I saw this Letter to the Editor in George Takei’s Facebook feed yesterday. I’m not sure which newspaper it’s from, but it’s probably an Australian one because the writer is from Kalangadoo, which is a tiny settlement in South Australia.

It’s not easy to read, so here’s my re-typing of it:

If you are worried about terrorism coming to our shores, then please cast your memory back a few decades, to a time when Northern Ireland was tearing itself apart.

Roman Catholics and Protestants were at war, and the Provisional IRA was clearly a terrorist organisation.

Yet Provisional IRA operatives were not referred to as “Roman Catholic terrorists”.

No-one suggested that Roman Catholics should be prevented from entering Australia.

No one suggested that Roman Catholic schools should be closed.

No-one approached Roman Catholics asking for a condemnation every time the IRA committed a terrorist act.

Roman Catholic churches were not desecrated in Australia.

And nobody suggested that Roman Catholic nuns should be banned from wearing a habit, covering their hair.

Because it would have been totally absurd (and totally counter-productive) to do so.

Just as it is totally absurd and totally counter-productive to start treating Muslims in this fashion today.

The current turmoil in the Middle East and beyond has nothing to do with religion, just as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with religion.

The current turmoil has everything to do with greed, inequality and the struggle for power.

It is a direct result of a globalised economy.

If a minority group is economically disadvantaged and/or alienated, some individuals will eventually lash out at society.

This is not a feature of any particular religion, rather a characteristic of human nature.

This is why genuine asylum seekers should be welcomed with open arms.

Minority groups within the country should be made to feel valued and wanted.

The only way to fix this is with tolerance, acceptance and love.

Chris McColl,
Kalangadoo

I’m sure Mr McColl means well, but there are a number of logic fails and examples of lack of knowledge in his letter. I’ll go through them one at a time:

“… the Provisional IRA was clearly a terrorist organisation. Yet Provisional IRA operatives were not referred to as ‘Roman Catholic terrorists’.”

There is an argument that the IRA should have been referred to as Roman Catholic terrorists, and also that the multiple Protestant paramilitary groups should also have been referred to as Protestant terrorists. However, while both were clearly terrorists their focus was political, not religious. Unlike several other terrorist organisations around the world, their focus was not on which religion should dominate Northern Ireland, but whether or not the British government should. The two sides did not, for example, bomb their opponents churches.

“No one suggested that Roman Catholic schools should be closed.”

That’s because Roman Catholic schools were’t teaching their kids to go and fight, kill, and die for the IRA. There are some madrases and mosques where that is indeed occurring.

“No-one suggested that Roman Catholics should be prevented from entering Australia.”

This is a good point, and demonstrates the ridiculousness of the argument that all Muslims should be banned because a tiny percentage of them are engaged in terrorist activity. We know that most Muslims aren’t terrorists, just as we know that most Roman Catholics aren’t terrorists. I find it interesting that the letter writer focus in Roman Catholics here though. There were Protestant para-military groups too – perhaps he is a Protestant himself?

“No-one approached Roman Catholics asking for a condemnation every time the IRA committed a terrorist act. Roman Catholic churches were not desecrated in Australia.”

This goes back to the first point – that the goals of the IRA were political, not religious.

“And nobody suggested that Roman Catholic nuns should be banned from wearing a habit, covering their hair.”

This is not the same thing as Muslim women wearing certain dress. As much as anything we do is a choice, nuns choose to be nuns. Further, these days there are orders where nuns don’t even wear habits and women who choose to be nuns also choose which order they join. In many Muslim-majority countries, ALL women are required to dress a certain way whether they want to or not. They face severe punishment if they don’t comply. Outside of those countries, many Muslim women are made to feel that they are not being good Muslims and are letting down their religion if they don’t wear hijab, niqab, burqa, abaya, or whatever is the dress deemed appropriate within their community.

“The current turmoil in the Middle East and beyond has nothing to do with religion, just as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with religion.”

This sentence can only have been written by someone who has no knowledge of the current turmoil in the Middle East. Much of the tension in the region is a result of the centuries old Sunni-Shi’a divide, which largely plays out politically but is religious in nature. Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds because the first is majority-Shi’a and the second majority-Sunni.

During the rule of Sunni Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Shi’a were marginalized. Once the Shi’a gained power following the Iraq War, the first prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, marginalized the Sunni. The Sunni were already suffering due to the extent of the de-Ba’athification imposed by the US which meant even doctors, nurses, teachers, and minor government workers, all of whom had been required to join the Ba’ath Party to get their jobs, were sacked. They had no-one else to turn to except groups like DAESH for survival – DAESH paid their salaries just like the Ba’ath regime did, and the new regime wouldn’t employ them. When Maliki refused to sign a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) it meant that the US had no influence in ameliorating his behaviour. He was pressured not to sign by Iran who promised all the same things the US had and were fellow Shi’a into the bargain. That meant that Maliki was under a great deal of influence from the government of Iran not to listen to the complaints of his Sunni citizens. (He didn’t listen to the Kurds either, but they had a nominal government to turn to.)

