Some thoughts on extremism

I posted this on Twitter and Facebook last night in the wake of the Paris attacks and thought I’d post it here as well for posterity and to share some additional thoughts.

Like everyone I was shocked and appalled by the attacks and my heart goes out to everyone in Paris and France.

But as the hours went by, I started seeing a lot of posts and comments blaming muslims and all of Islam for the attacks. As well as how muslims needed to convert to “the Christian god” so we could have peace.

I guess I lost it but I am sick and tired of hearing how Islam is a religion of hate and it’s “us vs. them”. It’s a bigoted worldview and it’s not only ignorant and wrong but it is dangerous as well.

ISIL and similar groups want us to be divided and to turn on moderate Islam; it’s one of the goals listed in their own publication – to eliminate the “grayzone” as they call it, the zone of coexistence we share and have everyone live in a black and white world which makes it easier for them to spread their ambitions through the Levant and beyond.

Everyone who lumps all of Islam together with ISIL and their ilk is doing their work for them and helping to create more recruits and likely more attacks like we just saw in Paris.

There are 1.2 billion muslims in the world and the vast, vast majority of them are peaceful and moderate and just want to live their lives; it is unfair to place them all together and it is beyond reality to expect that over one billion people should be held responsible for the acts and beliefs of radicalized extremists.

Our struggle is with extremism, all extremism; the scenario should never be framed as “the West vs. Islam” or “us vs. them” but rather “moderates against extremism”. Wherever it strikes and whomever it oppresses in the world.

If you can’t see that, nor how all religions have struggled and continue to struggle with extremism (from the KKK, to The Army of God, to Eastern Lightning in just the recent past alone), then I would suggest that the problem is with you, not with Islam.

And if you seriously believe the only solution to this whole situation is for one group of people to convert to another religion, then I would suggest as well that you have more in common with ISIL than most muslims ever will.


I’m seeing a lot of posts and comments on Facebook and Twitter at the moment blaming muslims for the attacks in Paris.

Some are even asking for people to pray that all muslims “convert to the Christian god” as that is the only way “we can have peace”.

Others, more understandably, want to send ground troops to take care of IS.

I feel like I need to say a few things as seeing all this pop up again and again is driving me nuts.

1. The vast majority of Islam is moderate and peaceful. The people responsible for these attacks are ideological extremists. They are a perversion of Islam, not a true representation of it. It is wrong and ignorant to blame all muslims for their actions.

2. Every religion struggles with extremism. Please remember Christianity’s past history with the Crusades, the Inquisition and the KKK before passing judgment on all of Islam.

3. #PrayForParis means we are thinking of and stand with the people of France. It does NOT mean pray for muslims to convert to “the Christian god”. How dare you use a tragedy in such a way?

4. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share one common link: Abraham and, by extension, Abraham’s god. It is likely you actually already believe in the same god.

5. This is a “war” that will likely last generations and it cannot be won through military force alone. The only way to defeat extremism is to change people’s perceptions over time by engaging with community leaders and tackling issues like poverty and youth dissatisfaction. ISIL and other threats need to be confronted as well but without tackling the root causes of terrorism, the cycle will never end. And that may take decades.

6. ISIL and other groups want us to turn on our communities, to make it the West vs Islam. They want young muslims to feel persecuted as it drives them straight into their arms. Turning on each other only makes ISIL stronger.

7. In the end our global response to tragedies like this sends a message and it’s up to us what we want it to say. Do we really want to blame Islam? Or do we want to show that we stand united and unbowed as moderates against extremism? The choice is ours. I know which I’d prefer.

Coogee Memorial

Blue ocean
Holds my heart and tears
Reminds me of you
So far away

Today is the ninth anniversary of the 2002 Bali Bombings. The bombings killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and Bali is often considered our version of September 11, the moment when our part of the world changed forever.

