17 September 2008
Dr Mervyn Bendle of James Cook University in Townsville was one of the first people to warn of the dangers associated with Saudi Arabian funding coming into Australian universities. Last week he was the guest speaker at the annual Quadrant magazine dinner, and he focussed on the rise of a new academic field - Critical Terrorism Studies - which treats terrorism as a construcrt of the Western imagination, or else as a rational and justifiable response to Western evil.
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.
At the annual Quadrant magazine dinner in Sydney last week, the keynote speaker was Dr Mervyn Bendle, senior lecturer in History and Communication at James Cook University in Townsville. He's one of the first people I'm aware of to warn about the danger of Saudi government funding coming into Australian universities. So there's a thematic connection here with last week's program about the Channel 4 documentary on Wahabi activity in London's Regent's Park Mosque.
In his speech on Thursday night Dr Bendle focused on what he says is the rise of a whole new academic discourse in our universities, known as Critical Terrorism Studies. As much as possible it avoids mention of the religious roots of terrorist groups like al-Qa'eda. Instead, it sees terrorism as a construct of the Western imagination, and at the same time, paradoxically, as justified by Western misdeeds.
'In fact', he says, 'such arguments are based on a Manichean view of the world that has prevailed in the West for some 50 years, according to which the West is inherently evil and only the non-West is good, a great amorphous, but intrinsically benign 'Other' condemned to suffering by Western wickedness. Consequently the West deserves to be destroyed and has no moral right to fight back or protect itself.'
Well, in a week when Abdul Nacer Benbrika and six others have been convicted on terror offences in the Victorian Supreme Court, Merv Bendle says in the war on terror, our universities have become a major new battleground, and it is in the universities that the war of ideas is being lost.
Mervyn Bendle: Yes, well it certainly seems to be the case, Stephen, teaching in the universities and reading all the material that is coming out of the universities for some time now, I've become aware of the fact that people in the universities have more or less aligned themselves with what I call the 'radical orthodoxy' about the nature of the war on terror and the nature of terrorism. I think it reflects complacency amongst academics that one really doesn't want to see.
Stephen Crittenden: What is this radical orthodoxy you're talking about?
Mervyn Bendle: Well the radical orthodox position has pretty much been that the war on terror is more or less a bogus type of activity, that the emergence of al-Qa'eda and related terrorism is little or nothing to do about religion or their jihadi beliefs, but is really just another version of previous global liberation movements, focusing on global injustice. What they've done is they've pretty much assimilated the emergence of al-Qa'eda and related terrorism groups to the old neo-Marxist view of national liberation movements around the world, so they tend to see the whole thing in terms of an old paradigm.
Stephen Crittenden: And you say that we've seen the emergence of a new field of study, called Critical Terrorism Studies, with its own units, springing up inside Australian universities to take advantage of the extra funding available since September 11; that it's got its own journals, and that it features work by post-modern theorists who have little discernable expertise in actual terrorism.
Mervyn Bendle: Yes. Most things in academia these days, whatever they are, seem to spawn almost like a vampire-ic, sort of parasitic sort of growth, a critical study version of themselves, and whereas we've had terrorism study as a legitimate area of academic enterprise for decades.
Stephen Crittenden: Now we have critical terrorism studies.
Mervyn Bendle: Now we have critical terrorism studies.
Stephen Crittenden: And what's the difference?
Mervyn Bendle: Well critical terrorism studies associates itself with post-modernism, deconstructionism, discourse theory. It tends to see reality as primarily a social construction. It's got a cultural-relativist epistemology.
Stephen Crittenden: And you say critical terrorism studies talks about terrorism as a construct of the Western imagination.
Mervyn Bendle: Exactly. It's really quite interesting reading the literature, because so often the term 'terrorism' is put in scare-quotes as if it's not a real thing. Critical terrorism studies tends to see terrorism not primarily as an act of murderous violence like we witnessed in Bali that occurs in the real world but merely is what they call a signifier in a discourse; a myth that's been generated to cause fear and to mobilise the population behind what critical terrorist theorists would say are just conservative political figures and political movements in the West.
Stephen Crittenden: Well you call it radical orthodoxy, but is it actually something much more marginal? Are these academics being taken seriously by governments and policymakers in Canberra?
Mervyn Bendle: That's a very interesting question because one of the complaints that's come out from within the various think-tanks that have emerged in Australia, is that this critical terrorist approach in the universities has made the universities irrelevant. The Director of the National Security Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Dr Karl Ungerer, recently complained that there's a radical pacifism reigning in the university departments, and that it promotes an extreme hostility to sovereign states like Australia, the UK and the US.
