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Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian and the Weekend Australian Magazine

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May 7, 2004 -  Click here to listen to Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian and the Weekend Australian Magazine at AJC's 98th Annual Meeting.

Greg Sheridan
Foreign Editor, The Australian and the Weekend Australian Magazine
AJC's 98th Annual Meeting

The truth is that phenomenon of terrorism today means that all of us here in this room, all of us in our respective countries, are living in a completely new strategic environment. And people are very slow to grasp that.

There's a combination of three factors which creates this new environment. The first, we have terrorism organized on an unprecedented global scale. We've had terrorism before, all through history. And it's been important before. It's never before been organized on this global scale. The second is the emergence of rogue and semi-rogue states, which are willing to help terrorism. Rogue states like Iraq and Afghanistan, before their recent liberation. And semi-rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan, which are somewhat constrained by the international order but which nonetheless have helped terrorists very, very significantly.

The third factor is the growing ease of the technology of producing weapons of mass destruction. Each one of these phenomena on its own might be manageable. Bring them together and you have a completely new strategic environment, which represents an existential threat to the democracies in which we all live. There's been a tremendous slowness and unwillingness on behalf of the mainstream of Western intellectual opinions to come to grips with this.

I believe it is right to call this a war on terrorism. But this war is very much like the Cold War in that it will go for a long time; in my view, for decades and decades and decades, for the life of everyone in this room, and probably all of their children and quite possibly all of our grandchildren.

It is also a war of ideologies as well as a real physical war. There are unlikely to be decisive battles. Are we safer today? Well, Lenin said "The only question that matters is what is to be done." So what is to be done? The two questions I think we need to ask are: Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? We need to know our friends. We need to know our enemies. Our enemy in the war on terror are radical extremist Islamic terrorists and the states that support them.

There's an incredible mealy-mouth quality abut declaring this very often in the Western media. Our main friends are our fellow democracies all over the world. But also people who yearn for democracy and freedom, and people who reject terrorism who want to fight against terrorism, and, of course, within the Muslim world, the vast majority of moderate Muslims.

I'd like to talk for a minute about Southeast Asia, which is the area that I know best. Our enemies in Southeast Asia are worth pondering just for a second. Southeast Asia has the world's largest Islamic state, Indonesia, with 250 million people. It is also, by the way, the world's largest Islamic democracy. It's had now two Democratic elections, quite peaceful, and abided by the results. And I think it is fair now to call it a democracy. It is also, while not exactly a secular state, it's a majority Muslim state in which Islamic is not the state religion and in which there is not a state religion.

Throughout Southeast Asia, there is now an epic battle joined between the extremists and the moderates within Islam. The moderates are infinitely better placed, much more powerful, much more self-confident than the moderates are in the Middle East. I oscillate between wishing Southeast Asia had a more prominent place in the global Islamic debate because its politics are so much more interesting and the moderates are so much more effective.

I also like between feeling that on the one hand and feeling on the other hand, it's a good thing that Southeast Asia is neglected in this debate because it's a sign that the trouble there is not quite as bad as it is in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Southeast Asia has certainly seen its share of Islamic extremist terrorism. The Bali bombing two years ago in which a couple of hundred people were killed, about half of them Australians, led to trials of terrorists and it's quite remarkable. The Indonesian government, with some help from the Australian federal police and the FBI, tracked down those terrorists, brought them to trial, laid evidence against them every day, had quite a meaningful and successful trial, and it's quite unique this trial in the annals of the modern battle against terrorism because day after day we had the terrorists in court telling us what they believed and what they did. They didn't really contest the idea that they were responsible for the Bali bombings.

One of the things they did every day as they walked into court was to scream out "Death to the Jews! Death to the Americans!", and sometimes, on purpose, say, "Death to the Australians!" And it wasn't even death to Israel or death to the Zionists. It was generally "Death to the Jews."

