In a speech he gave in August, the outgoing director- general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Organization (ASIO), David Irvine, noted that in combating Islamist-motivated terrorism, Australians must avoid being “critical of a whole community based on the actions of a tiny minority of misguided individuals.”
As Monday’s siege on a Sydney cafe by an Islamist gunman holding hostages came to its bloody conclusion with the death of the terrorist, many Australians seemed quite aware of the importance of distinguishing between extremists adhering to a totalitarian, reactionary, and violent version of Islam and the vast majority of Australia’s Muslims who do not identify with the ideology of Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other Islamist terrorist organizations.
On the website of The Australian, for instance, there was an encouraging report that hundreds of Australian commuters volunteered to ride with Muslims as they travel to work on Tuesday, out of concern that many of Australia’s Muslims fear they will become targets of reprisals.
A Jewish business owner from Australia told The Jerusalem Post that one of his Muslim employees – a high-ranking executive from Lebanon – warned family members to stay there out of concern they might be singled out for attack.
Still, while it is essential not to fall into the trap of generalizing and issuing sweeping indictments, there is also a feeling for some time now, and not just in Australia, that moderate Muslims should do more to distance themselves from violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.
True, there are signs this is beginning to change, particularly with the rise of the threat presented by Islamic State. Leaders of Arab states, such as Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, have spoken out against Islamic State’s “distortion of Islam’s teachings.”
In Australia, Aftab Malik, a scholar-in-residence at the Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba, Sydney, said in response to the siege on the café – during which the gunman forced hostages to hold up an Islamic flag similar to the Islamic State banner – that Muslim faith “has been dragged through the mud by a group of young individuals who represent no one but themselves.”
Malik’s comments were encouraging. But the sad fact is that in Muslim countries majorities of the population continue to hold abhorrent views. According to a Pew survey entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society” majorities in the Middle East and South Asia believe that Sharia law, which punish apostates with death, should be enforced. The moderates, meanwhile, are a minority, on the defensive and intimidated.
It is safe to assume that Muslims who immigrate to places like Australia or the US tend to have more moderate attitudes. For instance, “only” two-in-10 American Muslims were willing to justify suicide bombings under certain circumstances, compared to three-in-10 of those living in Muslim countries.
It is no coincidence that people living in Muslim countries tend to have reactionary views on women’s rights or apostasy. Because Islam is taken very seriously by a lot of people, because it is a religion that calls for action, and because there are a number of countries that advocate implementing Sharia, these negative aspects of the religion are more likely to be given expression.
When Islamic extremism is criticized, those who do the criticizing – particularly if they themselves are not Muslims – are accused of Islamophobia. That is why it is so imperative that people like Malik speak out when they see their religion being distorted or when acts performed in the name of Islam are an anathema to basic moral standards. Because it comes from within, there is added value to the criticism voiced by Muslims, particularly imams and community leaders.
Many have attempted to draw parallels between the West’s war against communism and the present war against militant Islam. During the cold war the most effective and influential opponents of communist totalitarianism were intellectuals on the Left such as Arthur Koestler and George Orwell. Similarly, no one is better positioned to combat militant Islam better than moderate Muslims, particularly those living in the West, who enjoy the protection and rights afforded them by liberal democracy.
Malik’s voice should not be a lone one. It should be joined by other moderate Muslims. This is the best remedy for the radical fringes of Muslim communities such as Australia’s and its forms of expression, as was witnessed Monday at a café in downtown Sydney.