The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP


Melbourne, 15 August 2003

At the International Conference on Islam and the West


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I'm very pleased to be here today to open this international conference "Islam and the West: the Impact of September 11".

It hardly needs saying that the subject matter is topical. But the conference itself is also timely.

It is almost exactly ten years since Samuel Huntington, writing in Foreign Affairs, put forward his hypothesis about the so-called "clash of civilisations".

This phrase has sparked intense debate and become part of the popular lexicon - both in the West, but also, significantly, in many Islamic countries.

Ten years is not a long time in international politics.

But it is probably enough to get a feel for how much of Huntington's hypothesis has been borne out by developments.

And certainly the events of September 11 and subsequent terrorist spectaculars, including the Bali bombings, make such an assessment even more apposite.

Proponents of Huntington's thesis point to these attacks as symptomatic of the war of cultures that he predicted.

Even for opponents of Huntington, September 11 has, in many cases, provoked serious head-scratching about whether he might, in the end, be right.

I for one do not believe that September 11 is the realisation Huntington's clash of civilisations. And I would like to use my address today to put forward three important reasons why.

I would like to explore how Islamist-inspired terrorism largely sits at odds with Australia's own experience of Islam in our region…

  • …to explain why I believe that terrorism threatens moderate Islam and moderate Muslims as much as it does the West…
  • …and to look at how terrorism, rather than promoting conflict between Islam and the West, is in some instances actually encouraging cooperation.

Religion as a source of conflict

Central to Huntington's argument was his view that religion was increasingly becoming, quote, "a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations".

Huntington argued that religion was contributing to the division of the world into distinct "civilisations". And that this in turn was drawing new lines of conflict in international politics - in particular between the Islamic world and the West.

Recent decades have indeed seen a growing Islamic identity or affiliation in South East Asia.

Most often it is manifest as a greater observance of Muslim practices and dress codes, particularly among young Muslims.

But Islamic organisations have also become increasingly prominent and active on university campuses and in politics more generally.

Some of theses groups have played significant roles in the process of political reform, notably in Indonesia.

Much of this is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Islam is not new to the region. Islamic influences in South East Asia date back to the 14th century, much of it the result of trade between the region and the Middle East.

Indeed Islam has played an integral role in the development of the modern day nation states of the South East Asia archipelago through the 19th and 20th centuries.

But does this necessarily mean that, as Huntington would have it, Australia is destined for conflict with its Muslim neighbours? I think not.

Certainly we are not sanguine about the future directions of political Islam in the region.

Many countries in the region face significant social, political and economic challenges.

There remains a strong body of popular anti-western sentiment on which extremists can feed.

And we have also seen the pernicious role that external groups, such as Al-Qaeda, are playing in the promotion of radicalism and violence.

But equally we should not be overly alarmist and maintain some perspective.

We should certainly not confuse the growing incidence of Islamic observance in the region with the emergence of Islamist-inspired terror of the likes of Jema'ah Islamiyya and Abu Sayyaf.

It is a simple point, but one that often needs re-stating.

The Bali bomber Amrozi no more represents the majority of Muslims in South East Asia than Osama Bin Laden represents the majority of Muslims in the Arab world.

Amrozi is a part of a minority - possibly a sizable minority - that should not be allowed to inform our perception of Islam, even political Islam, in the region.

Indeed the reality of Islam in South East Asia stands in pretty stark contrast to the hateful rhetoric of Amrozi and his colleagues.

By and large the Islam practiced by the majority of Muslims in South East Asia is generally moderate, pluralist in character, and largely tolerant in outlook.

For example, in Indonesia, the world's largest predominantly Muslim country, greater Islamic observance among the population has not translated into a greater desire by people to be ruled under an Islamic system of Government.

In the 1955 election Islamist parties gained 43 per cent of the vote. In the 1999 election that support dropped to 38 per cent.

And Islamic parties that supported a constitutional amendment obliging Muslims to uphold Sharia law won just four per cent of the vote.

Mainstream organised Islam has played a positive role in Indonesian politics.

In particular, Indonesia's two largest Islamic organisations were central to the successful transition to democracy - which if you believe the extremists or Huntington for that matter, is an alien, western value, incompatible with Islam.

It is also worth remembering that for many of these countries Islam may be an important characteristic, but it is not necessarily the defining one.

Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia are also modern, increasingly open economies, with a record of moderate secularism and increasingly vibrant democratic traditions and institutions.

The targets of Islamist terror

The distinction between radical and mainstream Islam in South East Asia was illustrated at a joint press conference held last week in Jakarta by Indonesia's two largest Muslim organisations.

At that press conference NU Chairman Hasyim Muzadi said that all Indonesians, and not only the individual victims, had been injured by the recent terrorist bombing at the Marriot hotel in Jakarta.

Together with the Head of the Muhamadiyah he called on the Indonesian security services to act decisively to bring the culprits of this outrage to justice.

Muzadi's comments and the condemnations of the bombing by other Muslim figures in Indonesia underline what I believe is perhaps the strongest reason for rejecting the Huntington thesis.

That is, that Islamist inspired terror strikes as much at moderate Islam and moderate Muslim countries as it does at the West.