Many of those killed and injured in the attacks came from Coogee, very near where we live in Randwick, and this memorial was erected in 2003 as a place of remembrance and reflection. It’s a beautiful, quiet spot overlooking the ocean and I often find myself spending time there when I’m in Coogee… I can’t think of a better tribute to their memory. I actually took this photo a few months ago, the day after Osama bin Laden died, and I thought I’d save it to post today.

In many ways it’s hard to believe it’s only been nine years since the bombings as so much has happened since. But even with Amrozi gone & so much time passed, it’s amazing how quickly the memories come back. I still remember that day so well… hearing about it on the news, seeing the fires burning, reading the names of the dead and missing in the local paper. Those memories will be with me for the rest of my life.

When I think about Bali I’m mostly filled with sadness now; for the suffering that was caused; for how the world has changed. But most often I find myself thinking of this memorial and what it represents, a place of peace and reflection, and I find myself hoping that one day, perhaps, the whole world might be as peaceful… that would be the true memorial.

Photo and haiku © CJ Levinson 2011

Update: I wrote this poem as well for the fifth anniversary. I thought I’d share it again in case anyone would like to read it.

September 11: Ten Years On

In many ways I almost can’t believe that it’s been ten years since September 11. Perhaps it’s because I remember that day so well and it had such an impact on how I looked at the world but it feels like it was only a few months ago to me, maybe a year, not ten. And yet at the same time it really does feel like ten years have passed as well – so much has happened in the last decade, both personally and globally, that at times it almost feels like longer. I guess it’s strange that both perceptions can feel true but many people I’ve spoken to recently have said the same thing. I suppose that just shows how much of an impact September 11 really has had on the world.

I often find myself thinking back to that day. I was sixteen at the time and my parents and I were living in a hideous cockroach-infested flat in Hillsdale that we hated and were trying to move out of as quickly as possible. At the time I felt miserable; it was one of the first times that my health had worsened and I felt trapped and lonely and missed my friends. I’d also just received several nasty rejection letters, which for a sixteen year old who’d only just started writing were devastating.

Then September 11 happened and it put some things in perspective. I can still remember exactly where I was when I first heard about it; I was having a shower when my mother knocked on the door and said there’d been an explosion at the World Trade Center. I didn’t understand at first; I thought she meant there’d been an accident and didn’t think much more about it while I finished and got changed. When I came through though I knew immediately it was serious; my parents were staring at the television, horrified. I looked at the TV which had crossed to one of the US stations and saw the smoke and fire… and then moments later the second plane flew into the South Tower.

For as long as I live I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling in my stomach as I watched the plane hit; it was almost physical, like my soul had suddenly been ripped from my body. I felt weak at the knees and had to sit down. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; I remember hearing shouts and screams coming through the TV but it felt surreal, like I was watching it all from somewhere far away.

Continue reading

The Next Day (September 12)


Images from Wikimedia Commons

The next day of life:
Sorrow rising with the sun
A broken heart mourns

Memories of you:
A kiss under candlelight
Our daughter’s first smile

Clothes in the closet
Sleeping in an empty bed:
An intense longing

Faces on billboards
Flags unmoving in the breeze:
Two towers, falling

One among thousands
Lying in a smoky grave:

A river of dreams:
Thoughts of a different life
I shall not forget

Our children playing:
Moments of laughter and joy
Love lasts forever

Rain striking windows
Sunset on the horizon:
Life begins again

Licenced under a Creative Commons Licence


I almost can’t believe it has been seven years since 9/11. It’s gone so quickly; the memories and emotions are still so raw. And yet so much has happened in the seven years. It feels like a different world now; less innocent and sure of itself. That one moment changed so much.

I still remember it so clearly. My parents told me there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center; I came through to watch just as the second plane struck. For hours we just sat there, feeling helpless and numb. My thoughts went to my friends in America and while they were okay, it seemed like everyone knew someone who had been affected by the attacks.

