Witches, terrorists and the ABC

Abbott Completely Loses The Plot, Orders “Urgent” Government Inquiry Into The ABC’ was the headline of a recent article on Pedestrian.tv. This followed a Q&A, in which Zaky Mallah, the first Australian charged (and acquitted) under so-called anti-terror laws dared acknowledge the pivotal role of Western military aggression in being both cause and cure of the same bugbear. For those who haven’t heard what Mallah said, the exact phrasing was:

The Liberals now have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him.

As if to demonstrate the highly stage-managed nature of the discussion that passes for free and open debate on the Q&A program, presenter Tony Jones declared Mallah’s free speech ‘out of order’. The prime minister followed up with an announcement of an ‘urgent’ inquiry into the ABC, under the same kind of tone that one might declare an ‘inquiry’ into religious heresy in Medieval Spain.

Was this, however, a reflection of stupidity or madness, as Pedestrian.tv suggested?

In short, no. In fact, an adequate explanation of Abbott’s reaction to the Zaky Mallah comments demands a refusal to accept it on face value. From the outset, this is a scare-mongering tactic: purposefully misrepresenting Mallah’s comments to construe them as an invitation to join ISIS terrorists creates a straw man that allows Abbott to sidestep the more difficult issue Mallah raised –  that of the role western governments play in creating the conditions that breed non-state terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

This role is one that has been well-known and studied in detail for some time, notably in texts such as Edward Herman’s The Real Terror Network, which studies the seeds of ‘War on Terror’ mythology in Reaganite America, demonstrating a double standard that treats terrorism as a purely non-state affair while relegating the far superior levels of state terrorism to memory in pure Orwellian fashion. Others, such as Noam Chomsky, have come to be described as ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’ in the process of documenting and critiquing Western sponsorship of state terrorism around the world.

By now the paradox of attacking Iraq in the wake of the September 11 attacks given the fact that the hijackers were Saudis is a banal truism. Does the pursuit of an obvious geopolitical agenda over control of natural resources and defence of the petrodollar figure into the debate over the causes of terrorism and instability in the Middle East? Rarely. About as frequently as it does in the case of Israel and its Western-supported settler colonialism.

As a British citizen whose emigration to Australia enabled him to take up a Rhodes Scholarship, Tony Abbott has had better educational opportunities than many in Australia, and therefore has less excuse than anyone for claiming ignorance of the above facts, much less to say indulging in militant ignorance.

Nor does it make Abbott crazy rather than sociopathic. This militant ignorance of inconvenient facts that fail to accord with his three-word-slogan approach to economic and social policy is in a sense madness, but in no sense of a type that he doesn’t have the power to change. Abbott’s approach to dealing with facts he doesn’t like is  one driven by conscious design. We can gather some idea of what we are dealing with in historian Norman Cohn’s discussion of the ‘witch’ trope, as it related to the European Witch Hunts of the late Middle Ages.

‘The stereotype of the witch, as it existed in many parts of Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,’ wrote Cohn, ‘is made up of elements of diverse origin . . . some of these derived from a specific fantasy which can be traced back to Antiquity.’

The essence of the fantasy was that there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti-human . . . The fantasy changed, became more complex, down through the centuries. It played an important part in some major persecutions; and the way in which it did also varied. Sometimes it was used merely to legitimate persecutions that would have occurred anyway; sometimes it served to widen persecutions that would otherwise have remained far more limited. In the case of the great witch hunt it generated a massive persecution which would have been inconceivable without it. In pursuing its history one is led far beyond the confines of the history of ideas and deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution.

If this ‘ancient fantasy’ rings a bell in Abbott’s Australia of 2015, it is for good reason. It has, throughout history, been the basis of what Umberto Eco calls ‘Ur-fascism,’ or the preconditions for the rise of openly absolutist, or in the modern period, fascist governments.

As Cohn notes, witch-hunting first appeared with the Pagan persecution of the Christian minority under the Roman Empire, specifically on the grounds that the Eucharist was a form of cannibalism that became the interlude to group orgies including family members that signified a complete rejection of moral restraint. Ironically enough, it reemerged next in the Christian persecution of the Pagans after Constantine coopted the movement and made it the state religion, after which time it also became a useful means of persecuting other groups such as the Knights Templar, Waldensians, Cathars and, in the course of the Crusades whose goal was to conquer and kill in the name of ‘love thy enemy,’ the Muslim infidel.