Stephen Crittenden: And he says it's making the universities irrelevant.
Mervyn Bendle: Exactly. Because this radical orthodoxy isn't an orthodoxy. It's spread throughout the university and it's so dissociated from the real world that it's making itself irrelevant to the formulation of policy and the conduct of useful research.
Stephen Crittenden: Yes, but on the other hand, in your speech the other night, you seemed to be arguing that we have to take this kind of approach seriously, that it's not irrelevant, when it's being taught at somewhere like the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
Mervyn Bendle: Yes, it's really quite alarming, and quite surprising. I'm at a loss to understand it, and Karl Ungerer, who I just mentioned a moment ago, he's at a loss I gather, too, to understand how this has occurred. But one of the leading figures in critical terrorism studies is an Australia chap called Dr Anthony Bourke, who's just been made an Associate Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He's been very successful in publishing his books and he's got quite a high profile in the area, but there's no question, amongst anybody who's been following what's been going on for the last few years, that his views are well to the left, and it is really quite surprising that he's been appointed to that position; not so much because perhaps he doesn't deserve it, he may well deserve it on academic grounds, but it's just that his ecological orientation does make it surprising. Dr Ungerer described it as 'eyebrow raising', which I think is an exercise in understatement. If somebody has got a radical pacifist view of things, of national security and international relations and terrorism and so on, well what's the fit between that person and a position at the ADFA. It might be a perfectly good fit somewhere else, and good luck to Dr Bourke, but these are just interesting developments that do make you wonder what's going on.
Stephen Crittenden: Merv, you're one of the first people in Australia that I'm aware of to warn of the danger of Saudi government funding coming into our universities. You see that as something that's compounding the ideological problems we've just been discussing. Do you agree with the proposition that the universities here in Australia, in the UK, in Europe, have become the new front line in the battle with Islamic extremism?
Mervyn Bendle: Absolutely. I don't think there's any question at all about that, and I think that everybody who's involved in this situation on all sides, including the security agencies, political analysts, but also the jihadists and the leaders of the terrorist groups themselves, I think everybody recognises that the universities are very much the front line now.
Stephen Crittenden: But you're not just talking about the recruitment of Muslim students, or their radicalisation by Saudi students who are coming here, you seem to be talking about, well, the complicity of academic culture.
Mervyn Bendle: Yes, well complicity is a difficult term to sort of deploy, because it does imply there's some level of agency and even betrayal involved in the activity of these academics.
Stephen Crittenden: You're not saying that.
Mervyn Bendle: But, having said that, just putting that proviso, one does have to look fairly sort of cold-bloodedly at the situation and wonder what it is that motivates these people to align themselves with what are really extremist ideologies that are quite explicitly against everything in the West that we hold valuable, including the very freedom of speech that these people in our universities enjoy.
Stephen Crittenden: Do you think there are factors that make universities uniquely vulnerable?
Mervyn Bendle: Well there are factors in the universities, especially in Australian universities, that make them uniquely vulnerable, and this can really be traced back to the 1960s when there was an enormous expansion in tertiary education, both in Australia and overseas, but certainly in Australia. That corresponded to a time when there was a real upsurge in radical ideology, and a lot of people who found their way into positions in the universities at that time, have clung to those ideologies, and consequently they want to see the world through this paradigm which is now 40 years old, and when they see al-Qa'eda attacking the US, they sort of mentally think, Oh, this is just another example of the sort of anti-colonial, anti-American imperialist movements of the 60s, when in fact it's got nothing at all to do with that; it's an entirely new thing that needs to be seen anew. But they're not seeing it anew, they're seeing it through this old paradigm. What's actually happened in the universities, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, has been a gradual decay if you like, in the quality of the work that's being done. It's almost a form of intellectual decadence. What's really noticeable is how little has been published in the scholarly journals by people about terrorism in Australia and when it is being published, what's really noticeable about that is how it reflects this so-called critical terrorism studies viewpoint.
Stephen Crittenden: You in fact say one of the hallmarks of the kind of stuff that's being published in this post-modern vein, is that much of it tends to avoid mention of Islamic terrorism. You mention a recent history of terror whose only mention of Muslims in the index was under the headings 'Stereotyping of', and 'Violence towards'.
Mervyn Bendle: Well that's right. This is an example of the sort of political correctness that we've just got to get past. I don't think Muslims mind people talking about the threats to Australia, because they've got a stake in preserving the national security of this country, and they don't want to see their own communities infiltrated and subverted by what really are quite crazy, militant organisations. So I think we've got to get over being coy and cute about the whole thing and just call a spade a spade.
Stephen Crittenden: Is another aspect in all of this that makes universities vulnerable, the kind of neo-liberal paradigm that sort of gutted the universities of funding in recent decades and turning them into businesses?
Mervyn Bendle: Absolutely. And I think you yourself have probably done a fair bit to highlight this with some of the work you've done on the situation at Griffith. There is a species of academic that rises to leadership positions in Australian universities, that don't really appear to have much going for them, apart from the fact that they hold these positions. And this whole neo-liberal thing is really associated with a very faux entrepreneurialism that gets us all involved in sort of rinky-dink marketing efforts at the universities which is all really, really pretty pathetic. And the funny thing about it is, it just really brings cynicism amongst students, because they pretty quickly wake up to the fact that all this gloss and all this marketing hides a really ramshackle system.
Stephen Crittenden: Now Merv, I want to try and get you to pull all of this together by telling us about 'fourth generational warfare'. We've mentioned the idea that the universities are the new front line in the war on terror. What is 'fourth generational warfare'?
Mervyn Bendle: This type of warfare is dominated by ideological battles, cyber-warfare, terrorist networks and franchises and various forms of what they call 'leaderless jihads', operating on a global scale, and everybody again, on all sides of the conflict, the terrorists and the national security people, and the researchers, will all recognise that this type of struggle involves a systematic recruitment, and mobilisation of university-trained knowledge workers, and that's becoming an increasingly important factor in the whole thing.
Stephen Crittenden: Now in your speech at the Quadrant dinner the other night, you referred to a document that only came to light a couple of years ago, allegedly produced by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood , indeed it's thought that it was written by the father of Tariq Ramadan , and its title is 'Towards a World Strategy for Political Islam'. Is that an example of a blueprint for fourth generational warfare?
Mervyn Bendle: Yes, well I mean this is a really good example of where we're playing catch-up. It was actually very interesting sort of family relationships that Tariq Ramadan is the coming generational representative of; he's the grandson of Hasan al Banna, who was the founder of the ultra-fundamentalist Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood; and he's the son of Said Ramadan who was al Banna's private secretary and the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, based in Switzerland. Said Ramadan is believed to be the principal author of the document you mentioned, which is commonly called The Project. It was prepared in 1982 by the Muslim Brotherhood as a blueprint for their global strategy for Islamists, what they saw as Islamist supremacy. And it was only discovered when a police raid was carried out on the Bank Al Takwa in Switzerland in November 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. And access to the document was limited to Western intelligence agencies for quite some time until a Swiss investigative journalist was able to gain access to it, and then he wrote a book about it called 'The Conquest of the West - Islamists' Secret Project', which at the moment is still only available in French. But the project itself is online. You can find that online .
Stephen Crittenden: Right. It strikes me that what you're asking us to think about perhaps goes back to the Cold War and the time when we used to think in terms of The Comintern and Communist fellow travellers; you seem to be describing an Islamintern and perhaps in some of these university departments, fellow travellers in a similar way?
Mervyn Bendle: There is some sort of parallel. It's interesting that various calculations have been made, and these indicate that Saudi funding at the moment is currently running at twice the rate that the Soviet Union spent on global propaganda during the Cold War. So that gives you an idea of the scale of Saudi funding. The one thing that is different is that the current fourth generational form of warfare, has moved away from the highly hierarchical system of the Comintern, where there was a sort of a dictatorial situation in Moscow which was laying down policy for the world's various national -
Stephen Crittenden: Centrally directed.
Mervyn Bendle: Centrally directed. What we've got now is what they call 'leaderless jihad' and even what they call 'franchises', these are characterised not by centralised leadership but by a high level of decentralisation, and what holds them together is adherence to this jihadist ideology. And it's this jihadist ideology that's being promoted in the universities that's mobilising alienated young people and attracting them in many cases into terrorist activities, and it's this ideology and the role it plays amongst knowledge workers in the universities and elsewhere, that's the real problem at the moment. I think predominantly it's passive and unconscious and it really reflects the complacency of our intelligentia here. They could have made the leap post-9/11 and recognised that this was a threat that transcended the dichotomy between left and right in politics; it really represented a threat to the very essence of Western liberal democratic society. So it could have made that leap, but they chose not to; in the end they just chose to assimilate the war on terror to the old paradigm.
Stephen Crittenden: That's Dr Mervyn Bendle from James Cook University in Townsville, and an article based on his speech appears in the September issue of Quadrant magazine.
Dr Mervyn Bendle
Senior lecturer in History and Communication at James Cook University in Townsville