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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Towards a Cohesive Australia, Speech by the Hon Tony Abbott

Minister for Health and Ageing
Leader of the House of Representatives
Tony Abbott MHR


At a student leadership forum in Canberra last week, one of the participants was haranguing the Prime Minister for allegedly exploiting community fears about Islam. Another participant, a former Tampa boatperson who had spent time in immigration detention, intervened. He said how proud he was to have become an Australian and to be able to engage in dialogue with the Prime Minister because nothing like it would ever have happened in his native Afghanistan.

To me, this story helps to illustrate how certain fundamentals, such as respect for persons, belief in a framework of rules, and a degree of political classlessness, are not cultural constructs but part of the universal aspiration of mankind. Still, it must be accepted, in the week of the fifth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre, that the world is threatened by perverted versions of the quest for grace.

The War on Terror is not a figment of George Bush’s imagination. It is indeed a war against people who are determined to do us harm; as Bali, Madrid, and London, on top of September 11, clearly illustrate. It is a war against terrorism, not a war against Islam. It is a war against terrorists, not against Muslims. As events in Iraq have made crystal clear, the vast majority of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim.

As Tony Blair has said, this is not a battle between civilisations but a battle for civilisation. The problem is not Islam. The problem is a tiny minority of Muslims who believe it is their religious duty to kill those who do not share their particular version of Islam. Hence the War on Terror does not pit Islam against the world, still less the West against the rest, but a misguided minority of Muslims against their fellow Muslims and everyone else.

The War on Terror has already changed the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. It has changed the law and is changing attitudes in much of the world. Much that is precious is at risk, sometimes from overreaction to the threat. Still, it is hard to overestimate the gravity of the challenge. Does anyone really think that people who would fly civilian aircraft into office buildings would not use nuclear weapons against cities if they could? Does anyone really think that people who regard Western civilisation as a satanic excrescence would desist from their attacks because of a different policy on Iraq or Israel?

Islamic terrorism poses a challenge quite unlike anything ever faced before. It cannot be ended by concessions because its objective appears to be the establishment of a particularly ferocious type of universal caliphate. It cannot be quarantined to particular battle zones because of the range and destructive power of modern technology. Everyone is a potential combatant. Everywhere is a potential war zone.

The War on Terror doesn’t mean that we can ignore the ordinary challenges of creating a strong economy and building a just society. Neither do the obvious imperfections of Western societies mean that we can or should ignore this challenge to their very existence.

Combating terrorism means facing up to all the ways in which Western societies fall short of their professed ideals. How can alienated Muslim males be expected to respect women, for instance, when this city’s bookstands, billboards and TV shows proclaim that women are sex objects? How can devout Muslims be expected to regard Western societies as the flowering of civilisation when so much of modern music, art and writing is obsessed with the banal and the degrading? How can people be expected to take our professed respect for human life seriously, when they constantly see footage of the innocent victims of Anglo-American and Israeli air strikes?

Not for a moment should the deliberate killing of civilians be equated with the unintended consequences of attacks on military targets but it’s important to acknowledge the horrific costs of even the most just war. Regardless of how much people and nations may have been wronged, if we want reconciliation, we must avoid sanctimony and sermonising.

It’s also important to avoid excessive politeness lest we obscure essential issues. It’s important to avoid giving unnecessary offence but not if means tip-toeing around the truth.

As everyone can see, there is no shortage of Western critics of the West. If I may say so, there is a serious shortage of Muslim critics of Islam. If Western societies have been improved because every perceived truth has been subjected to critical scrutiny and every problem has been constantly re-examined for better potential solutions, it’s worth asking whether Muslim societies and communities might not benefit from similar critical self-examination.

To an outsider, Islam lacks a well-developed concept of pluralism or a clear distinction between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. I respectfully put it to Muslims that some practices they dislike might be considered sins rather than crimes. Other practices they dislike might be regarded as tasteless or indulgent rather than against the moral law.

It would be easier for Australians to respect Islam if Islamic leaders seemed readier to condemn terrorism rather than explain how the West has contributed to it, important though that may be. As a non-Muslim, I’d be relieved to hear more often from Islamic leaders that it is never right to kill in the name of God; that sometimes force might be necessary to resist aggression, to end injustice, or to defend the vulnerable but never to assert the superiority of one religion over another. Religion is something we should argue about, not fight over. I accept that it took the West at least 1500 years to learn these lessons but fear for the future of the world if they are not now accepted by everyone.

These are legitimate questions for Muslims to answer given that the September 11 terrorists and those wreaking such havoc in the Middle East and elsewhere profess to kill in the name of Islam. For our part, non-Muslims can try to build even more cohesive societies and create a better security environment but we can’t purge Islam of its extremists nor of justifications for extremism. Only Muslims can do that.

This is the great challenge facing Muslims everywhere but especially Muslims in the West. Muslims in countries like Australia are in a unique position to assess the strengths as well as the weaknesses of Western civilisation. They have the legal right as well as the physical safety (often denied to them elsewhere) to ask the hard questions about their own faith as well as about the faiths and beliefs of others.

We know that it’s possible to be an Australian and a Muslim (rather than an Australian or a Muslim) because that’s been the practical experience of hundreds of thousands of people. What seems to be lacking – and what I hope Australian Muslims might urgently try to formulate – is a philosophy to validate what most people instinctively want.

For its part, the Australian Government will never seek to disqualify anyone from becoming an Australian on the ground of colour, culture, or creed. The Government merely wants to encourage people to acquire the skills necessary to make the most of their new life in their new home. The Government expects people to accept the principle of equal treatment for all and demands only that everyone resident in Australia obey Australian law.

I’m encouraged that discussions such as this are taking place. I’m confident that Australia can only benefit from intensive dialogue between Australian Muslims and people of other faiths. I expect that true Islam has nothing to fear from this kind of questioning. My own faith gives me confidence that that if something is of God it will ultimately prevail but if not it will eventually pass.


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