11 September, 2001, we have been constantly told that we – the general
public – are on the frontlines of The War Against Terror. Apparently,
the government wishes for us to do everything possible to protect our
society – except, that is, to understand the nature of the supposed
threat. What other explanation can be reached from the news
that the Classification Review Board is now banning books that the
government has flagged as “extremist” or, in the words of the Review
Board, “promotes and incites in matters of crime, specifically
terrorism acts, including the plan, action and execution of martyrdom

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that both books – Defence of Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan
– were authored by a Palestinian cleric named Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.
They deal with the issue of what the author described as a defensive
jihad against a foreign invader. That foreign invader is not Australia.
And it is not the United States. It is the former Soviet Union. These
books, that are today being banned by our overly anxious government,
were written to recruit young Muslims from both the East and the West
to join the American-funded and coordinated jihad against the Russians
in Afghanistan.

They outline, in some detail, the various
proofs from the Qu’ran, traditions of the Prophet, and earlier
statements of scholars that when a Muslim land is attacked it becomes a
religious obligation on the people of that land to defend it (and that
the obligation could then spread to neighbouring lands until the enemy
is repelled). For the most part, the books reference earlier texts that
were written centuries prior with regards to events such as the Mongol
sacking of Baghdad. The problem, it seems, is that the arguments that
once served American foreign policy well in the 1980s might today be
used to justify resistance to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
While such books might have made a valued contribution to the war against
communism in the 1980s, today they must be banned. More importantly,
let us assume that these are books that contain extremist ideas and
that these ideas are, as one might conclude from this most recent
decision, the ideological foundations for contemporary Muslim
terrorism. By banning books, the government is denying the public and,
more specifically, Muslim scholars and intellectuals, the opportunity
to understand the ideas, articles and justifications being used by
al-Qaeda. If we, as a community, cannot understand the religious
arguments being offered for suicide bombings, then it is impossible for
us to refute them.

If the intent is to stop the spread of
extremist ideas, banning books is a completely wrong-headed and
misguided approach to the problem. Both the offending books – and
books and articles of far more noxious content – are freely available
on the internet. Whereas government might be able to exorcise these
ideas from public bookstores, libraries and universities, it cannot
possibly stop people accessing them online. However, rather than be met
with refutation by scholars and community leaders who understand the
arguments being used, the people who absorb these sorts of ideas online
will be met with silence. And this silence will be interpreted as
validation of their ideas. For this reason, the banning of these books
won’t stop people accessing extremist ideas, but it will hinder the
ability of the rest of us to understand them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey