In a speech to CSIS in Washington D.C. on January 18, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull set a new tone for diplomacy on a how to deal with a rising China, how to combat Islamic State in the cyber age, and how to manage a sometimes unrealistic and demanding superpower ally. But he stumbled on the link between religion and violent extremism.
What a breath of fresh air for the Asia Pacific ─ a polite and diplomatic government leader who can raise issues of the South China Sea without gratuitous insults to China while firmly holding up the need for China to work harder on peaceful settlement of the disputes. Echoing Chinese views, Turnbull said rightly that “the legitimacy of claims to reefs and shoals should be a secondary consideration” if China’s “actions would be carefully calculated to make conflict less likely, not more.” The reasons why China would be (and is) interested in this are, as Turnbull notes, that the economy and global cooperation on big issues are more important to it, and because China is deeply aware of the potential of its rising power to cause security concerns among its neighbors.
The Australian prime minister continued his show of fresh thinking by calling for nimble operations against Islamic State in cyberspace. He is right to call out the important place of information warfare in this battle, as had the United States as early as September 2014, but in his speech Turnbull was saying what we all knew. The Allied counter-propaganda campaign had some shortcomings. Principal among them was the inability to act in real time to the postings of Islamic State.
What was puzzling about his statement was that he pointed the finger at the government of Iraq, the actor in the coalition least capable of monitoring the internet for real time reaction to Islamic State. The good news is that Turnbull foreshadowed his government’s intention to give this issue a much higher profile.
Turnbull’s speech will be remembered in history for a turn of phrase, the “right boots on the right ground” ─ a reference to how U.S. allies should respond to its demands for more military contributions for the war effort in Iraq against Islamic State. This allusion, as well as the call for a renewed effort on the information warfare front, showed that Australia under Turnbull’s leadership is able to act creatively in and think independently about involvement in U.S.-led military campaigns.
There were several places in the speech and in the Q&A which might have benefited from more rigorous reading of historical fact or at least questioning, not least the Kissingerian claim about China once being the largest economy in the world. He said in the Q&A: “China was, until, insofar as anybody can measure these things, until about the mid-19th century, the largest economy in the world.” The best comparisons that do exist measure the economic size of the Chinese empire but not the British Empire (or the French Empire) and they do not measure some important sectors of the economy (since they could not).
Turnbull let himself down once he entered the field of theology. His language was loose, and in spite of his clear effort, did not avoid the cardinal error of politics for countering violent extremism. His first gambit was excellent: “Terrorism is a strategy of the weak deployed against the strong. We should not, as the president observed last week, allow anxiety about ISIL to lead us into exaggerating its power.” His second gambit was okay: “We should not be so delicate as to say ISIL and its ilk have ‘got nothing to do with Islam’”; though I think this was a little glib and pandering to the right.
My anxiety about the glibness of that turn of phrase peaked when I heard the words “my conversations with leaders of Muslim-majority nations who are promoting an authentic, modern, and tolerant Islam.”
The first mistake here is an obvious one: political leaders of Muslim-majority countries are mostly not democratically elected, and even if they were, do not speak on behalf of the religious convictions of their citizens.
The second mistake is less obvious. Turnbull held up the concept of an “authentic” Islam and linked it with the words “modern” and “tolerant.” On the one hand, and this may seem a little precious, it is not the role of the prime minister of Australia to hold up a need for Australian Muslims to have a modernized faith while Australian Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists are allowed their millennia-old fundamentalisms and less-than-modern, highly intolerant practices and beliefs. We have freedom of conscience and association, thank you.
The other consideration is far more serious. Part of the arsenal for defeating Islamic State and all terrorists invoking religion is to rigorously avoid all theological debate with them. This is one of the recommendations of a landmark report by the EastWest Institute from 2008 titled “Beyond Words”, and issued as part of its Countering Violent Extremism Initiative. This report by Amy Zalman had three simple messages:
- Actions speak louder than words
- Take the politics out of personal faith
- Do not engage in religious archaeology.
Turnbull and the Australian government should heed this advice. He started his speech talking about Australian values. He later touched on the very apt and sobering thought that “our countries know too well that the costs of war stretch for decades.” I like this prime minister’s comprehension. These sentiments give a lead on where he might head in talking about terrorism by alluding to values without invoking religion.
He might say “the costs of war stretch for decades”; “it deeply affects us all, including my own family”; and that therefore “we have a single guiding principle on the resort to war or organized political violence: War is only justified for self-defense, when the threat of physical violence is imminent, when all other options have been exhausted, and provided the use of force is proportionate to the threat and targeted discriminately against the threat. This applies in all cases to what Australia does and it is how we will judge in a principled way the actions of others. Targeting of civilians in any organized political violence is prohibited under international law and the practice of civilized society.”
That is a compelling ethical principle that does not invoke Islam and does not remotely need to. It is time for Western leaders to take the politics out of faith and abandon their repeat failures at religious archaeology.