Now you can't filter death. It's quite clear. It's a very stark statement of ideology from the terrorists themselves. And it gave us a unique insight into Southeast Asian al-Qaeda affiliated terrorism. I myself have spent more years than I care to remember investigating extremist Islam in Southeast Asia. The results of these investigations are to be found in a book called Cities of the Hot Zone: A Southeast Asian Adventure.

All over Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and Singapore, I interviewed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Islamists ranging from bona fide and genuine absolute terrorists, straight right through to moderates, people who would not espouse violence but who defined their politics as Islamist politics. And I discovered in the course of my investigations the root cause of terrorism. We're often told we should address the root causes of terrorism.

I'm prepared to share this secret with you. The root cause of terrorism is terrorist ideology. This may seem a rather circular statement but I promise you it's a very profound discovery. Terrorist ideology, certainly in Southeast Asia and obviously in the Middle East, and in South Asia, is deeply inculcated. It's a deeply complex ideology. It's mad but it's coherent, which is often the state of the modern world. It's a very modern movement, terrorist ideology. I've heard from perfectly sensible, well-educated reasonable Southeast Asian Islamists that the U.S. invented the disease SARS in order to distract East Asia from its policies, that the U.S. Navy blew up Bali in order to force Indonesia to sign an anti-terrorist treaty, that Vladimir Putin works secretly for the CIA. Of course, that the G8 is run by the Zionists. And so on.

These are commonly held beliefs throughout Southeast Asian Islamist circles. The Islamic extremist ideology, which has its roots in an historical ideological debate within Islamist movements, as well as the tragic experience of Arab culture in dealing with modernization, is nonetheless refreshed and filled out by many different sources.

Here's another empirical discovery I'd like to share with you. On every Southeast Asian Islamist bookshelf that I visited, I found not only many works in Arabic, Wahabbi literature and so on, but I saw books by Noam Chomsky, Mike Moore, John Pilger. There is a liberal anti-Americanism which fuses with Islamist anti-Americanism and gives it life and color. Much of the detail of the Islamist view of the Bush Administration comes, in fact, from America. Indeed, the hypercritical post-modern adversary culture, which has taken root in our Western academies, which is really a hatred of the West by the West, which is really an embodiment of a self-hatred by Western intellectuals, this has become a powerful stream feeding into Islamist ideology.

This hatred of the West becomes, of course, a hatred of the Jews and a hatred of Israel as an expression of the West. This extremist ideology in the West feeds Islamist terrorists ideology in much the same way that the writings of the extreme Left in the West once fed Communist ideology.

One of the points of discovering the root cause of terrorism is terrorist ideology is to know that no reasonable action that we can take will make the slightest difference to the way in which tens of thousands of deeply committed ideologues view us. You know, one thing we cannot convert the terrorists by being polite to them. This leads to yet another discovery. And here I'm not being at all partisan, because like all good journalists I am equally treacherous to all sides of politics. I'm politically ambidextrous or bisexual or whatever it is. I love and loathe Republicans and Democrats, or in my own country, Conservatives and Labor equally.

But, nonetheless, the truth of the matter is the terrorists don't hate America because of President Bush. They hate President Bush because of America. And they will hate any American president because of America. We need to keep, therefore, a sense of proportion in the way we assign blame to our own Democratic leaders for this phenomenon of terrorism.

What then of our friends? Of course, we must do everything we can to engage and help moderate Muslims. I think the moderates are going to win in Southeast Asia. There's an epic battle underway between the moderates and extremists in Southeast Asia. It's one of the great battles of history, because that, after all, is where most Muslims live. I think the moderates are going to win.

But the truth is in Islamic societies, what we can do for the moderates is really fairly marginal. It's a battle they have to win themselves. Similarly, helping the moderates does not mean that we have to adopt the political agenda even of moderate Muslims because this political agenda is often quite wrong-headed and it's often influenced by the extremists in their midst, especially in its views of Israel and the West.

