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Former diplomat and essayist Owen Harries once bemoaned our tendency to be blinkered by our “parochialism of the present”. He described it as the tendency to believe that what is happening now, and to us, must be of unprecedented and transcendent significance.
Today, as our television screens and front pages flash with the cherub cheeks of our latest wannabe teen terrorist, it’s easy to fall into this familiar pattern, believing that the threats we face now are worse than any we’ve faced before.
But both types of thinking, a pang for the past and the belief in the exceptionalism of the present, create a somewhat pointless intergenerational debate. In the absence of an ability to apportion security resources through time, each age has to deal with the threats with which it has been lumped.
One significant cost of the parochialism of the present is that it reduces our ability to draw on security lessons from the past: to contextualise, to compare, to analogise through time about security threats.
Part of the problem of the present threats is that they seem so alien and extreme; when confronted with a man immolated in a cage, or dozens of hostages beheaded, one grasps for the singularity of what’s happening.
Whether they intend it or not, this allows the terrorists to disorient us, by making us forget the lessons of the ages of outrage our societies have already lived through.
The outrages of Islamic State make us forget a basic truth about extremist violence: that it is an intensely political act. The horror of what that movement does prompts us to think about it as an aberrant pathology, something alien to be stamped out, rather than as a strategy designed to exploit our weaknesses to advance its own causes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t meet the threat head-on.
The first step in understanding this movement is to study closely its internal nature and, more important, its objectives. Although both movements emerge from the post-nationalist, religious rising in the Muslim world, Islamic State and al-Qa’ida are very different.
Al-Qai’da’s goal was to bring about the collapse of the West, which it believed was the ultimate cause and ongoing succour of the corruption in Muslim societies. Islamic State’s strategy is to use the lure of territorial conquest and the proclamation of a caliphate to inspire others.
Like moths to the flame, it draws disaffected, marginalised angry young men and women to fight in the Levant. It also has been extremely successful in inspiring movements in other parts of the world who want to link their struggle with that of its caliphate.
It is a movement that relies on one thing: momentum, the oxygen of its success or failure. This momentum is both kinetic (the acquisition of territory, successful attacks, more pledges of loyalty) and inspirational (the movement that is most brutal, uncompromising and apocalyptic). And as the Jake Bilardis and Numan Haiders of our world show, Islamic State has been more effective in inspiring, attracting and radicalising our citizens than any other analogous movement in history.
Whether or not Islamic State intends it, there is a worrying contradiction opening up in how we are responding to its threat; let’s call it the politics of national security versus the politics of community resilience. These two responses to the threat, if pursued in an uncoordinated way, are potentially contradictory in ways that harm us and help them.
First, the national security approach. It emphasises internal solidarity and loyalty to the national community, and directs particular attention to any sign of deviance. The onus is on individuals and communities to demonstrate this loyalty.
It also identifies radicalisation as the problem, something that must be diagnosed and then cut out like a cancer. In its efforts to meet the threat, the state is both surveillant and enforcer, granted more resources, intelligence capabilities and sovereign powers.
There’s also an explicit linkage between the overseas and home campaigns: these are connected and met by action on both fronts.
Then there’s the politics of community resilience. Here, the emphasis is on internal cohesion, the acceptance of diversity and the provision of opportunity for the marginalised and the disadvantaged. The onus is on the state and society to achieve integration.
In this approach, alienation is the problem and developing ways to include those at risk is the solution. This rests on the broad shoulder of the state, reversing decades of neoliberal logic built on the notion of individual responsibility. In this manner the state becomes a bridge-builder, the broker of collective solidarity.
For the Muslim community’s part, it has the responsibility of pushing back against radical elements; more broadly, our community needs to differentiate between “legitimate” religion and extremist beliefs.
While both of these approaches are crucial in our fight against Islamic State, the internal logics of both, if waged without reflection, are not complementary but centrifugal. In using both simultaneously, there is a chance that neither will succeed.
For example, the national security approach unwittingly establishes as a subject of suspicion the very populations that the community resilience approach wants to integrate and reassure. The highly publicised channelling of resources and powers to the national security approach highlights the shortfalls of opportunity and state support for disadvantaged and alienated communities.
It also sees a secular state pronouncing on the orthodox and the aberrant within the religious beliefs of some of its citizens, and placing collective responsibility for all acts of people of that belief squarely on that community.
One also has to wonder how a state can simultaneously be a broker of community solidarity and a surveillant of and enforcer against radicalised individuals.
These are all extremely difficult messages to reconcile, particularly for those on the frontline of delivering both approaches — our security and policing agencies. More than anyone, they understand that it takes both approaches to address the threat of radicalisation. But the intense publicity and politics around the national security response undercuts their ability to forge the sort of collaborative relationships they need in Muslim communities. And, increasingly, Islamic State is identifying and exploiting the contradictions between these approaches.
We need to get this right, as the key to defeating Islamic State is stopping and reversing its kinetic and inspirational momentums.
The national security approach is vital to halting its kinetic momentum. The longer we collectively can put time between attacks, through intelligence and interdiction, the less Islamic State can benefit from a sense of inevitability.
The community resilience approach is key to halting its inspirational momentum. The more we can work with Muslim communities against Islamic State’s extremist message and publicise the deep corruption within that movement, the more grubby and half-baked will be the allure of its caliphate
But this requires a reboot of our approach to this struggle. While intelligence and interdiction are important, the relentless politics and attention that attach to them will be ultimately self-defeating. It is time to spend at least as much time and resources thinking about community resilience: what works, what doesn’t, and what we might do differently. Most significantly, we need to think of the vital relationship between the two and particularly how each supports, rather than undercuts, the other.
I don’t have any easy or glib suggestions here; what we need is a new conversation that draws on the insights of our community leaders and security and policing agencies.
We need to do this because if we don’t get the balance right, long after we’ve defeated Islamic State on the battlefield we will be dealing with another extremist movement that sees an advantage in fishing for recruits among the alienated in our society.
Security threats change across time, as much as the communities they threaten. How a society addresses the security threats it faces ultimately will define that society. We need to keep that in mind as we plan and act to safeguard our community.
Otherwise it may be a case of history repeating.
Michael Wesley is professor of international relations and director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. This is an edited extract from his keynote address to the Safeguarding Australia 2015 conference.
This article was first published at The Australian.