Another group of Australian military personnel are being committed to a foreign war. A new wave of anti-terror legislation that increases surveillance has been introduced. A Conservative Prime Minister tells us that “Regrettably for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.”
An initial reaction from parts of the Left (see note) is to decry the war mongering and to accuse Government of artificially raising security issues as a political smokescreen. Some on the Left claim we are following the US again on an ill-conceived folly.
But doesn’t the Left, above all, stand for equality? Doesn’t it stand for the protection of individuals from the exercise of illegitimate power? Shouldn’t the Left stand with the citizens in the Middle East who face terror and torture unless they commit to accepting the tyranny of a theocratic state?
The issue is clearly not the right of our fellow humans to enjoy the liberties we take for granted, but of the means by which we pursue the cause.
A study of Western history shows that many of our liberties have been won by war, and even terror. It also shows there is great folly in believing that Australia owes its liberties specifically to a Judeo-Christian heritage, the approach proposed by the Abbott Government’s curriculum review.
In trying to break this problem down, let’s start with a broad brush description of the history of the human race. From origins in Africa humans spread across the globe, mostly following coast lines but also crossing to what are now the continents of Australia and the Americas over land bridges. Owing to rapid climate change, rising sea water cut off some of these connections, further separating inhabitants.
As human society developed, humans settled in communities, firstly in the temperate regions of Europe and the Middle East able to support early agriculture. The communities became societies and established different, distinct cultural characteristics, including language.
Many events caused these communities to migrate from location to location in a process that continues to this day. As communities developed into states and satraps within empires, the migrations became greater and the scale broader.
Britain itself was an island that had been occupied by a number of different nationalities that either migrated or invaded from continental Europe. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Jutes and other Nordic peoples occupied the islands. The Kingdom of England was conquered by the Normans in the eleventh century, having only been united the century before. Wales was incorporated in the 16th century and unification with Scotland commenced by the joining of the crowns in the 17th century. Ireland was incorporated progressively by conquest and immigration.
This ethnically diverse nation suffered a bloody Civil War; in fact, more Englishmen died as a percentage of population in the English Civil War than in any other war. This political and religious conflict (and its continuation in the Glorious Revolution) resulted in the affirmation of limitations on the power of the monarchy. Despite the position of the monarch as head of the established church, it also eventually resulted in an official position of religious tolerance.
From this bloody conflict the Anglophone democracies were spawned. America had to fight for its independence, but the others gained their status peacefully – this was an inheritance earned by the blood spilled by their forebears.
Who are we to question the right of a citizenry to rise up and fight against the established power?
The answer lies in the cause being fought for – is it for a democratic state or is it for a theocratic state?
Before the English Civil War (or more accurately, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms) one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in Europe had commenced – the Thirty Years War. Having started as a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic States in the Holy Roman Empire it eventually involved most of the powers of Europe.
It was notable for the extent of devastation in the areas of conflict, including the slaughter of non-combatants (civilians).
Who are Europeans to cast scorn on a region that is embroiled in a religious war, when we inflicted the same on ourselves?
War is understood to be formalised violence perpetrated by one “state” upon another.
Civil war is recognised as the contest between alternative claimants to be the rightful holders of the power of the state.
Terror is violence imposed by one group of people against another in furtherance of political ends.
The French Revolution was the wellspring of democracy in continental Europe. It is revered as a place in which ordinary citizens found their voice.
But in response to counter-revolution, and then in a desperate bid simply to seem to be in control, the Government imposed a reign of terror against its own people.
In Ireland the predominantly Catholic elements that sought independence waged a campaign of terror against the Protestant co-inhabitants brought over from Scotland and the people of Britain. It is widely accepted that the campaign of terror was in part funded by donations from sympathisers in other countries, especially the United States.
Who are the United States to castigate people for funding, otherwise supporting or participating in their homelands?
Australia declared the Kurdish Workers Party (the KPP) a terrorist organisation because it sought to use violence to fight for the rights of the Kurdish people. The Australian Government now arms the KPP to fight the Islamists.
The United States declared at the end of World War I the right to “national self-determination” only fifty years after fighting its own bloody civil war to prevent some States from ceding from the union.
