Former ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It’s a sadly ironic time for Malcolm Turnbull’s enemies within his own ranks, and in the media, to be trying to use refugees and Islamophobia against him in an effort to portray him as soft on national security.

After all, it’s only a week since a Quadrant editor proposed that the ABC be bombed, and only a few days since a white, right-wing Trump supporter screaming Islamophobic rantings murdered two people, including an Army veteran, and stabbed a third in Portland. “You got no safe place. This is America. Get out if you don’t like free speech!” the Portland terrorist yelled when he was taken to court. 

Here, the head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, is being hounded by the right for disputing a link between refugees and terrorists. That was initially in response to estimates questions by Pauline Hanson (on one of the rare occasions she showed up to work) but is now being pursued by Tony Abbott and a coterie of extreme-right commentators.

A former SAS commander and senior public servant, Lewis was appointed by Abbott in 2014 and given a profile by News Corp’s stenographers. “The public can be confident that the security of our country continues to be in the best possible hands,’’ Abbott said at the time. Abbott proceeded to shower additional funding and extraordinary surveillance powers on ASIO thereafter. 

The anger at Lewis is because he refuses to endorse the essentialist thesis of terrorism: that there is some characteristic of Islam that makes Muslims especially prone to mass murder. Usually this is dressed up as reference to “Islamism” or fundamentalism, but occasionally the mask slips, as it did with Abbott in a piece for News Corp’s tabloids today, when he argued:

“The root cause of this disorder is not mental illness, poverty, Islamophobia or western foreign policy. It’s in the Koran which too many people take literally. We pussy foot around the fact that many passages of the Muslim holy book command things that are completely incompatible with modern western life and even justify terrorism.”

Abbott himself admits that there are “bloodcurdling passages in the bible” (in fact, it’s impossible for people to tell which vile invocation is in which text) but dismisses that. Perhaps he’s aware of the long history of Irish Catholic terrorism by the IRA and other groups in the 1970s through to the 1990s — some of which continues to this day (the most recent victim of the “New IRA” was in March; he has since died). 

The essentialist thesis is restated in another form when politicians like Abbott, and Bill Shorten, and going back to George W. Bush, say some variant of “they hate us for our freedom”, as if the mere existence of a post-Enlightenment West is a motive for mass murder to Muslims. And it, not coincidentally, casts the West as the innocent victim of Muslim aggression, as if we were politely minding our own business of being free before we became the object of Muslim rage.

The problem for the essentialist thesis and its adherents, who are by no means confined to the right, is that the people specifically charged with fighting, investigating and preventing terrorism disagree with it. There is now a long tradition of current and former intelligence and defence officials acknowledging that it is western actions that play a key role in motivating terrorism. John Brennan, then-head of the CIA, said “we have to recognize that sometimes our engagement and direct involvement will stimulate and spur additional threats to our national security interests”. The former head of MI5 told the Chilcot Inquiry “our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word … a few among a generation – who were – saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam …”.

Pentagon officials told then-secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld in 2004:

“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states … Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims.”

Former officials now working in the field of counter-terrorism agree. “At what point are you going to start listening to the perpetrators who tell you why they’re doing this?” said one of the world’s foremost counter-terrorism experts, Mark Sageman. “The same applies to the videos of the 7/7 bombers. At some point you have to be grounded in reality.”

But the benefit of the essentialist thesis is exactly that, as the Pentagon officials put it so succinctly, it “[bears] out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars.” It ensures a continuation of the War on Terror, not its resolution. There’s a reason why we are not demonstrably safer 16 years into the “war on terror”, and it’s the same reason there are no lesser amount of illicit drugs available after decades of the “war on drugs” — both sides benefit from perpetuating it.

This is the grisly secret of Abbott and News Corp’s asylum of nut jobs: they want the War on Terror to continue endlessly, since it serves their interests — whether harvesting votes based on fear, or selling content based on fear — every bit as much as Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups want it to continue. And the key to continuing it is the myth of the innocent, passive West being victimised by irrational Muslims.

For the people who are actually engaged in fighting the War on Terror, such as defence and intelligence officials, their interest is in ending it, and accordingly they study exactly what drives it. You can see why there ends up being a clash of perspectives.

But Abbott and his cheerleaders also have the more immediate benefit: their interests are served in peddling the line that the Turnbull government is soft on terror — soft, for that matter, on Muslims. Duncan Lewis isn’t the real target of Tony Abbott, it’s Malcolm Turnbull.