However, the other question about our friends is what we do with our closest friends, which is fellow Democrats. And I believe the situation requires the greatest possible solidarity amongst democracies, and amongst Democrats. I think it's a solidarity which is not being shown very much.

Two very rapid examples. The way that India and Pakistan are generally equated in the discussion of the dispute over Kashmir is, in my view, quite ridiculous. India is the world's largest democracy, a democracy in good standing. Pakistan is a military dictatorship, which has funded terrorists and which has engaged in the greatest acts of nuclear weapons proliferation in the history of the human races. It's bizarre to simply say that a dispute between them is just a dispute between A and B and we can divide somewhere down the middle and get a solution. That's crackers in my opinion.

An even more obvious and glaring example, of course, is Israel. I find the way Israel is presented in the Western press simply grotesque. I have to pinch myself and ask what world am I living in? Israel, it goes without saying, is not beyond criticism. But to equate Israeli democracy with the Arab dictatorships that surround it, or to equate the soldiers of a democratic Israel, members of the IDF with the terrorists who they have to confront in battle shows an insane, or willful, stripping away of moral and political context which emerges, in my view, again out of the ideology of self-hatred by so many Western intellectuals. But the irony, of course, is that part of the modern hatred of Jews and Israel, as I say, is really a hatred of America. This is a weird moment in history when Jews are hated because they are friends of America. It's a new wrinkle on anti-Semitism.

A word on my own views about Israel and their development. Like all human beings born in the 20th century, of course, I was influenced by the knowledge and the shadow of the Holocaust. But that is not why I support Israel. Of course, I admire Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish gallantry, and, of course, Jewish humor. I was once paid the great compliment of being told that I'm an Irishman who's learned how to tell Jewish jokes.

But none of these is why I support Israel fundamentally. None of these is the reason that I support Israel. The main reason I support Israel is very straightforward, very simple. It's because Israel is a democracy and we should support democracies which are under attack by dictatorships. This seems to be so obvious. Every now and again I think I must be missing something you know. I read The New York Times and the European press, and the Australian press, too. I think I must be missing something. There must be a missing ingredient here.

A final word on friends. America and Israel have a lot of friends around the world, more than you might think. There is, of course, one country you're going to be astonished to learn its identity, which has stood with the United States in every substantial military engagement since World War I, when for a time U.S. troops were commanded by the great Australian general, Sir John Monash.

In World War I the commander of all of our armed forces who was a German Jewish immigrant to Australia, and its shows the benefits these immigrant countries can derive because they can use the talents of everybody. One nation frequently is the only or perhaps one of only two or three to vote with Israel and U.S. against anti-Israeli motions at the U.N. One nation thinks of itself like Israel and the U.S. as a nation of immigrants where everybody starts equal. Australia has the honor of being frequently singled out by Osama bin Laden in his public statements for all kinds of reasons.

We had troops in the battle stage in Iraq, 2,000 troops, not enough but something. We have troops now in the reconstruction period, 850 troops. Not enough but something. When our opposition leader recently suggested pulling those troops out he immediately went down in the public opinion polls. I don't know how many countries where that happens.

Australia is a country which has long understood that its security depends on the global order and particularly on the expression of solidarity among democracies which takes its corporeal form in the global U.S. alliance system. Not in the United Nations but in the global system of U.S. alliances.

In the age of terror, there is a sense in which our enemies wish to make us all Israelis now so that we all face the threat of terror in our lives everyday. They want to make us all Israelis. Well, of course, it would be fatuous for me to suggest I face the same level of risk as Israelis do every day. But it is true that hundreds of Australians have been killed already in the war on terror and that terrorist plans have been discovered, which involved, for example, striking at the nuclear reactor in Sydney. Why would you build a nuclear reactor in your biggest city? Good question. So yes, in a way, we are all Israelis now and that's certainly a label I'm proud to wear.