By Bren Carlill
A debate has emerged in recent weeks in the media regarding the state of Australian terrorism research. Dr. Merv Bendle of James Cook University wrote in The Australian on September 6, that the majority of Australian terrorism researchers follow a “self-blame” mentality – the view that the West is responsible for anti-Western terrorism – and employ a set of theoretical templates that predetermine research outcomes. His critics haven’t rejected his accusations so much as justified the ‘self-blame’ model.
Bendle and those who have supported his argument haven’t suggested that ‘self-blame’ academics be censored, as some of their critics have alleged. Instead, they have questioned the wisdom of allocating scarce governmental research funding to such studies at the expense of researching the growth of domestic and international Islamist terrorism from a traditional security perspective.
If Bendle and his supporters are correct, the policy implications are of serious concern. In light of this, the Australia/Israel Review has reviewed the publicly available data on the projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the federal government’s body for granting funds to Australian academics. This article highlights some of the trends that were detected.
Bendle and other critics of current funding priorities, such as Queensland University’s Dr. Carl Ungerer and Dr. David Martin Jones, believe it’s important to ask why the option of terrorism has proven so popular among Islamists of differing ethnicities, when other cultural groups with significant grievances have avoided terrorism or ostracised terrorists in their midst.
It’s a reasonable question. But some academics appear determined, without offering well-developed reasons or evidence, to avoid discussing the role of ideology, belief systems or religion in terrorism.
To give one of many examples, Adelaide sociologist Professor Riaz Hassan was awarded a grant of $829,000 from the ARC for his project, “Suicide Terrorism: The use of life as a weapon”.
The project is purportedly about investigating the causes of the “rising trend in suicide terrorism.” However, the abstract reveals Hassan’s pre-determined conclusions:
Explanations focusing on psychological characteristics, religious fanaticism and poverty do not help us to understand the reasons for the rise [of suicide terrorism].
Hassan cites a study that concluded suicide terrorists “have no appreciable psychological pathologies and are as educated and economically well-off as the surrounding populations.” Thus, concludes Hassan, “to understand why non-pathological individuals volunteer to become suicide attackers we must focus on situational factors, which are largely socialised in nature.” This is all true, but Hassan’s list of factors is telling in its obvious omission of a major socialising phenomenon – religion.
He writes: “Since Muslims professing religious motives have perpetrated most suicide attacks over the past two years, including those on September 11, 2001, it may be obvious to conclude that Islamic fundamentalism is the root of this phenomenon.” It may, indeed. But rather than either endorse or refute such an idea, he merely points out that such a perception fuelled much of the public opinion that allowed the US and its allies to invade Iraq.
Overall, recently ARC-funded security-related projects can be roughly divided into four categories: a) critical theory studies, b) traditional analysis, c) engineering-type projects designed to structurally defend against terrorist incidents, and d) projects marginal to national security issues, but purporting to be relevant in the hope of attracting governmental funding.
The critical theorists
Perhaps because they realise proclaiming a project designed to condemn the Australian Government is not a sensible strategy when applying to a government-funded body, many critical theory and self-blame projects are presented in muted, conservative terminology. Yet, the key to evaluating likely academic results or research findings is to assess other research the academics in question have produced.
One such academic is Dr. Anthony Burke. Based on the idea that classical approaches to limited warfare are failing to respond to new threats, his project’s abstract claims the study will review coercive means of national policy. A look at the worldview of Burke, a self-proclaimed critical theorist, however, suggests predictable conclusions for his project.
Writing, in The Canberra Times on September 22, Burke asked rhetorically of Australian security policy, “If terrorists wish to undermine our basic values and freedoms – such as religious tolerance and the rule of law – why are we helping them?”
For someone researching uses of force, this sentiment reveals a partisan predisposition on the issue. Burke ignores the fact that few Islamist terrorists care whether Australia is a tolerant society or has a robust rule of law; their main target is our right to life, and the caliphate they have in store for us.