Certainly much of the rhetoric used by the extremists echoes the Huntington's theme of irreconcilable cultural differences between Islam and West.

And there is no denying that a strong current of anti-western sentiment lies at the core Islamist extremism.

But increasingly a great many Muslims also understand that they and their moderate vision of Islam, is also under threat.

Whether it be from the terrorist's vision of building Taleban-style theocracies in moderate Muslim countries…

…or from the extremists' misappropriation of their faith…

…or indeed, as we saw last week in Jakarta, from acts of violence and terror.

That perception is not limited to Islam in South East Asia.

Bin Laden rails against the West but his chief target has always been the government of Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, in the not so distant past, we saw how Islamist terrorists neatly combined their antipathy toward the West with their goals of overthrowing the Mubarak government by attacking foreign tourists.

And many of Al-Qaeda's operatives were first blooded in violence directed against their own Government in the Middle East.

Nor is the threat or its method unique to Islam. The style and psychology of the extremists finds parallels in the history of the West.

It echoes the violent "propaganda by deed" philosophy of some late 19th century European anarchists.

Or like Baader Meinhof or the Italian Red Brigade, Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, don't care that their violence is unlikely to produce immediate results in terms of their political program; it is the act of violence which is important.

All of this serves to underline the fact that what we face today is not some new clash between civilisations.

Rather, it is the age-old clash between moderates and extremists; between tolerance and intolerance; between those who uphold the integrity of their faith and those prepared to kill innocents in its name.

Cooperation rather than conflict

In assessing the impact of September 11 on relations between Islam and the West it is all too easy to focus on the negative.

Often lost in the discussion are tangible examples of how, since September 11 cooperation between Muslim and non-Muslim states has in fact increased in some areas; in practical, tangible, but still meaningful ways.

The obvious case is the fight against terror.

As governments and people in Muslim countries come to understand that they are the common victims of the extremists, their willingness to cooperate across Huntington's cultural divide has also increased.

Today we see greater cooperation between Muslim and non-Muslim states in combating terrorism than perhaps we have ever seen.

Quiet and but very effective collaboration between the United States and Saudi Arabia has, for example, replaced the more cautious and fitful cooperation of some years ago.

Muslim countries that once supported the Taleban, helped to remove it and Al-Qaida from Afghanistan.

Muslim and non-Muslim countries have worked to freeze over $137 million in terrorist assets since September 11.

Around 65 per cent of senior Al-Qaeda members have been captured or killed - an outcome which would have been impossible without the cooperation of Muslim countries.

In our own region a network of bilateral counter-terrorism MOUs have facilitated practical, operational-level cooperation between our security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Australia has signed six counter-terrorism MOUs with regional countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Fiji.

We co-hosted with Indonesia, a regional conference on money laundering and terrorist financing and are exploring options for further such summits.

And of course, Australian and Indonesian police forces cooperated closely and effectively in the joint Bali investigation, and more recently in Indonesia's investigation of the Marriott hotel bombing.

Clearly there has been a strong focus on pragmatic and effective cooperation with regional countries against the terrorist threat.

What is also clear is that Muslim and non-Muslim countries have generally shown a willingness to work together to address a common threat.

Think how difficult - and ineffective - the fight against terror would have been without this cooperation.

But not only is this cooperation effective, it also builds confidence and helps dispel misapprehension between Islamic countries and the West.

Of course our effort to bridges between our cultures cannot stop here.

We have to look at other mechanisms - including things like this conference - to both help promote greater understanding, and to address the root cause of extremism.

In Australia's case, in parallel with our enhanced security cooperation with Indonesia we have established a Muslim exchange program, under the auspices of the Australia-Indonesia institute.

It is our hope that it will help promote linkages both between our respective Muslim communities, but also between Muslims and non-Muslims in each country.

Similarly we are working with regional governments to strengthen democratic institutions and promote good governance; to alleviate poverty and to help local communities be participants in the global economy rather than bystanders.

I do not believe that poverty is the cause of terrorism - as we have seen with Al-Qaeda, terrorist come from all backgrounds, rich and poor.

But it is important to ensure that for ordinary people there are alternatives to the politics of despair, peddled by extremists.

The Muslim world also has a role to play. In particular it cannot cede the agenda to the extremists. It must speak up - as it has since September 11 - to condemn terrorism unequivocally.

It must help us to highlight an Islam that we know is practised by the majority of the world's Muslims, including those in Australia; strong in its faith, proud in its traditions, but willing to engage with people of other religions and cultures on the basis of mutual respect.


Ladies and gentlemen

September 11 and subsequent terror attacks are not necessarily symptomatic of Huntington's clash of civilisations. But that does not mean that such a clash will not occur.

Ultimately it is up to us to determine what our relations will be; whether they will be marked by a clash or by cooperation.

We must strive to understand that diversity and nuance characterise the Islamic world as much as it does the West.

We must recognise that while our prayers might be different our hopes and our fears are more often than not very similar; that values of openness, tolerance, and democratic principles are not things that divide us but thing we share.

I am confident that today's conference will do much to promote increased understanding of the complex relationship between Islam and the West.

I wish you well in your deliberations.