The murder of journalist Steven Sotloff, coming weeks after the murder of journalist James Foley in similar circumstances, seems an incomprehensible act of barbarism and hatred. What has caused Islamic State militants to hate the West so much that they would brutally murder a journalist and broadcast the grisly act worldwide?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s insistence that terrorists “hate us not for what we’ve done, they hate us for who we are” is misleading. It’s a line periodically wheeled out by politicians wanting to whitewash the West’s history of war and troublemaking in the Middle East, and one that ignores the facts.

On Sunday Abbott told a press conference that “there is a certain type of terrorist organisation which hates us, not because of what we do, but because of who we are and how we live”.

When questioned about whether an intervention in Iraq could increase the potential for terrorism in Australia, Abbott referenced a statement made by ASIO Director-General David Irvine last week: “He said there was, in his professional judgement, no specific correlation between what the Australian government might do in the Middle East and domestic terrorist threats.”

But there is significant evidence to the contrary.

If you listen to what radical Islamist groups have to say beyond all the religious stuff, it quickly becomes clear that one of the main drivers of such movements is a deep sense of injustice at the West’s historical treatment of Muslims. Perhaps the most common gripe is the behaviour of Israel — and the West’s support for the Jewish state in spite of Arabs killed, maimed and displaced.

Middle East correspondent Max Rodenbeck wrote on the release of two books about Osama bin Laden’s life that “the notion of payback for injustices suffered by the Palestinians is perhaps the most powerful recurrent in bin Laden’s speeches”.

“The evidence suggests that Western foreign policy plays an important role in pushing a few unstable individuals towards terrorism.”

In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the man seen as the architect of the September 11 attacks — the 9/11 Commission concluded that his “animus towards the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with US foreign policy favoring Israel”.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars only fuelled perceptions that the West does not see Muslim lives as valuable. The Tsarnaev brothers said the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the primary motivations behind the Boston bombings, while the July 7, 2005, London bombers cited Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

Closer to home, one of those involved in the Holsworthy terror plot made news by yelling in the courtroom “You call us terrorists. I’ve never killed anyone in my life. Your army kills innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel takes Palestinian land by force.” Melbourne terrorist Abdul Nacer Benbrika told followers they needed to kill at least 1000 citizens to make the Australian government withdraw forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Market research in the Middle East shows that public opinion is nowhere near as negative on the question of Western culture as it is on American foreign policy. A Zogby International poll of five Arab states in 2006 — that is, three years after the invasion of Iraq — found that “in earlier polls, ‘the American people’ were viewed positively in most Arab countries. In 2006, this is only the case in Lebanon.”

Notably, net views on “American freedom and democracy”, “American products” and “American movies and TV” ranged from moderately negative to moderately positive, and “American education” was seen positively in all six countries.

But American policies as regards Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq were seen negatively in all six — extremely so, in most cases. For example, 41% of Saudis expressed positive opinions on “American freedom and democracy” and 31% expressed negative views, but 96% disagreed with American Iraq policy. Australia’s approach towards these countries tends to be very similar to that of the United States.

And while it’s difficult to know whether the absence of these perceived injustices would have altered the outlooks of the terrorists themselves, a widely felt sense of injustice means that it’s more likely that groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or the Taliban will meet with support or at least ambivalence from Muslim-majority publics, increasing the risk of what has occurred in Iraq and Syria.

The evidence suggests that Western foreign policy plays an important role in pushing a few unstable individuals towards terrorism.

And the suggestion that “they” hate “us” for our freedom and not because Western states have killed and mistreated millions of Muslims, Arabs and other people over the past couple of centuries is rubbish. This may be inconvenient — you can’t undo the blunders of the past — but to completely dismiss terrorists’ own stated motivations and public opinion in the Middle East would be a mistake.

Peter Fray

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