On the other hand, say Western dissenters, we need to accept responsibility for our cultural imperialism, for the fact that our culture is offensive to many Muslims and that violent protest is sometimes the only way for their voices to be heard. We tasked HAMISH CARNACHAN with exploring the liberal perspective:
It was once a place of boundless beauty that touched those fortunate enough to have felt its tropical embrace. Her people were once regarded as some of the most gracious and hospitable of hosts. For travellers, Bali was once the retreat, a peaceful and idyllic destination, it was the centre of paradise for the millions of foreigners that flocked to her shores each year, the ultimate escape.
But on a balmy night in mid-October a group of terrorists armed with extremist ideology and a vehicle packed with plastic explosives raped Bali of her innocence in the milliseconds it took to tear the buildings and bodies of that congested block to shreds. There was no escape for the unsuspecting innocent, and the lethal talons of terror made a deadly lunge at our sheltered corner of the world.
The final death toll of the ‘Bali bombing’ is still not known. Most of the victims were tourists, visitors from all corners of western society, but it is estimated that about half were Australian citizens – ‘Australia’s own September 11’, was the phrase coined by many commentators and journalists covering the tragedy.
When New York was targeted and hit in an attack even more deadly in its success than the perpetrators had probably envisaged, American society demanded a military front against terrorism. Many of the United States’ allies were quick to rally to the country’s support and a call to arms – among the first to offer support was Australia.
Now, a battered and scarred Australian nation finds itself thicker in the foray than it probably ever intended. Australia too now calls for retribution.
But the terrorist foe is an unconventional enemy who can strike anywhere at anytime with, as we have witnessed, frighteningly little warning. So how do you fight this unseen menace when there is no apparent front, when there are no battle lines drawn?
Some commentators are starting to suggest that the West’s response of retaliatory aggression to counter the terrorist threat is not only futile but it is actually playing into the hands of those who are supposed to be brought to justice.
Bali is a melting pot of racial and ethnic diversity and has traditionally been a centre of religious tolerance. That harmony has since been lost too. It was vaporised along with the hundreds of lives lost at the Sari club that explosive evening in October.
And despite Muslim condemnation of these despicable assaults, the finger of blame has hastily turned upon followers of the Islamic faith. The fallout of the Bali bombing has now blanketed the global Muslim community, not just worshipers in Indonesia, under a shroud of even more intense scrutiny and suspicion.
The Muslim cleric and chief suspect in Indonesia is Abu Bakar Basyir. Described as South East Asia’s version of Osama Bin Laden, certainly he is unapologetic in denouncing America and Israel, and his followers have publicly threatened to call for a jihad against other interests in Indonesia if he was ever arrested.
In the face of mounting pressure from the western world, Indonesia has subsequently been forced to detain him and now faces a nervous wait to see if his followers act on their spoken intimidation.
And yet no matter how or what Muslims throughout the world do to censure these acts and threats of violence, westerners are increasingly starting to arrive at an ill-conceived generalisation that Muslims and Islam are a counterpart to terror and evil.
Certainly those associated with the Taliban and al Qa’ida are practitioners of the Islamic faith. The hand that they, and similar groups, have played in terror attacks around the globe cannot be questioned and are clearly inexcusable.
But should we now heed the warnings of a joint western and Islamic declaration, a voice that is increasing in volume, advising that the West is inadvertently being conscripted into the extremists’ service by focussing solely on these aggressive, retaliatory responses?
It is a proclamation that through the “American oppressors” indiscriminant reprisals the Islamic fundamentalists hope that the Muslim and Arab worlds will unite against their sworn enemy.
The Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of Jihad vs. McWorld, Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy, Benjamin Barber, suggests in his book that the modern response to terror cannot be exclusively military or tactical, as it has been to this point. Rather, he says, it must entail a commitment to democracy and justice even when they are in tension with the commitment to cultural expansionism and global markets.
