of challenges we face in that part of the world. We are at a critical point in the Middle East. The Iraqi Government faces many challenges; democracy in Lebanon is in peril; the Middle East Peace Process is stalled without a credible Palestinian negotiating partner since the election of Hamas and a revolutionary state is acquiring advanced nuclear technology.

These are grave but not unsolvable challenges. But they cannot be solved without the constructive participation and good faiths of countries such as Syria and Iran. Iran, in particular, as an important regional power with an ancient and impressive culture, is a lead actor in the drama of the Middle East. We want Iran to play a constructive role.

But the evidence so far suggests that Iran has chosen the opposite. Through Iran's support of terrorism; through its sponsorship of Shia militia in Iraq; Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine; and with President Ahmedinejad's outrageous statements about wiping Israel off the map, Iran has chosen to act as a disruptive rather than constructive force in the region.

Now, I think we should acknowledge that while Australia and Iran disagree on key issues such as non-proliferation, human rights and support for terrorism, we have maintained for many years a robust and critical dialogue. I hope that this can continue.

But the cloud over Iran's nuclear activities only worsens the negative international perceptions about Iran's intentions. We recognise Iran's right, as a party to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, to access peaceful nuclear energy. But NPT rights to peaceful energy are not unqualified; they must conform to NPT objectives.

The fact is that Iran has a record of concealing its nuclear program over nearly two decades-in breach of its obligations. Our concerns are compounded by Iran's plan to enrich uranium without a convincing reason. And Iran continues to defy the United Nations Security Council resolution to suspend enrichment.

Australia encourages Iran to suspend its enrichment program. We are disappointed that Iran has so far rejected the comprehensive incentives on offer from the UK, France and Germany and the United States, Russia and China.

If international sanctions result it will add pain to an economy already under stress. I mentioned earlier the simplistic attraction of revolutions. Yet the verdict of history may well note that the story of Iran's Islamic revolution was one of economic decline.

Despite Iran's bounty from high oil prices, the IMF estimates that inflation in Iran has risen to 14 per cent this year. Iran's jobless rate is officially 11 per cent but it could be much higher. Tehran's stock market has lost a third of its value in the last year and foreign bank credit is increasingly hard to access. Real incomes have declined over the last 26 years. The worst thing is that much of this economic decline is self-inflicted.

So I share the view of the international community that Iran has a choice: it can support the Middle East Peace Process; it can stop sponsoring terrorism and meddling with its neighbours and it can accept the international responsibilities that go with developing nuclear energy. If Iran does not accept these things it must pay the price of international isolation.

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen.

I want to finish today by putting our struggle against terrorism and violent extremism in its proper historical context.

The inescapable facts are that terrorist ideology is a totalitarian ideology; it is based on a mindset of subjugation and it cannot be negotiated out of existence or accommodated.

You may know that Osama bin Laden reportedly offered the West a truce. But I see the offer of a truce with al Qaeda in the same vein as Hitler's offer to Lord Halifax. And history tells us what happened with appeasement.

Like Nazism and Soviet Communism, extremist Islamism is simply the latest totalitarian ideology. And like other extremist political ideologies, it must be confronted and defeated. Totalitarian ideology prospers when good people do little to stop it. Good people must be prepared to stand up and defend our shared values.

Good people who challenge extremist ideology can take comfort from the words of the writer Arthur Koestler, writing about the burning of Berlin's Reichstag in 1933, an event which gave rise to Nazi Germany. Koestler wrote-and I quote-"We said that if you don't quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs."

As a country and as global community we have to muster the courage to confront extremist ideology and rally behind the common values of tolerance, pluralism, moderation, democratic freedom and liberty under the law.

Thank you.