Burke’s findings, it can be argued, could reasonably be predicted before he received the grant – the fix is in: no matter what the West does, it is likely to be wrong. The default position of critical theory is that Western society is oppressive and the primary source of the world’s ills. Critical theorists are especially obsessed with the concept of the “Other.” Pointing out or institutionalising any difference whatsoever between individuals or cultures is said to be dehumanising, and is thus considered the root of all evil. Burke received $150,000 for what will, in all likelihood, result in a pre-determined conclusion that any use of force by the West is immoral because it is based in and perpetuates a system of “othering” those targeted. That this view is far from original or persuasively empirically grounded makes it a strange choice for the ARC’s limited finances.
Though not authored by self-defined critical theorists like Burke, other projects belong in this category due to their underlying assumption – that Western policies are the main cause of terrorism. One example is “Democratising the Middle East: Implications of Washington’s Policies”. The project’s aim is to assess the success or otherwise of US Middle East and Central Asian policies.
Granted $438,776 over four years, the project is run by a who’s who of Arabist academics, who can be counted on to repeat the standard dominant Arabist critique of US Middle East policy already available in dozens of books and articles. Headed by Dr. Shahram Akbarzadeh of Monash University, the fellow recipients are Professor Amin Saikal of the Australian National University, English academic James Piscatori and Dr. Ben MacQueen, also of Monash.
As always, past writings are illuminating.
Akbarzadeh’s reaction to the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy at the start of the year, for example, was alarm – not at Muslim violence – but at the Danish editor’s “reckless neglect” in ignoring the “predictable result.” This predictable result, he wrote in The Australian on February 7, was because European (and Australian) Muslims are feeling besieged, due to the war on terrorism and public discussions on possible links between Islam and terrorism. “Against this background,” he wrote, “the depiction of Mohammed as a terrorist was grossly irresponsible and damaging.” He did concede that “street protests against the European Union and flag-burning by Muslim mobs is just as damaging to prospects of overcoming inter-religious tensions [as the cartoons].” Yet, it doesn’t take much critical thought to see that attacking embassies and murdering innocents is more damaging to inter-religious relations than cartoons in a newspaper, however disrespectful.
Akbarzadeh’s project partner Saikal has implied that American neo-conservatives and “religious Zionists” are comparable to al-Qaeda. For instance he said in the August 2005 Cranlana Alumni Lecture: “It is important that the fate of world politics be wrested from the three minority extremist groups – al-Qaeda and its close associates from the Muslim side, elements of neo-conservatives and reborn Christians from the US side, and inflexible religious Zionists from the Israeli side”. His views on the outcomes of the Iraq invasion and highly critical analyses of American Middle East policy have been widely and repeatedly published since 2001.
And yet this consortium has been given almost half a million dollars by the ARC to regurgitate and expand these basic theses. It is hard to see how yet another highly ideological Arabist critique of US foreign policy is going to be helpful to Australia in dealing with terrorism. Australia does not set US policy, many US scholars are writing similar critiques, and the views of the Australian scholars in question are already widely available. Why should this be a priority for scarce Australian funds allocated on national security grounds?
These examples are far from unique. Another ANU academic, Dr. Michael Platow, was granted $120,000 to “provide the first psychological insight into how reactionary sub-groups and ultimate subversive action can develop from denying people the chance to voice their views to relevant authorities.” And he claims, somewhat unconvincingly, that by doing so, he will address the ARC’s research priority of safeguarding Australia. The list goes on.
The funding decisions of the ARC aren’t all problematic, however. There are many projects, collectively granted millions of dollars, which seek to understand the cultures both within Australia and regional to it – some for specifically security-related reasons and others to simply better understand the neighbourhood in which Australia lies. What sets these projects apart from those of the critical theorists is the desire to gain knowledge about issues important to Australia, as opposed to expanding existing critiques of Western policies.