“Eliminating terrorists will depend on professional military, intelligence, and diplomatic resources whose deployment will leave the greater number of citizens in America and throughout the world sitting on the sidelines, anxious spectators to a battle in which they cannot participate, a battle in which the nausea that accompanies fear will dull their appetite for revenge.
“The second front, however, engages every citizen with a stake in democracy and social justice, both within nation-states and in the relations between them. It transforms anxious and passive spectators into resolute and engaged participants – the perfect antidote to fear,” writes Barber.
What he and others suggest, is that the root of terrorism has sprouted to combat what is perceived by those mired in poverty, as many of these militant fundamentalists are, as western imperialism creating injustice, massive social imbalance, and threatening their existence and way of life. They translate it directly as a threat against Islam.
Barber: “This is the free-market institutions and assiduously commercialised and ambitiously secularist materialism…defined by both its virtues (freedom, democracy, tolerance, and diversity) and its vices (inequality, hegemony, cultural imperialism, and materialism).”
Unless these grievances are addressed in an equally aggressive manner, there is mounting concern that there will never be a resolution to this wave of international violence, and the West risks inadvertently drawing more recruits into the ranks of terrorism.
So what are the grievances against the West, in general, and the United States, in particular? Why do these militant fundamentalists feel so disenfranchised from the global community that terror is the only means of making a point?
It seems the answer lies within the complex political nuances of two simple words: Foreign policy.
It is widely recognised that there is, and has been for some time, a growing resentment and spiritual unease by those for whom the West’s trivialisation and mixing of values is an insult to cultural diversity and spiritual seriousness.
For this reason it clearly doesn’t sit well with some sects when the West intervenes in the regions of Islamic and Arab politics. Some say that the world would be infinitely safer from terror if a settlement could be reached in the Middle East and the ‘wealthy’ West showed a serious interest in rectifying the disparity between rich and poor countries.
These are contentious issues but one fact is certain, the ‘War on Terror’ is achieving little as the spate of attacks on random civilian targets by militant fundamentalists has only intensified.
New Zealand peace activist and Indonesian human rights campaigner Maire Leadbeater warned the Government that this would be the case as early as November last year.
In a letter to Prime Minister Helen Clark following the terrorist attacks in New York she wrote: “We appeal to the New Zealand Government to bring the SAS forces home now and to publicly condemn this unjustified war…The toll of civilian casualties will mount to horrific proportions [and] the likelihood of terror attacks world-wide will increase…”
If the events that Leadbeater predicted hadn’t been so tragic, today she would almost be justified in crowing, “I told you so”. Instead though, she insists on reiterating the same warning in the hope that someone may still heed the advice to avert any further catastrophes.
“I think the point is that the war on terrorism and the war on Afghanistan and Iraq is actually acting as a catalyst for more acts of terror,” says Leadbeater. “It’s creating a huge wave of anger because it’s perceived as being totally unjustified.
“The root causes of terrorism are injustices. Now I would never justify terrorist activity, they must always be condemned, but generally speaking they grow out of absolute desperation.
“There is a perceived sense out there that the United States is determined to go after its own interests and pursue those regardless of the rights or wrongs of the situation, regardless of what happens to the innocent people who get in the way.”
Leadbeater highlights the plight of the Iraqi citizens caught in the grip of crippling United States led, United Nations authorised, trade sanctions.
Iraq was penalised with these harsh restrictions, limiting medical aid and food assistance, following the 1990 Gulf War. They were imposed in the hope that the hardships would orchestrate a citizen-controlled regime change.
The United States justified the measures by informing the world, as it continues to do today, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace, a terrorist who has in his possession weapons of mass destruction.
But it is no hidden secret that a matter of months before the war Hussein was still an admired friend of Washington. For years he received food aid and help in developing those very weapons of mass destruction that are now such a problem. Evidently, Hussein is a creature of the West’s own making.
United States intelligence was well aware that he used biological weapons against his own people, tortured nonconformists, and left a bloody trail of corpses in his path to authoritarian control. It was only when he disobeyed his minders and threatened western oil supplies in Kuwait that Hussein was ruled a menace.