The great myth is that there is some set of lines, just hidden beneath the soil of the Arabian peninsula, that are the natural boundaries between a Kurdish state, a Sunni state and a Shia state. Just as in Britain, in the Balkans, in what generations thought of as ‘Germany’, the people of every region are a mix of people who have migrated there.
The answer to all the above questions about what privileged position we have is simple. We are the people who have learnt from history.
Australia in its splendid physical isolation has been able to learn these lessons better than most. Yes we still have unresolved issues with the process by which we dispossessed indigenous Australians of their land. But we have recognised their rights to the ownership of that land where there is a continuous connection with it – using the principles of common law.
Yes we inherited our democracy, but we are renowned for our democratic institutions. The secret ballot is known, rightfully, as the Australian ballot. Together with the colony of New Zealand, the Australian colonies led the world in enfranchising women. The system of counting ballots for multi-member electorates is named after the Tasmanians who developed it.
More recently we have embraced the people who have come to our land over recent generations. Multiculturalism is an expression of our belief that people can continue their independent cultural traditions within a democratic and inclusive society.
But there are also great myths about how all this has been achieved.
The greatest of these is that the moral code on which this society is based is one of a Judeo-Christian heritage. This is a case of the fallacy post hoc ergo proctor hoc.
Indeed it is more a matter of us having achieved these things despite this heritage than because of it. Three points of many possible will be used to demonstrate this.
The first is that the Judeo-Christian heritage has been responsible for its own bloody internal religious conflicts. The Thirty Years War and the Irish troubles have already been mentioned, but to this could be added the Holocaust. Certainly Hitler himself, although baptised, was no Christian, but many other anti-Semites were.
The second is that the Judeo-Christian heritage has no moral code against slavery. The only biblical references to slaves involve instructing slaves to be good and respect their masters, and instructing masters how to beat their slaves without killing them. Anti-slaving movements, even with significant Christian support, had to make their case outside the Judeo-Christian heritage.
The third is that Roman law – the church law of the Middle Ages – was based on, among other things, the belief that a confession given without torture was unreliable. What became the English common law owes little or nothing to this heritage.
Law is particularly important because in considering the desire for some Islamists to impose “Sharia law”, the breadth of interpretations of that law needs also to be acknowledged. Some like Saudi Arabia incorporate very literalist, Wahabi traditions, others like Iran have adopted an approach that is more akin to the way that English common law is practised.
There is nothing particularly unique about any law that is founded on common sense and some high level ethical principles taken from religion. After all most religions incorporate some version of the Golden Rule – to treat others as you would like to be treated. Almost everything else can be derived from that.
Australia has much to contribute to the global movement to support individual liberty and a life free of repression.
Our first action should be to use our own country as the exemplar of how people of different cultures can co-habit one geographic region if an open democratic society that respects multiculturalism is adopted.
In doing so we need to emphasise the importance of a secular state, that religion has no place in government. That alone is a good reason for republicanism – that it is abhorrent that our head of state is also the head of a religion. We should go further and abolish prayers at the beginning of Parliament.
However, we do not need to demonise religion. Karen Armstrong concludes in Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, very little religious violence is actually religious. Religion has often been a pretext for violence over material goods, wealth and power, notwithstanding it is supposed to break such destructive cycles.
This can be seen in the telling of the Old Testament; Israel loses wars when it turns against God and wins when it is united with God. It is a manuscript for loyalty to the state as embodied in first the Judges and then the Kings.
And we need to ensure that these principles and values are at the forefront of every position we take in foreign affairs. We need not impose sanctions on those who don’t follow them, we need not sermonise about them. But we can celebrate them and acknowledge them in everything we do.
Being a role model and defending the principles of that model is not, however, of itself sufficient.
There are times when fellow humans seeking to pursue a similar outlook to our own are subject to illegitimate power and cruelly subjugated. It is not Australia’s role to participate in every such dispute. But there are times where war and terror become impossible to ignore. The fight against Nazi Germany is the single best example.
But when we choose to intervene we need to be sure that we are intervening for the right reasons, and even on the right side. We should not be criticising Islamists but instead criticising Religious Extremists. And we must never again participate in any intervention without all the possible scenarios having a worked out exit strategy.
Note: “Left” here refers to a wider political left that includes parts of the ALP but also groups outside the ALP.