Richard Glover Sydney Morning Herald September 30, 2014
There's a grisly prescience about the opening line of If, Rudyard Kipling's most famous poem: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..."
Kipling, of course, wasn't thinking about beheading as a tool of terror, nor of the rampaging horror of Islamic State, but he did understand the way we could all metaphorically lose our heads in times like these. His poem is a warning about the dangers of being swept along by the noise of the crowd. He wanted us to understand how difficult it is to stand steady against such pressure, and how doing so requires character, values and fortitude. Let's hope we all measure up, for the time is now.
This is the real battleground of terrorism: a million tiny interactions on the streets of our cities. Will that glance be a hostile one or a kindly one? Will the angry Facebook post be shared or criticised? Do we together push the vulnerable towards the extremists, or do we tempt them back to the middle?
And how do we collectively cope when things go wrong? Will the Muslim community, seeing a mosque daubed with graffiti, understand the crime is the act of a deranged, hate-filled minority? Will non-Muslims, aghast when a preacher refuses to criticise a terrorist, understand that he speaks for the few and not the many?
Right now, anger and fear is being directed from both sides towards a shared target: those of us in the middle. It is the noise of the fanatical street preacher trying to brainwash a disaffected young man; equally, it's the shrill voice of the "go-back-to-where-you-came-from" bigot seeking to demonise Islam. “All this violence is right there in the Koran," rant a thousand voices on Facebook, before going on to quote certain lines, as if the Christian Bible doesn't offer the odd smiting.
What's interesting is that these anti-Islamic crusaders are doing identical work to the terrorists: they seek to make Islamic State an expression of Islam. They are trying to recast the world so that a rag-tag group of violent criminals is suddenly the true representation of a religion.
This of course is the exact project of the terrorists. That's why they call it Islamic State, when a better name maybe unIslamic State. It's why they use terms such as "jihadists" for their recruits, when "disaffected loser" would be more accurate. It's why they talk about people becoming "holy warriors", when "brainwashed dupes" would be more precise.
In truth, Islamic State is just a flag of convenience for the lost and enraged. It's Islamic in the same way as Nazism was Christian. Look at the backgrounds of those who've left to fight overseas and it's the same limping, sad-sack backstory: drug use, minor crime, and often a fumbling, failed attempt at fame. Throw in a relationship break-up and some financial problems, and they are now ready for a "solution" to their discontent.
How much is any of this about Islam? The most eloquent answer to that question emerged in court proceedings against two of the British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed. Before heading to Syria, they ordered books from Amazon: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Like most jihadists, they were not observant Muslims; they were the opposite. Islam wasn't their motivation; Islam was their cover.
Amid all this, there's a hunger for hope. Last week, a 10-year-old called Mohammed called my radio show and spoke about the lack of racism in his Sydney school. Everyone gets on, he said, we all play together and really the adults could take a leaf out of our book. Whacked up on social media, his advice has since been shared more than 50,000 times. From the names I see on Twitter and Facebook, the sharing has been done by Sydneysiders from both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds.
Those 50,000 know the truth: we keep ourselves safe by placing our arms around each other. We keep ourselves safe by staring down those on both sides who seek to make this about religion instead of about criminal violence and madness. On both sides, we must divide the normals from the nutters. We must keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs. [Abbrev.]