I think I first noticed it about a month ago. First it was just a few random posts on facebook – people who are remnants of a conservative christian church past, who I have no real life contact with any more. They were sharing horrible anti-Islam articles with horrible anti-Islam comments posted below. I thought about deleting those people off my facebook, but then I thought that actually I wouldn’t. As obnoxious as I found this stuff, sometimes it’s better to see what’s out there. Know your enemy and all that.
Some of the links that I saw shared were from racist crackpot groups like the Patriots Defence League. But more worryingly (even if unsurprisingly), several were from Murdoch-owned newspapers – supposedly mainstream respectable press. And then the floodgates opened.
A picture of a young boy, reported to be the son of Australian Khaled Sharrouf, holding a severed head was posted on the net to much horror. Suddenly there was a national crisis of Australians going over to fight as Jihadis. Tony Abbott was talking about how Muslims needed to join “Team Australia“. The Daily Telegraph published Tim Blair’s embarrassingly bad article about Sydney suburb Lakemba. Titled “A look inside Sydney’s Muslim Land”, it describes Lakemba as a “monoculture”. Which it possibly is, if you count every culture other than white Australian as one. More facebook posts, and the comment sections on these articles were even more of a no-go than usual.
A new bogeyman had appeared, as Islamic State (IS) brutally made their way through the north of Iraq, country still decimated from the last Iraq war. Like something out of a horror movie they swept from town to town, claiming territory and slaughtering anyone who wouldn’t join as they went.
The Iraqi government had its own problems and was powerless to stop IS. In fact there isn’t really an Iraq government at the moment, US-appointed Primer Minister Nouri al-Maliki having been stood down and talks of a new government stalling amongst all the violence. Maliki’s religious factionalism (he is Shia) had helped to create Islamic State (who are Sunni) in a country that had for decades been religiously moderate and tolerant. The Iraq army in the north of the country turned and fled, leaving IS to claim all their weapons and add them to the weapons they already had from American support of Islamist militia groups fighting against the Assad government in Syria.
As all this unfolded in the news (bringing with it the anti-Islam reaction), it just so happened that we had living with us a family of Muslims. I can never remember discussing with them what was happening in Iraq and Syria. Why would I? They were Australian born and bred, religiously tolerant and really had no more links to IS than I did. Would seem to be common sense really. As we all know though, common sense isn’t always that common. So we had Tim Blair summarising an entire suburb based on two books he found in one of its bookstores, our Prime Minister warning of imminent terrorist attacks in Australia, talk of restricting the movements overseas of Australian citizens, and a meeting organised with Muslim leaders (many of whom, unlike Tony Abbott, were born here) inviting them to join Team Australia.
When I see media trends like this, I ask myself why it is happening. Is the rising ant-Muslim sentiment plain old xenophobia? That is a reliable way to sell papers and get votes after all. Is it an attempt to distract the public from a Liberal government that is becoming increasingly unpopular and hasn’t yet managed to get its budget passed in the senate? But before long a sound in the distance gave another clue. It was the predictable and familiar sound of the drums of war.
The last time I remember seeing anti-Islam media this frequently was at the beginning of the “War on Terror”. Phone lines were set up for reporting neighbours we suspected of being terrorists. Laws were passed that horrified civil liberties advocates. Australian Mamdouh Habib was locked up and tortured for three years in American offshore prison Guantanamo Bay before being released without charge. The Australian government did nothing to support him. In fact, in a case that could have been modelled on US policy, the Australian government arrested doctor Muhammed Haneef in Brisbane, held him for 12 days in solitary confinement, cancelled his visa, before being forced to admit that he had done nothing wrong. A trail of terror and destruction was left across Iraq back then too. Funny though, the invading army (can we call them terrorists?) back then came from Australia and the US.
It’s amazing really to see the furore over Islamic State in the media and wonder at just how short people’s memories can possibly be. It was only a decade ago that the “Coalition of the Willing” (including Australia) entered Iraq with “shock and awe” tactics that involved bombing entire cities, use of depleted uranium weapons that even now leave babies born with mutations, torture camps from Abu Graib to Guantanamo Bay, and murder on an unimaginable scale.
As terrifying as Islamic State is, it will take them a long time to match the 150,000 killed in the Iraq war (that’s the most conservative estimates by the way. One report counting deaths both directly and indirectly from the war said the number is nearly 500,000). Almost all that number were civillians. It’s also hard to see how decapitation videos from IS are all that different to videos of American soldiers urinating on bodies they had killed, or “trophy photos” of US soldiers with dead bodies in Afghanistan.
While our politicians talk of “unspeakable evil” and the media pretends that IS has appeared out of nowhere, we should be very clear about one thing: the war on terror created Islamic State. Not just because a lot of them came directly from Syrian rebel groups who were armed by the US. Because a generation of Iraqis were radicalised by seeing their country turned to rubble. Because the US overthrew a secular government in a religiously moderate country and put in place a factional Shi’ite regime. Because a country with its population and infrastructure decimated has very little ability to resist a militia group expanding its territory with American guns.
For all the lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and civil liberties curtailed, the war on terror has been an extraordinary failure. The US might have got some cheap oil out of it, but it has left Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all in a worse state than they were beforehand.
Who could have predicted this would be the outcome? How about the millions of people around the world who marched against the Iraq war before it began? Or the United Nations, who condemned it as illegal. Or the pope, who did the same. Or the majority of voters in Australia, who were always against it. Or the two guys who climbed one of the sails of the Sydney Opera House to paint “NO WAR” on it in red paint.
In short, everyone predicted it. But now, as the war slumps to an even lower point, we see the politicians and right-wing media, who were relentlessly pro-war, execute a perfect blame-shift manoeuvre. On the receiving end, once again, are the Muslims of Australia.
We should always reject the kind of bigotry that will scapegoat an entire religion of people like we have seen in the last few weeks. But also, we should be very wary of the nationalism that we’ve also seen. “Team Australia” is a construct that can change to suit the desires of whoever is powerful enough to define it. It’s a bit like those teams picked by two captains on the school playground – you can never be quite sure who’ll be in and who’ll be out. Iraq’s elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction are proof that our leaders aren’t above telling a lie to justify mass murder when it suits their purposes.
Christians in Australia have shown a lot of concern for Christians being persecuted in Iraq, but only people with no experience of persecution could spout the kind of patriotic tribalism I’ve seen in online comments recently. In Iraq or Australia, a time will come when all of us will have to take a stand for what we believe is right, and it’s worth remembering what Martin Niemoller said about Nazi Germany:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”