What I remember most about 9/11 is actually the following day, September 12. As it happened during our night there wasn’t much information available until the 12th our time. All during that day, wherever you went, people were stunned. That an attack like 9/11 might happen somewhere had always been a grim possibility but the extent was beyond anyone’s worst fears.

As time passed we heard about the signs people missed but I try not to think about them too much. I don’t think anything could have stopped 9/11; contained the damage, perhaps, but not stopped it. While knowing where the agencies and bureaucracy went wrong is important, it’s easy to focus on that so much that we forget the human impact as well.

Almost 3000 people died on 9/11 but it means so much more than that… the husbands and wives who never went home, the fire fighters and police officers who gave their lives. I can’t imagine what it must be like, to live with the grief the families must still feel… to watch your child grow up without their mother or father. It must be heart-breaking.

I started to write this poem for last year’s anniversary but it was never quite what I wanted it to be. I’m happier with it now; I decided to post it on the 12th instead as it’s about the day after the attacks and learning to live with the grief. I hope it is a respectful tribute to the people who died and their families. May we never forget them.

October 12 (Bali Bombings)

Photo from Wikipedia

October 12 (Bali Bombings)
CJ Levinson

I wonder what you saw
When you looked at the world?
Did you see how far we’d come?
I wish I’d known how to open your eyes
So that you could really see

You asked me why I don’t believe in God
And I still don’t know if I can explain
All I know is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen
Took all my faith away

On October 12
October 12

I looked for you amongst the ashes
Of that terrible, broken place
But the smoke caught in my eyes and lungs
And pain was all I could see

I stayed up for days, trying to find an answer
But you were gone forever
And the last time I saw you
Is the last thing I’ll remember
Lying broken beneath bags of ice
Gone forever

On October 12
October 12

We were so young
Thinking we could live forever
We could never really see

But I’ll wait for you
And I’ll remember you

Licenced under a Creative Commons Licence

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico Greg BearGreg Bear has written some of my favourite SF novels in the past but for the last few years has been moving more into the mainstream with his fiction. That’s fine with me as I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and Bear’s thrillers are different to most, but I admit I’m looking forward to his return to science fiction as well with his next novel; that’s where he really excels.

In the meantime Bear’s latest is Quantico, a novel based heavily on the fear of extremism. His story is set in a near-future where the Terror War is in its second decade and not progressing well. The Dome of the Rock has been destroyed by terrorists and a second attack of the scale of 9/11 has rocked the US; the threat of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons has never been higher. In this atmosphere, three young FBI agents have recently graduated from Quantico; it is believed they could be among the last to graduate as critics seek to shut down the FBI for good. But when rumours of an immense planned terrorist attack begin to emerge, the agents find themselves in a race against time to stop it.

The first thing which struck me about Quantico was its tone; it’s dark and pervasive. There’s little optimism in the novel and not much humour, something which is unusual for one of Bear’s novels. Quantico represents the fears we all have in a post 9/11 world and at times is very confronting. Some people might find it too confronting but that tone is necessary for the novel to convey its message. Bio-terror, extremism and global politics form the backdrop for the world we live in and I found Bear’s depiction of a believable direction for the War on Terror both troubling and resonant.

Quantico works primarily on a suspense level as the FBI agents try to unravel who is behind the threat of passing a deadly strain of anthrax to religious fanatics; we’ve all thought about the idea of a chemical or biological weapon being used but here Bear takes it a step further – what if that weapon could be keyed to target a specific race? Suddenly the Holocaust doesn’t seem so distant and Bear’s science makes the premise scarily plausible. The characterisations in Quantico are also strong. The characters come across as flawed and believable, reacting realistically to the situation they find themselves in; Rebecca Rose, for instance, shows the impact of living with terror for 20 years, obsessed with cleanliness and her job, so much so that she has no other life.

The focus on Fouad Al-Husam (one of the agents) also gives the novel an interesting dynamic, contrasting modern Islam with fundamentalism and allowing Bear to explore the extent of profiling within the FBI. Another interesting aspect is that Islamic extremism is not the larger enemy in Bear’s work; rather much of it focuses on a domestic form of terrorism instead which makes the threat even more immediate, showing how fanaticism can arise anywhere, and the circumstances which might lead someone to committing such an act.

