Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: The Vital Distinction

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AIJAC pulled out of our planned participation in the program of visiting Israeli Professor Raphael Israeli after he reportedly made controversial remarks about Muslim immigration and communities.

We did this even though we respect Professor Israeli’s contributions as a scholar of Islamic history, because characterising Muslim communities too generally as a threat or danger per se represents a sentiment with which we do not wish to be associated. Professor Israeli has now repudiated earlier reports that he was calling for quotas or limits on Muslim immigration to Australia. However, AIJAC vehemently opposes all discrimination based on ethnicity or religion in immigration, and singling out the Muslim community in the generalised way he was reported to have done was unacceptable. 

Nonetheless, AIJAC does believe there is currently a very serious problem in Australia and globally with an extremist totalitarian ideology generally known as Islamism. This ideology asserts that all problems can be solved by the creation of a divinely-sanctioned “caliphate” based on the way of life current at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and that all means are justified in achieving this end. It also sets out to convince Muslims that Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims are inevitably and eternally hostile to all Muslims, and there is no alternative for Muslims except to join the Islamists in a ruthless struggle to the death against them.

Islamist totalitarianism is unique compared to past similar ideological threats in that it appeals only to one faith group. However, it can and must be fought in a way that attacks the ideology and its adherents, without turning all Muslims into enemies, or making them feel like pariahs.

It is a distinction that must be maintained for three important reasons. Morally, singling out any particular group as especially dangerous or threatening is incompatible with the sort of society in which we want to live and with the values underpinning Australia and other liberal democracies. Similarly, from the point of view of Jewish self-interest and history, the idea of retreating from our vehement support for non-discriminatory immigration and other government policies fostering community harmony should be obviously anathema - such a retreat could easily rebound at some point in the future against other groups, including the Jewish community.

Finally, moderate Muslim allies are absolutely essential in the fight against Islamist extremism. Islamism’s appeal is based on a claim about what “true” Islam is. Only other Muslims can win the battle with Islamists about defining the true meaning of Islam, but we cannot make the alliances we need if we treat all Muslims as potentially threatening.

We believe that Professor Israeli’s remarks were careless with regard to this crucial distinction.

At the same time, it must be recognised that ideological affiliates of the Islamist radicals excel at spreading distorted claims about their critics, attempting to turn criticisms of their ideology into attacks on all Muslims in the service of their political ends.

Sadly, even some Muslim moderates are buying into elements of this radical program, driven in part by an understandable defensiveness about the role of Muslim communities in the problem, and in part by the ability of false information spread by the radicals to penetrate Muslim communities generally.

Even when people are careful to make the crucial distinction between fighting the ideology and its adherents on the one hand, and the communities and individuals to which it seeks to appeal on the other, they are often tarred as anti-Muslim or Islamophobic racists. People who are rightfully dedicated to the fight against Islamism, such as American academic Daniel Pipes, find that every line they write is pored over for anything that can be distorted, taken out of context or misrepresented.

The threat of Islamism is serious enough that the fight against it cannot be abandoned either because of these tactics, or because the discussion of the Islamist threat makes some Muslims uncomfortable.

Islamist totalitarianism will not go away if we do not talk about it, and it cannot be made to vanish simply by appeasing Muslim grievances or being overly solicitous of Muslim concerns about the effects of discussion of this problem. At the same time, Muslim individuals and Muslim communities must never be tarred with guilt by association or demonised for what a small minority of Islamists are doing in the name of their religion.

As a thinktank serving the Jewish Community, AIJAC understands that it is the role of various Muslim community spokespersons to defend their community’s interests and deal with genuine threats to it, and that they have often felt harried and defensive since 9/11. But we would like to see such leaders try harder to overcome “defensiveness” per se, and avoid the traps that radicals have set for the moderates by attempting to brand all critics of Islamist totalitarianism as anti-Muslim racists.

The mere fact that the terrorists and totalitarians claim to be acting in the name of the “true Islam” creates a special responsibility for Muslim community leaders to help resolve the problem. Not because it is their fault, but because only they can answer the Islamist assertions about what true Islam is.

AIJAC believes it is important to avoid loose stereotyping that can play into the hands of the Islamists by helping them convince other Muslims that co-existence with non-Muslims is impossible. AIJAC also believes that a properly implemented policy of Australian Multiculturalism, which incorporates both rights and the responsibility to uphold the core values of Australian society (i.e. rule of law, democracy, gender equality, mutual respect and tolerance) remains an important part of the strategy to counter all forms of political extremism, including Islamism.

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