Now, more than a decade after the sanctions were imposed, the United States is earnestly trying to gain backing to invade Iraq again. The goal – regime change to suit its own agenda.
The US makes no secret of the fact that it wants to form a beachhead in the strategically important Middle East. Overthrowing Hussein and establishing a democracy in Iraq, favourable to the West, is the aim.
In fact, White House officials even admit funding the man they want in power when Hussein falls.
A former CIA advisor for the Middle East has publicly warned that any American-dictated regime change could be catastrophic. He argues that the United States is making a massive assumption that a democratic system will work in a country that has never had democracy and has a mass of ethnic minorities.
If the plan were to fail the United States would only lose political capital yet Iraq could face an internal power struggle and the associated bloodshed.
Iraq’s neighbour Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations are firm in the belief that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Muslims and Arabs alike see America forcing its agenda in the region as the height of arrogance and the crippling sanctions as entirely unjust.
“Over the last 12 years hundreds of thousands of children have died in Iraq because of those sanctions,” says Leadbeater. “John Pilger asked Madeline Albright [former Secretary of State] if that is worth it and she replied, ‘Of course it is’. Now, it is exactly that kind of attitude that obviously creates anger.
“You see it’s a funny bit of the script. In every case in the world it’s all right to look at the underlying causes but somehow when it comes to war on terrorism, if you look for underlying causes, you’re almost accused of condoning the terrorists’ violence.
“You always have to loudly condemn terrorist acts but if you look at cases like Iraq and Afghanistan far more innocent people have died as a result of the war on terrorism than the acts of terror themselves.”
So at what point is a war
against terrorism justi-
fied? “I think that’s a
point that Pilger
makes. It’s an oxymo-
ron. It doesn’t make sense. But, yes, when a crime’s committed you must seek out and find who’s responsible and they must be brought to account,” she says.
The religious advisor for the International Muslim Association of New Zealand, Sheik Mohammed Amir, is concerned that these extreme groups are tarnishing the Islamic faith, a creed he describes as “peaceful, a religion for humanity”. He fervently denounces any form of violence and says there is no place for such acts under the teaching of Islam.
“Of course the things that happened in Bali, no one should accept. I do not know who was responsible or what the purpose was but whatever they think, this is not the way of dealing with it. It was a barbaric act.”
Like Leadbeater, Sheik Amir believes that the violent acts are the workings of a desperate people and he remains very cautious of giving an impression of tolerance towards terrorism. Rather than the religious fundamentalism, as it has generally been portrayed, it is more of a political outcry says Amir who also highlights areas of western foreign policy as a problem.
“They might be wanting to send a message that what is happening in Afghanistan or in Bosnia or in Iraq is not just. This might be the only way they feel they can bring other nations to see what is happening. They might want to show the Americans or the Australians, who are heavily involved with this, that it is wrong,” says Sheik Amir.
“There’s this policy towards Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine where thousands and thousands of people are being killed – it’s an injustice.
“There is not the same perception for the people being killed in Palestine and Iraq as there is when westerners are killed. If 10 or 20 westerners are killed the whole world starts crying but thousands of Palestinians are killed and not a word is spoken against this crime.”
Many others also highlight the oppression of the Palestinian people as the cauldron of Arab and Islamic fundamentalists’ resentment for the West. Years of negotiating tenuous settlement deals and peace agreements have done nothing to ease the Palestinians suffering as the arrangements invariably fail and the factions fall back into conflict.
For more than two decades, in international isolation, the United States has maintained a rejectionist stance on a settlement that would ensure the territorial integrity and security of all states, including Israel, within its internationally recognised boundaries and a Palestine state in the occupied territories.
While the US regularly boasts it is “advancing the peace process”, its unwavering stance on Israel has been blamed for undermining peace in the entire Middle East region.