That said, a few things didn’t work as well as I might have liked. The main problem is that the ending, though bringing about a resolution, feels slightly abrupt; after a lengthy lead-in I would have liked to have seen the consequences followed though a bit more, to see the full impact on the characters. Also the internal politics of the FBI play a large and necessary role in the novel, but in certain scenes seem to weigh the story down more than in others, and more than any of the science. Likewise you could say that some of the government infighting seems slightly forced after a second 9/11 (although it might be accurate given the current partisanship).

But those are fairly minor points and the unnerving story arc is more than enough to pull the reader through from beginning to end. The pace is sharp and Quantico presents a compelling and intelligent examination of the War on Terror and our world as it might become. If you’re interested in a science-thriller based on current world events, I’d highly recommend it.

Remembering September 11

I’ve been wanting to write a poem to mark the 6th anniversary of September 11 but I wasn’t able to finish it in time to post it today. I couldn’t get it to sound the way I wanted it to… to say everything… and then today I came across this video and I think I understand why. I remember 9/11 as such a visual moment; the images are burned into my mind and I don’t think words can capture the tragedy of that day the way images can. This video is one of the most moving memorials I’ve seen… I pass it on, in the hope that you will too.

It seems incredible that it’s been 6 years. I still remember it so clearly. I’d just come out of the shower and the TV was on; it was the first time I can remember our stations crossing live to join a US network’s coverage. I remember seeing the smoke… and a minute later saw the second plane crash into the South Tower. It felt surreal, like I was watching it happen but was somewhere else. When the towers collapsed I remember trying to speak, to shout… but couldn’t. It was the first time I’d cried in a long time.

You often hear about moments that changed the world and in many ways it’s something of a misnomer. No one moment really changes the world because there’s much more which goes into making it; it’s our reaction that gives a “moment” its power. And yet 9/11 is really an example where it’s true. On a beautiful day, concrete buildings were brought crashing to the ground and a country was brought to its knees. And thousands of families experienced a hurt that will never go away.

I remember being angry, but with time’s passing it’s more a sadness now. One thing I remember clearly is the next day, September 12, my mother coming back from the doctor and telling me about a conversation she had overhead in the waiting room. 6 people had been talking about the attacks and saying how America had brought them on itself. I still don’t understand that. 3,000 innocents died that day, people who woke up that morning not knowing they would never see another day. Disagree with foreign policy, but please don’t diminish their memory.

I’ll be lighting a candle tonight in memory and I offer my thoughts to every American, one friend to another. May we never forget. And to everyone who lost someone that day, and to everyone that survived, I hope you find peace.

When does protection go too far?

This hasn’t been a good period for John Howard. Howard forgot a Tasmanian Liberal candidate’s name on air, and then the ridiculous upgrades to the government’s VIP aircraft were revealed: $100,000 worth of upgrades, including $9000 in silk wall panelling and $6200 in almond-coloured leather added to the ceiling (refits that were later dropped). The problem for Howard is that in a lead-up to a Federal election, with the government lagging behind in the polls, he can’t afford to seem weak. And that’s exactly what’s happening; these slips create doubt in people’s minds about Howard’s ability to do his job, not to mention his ability to relate to the Australian people.

So it didn’t surprise me in the slightest when the government decided to revoke Muhammad Haneef’s visa and detain him, despite his being granted bail by a magistrate. What’s the one issue that Howard has always perceived as his strength with voters? National security, particularly regarding terrorism. It won the Liberals the 2001 election after 9/11. And I’m sure this seemed like a simple decision; Haneef was granted bail, so detain him for his visa – they’ll stop an accused supporter of terrorism from getting back out on the streets, doing the public a service, and making Howard look strong again.