In more recent times, colonialists, ‘know-nothings,’ nativists, xenophobes, racists, misogynists, elitists and general bigots of every stripe and variation have deployed this very same ancient fantasy as a pretext for engaging in playing the victim, blaming the victim, abjuring themselves of any responsibility for the consequences of their actions and reconstructing themselves as moral actors by way of the logic of ‘if you question my judgment the subhuman evildoers win’. So nuanced has this design become that it has become the basis for an entire field of social psychology – that which focuses on the phenomenon of moral disengagement, or the subjective processes associated with the ideological reconstruction of amoral conduct.

It hardly goes without saying that such moral disengagement is a characteristic feature of Abbott’s style of rule, though in all fairness it is hardly unique to him. It is this that is lost when his actions are attributed to stupidity rather than duplicity. He is, after all, the protege of former PM John Howard, who used the ‘ancient fantasy’ to devastating effect during such events as the Tampa crisis and the children overboard affair as an ideological safety value for weaseling out of all the harmful consequences of three decades of neoliberal policies.

Howard’s declaration that ‘We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come’, while conflating a threat to the integrity of the border with his lack of compassion for the refugees, who languished on board the ship with few provisions or protection from the elements, no doubt demonstrated for Abbott, then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the power of the ancient fantasy for shifting blame for crises away from power.

These were lessons clearly not lost on the current prime minister. Abbott’s use of similar tactics derail consistent attempts to hold him accountable for supporting the notorious ‘Ditch the witch’ campaign while in opposition during Julia Gillard’s tenure, ditto Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones’s commentary that the then-PM be stuffed into a chaff bag and thrown out to sea. Blatant sexism of this kind demands nothing in the way of an urgent inquiry, even if its fruit in things like domestic violence are of ‘epidemic proportions’ and ‘a national emergency’.

The same goes for Abbott’s endless repetition of three-word mantras; employment of the negative motivational power of the ancient fantasy in that respect has been as conspicuous and shameless as it has in Abbott’s response to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, when again, faced with domestic turmoil resulting form his first budget, he sought to reconstruct himself as savior by fixating doggedly on national security issues. This strategy appears with shameless and sickening frequency as Abbott engineers another diplomatic crisis with Indonesia for making payoffs to the tune of AU$30,000 to a group of Indonesian people smugglers.

In the latter instance, the practically habitual reversion to dog-whistling has become so exceedingly well-worn that the Australian Financial Review was motivated to meditate at some length on Abbott’s use of the ancient fantasy to wedge the opposition. As always Cohn’s ancient fantasy is there to expedite blame shifting and scapegoating of some convenient target according to the traditional pattern, a fact actually confirmed this time around by a briefing paper leaked to the media instructing ministers on how to implement it.

Abbott’s use of Zaky Mallah and his comments as an excuse to dog-whistle about the national broadcaster being soft on terrorism and reconstruct himself as an opponent of groupthink and deception is no more an act of stupidity on his part than any of these previous exercises. What Abbott’s actions represent is a calculated strategy to witch-hunt the ABC – a strategy that has gotten him into power, and thus far kept him there. If simple stupidity, which is essentially credulity, plays into Abbott’s calculations, it only does so by relying on that of those who continue to buy into his scare mongering despite the dazzlingly conspicuous signs that he is using it as a  divide and conquer strategy.

As such, the militant ignorance that informs Abbott’s indifference to the historical issues surrounding the issue of terrorism Zaky Mallah pointed to inQ&A  also informs his indifference to research pertaining to radicalisation of Muslim youth, demonstrating that, as Giles Fraser points out, ‘it’s not religion that creates terrorists, it’s politics’. The provocative and incendiary nature of the racist binary Abbott invokes when talking about Islam as a threat to Australian values and Australian national security is demonstrated by an internet meme that reads:

You make Islam a race every time you use Australian way of life. Australia’s way of life include Muslims, Christians, atheist — that’s because they are religions, not a nationality. So shut the fuck up about being Australian when using it against a religion and maybe then you can ask what race is Islam. Fucking morons.

Abbott’s attempts to reconstruct himself as a defender of the Australian way of life while denying his racism notwithstanding, the fact that he can somehow remain in power despite his general inability to demonstrate compassion, remorse, the capacity for reflection on his conduct, a willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of his behavior, and a general ineptness for policy, attests to intelligence of a kind, malevolence notwithstanding. In the event that he proceeds with a witch-hunt against the ABC, it will be Abbott’s grasp of this kind of realpolitik that informs his conduct, one born of the ancient fantasy of peril and based on the will to deceive.


Ben Debney

Ben Debney is a doctoral candidate in history at Western Sydney University and author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan 2020). His current research examines the role of Othering in the ideological history of the climate emergency.

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