For the Palestinian people, they now exist under an occupation more oppressive than South Africa’s now-abandoned policy of deep Apartheid, and helplessly watch on as Israel consumes vast tracks of the occupied territories’ land and resources in direct violation of United Nations’ resolutions.
“Look at the Palestinians,” says Sheik Amir. “They’ve been suffering for 50 years now. They’re living miserable lives in poverty and they’re frustrated. And yet the whole world is silent. Where is the justice?
“The Americans must rethink their foreign policy in the Middle East if they want world peace. They can’t fool everyone forever and hopefully people are starting to realise. The only way for peace is justice. If you act justly then nobody will point the finger.”
Peace activist Maire Leadbeater agrees that the United States’ involvement in other nations’ affairs needs to be scrutinised, particularly in Indonesia following the Bali bombing.
As the US push Indonesia to “shore-up their military”, Leadbeater can’t help but query this “ill-conceived solution” to the terrorist threat in the area because, she says, “many of the Muslim extremist groups work very closely with the military”.
“That is absolutely contradictory, because backing the Indonesian military is increasing support for the extremists.”
The American congress had, in a complete reversal in foreign policy, opposed restoring military aid to Indonesia. Assistance was only to resume when the perpetrators of war crimes against the East Timorese, carried out by the Indonesian Army under former president Suharto, had been brought to justice.
Again, it is now well documented that the United States, along with its western allies including Australia and New Zealand, turned a blind eye to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese over more than two decades because it didn’t suit their interests.
“They had a show trial in Jakarta but most of them have since been acquitted,” says Leadbeater. “You can’t say there’s been justice but America is starting to restore military aid anyway.
“The West is culpable for a lot of what has happened in Indonesia. It’s well known that the CIA helped Suharto come to power by pointing out the opponents he needed to eliminate.
“When you look at Indonesia, the consequences of that terrorist attack are going to be really felt by the Indonesian people. They’re going to lose the civil liberties that they’re only just starting to get back.”
The Green party recently expressed concerns that new anti-terrorism legislation would threaten the civil and democratic rights of New Zealand citizens. Similar sentiments are starting to be expressed by other civil liberty supporters around the world too and surely the pinch is being felt by Muslim people as the moral authority of the powerful West combines to accuse all of their kin – moderate or extreme.
“Islam has been portrayed as a very extreme religion and more or less when people think of Muslims or Islam they think of terror. But as Muslims we totally dissociate ourselves with such activity. The two should not be joined together,” says Sheik Amir.
“It is not an Islamic issue – it’s a desperation issue. Just like Christians, if they are desperate then they will do anything. The only difference is that Christian extremists, like the terrorists in Ireland, aren’t labelled by their religion.”
Sheik Amir says that until injustices are rectified, or the oppressed are offered an avenue to secure their basic rights, suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism will continue.
The problem is though, that whatever they are fighting for, terrorists are actually doing more harm than good because retaliation invariably inflicts a higher toll on the innocent than those who carried out the acts.
Yet, what other alternative is there when passive resistance falls on deaf ears? For millions of the disenfranchised direct conflict is not an option – they are outgunned by most of the governments with whom they hold a grievance.
So what do we do?
We can condemn and retaliate against these “religious extremists’ atrocities”, all the while running the risk of alienating mainstream Muslims into the arms of their fundamentalist brethren.
Alternatively we can condemn the perpetrators of these despicable crimes, bring them to justice, but also consider the root causes of their perceived desperation.
Maybe these are merely callous acts by an evil enemy. But, perhaps theirs is an outcry for justice and if we don’t ask the question, “why?” then more and more young Muslims may start to line the ranks of those we are trying to defeat.
As Independent writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggests: “Depressingly, the only time Muslims are seen and heard by the world is when the pitiless among them turn to sickening violence or threaten Armageddon. Until this happens, their grievances or aspirations are ignored or crushed by the powerful…we will not parrot the lies of Bush, Blair, Putin or Sharon. We can see too clearly that these leaders share the responsibility for the terrifyingly unstable world we are all now trying to cope with.”