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Making sense of Islamicist violence: the big picture

By Keith Suter - posted Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The media's analysis of Islamicist violence has focussed on trying to understand the motivations of the individuals caught up in that violence, such as those in Sydney and Paris. At the individual level there seems to be a confused jumble of motivations: some of the terrorists seem to have clearer religious motivations than others.

Let me offer a big picture analysis that links together the major Islamicist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Iran.

There is a struggle for the soul of Islam. How is Islam to be reconciled with the modern world?


Should girls be educated? Malala Yousafai (a winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize) was shot by the Pakistani Taliban who don't believe girls should be educated. "Boko Haram" means "western education should be forbidden"".

Should there be a separation between "church and state" - a key factor in the US and French Revolutions? The Islamic State believe that the overall ruler ("caliph") should be a joint religious and political authority, with public opinion subservient to religious leadership.

Should criticism be allowed of a religion or its leaders? This is called "blasphemy". There was the 1697 English law to protect Christianity (its application in Queensland was repealed in 1899). The modern world now accepts that people have a right to criticise religion and religious leaders – though subject to anti-discrimination legislation. But the then Iranian religious leader imposed a fatwah on Salman Rushdie the author of the 1988 "Satanic Verses" and ordered his death; almost 40 people were killed in the violence surrounding that book.

Most Muslims have managed to reconcile their faith with the modern world. If they had not, we would have a far more serious problem than we do at present. France, for example, has over 7 per cent of its population as Moslems – but only a small proportion are active in Islamicist violence. The figure is large enough to get media attention but not large enough to pose a real threat to the national security French state.

This is going to a long war. Hopefully the religious extremists will eventually be defeated by the more moderate Moslems and all Moslems will learn to live with the basic characteristics of the modern world (such as education for girls, freedom of expression and a separation between "church and state").

An earlier religious "long war" that transfixed Europe was between the Catholics and Protestants. In the 17th century battles, almost as many Germans (on a per capita basis) were killed as the number killed in the two World Wars of the 20th century. Except for pockets of medieval barbarism (as in some parts of Northern Ireland), there is now little trace of that religious-based violence in Europe. European Christians have eventually become reconciled to the modern world. This is a cultural change – and cultural change always takes a long time (such as male acceptance in Australia of the need for equal treatment of women).


Three implications flow from this analysis. First, this is essentially an Islamic issue, with we in the west as collateral damage. Most of the people killed in Islamicist violence have been fellow Moslems. (Western media are focussed on places like Sydney and Paris but the real carnage goes on in places like Pakistan and Nigeria – but there are few western journalists to report this because there is little western interest in it).

Second, the west needs to be more careful how it gets involved in the affairs of the Islamic world. We now know that in the lead-up to the 2003 US/ UK/ Australian invasion of Iraq, specialists in the public service of those countries were warning their political masters of the risks of invading Iraq and so getting caught up in the fast-flowing river of Sunni-Shia politics. The warnings were ignored and so the west has become even further entangled in that river. Some of the blame for the rise of the Islamic State must go to Bush, Blair and Howard.

Finally, a problem with "modern" thinking is the assumption that all humans are basically the same. I encountered this problem commenting on the 9/11 attacks in 2001. People could not understand why these suicide terrorists should die for a religious cause.

It is assumed that people who commit suicide are depressed but these terrorists were not depressed. In fact, many people commit suicide attacks because they see themselves dying for a great cause. The rich Saudis who died on 9/11 had no reason to live but bin Laden gave them a good reason to die.

In the modern secular consumer-driven west we cannot imagine why anyone would die for a religion. We stopped doing that in the 17th century. We are now happy consumers and not religious fanatics (England's Oliver Cromwell would feel out of place in today's England).

In short, we need to recognize that the current sporadic outbreaks of Islamicst violence have some very deep roots. This is going to be a long war.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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