All very good in theory. Except in reality it’s an abysmal abuse of due process and the criminal justice system. What is the point of going through the process of charging Haneef and having him appear before the court if, when the government is given an outcome it doesn’t approve of, it simply detains Haneef in a different way? Supposedly we’re not happy with the treatment of David Hicks while he was at Guantánamo Bay, but in doing this, how is it not the same? It’s hypocritical for anyone who has criticised Guantánamo Bay in the past not to say that.

For me the issue is not whether Haneef is a terrorist. He has been charged with giving support to a terrorist organisation, yes, but he has not been convicted yet, and we won’t know until we’ve seen all the evidence. The issue rather is that the government has created a scenario where if Haneef is innocent, he will be deported and if he is guilty, he’ll be sent to prison. How is that democratic? How is that Australian?

All this is, of course, in the name of protecting Australians. Kevin Andrews says he’s in possession of information that warrants Haneef being placed in the Villawood detention centre. If that’s true, then Haneef should be charged with a higher offence. You can’t just say that because someone is dangerous, you’ll do whatever it takes to lock them away; you have to prove it. That’s what democracy is. And isn’t democracy why Howard keeps telling us we’re in Iraq?

It makes me wonder, when does the time come when you realise you have given away too many of your civil liberties, too much of what makes your society an open democracy, to be protected? Do you even realise it at all, or do you just look back with the distance of time and wonder what might have been? I don’t know. I don’t think we’re there yet. I hope not.

Perhaps the government really does have evidence on Haneef we’re not privy too. But it’s still walking a very fine line, and treading political mileage with it. The memories of 9/11, Bali and London have faded, replaced with fear; fear of attack, fear of the unknown, fear that’s being exploited. That’s our world now, a world where, as Hedley Thomas says, you can buy coffee for a Muslim and “have unwittingly supported a terrorist organisation”. But at least we know one thing: we know what the terms of the 2007 election will be now. And it’s up to us to decide if we’ll accept them.

Nation of convicts or second chances?

You know, some people really should learn to keep their mouths shut. But maybe Sheik Hilali isn’t capable of it. He went on Egyptian television, saying that Australian Muslims were more entitled to be in Australia than Anglo-Saxons because they hadn’t come here as convicts. This coming from the man who had previously compared immodestly dressed women to “uncovered meat” and suggested they invited rape.

Should we even listen to him anymore? He hasn’t even got his facts right; South Australia was never a convict colony, so that’s an entire population he’s excluded. The problem is that Sheik Hilali is the leading Muslim cleric in Australia and even if the majority of people don’t take his comments seriously, others still will. His words can only serve to ostracize people when we need to be building unity. And the convict comment wasn’t even the worst of it; his implication that there’s no freedom for Muslims in Australia could be far worse.

Thankfully it doesn’t seem like many people are taking Sheik Hilali seriously. Spokespeople for various Islamic organisations have come out and condemned Hilali ‘s comments, saying that they and the vast majority of Muslims in Australia do not agree with him. That an Australian spiritual leader would go on foreign television to denounce Australia is unbelievable, though. Obviously we want free-speech, but maybe it’s time Muslims thought about whether they want Hilali to still represent them. I think any spiritual (or political) leader making derogatory comments about their country should step down.

It’s been strange watching the reaction in the media too. They’ve really gone after Hilali – but it was the media who built him up to begin with. One good thing Hilali did was to try to intervene in Iraq when Douglas Wood was kidnapped and the media were quick to praise him then. Now they’re attacking him just as quickly. They seem to have forgotten the role they played in the beginning.

And it’s strange as well that a lot of the language on this regards Sheik Hilali, not his views per se. Because the idea that we’re somehow “embarrassed” by our heritage is completely incorrect. We’re proud of our convict heritage. It doesn’t represent something ugly; it says instead that Australia was founded as a land of second chances and we value that. That’s a quality we want to keep as a part of our society and if anyone can’t accept that, they should stay overseas. And maybe learn to keep their mouths shut.