Don't let the terrorists recruit us to their cause
by Simon Longstaff
When terrorists launched their murderous attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, they initiated a process that will extend in its effects far beyond the East coast of America and the limited objective of slaughtering innocents.
Beyond the immediate terror, beyond the unspeakable savagery, beyond the unutterable grief there lies an insidious challenge to the progress of civilisation. In particular, there is a grave risk that fear and ignorance will combine to drive the world into a dark spiral of mutual suspicion and hatred.
I have already heard the voice of the demon who beckons us to enter this foul place. His voice can be heard on talkback radio. His opinions are alive on the street, in the bus, trickling through the veins of society. He cloaks himself in the mantle of righteous outrage while poisoning our spirit. He twists the nobility of compassion into a lust for vengeance. He does all of this with virtue on his lips and ice in his heart.
What does he say? He asserts that we should meekly sacrifice our liberty on the altar of increased security. He suggests that people will have to choose between being a 'good Muslim' and being a 'good Australian'. He insinuates that asylum seekers carry the plague of terrorism and that those who would uphold the Rule of Law and the ancient liberties of the people, are undermining democracy.
The tragic irony is that if we allow ourselves to be swayed by such views, then we will have granted the terrorists an overwhelming victory by abandoning what it means to be civilised in order to become more like them. Central to our idea of a civilised society is the ethical tenet that each and every person is deserving of respect - irrespective of their race, religion, gender - whatever. The terrorists and the demon they have unchained, would have us return to a darker world in which we sink to a point where strangers become enemies less human than 'us'. Such times foster the politics of exclusion - in which we define who we are in opposition to others. The demon says, "if you're not for us, you're against us". He asks, "Dare you risk allowing the barbarians within your gates?"
Unfortunately, our general ignorance about the world makes it easy to embrace the seductive simplicity of a politics of exclusion. For example, very few of us have any real understanding of the religion of Islam. Properly understood, Islam is a religion of peace. In the high period of Islam, Alexandria was one of its greatest cities - famous throughout the world for the tolerance and harmony of life between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Then there is our selective memory of history - even the most recent. It was the Christian world that sacked Alexandria, burning the great library and in so doing, it destroyed the knowledge of the ancient world. Have we forgotten the butchery of the Crusades? Do we not recall the Inquisition? It was only a week or so ago that Catholics and Protestants vented their hatred at each other with the brunt of the fury borne by a clutch of school children - whose innocence was beyond reproach. Yet, is all Christendom to be condemned?
Evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Terrorists are spawned by every faith. They share in common the politics of exclusion. As such they are united in their rejection of civilisation's most important idea - that we share a common humanity. Now, the terrorists and their unwitting agents would recruit us to their cause by fostering hatred.
Finally, we need to think carefully about the possibility that terrorist attacks are, in part, more than just the calculated acts of ruthless ideologues. Perhaps, just perhaps, they are also the violent symptoms of a world that is sick in substance and in its spirit. We all know that millions live in grinding poverty, subject to the worst kinds of oppression. When we look at the poor and oppressed, do we understand that the only difference between 'us' and 'them' is an accident of birth? Can we begin to imagine what it might be like to stand in their shoes? Do we sense their despair, the destructive power of their rage?
I have long believed that the opposite of love is not really hate - but indifference. The ethical foundation of civilisation is the ability to recognise our common humanity - to know that the stranger can feel as we do.
The unchained demon that would devour our civilisation was born in the fires of ignorance, prejudice, hate and indifference. He is the enemy of all that is good in us, all that is worth preserving. First, he would lead us into a blind hatred of others. Ultimately, he would have us hate ourselves.