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Crippled by paradigm paralysis

The media and governments get the terror threat. Too bad our academics and think tanks don't, writes foreign editor Greg Sheridan

THE arrest by Indonesian authorities of Jemaah Islamiah terrorists Zarkasih and Abu Dujana is of the greatest importance for Australia. It is a stunning achievement by the Indonesian police.

If anyone ever doubted the benefit to us of having a competent, moderate government in Jakarta led by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, they should doubt it no longer.

Al-Qa'ida is enjoying success in the Middle East but it is suffering real setbacks in Southeast Asia, substantially because of the Indonesian Government, which has arrested 200 terrorists and put many of them through open, credible trials.

Zarkasih was the emir of JI, its overall leader and in particular its spiritual leader, a position formerly held by Abu Bakar Bashir. Dujana was the head of military operations.

These arrests grew out of intelligence gleaned in arrests in March, which also yielded a huge cache of explosives. Now Zarkasih and Dujana will yield their own intelligence treasures. JI is still a formidable threat. It still has a core membership of 1000, with many more sympathisers. Its mainstream group has reportedly decided to abandon attacks on Westerners for the moment and concentrate on recruitment, indoctrination, exacerbating ethnic and religious conflict within Indonesia and preparing for future military conflict.

Its radical splinter, led by Noordin Top, is believed still to support anti-Western bombings. No one knows for sure where Top is, but he is believed to be somewhere in Java, while another key JI figure, Dulmartin, is likely to be still hiding in the southern Philippines. The Indonesian President, his Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, former president Gus Dur and leaders of mainstream Muslim organisations have all made statements welcoming the arrests.

This is central to Indonesia's success in the war on terror. The civil society is aligned against Islamist terrorism and is therefore able to deny it the social space it paradoxically finds in the failing dictatorships of the Middle East. Indonesia's success in the war on terror is thus a direct security dividend from its democratisation nearly a decade ago.

However, these arrests in one perverse way indicate a specific failure by Australia. The Australian media's response to them was dominated by three international researchers: Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, Rohan Gunaratna, an academic based in Singapore, and US academic Zachary Abuza.

Doesn't it strike you as bizarre that there is not a single Australian researcher on Southeast Asian terrorism of international repute?

This represents a profoundly important institutional failure by two groups: the first, our universities; the second, our strategic class. Six years after 9/11 and five years after the Bali bombings, there is hardly a single Australian academic working full time on Southeast Asian terrorism. Universities are funded to the tune of billions of dollars, but much of what they have come up with in terrorism research is rubbish. Much of it is postmodern theoretical nonsense about how the discourse of terrorism "demonises the other". Little of it involves traipsing around the jungles of Java or Mindanao, or the region's prisons, interviewing terrorists.

Similarly, we have two main international relations think tanks, the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and the privately funded Lowy Institute. Both do good work and we are a better country for having them. But neither has had a single person devoted full time to studying Southeast Asian Islamist terrorism.

Both the universities and the think tanks have produced some good work on terrorism. This has been done mainly by area experts, whether Indonesianists or scholars focusing on the Middle East or whatever, analysing terrorists as part of the societies they study. This is valuable. But surely Southeast Asian Islamist extremism deserves at least a few bodies actually working on it full time. If I were founding a think tank today I'd hire the best Southeast Asianists around and tell them to work 28 hours a day on this subject and dominate the Australian debate. The media is thirsty for such expertise. So is the public. So for that matter is the Government (although of course our intelligence agencies devote vast resources to the subject).

The universities have failed in part because of their postmodern and left-liberal bias, which says that the West must be the author of all sins, and therefore they don't study terrorists in their own terms. The strategic community has failed because of its continued paradigm paralysis, its chronic inability to regard terrorism as a serious strategic issue. The platonic ideal of this outlook is represented by the Australian National University's Hugh White, who declared in the June 6 issue of The Australian Literary Review that terrorism is not a threat to the international system.

He also declared, mystifyingly, that I am "confident that traditional state to state conflict is a thing of the past". As I have never uttered or written anything remotely alleging that, and it is certainly not a view I hold, this is a bit strange. I do on the other hand believe that terrorism can threaten the international system, as can state to state conflict. Where old-fashioned strategic analysts such as White are so anachronistic is in their failure to see the complexity of the interaction of these two dynamics.

Paul O'Sullivan, the head of ASIO, pointed out in a speech yesterday that al-Qa'ida does precisely want to revolutionise the international system. Apart from the question of al-Qa'ida obtaining weapons of mass destruction, O'Sullivan pointed out: "The argument that the threat from terrorism is exaggerated also ignores the dangers terrorist networks pose to vulnerable or failing states. Transnational Islamic terrorists don't require WMD to challenge the authority and legitimacy of such states, exploit their weak spots or quietly rebuild capacity under the radar."

Governments in Jakarta and Canberra and, paradoxically, the media, have to deal with the world as it is, and therefore accord terrorism the attention it deserves.

Universities and think tanks can take comfort in the chummy common room embrace of dead paradigms. But, in doing so, they offer sub-optimal service to their nation.

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Tell us what you think

Irshad Manji......a very brave lady...she speaks out again, despite death threats and curses. Yes, there ARE reformers and those with the cry of justice in their hearts

Posted by Anna on 2007-06-22 04:33:39 GMT

Very good article by GREG Sheridan...!

Posted by Mary on 2007-06-20 23:34:59 GMT

Very good article by Gref Sheridan, and I earlier wrote to the Australian feedback line to tell them so. He is one of the few journalists who really understands the dangers of radical Islam.

Posted by Mary on 2007-06-20 23:33:54 GMT