Among these are Professor John Dryzek and Dr. Bora Kunra, who have been granted almost $270,000 for their “Communication Across Difference in a Democracy: Australian Muslims and the Mainstream”. “In light of the possibility of radical Islamist recruitment within [Muslim] communities,” their abstract reads, “it is vital to establish the place of these communities in relation to other groups in the context of a liberal democratic society… Our focus on the attitudes of Australian Muslims and how they perceive themselves in relation to Western values (and how the mainstream perceives Muslims) has implications for policy and social learning across Islamic and non-Islamic communities.”
Another example is Dr. Sayed Khatab, of Monash University, who was granted $231,500 to investigate the “Theological and Ideological Bases of al-Qaeda’s Political Tactics”. This project will look at the role of violence in political Islam. Khatab is due to travel overseas before the end of the year to interview people formerly involved in Islamist terrorism, to gain an insight into how their views on jihad and Sharia have changed – and why they became peaceful.
The October 2006 list of projects to be funded, from next year, under the “safeguarding Australia” priority included four investigating the collapse of buildings or building materials. Such projects as “Response of Metallic Foam Core Sandwich Panels under Impact and Blast Loadings”, granted $300,000, are important not only for planning protection from terrorist attacks, but also from vehicular and other accidents.
Professor Ian Lilley was awarded $144,000 in a project “explicitly intended to help safeguard Australia by strengthening our understanding of our region and the world.” Fine words. His project? “Loyalty Islands Archaeology Project.” Nothing to do with terrorism or security, the best Lilley could come up with was that it “will substantially enhance international research cooperation between Australia, France and the French Pacific territories and will contribute to South Pacific development though its direct and indirect spin-offs for cultural heritage management and tourism.”
Other projects include analysing how ASIO monitored the women’s liberation movement in the sixties and the war in Chechnya.
These may be worthy projects, but they have essentially nothing to do with Australian national security. It seems hard to justify their receipt of security-related research funding.
The debate started by Bendle is both valuable and necessary. Just as the second half of the last century was dominated by the Cold War, the 21st century is increasingly likely to be characterised by Islamist violence and coping with the global jihad.
Unfortunately, those who have chosen to employ critical theory and “post-colonialism” analysis, which essentially argues that all Western attempts to do anything but agree entirely with third world peoples and arguments is a form of racism, make it hard to generate empirically based, policy relevant studies of the intellectual, religious and cultural roots of Islamist terrorism and its relationship with the Muslim mainstream. It is indicative of a growing “politically correct” tradition that suggests even asking questions about such subjects is unthinkable and racist, no matter what answers you provide.
Scholars are, of course, entitled to pursue their research in critical theory or post-colonial studies if they choose. However, their value in terms of national security perspectives is highly questionable. This cursory examination of its funding decisions makes it clear that the ARC is allocating substantial resources under a national security priority to projects that are largely ideological, predetermined, and, ultimately, unhelpful in advancing the goal of the program
Meanwhile, there is nowhere near enough support for the understanding of the cultural, intellectual and religious roots of the current terrorist threat. Given the limited funds available and the immense importance to Australian life of understanding the true dimensions of the terrorist challenge, it is vital that the ARC find ways to redirect more of its funding priorities to researchers who look at the security implications of terrorism, rather than those who blithely rationalise Islamist terrorism as understandable responses to the misguided actions of the West or simply tack contrived justifications onto projects with almost no relevance to national security.
It remains unclear if the skewed allocation of funds identified in this article is the result of a flawed funding allocation process by the ARC, or the failure of Australian academe to propose sufficient numbers of genuinely empirical, policy-relevant projects which might actually serve to enhance national security goals. Given the near blanket domination in many Australian university faculties of critical theory, post-colonialism and other similar frameworks, it may sadly be the latter. If so, this would be a profoundly worrying commentary on the state of the social sciences and humanities in the Australian tertiary sector.