Don't mention the terror
The most alarming global phenomenon leaves Australian academics strangely removed, says Merv Bendle
September 6, 2006
IT is hard to believe Australian academics take terrorism seriously. Indeed, research into terrorism in Australia faces two main challenges: academic lack of interest and indiscriminate use of the simplistic "class, sex, race" theoretical template to produce predictable research results, showing that it is invariably the West and not terrorism that is at fault.
In 1927, Julien Benda published The Treason of the Intellectuals, denouncing their timidity in the face of rising fascism. Are we facing the same problem now?
The level of academic lack of interest is astonishing. After all, a Google search on terrorism returns 350 million hits: one for every 17 people on earth. Given that most internet sites are in North America, western Europe and other Western societies, including Australia, this represents about one hit for every two people in those societies.
That hit rate compares with only 307 million for democracy, 168 million for Islam, 80 million for Christianity, 48 million for capitalism and 29 million for communism.
Despite this high level of public concern with terrorism, the five years since the September 11 attacks have been remarkable for the low level of relevant academic research in Australia. For example, a search of The Australian Journal of Politics and History reveals that it devoted one issue to reflections on September 11 in September 2003. Of the other 100 or so articles published between 2002 and 2006, only one (in March 2006) focused on terrorism. A similar analysis of the Australian Journal of Sociology shows that apart from three short articles published in 2002, there have been no specific studies on terrorism. Even a special issue, Fear and Loathing in the New Century (December 2004), makes only a passing mention of terrorism.
Similarly with the Australian Journal of Political Science. Between 2002 and 2006, it offered only one relevant article and a few reviews of books on terrorism. The Australian Religion Studies Review showed more energy, publishing a special section in its spring 2003 issue, Religion, Diversity and Social Cohesion after September 11, and several other articles at different times. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology published a review article in December 2003 and two articles that supported the view that the war on terror is a Western conspiracy. The Australian Journal of International Affairs has published some studies of terrorism, while the Melbourne Journal of Politics published only one article on terrorism, in 2005. Aside from academic publications, there are discussions in specialised periodicals such as Australasian Risk Management, Australian National Security Magazine and Human Rights Defender; in journals of political and cultural commentary such as Arena and Quadrant; and in para-academic journals such as Borderlands.
Hopefully, this lack of academic concern will be reversed with the establishment of research centres such as the global terrorism research unit at Monash University, and increased activity at the Australian Research Council, which has begun to support research on terrorism.
Aside from this remarkable lethargy, the greatest problem faced in the contemporary academic discussion of terrorism in Australia is the ubiquitous application of the "class, sex, race" theoretical template. This has been augmented since 2001 by a related approach that manipulates the concepts of terrorism, the Other, genocide, settler societies, Orientalism, and post-colonialism to construct the same small range of arguments, all of which eventually blame terrorism on the West.
Examples of this were prominent at the conference on Islam and the West: The Impact of September 11, organised by Monash University in August 2003. For example, Michael Humphrey, the head of the school of sociology at the University of NSW, declared that "in Australia, Muslim identity is increasingly constructed as the problematic (Orientalist) Other. The post-September 11 period has reinforced this ... The juxtaposition of faith with apocalyptic violence in the 'war against terrorism' has only deepened this connection and cultural Othering of Islam and Muslims."
Academic contributions frequently also have an overt political agenda, using academic forums to denounce the war on terror, the US, Israel, Australia, and their leaders, while insisting that Islam is a religion of peace and is being unfairly targeted. Another approach has been to claim that the West is the real terrorist, carrying out acts of state terrorism that dwarf the 9/11 attacks.
Such a perspective was provided at a public forum on the causes of terrorism, organised by Deakin University in May. Scott Burchill, senior lecturer in international relations, argued that "most terrorism in the modern world is state terrorism, committed by governments either directly or indirectly. Much of it is Western state terrorism." Similarly, in December last year The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology published an article arguing that the war on terror had been exploited to impose repressive and authoritarian rule in Australia.
Academic discourse on terrorism is dominated by second-level analyses of representations and discourses on terrorism considered merely as a word. It is alleged the terms terrorism and terrorist are value-laden and illegitimately used to label particular groups. Such analyses also link any concern with terrorism to racism and genocide, and claim that these appalling characteristics are inherent in so-called "settler societies" such as the US, Australia, and Israel.
For example, last year the e-journal Borderlands published an article by Katrina Lee Koo, a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University, in which she claimed that Australian security policies are based on "a commitment to the practices of violence" and that "we see in both the discourse of security and the development of security policy an acceptance of the violence committed against the Other as a 'necessary evil"'.
She believes that the concern with terrorism in the US doesn't arise from the fact that the country is under attack by well-resourced terrorists, but is merely "generated by the media (for ratings) and the government (for political benefits derived from fear generation and domestic political compliance)".
Another extreme example is the special Regimes of Terror issue of Borderlands this year. Editor Goldie Osuri, who lectures at Macquarie University's department of critical and cultural studies, claims that the Australian Government, under the auspices of the US, operates a "terror formation" that produces "racialised laws, sovereignties, securities, market economies and territories". These "regimes of terror" are inherent in Australian history and the contributors to the issue "have carefully traced the historical continuities within racial and colonial relations of power with the post-9/11 discourses of security and terror that enable the contemporary formation of regimes of terror (in Australia)".
Fortunately, we have not yet seen any published endorsements by Australian academics of the view that 9/11 was an act of "state-sponsored self-terrorism" carried out by the US against itself, as canvassed by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, who teaches international relations at the University of Sussex. It is not hard to imagine that such claims will soon be made by an Australian intelligentsia that is happy in its complacency and anxious to avoid any facts that might disturb its comfort zone.
Merv Bendle is a senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University.