We must offer disaffected youth an alternative

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Lack of a strong, meaningful national narrative plays into Islamic State's hands, writes Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven. 

One of the most natural human tendencies is to deal ostentatiously with symptoms of a problem rather than comprehensively with its causes.

We crash-diet rather than eat sensibly. We buy loved ones expensive presents rather than simply being nice. At Carlton, we sack the coach instead of admitting our players could not beat an egg white.

So in the face of the unprecedented horror of homegrown terrorism we prepare to act with proud decisiveness by stripping offenders of their citizenship, the ultimate civic reproach. That'll teach 'em, wherever the hell they are, if they're still alive.

Yet the fundamental question must be how, in the luckiest country in the world, we have managed to produce people so alienated that serial murder is a reason to get out of bed. That, and what are we going to do to prevent this in the future, so that citizenship stripping becomes a theoretical option, not the issue of the day.

There are some incredibly uncomfortable truths that have to be faced here about our homegrown jihadists and their holiday jobs with Islamic State. Yes, they are vile, murdering psychotic scum.

No prison cell is deep enough for them. But objectively they are also horrifically brave, resourceful and, above all, motivated to a degree almost beyond our comprehension. How has such a contemptible cause been able to gather adherents of such passion in the face of a society that seemingly offers them everything?

True, there always will be irredeemable nut jobs. But the terrifying thing is the number of terrorists who seem to be normal, feeling, friendly neighbours, until they became homicidal religious maniacs. What was so missing in their lives that life itself - their own and that of others - became negligible?

There seems little doubt many of these recruits to horror were searching for a narrative of strength and meaning they simply could not find in Australia. On one level, this is no cause for alarm: we are under no obligation to supply recreational opportunities for ideological violence.

On another, we do have to ponder just how strong - or weak the civic narrative of our own country seems to be. We are famously tolerant, laid-back and easygoing. Appealing characteristics all, but is a country embodying such qualities ever going to provoke the type of fierce loyalty that is a viable alternative to jihad?

Perhaps, if these values were spun into a story that was told compellingly in our schools and beamed into our living rooms. But the reaction of the average Australian to civic education is a mixture of embarrassment and almost suicidal boredom. Our popular culture is much the same. We are not much into history and, when we are, the dominant voices are likelier to cynically deconstruct than celebrate it.

Then there is God, who comes in for a fair amount of bad press these days. The deity usually is cast in the role of agent provocateur in terrorist dramas, inspiring crusaders and promising on demand virgins to jihadists.

This is hardly surprising in a country where a bigoted, profoundly anti-intellectual atheism dominates most organs of public debate. But if understanding and dealing with the minds of profoundly religious, demonstrably capable religious terrorists is one of the great issues of our day, how much use are populist poseurs who cannot get past making tired cracks about "sky fairies" and "imaginary friends"?

The age-old challenge of dialogues between faiths is hard enough. But how do you begin to understand your enemy, let alone defeat them, when you cannot even condemn their demonstrable acts of evil without stopping along the way to abuse their personal beliefs?

So we seem to have at least two problems, apart from being faced with global, growing evil. We do not have our own, strong, resistant national narrative. And in a desperately serious debate that demands at least an understanding of at least perverted faith, we are more inclined to snigger than argue. Perhaps these realities underlie a very frightening question posed to me recently by a close friend, very much Australian, but certainly no fellow-travelling Christian.

Islamic State, he said, was horror itself distilled. But to disengaged youth it had every appearance of strength, certainty, excitement, commitment and worst of all – meaning.

Where he asked, in Australia, was the comparable but decent "alternative product"?

Even more pointedly, he demanded of me as a member of the Catholic Church – the largest religion in the world with at least as compelling a backstory as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – what our competing program was?

Until we can answer these types of questions, we are doomed to merely dress the wounds of hate.

This article first appeared in The Australian.

Articles by Professor Craven can be found on the Vice Chancellor's media page.