Syria realityIn Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, which is a sect within Shi’a Islam. The current civil war started because of peaceful protests by Sunni who were being treated badly by the government because of their religion. When Assad started attacking his own citizens, including using barrel bombs and chemical weapons, they rose up against him. DAESH used the opportunity to move from northern Iraq into northern Syria. They were wealthier than all the other groups because of the areas they had taken control of in Syria and funding from Wahhabi supporters (mainly from Saudi Arabia), and so were able to pay their soldiers more. This encouraged some to defect to them who didn’t realize the type of group they were. Assad continues to receive support from within his own country because now that DAESH and other extremist groups are involved (e.g. Al Qaeda, Al Nusra Front) Shi’a and Christians are worried how they will be treated by Sunni extremists if they get control, which is a valid fear. Initially Assad’s strongest opponents were moderate Sunni groups but that is no longer the case, especially since the Russians became involved. Unlike the US-led coalition, which concentrates on attacking extremists, the Russians have been bombing the moderate opponents of Assad (despite what Putin tells his people).

Whichever country in the Middle East you name, part of the problem is the cancer of extremist Islam. DAESH wants to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate. The Taliban wants an extreme version of Islam imposed on the people of Afghanistan. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey has been forcing a less secular version of Islam on his country for some time and the recent coup attempt has given him the excuse the increase the pace. The problems in Egypt are between secular Islam and the more repressive form wanted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, the government is being extremely repressive in its approach to ensuring freedom. Pakistan has a nominally secular constitution but the conservative Islamic religious council dominates much of society so that their opinions are forced on everyone. The conflict in Yemen is largely a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran.

So, yes, religion has something to do with the “current turmoil in the Middle East.

“The current turmoil has everything to do with greed, inequality and the struggle for power. It is a direct result of a globalized economy.”

A globalized economy has been good for the planet. It has lifted billions out of poverty – the global poverty rate has halved in the last twenty years and a 2013 report by Oxford University predicted that acute poverty could be eradicated within another twenty years if the decline continues at current levels. Obviously there is a lot more to do and we have a long way to go until everyone has the kind of lifestyle most in the West enjoy, but we’re getting there. There are people who are being left behind but to blame everything on “greed inequality and the struggle for power” is simplistic. These things are part of the problem and must be sorted – they should be whether or not they’re leading to terrorism – but the role of religion, and in particular extremist Islam, cannot be ignored.

“If a minority group is economically disadvantaged and/or alienated, some individuals will eventually lash out at society. This is not a feature of any particular religion, rather a characteristic of human nature.”

This is perfectly true, but ignores an important part of the problem – currently the problem is an extreme version of Islam, Wahhabism, exported from Saudi Arabia to thousands of madrases and mosques across the world. There, imams teach that to kill and die for Islam is an honourable act. One of the most common verses in the Qur’an quoted in this context is:

And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter… and fight them until fitnah [rebellion against rightful ruler] is no more, and religion is for Allah. (2:191)

There are theological arguments about whether this justifies the actions of Islamist terrorists, but the point is that the terrorists themselves use verses like this one to rationalize their own behaviour.

“This is why genuine asylum seekers should be welcomed with open arms.”

Yes, they should. Unfortunately successive Australian governments have an extremely poor record when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers. In fact, reading some of the horror stories that leak from their offshore detention centres it’s hard to believe that this is a modern Western nation we’re talking about. Further, according to Amnesty International:

The Australian government’s offshore operation on Nauru is surrounded by a wall of secrecy, with both Australia and Nauru going to great lengths to prevent the flow of information off the island. Service providers and others who work on the island face criminal charges and civil penalties under Australian law if they disclose information about conditions for asylum seekers and refugees held offshore. Nauru has banned Facebook on the island and has enacted vaguely worded laws against threats to public order that legal experts fear could be used to criminalize protests by refugees and asylum seekers.

Journalists in particular face severe restrictions on entry, with an $8,000 non-refundable visa fee and a protracted application process. Nauru has granted visas to just two media outlets since January 2014. Other requests have been rebuffed or met with no response. UN officials have been denied entry or in some cases have concluded that a visit would be impractical due to severe limitations on their access.

So there’s no doubt any decent Australian who got to know about what’s happening would have enormous sympathy for the situation asylum seekers to their country face and might have a knee-jerk reaction to the increasing anti-Muslim prejudice in that country. However, denying that religion is part of the problem just doesn’t help. Maajid Nawaz articulates why:

“Minority groups within the country should be made to feel valued and wanted. The only way to fix this is with tolerance, acceptance and love.”

Being a more inclusive society will help to stop future defections to DAESH. Many of the world’s leading political and military leaders have declared categorically that calls such as Donald Trump’s to ban all Muslims are counter-productive and make the world a more dangerous place. However, something also has to be done about those who are currently engaged in warfare. Wandering into a battle with the Taliban with flowers instead of guns won’t stop the fighting. DAESH calls their on-line magazine Dabiq for a reason – Dabiq is the Muslim equivalent of Armageddon and they want to expedite it.

Not all terrorism is tied to religion, but that committed by Islamist extremists is. It’s not the whole story but we ignore it at our peril. We in the West need a vast improvement in our foreign policies in relation to the Middle East. Though they’re better now than they have been at any time in history, we still have an awful lot to learn. The fact that we either created or worsened many of the problems in the region though does not mean we should forgive or forget the role of extremist Islam. That too needs to be addressed if the Middle East is to become a peaceful and stable and stable part of the world.