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Manis was an angry loner, a wannabe charismatic leader in whatever form he could grasp, be it black magic spiritualism or Iranian politics or Islamism. His was a desperate cry for recognition amid a life of oppositional and predatorial opportunism. Unable to take responsibility for his personal failures, the foundation of his humiliation, he projected his anger on to a city, was responsible for the death of two innocent people and loosely attempted to give his actions a larger meaning through linking it with the Islamic State.
His actions have provoked an avalanche of sympathy from locals, both towards the victims and the broader Muslim community, underlining Australia’s status as one the world’s most successful, multicultural nations on Earth. Sydney is the engine room of the country and the Harbour the polished gem that is the image of the nation’s youthful, relaxed optimism to the world.
But it would be wrong to dismiss his action as that entirely of a deranged lunatic unrelated to broader ideas underpinning Islamic terrorism. A psychopathic serial killer does not have underlying political beliefs, however unsophisticated, as fuel for their actions.
Manis has held political resentments for many years that have considerable overlaps with Islamist ideologies. He wrote allegedly crude, vicious letters to families of Australian servicemen after their deaths, deriding Australia’s involvement in Allied attacks on Arab soil, a marker of his anger towards Western foreign policy.
He reportedly became outraged at growing Islamophobia in Australia, particularly after the London bombings. Fairfax writer Anne Davies encountered him at a Hizb-ut-Tahrir conference where he ominously said that “speeches were not enough” to implement the groups’ beliefs, which include implementing Shariah law and criticising the perceived moral decay of the West.
There has been an avalanche of comments from leaders and experts eager to dismiss the acts as isolated. Sydney Mayor Clover Moore has called it a “one off” and even Manis’ lawyer has said he was damaged goods and that “it could have been anyone.”
Like other world leaders whose countries were the victims of terrorist attacks, the Prime Minister was careful not to use the word Islam in his comments.
It would certainly be reassuring to think that Manis’ actions had nothing to do with Islam or Islamism. It is also somewhat comforting to grasp, amid the tragedy, that he acted alone, was poorly organised and had a long history of criminality and deviance.
But the power of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS lies not just in their organisational or administrative nous, but more so in the memes and ideas they promote, not unlike a brand. In this respect, the Prime Minister was right in pointing to the symbolism of ISIS as an inspiration for Manis’ heinous actions. But this symbolism exists in the psychic sphere to be latched on to by all manner of individuals and groups, be it eccentric outcasts prone to conflating their personal grievances with politics or well organised groups.
A generation ago, the key marker of social protest towards the existing order might have been symbolised by a Che Guevara T-Shirt. Today, for many, social protest is conducted through the symbolism of Islam. This can vary from the criminal converting to Islam in jail to a teenager wearing Islamic attire as an expression of her unbelonging in the school playground.
Most ideologies give rise to violent wings. Animal rights have PETA and Marxism had the Red Brigade. Those attracted to the violent wings are often unsophisticated or even just looking for a fight and are grateful for a group that might legitimise it. They often have anti-social backgrounds, much like the majority of recruits to Islamic State from Australia. But they are still a set of foot soldiers for a set of ideas, which often have a more sophisticated basis, much like Australian ethicist Peter Singer might inspire an animal rights campaigner or Lenin might inspire an anarchist. Islamism has thinkers like Qutb, an Egyptian philosopher credited as the intellectual inspiration for Al-Qaeda.
It would be easy to dismiss Manis as a clown. He was certainly a slimy murderer. But his life as an angry pest who could not stomach his own failure and imminent downfall is infact a good analogy for aspects of Islamism, which is fundamentally an ideology of resentful humiliation, unable to accept the harsh reality of the weak place of Islamic civilisation and determined to act destructively, often self destructively, believing domination is the birthright of the doctrine.
Of course Manis is not representative of the majority of Muslims, who are horrified by the events, but it would be foolish to dismiss the attack as unrelated to Islamic terrorism, especially as we have the dubious honour of having amongst the highest recruits per capita to Islamic State.
Australia is wounded from the events in Martin Place, but it is merely a glancing blow. It will emerge stronger. An understated strength of our country emerging from this is our unique migration policy, combining high skilled migration with strict border control. But it is a time for collective resolve, reflection and recuperation.