Australian Islam is missing clerical leadership when it comes to preventing youth joining jihad, writes RODGER SHANAHAN.
A teenage Australian passport holder has deliberately blown himself up and murdered five civilians as a result, joining a dozen other Australians who thought that killing and being killed in the name of a religion somehow pleased God.
This is a new and disturbing development for Australia; citizens whose sectarian identity trumps their national identity pose a potentially dangerous security threat to the country.
These are uncertain times for Australia’s Islamic community, which is overwhelmingly peaceable. But it is not being well served by its clerical leadership, who have been too slow in recognising the nature of the threat and too publicly passive in opposing it.
The majority of Australian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq or collaborating with violent jihadist groups in Yemen are neither Syrian nor Iraqi nor Yemeni, or in some cases even Arab. This security threat has little to do with notions of nationalism or ethnicity and everything to do with religious identity. This may seem an obvious point to make but because of the threat’s religious aspect, the prevailing counter-narrative to thwart it also has to emerge from amongst the religious.
While the government has used its punitive powers to address the issue as far as it can, what has been missing is a united, timely and public campaign to destroy the ideological basis for would-be jihadists to travel overseas to kill. This is because the Australian Muslim religious leadership has failed to lead.
That is not to say that they have failed to act, because they have spoken in their sermons and forums, and dissuaded youth from going overseas if asked. But they have been too slow to understand the gravity of the threat or the nature of this radicalisation. They are largely reactive in their response and nearly silent in social media – a medium that often serves as an entry point for many who go on to become radical Islamists willing to kill others.
Groups such as ISIS produce highly sophisticated and evocative media content. A recent YouTube video featured two Australian and three British jihadis calling on their fellow Muslims to come to join them was aimed directly at youthful, male, English-speaking Muslims. ISIS videos showing the bulldozing of the border between Syria and Iraq further emphasise the strength of the Islamist fighters.
In response, a group in the UK called Imams Online released an online rebuttal featuring several English-speaking clerics – Sunni and Shi’a, Arab and South Asian – that emphasised the unity of the United Kingdom and labeled ISIS as a terrorist organisation. It was a timely, cross-sectarian and cross-cultural response that showed initiative. More importantly, it attempted to unequivocally refute the Islamist message in the same medium as the jihadists – online.
By contrast, Australia’s decentralised Muslim leadership has failed to undertake an active and engaging social media campaign to provide a counter-narrative to those who see something praiseworthy in killing in God’s name. A quick glance at the Facebook page of the Grand Mufti or the websites of many of the multitude of Islamic organisations makes you think that nothing is amiss. The National Imams Consultative Forum issued a statement against Australians traveling to fight in Syria 18 months after the first Australian was killed operating with the armed opposition in Syria.
Part of the reason for this public invisibility is confusion or disagreement over who should lead a response; the Grand Mufti or others from amongst a myriad of ethnic- or state-based associations. There was also a willingness, particularly in the early days of the Syrian conflict, to want to believe that members of its community were actually going overseas only to perform humanitarian work and hence were not actually security threats to Australia.
The reality is that conflicts in the Middle East are providing individuals with military training and a dangerously exclusive ideology. More importantly linkages are being established between individuals and groups that will likely be used to facilitate attacks against Westerners for years to come.
There is no single solution to this problem, but a unified, socially adroit and media-savvy clerical leadership is part of it. Only they can construct the counter-narrative in terms that can blunt the jihadists’ slick social media campaigns.
Australia’s Islamic clerical leadership need to be modern, inclusive, decisive and national leaders – not just passive community scholars attending forums. They must lead and shape the debate and not just comment on it. The Australian public and their own communities deserve it.
Dr Rodger Shanahan is a visiting fellow at the National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and a non-resident fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy. His latest NSC research paper on sectarianism and the threat of Australian jihadists, launched Thursday, is available online.
This article was also published in The Australian.