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The Mind of Islamic State review: Robert Manne’s look at the terrorist scourge

Intellectual Robert Manne at his office at La Trobe University. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui POLITICSThe Mind of the Islamic State Robert ManneRedback, $22.99
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So it was that Donald Trump, in his first speech as US president, declared “radical Islamic terrorism” will be eradicated from the face of the Earth. His deliberate choice of phrase thrilled conservative culture warriors in the US and abroad who had obsessed over Barack Obama’s refusal to employ their favoured descriptor, instead referring to the modern danger violent extremism.

“There’s no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam’,” Obama had observed. “It’s a political talking point, it’s not a strategy.” And he was right.

To help explain why, La Trobe University academic Robert Manne has set the violent ideology of Islamic State into useful and historical context.

The book is dense with the convoluted logic of Islamists, what Manne calls the eventual “brutalisation” of ideology to justify killing. But the thread that connects Manne’s detailed analysis is the belief to properly understand the enemy is the first step to ensuring their defeat.

It’s not that religion should be divorced from our understanding terrorist threats. But with Trump, there is always the sense his choice of language is deliberately and provocatively gauged to bash the religion of Islam in the broadest possible sense.

“Radical Islam” is a brand intended to encompass much more than terrorism, including controversy over women donning the veil, halal food or men growing a beard.

The reason Obama preferred the term violent extremism was to specifically and accurately describe the threat, and not needlessly ostracise all followers of the Muslim faith. Even Vladimir Putin, the Russian president Trump professes to admire, has declared, “I would prefer Islam not be mentioned in vain alongside terrorism”. The rationale? The motives for terrorists are complex – political foremost – with the precepts of religion twisted as a rallying flag.

Security agencies have long maintained the best surveillance for communities at risk is provided from within. To broadly and inaccurately blame an entire faith not only reduces trust, but also undercuts efforts to demonstrate the paucity of violent ideology.

Manne’s book surveys the writings of modern extremists from the rejection of postcolonial nationalism to its most vicious manifestation as a regressive fundamentalism. He charts the prison screed of Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, whose influential work was given additional credence in the minds of extremists after his execution in the mid-1960s, through to Abdullah Azzam, who became a mentor to Osama bin Laden. Throughout, the extremist’s vision for the supposed duties of religion is the vehicle that effortlessly crosses state borders and national identity.

The debates are not new – and, indeed, I would have found this book a useful summary about a decade ago when working as an intelligence analyst, seeking to understand the enduring appeal of al-Qaeda even as the terrorist organisation’s key leaders were harassed and killed.

But that’s the point: a decade ago, no one much understood how bin Laden’s deadly vision was metastasising into the apocalyptic dreams of Islamic State as it grew within the chaos of Iraq, and later Syria. Violent ideology is constantly transforming, opportunistically to justify success and setbacks on the battlefield, and in response to efforts by credible religious leaders to counter the narrative of extremists.

The most valuable focus of Manne’s book is on the influence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the pudgy Jordanian zealot who targeted Shia Muslims to unleash a bloody sectarianism during the US occupation of Iraq and did much to make the country ungovernable.

Zarqawi – also infamous for video recording executions – was killed by an American airstrike in 2006, but his bloody tactics led to a break between al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and what then became the fledgling Islamic State. Zarqawi’s savagery has been expanded and captured in graphic violent memes posted across social media, although as Manne notes, the true differences of ideology are small and narcissistic.

Manne’s conclusions struck me as somewhat ambivalent – whether the contradictions of violence mean that the appeal of extremism is dwindling, or whether the worst is yet to arrive. It does seem clear with Trump now warning “we have to fight fire with fire”, violence seems assured.

But in years to follow, a strategy of the kind pursued by Obama to rob the religious pretensions of the extremists will eventually douse the flames.

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