A thoroughly good human being…

That’s what I saw on Australian Story last night.

CAROLINE JONES, PRESENTER: Hello. I’m Caroline Jones. Dr Jamal Rifi is the sort of general practitioner many people thought no longer existed. He runs a single practice, still does house calls and cheerfully sees his patients out of hours. Dr Rifi is also an influential and outspoken voice in the Muslim community at a time of exceptional scrutiny and debate. But his views have brought him critics as well as admirers. And this is his Australian Story.

JIHAD DIB, FRIEND AND FORMER HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: Jamal is a doctor. And that’s his absolute passion. That’s his love and he’s such a natural.

NEMAT KHARBOUTLI, DAUGHTER, DAUGHTER: It’s not just a job, it’s not just a profession. Medicine for him is just another mode of expressing his sincerity to social justice.

MORRIS IEMMA, FRIEND AND FMR NSW PREMIER: It’s the antithesis of modern medicine. He makes himself available after hours.

JASON CLARE, FRIEND AND FED. SHADOW COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER: He’s a learned man, an experienced man. He’s not just book-smart; he’s street-smart

SCOTT MORRISON, FRIEND AND SOCIAL SERVICES MINISTER: Jamal is intoxicating. He’s someone you can totally trust, rely on, count on. He’s got a lot of love in his heart, Jamal. The thing that really drives him is that desire to help create a better society.

LANA RIFI, WIFE: Everyone knows about him, even if they don’t know him personally. If anyone’s in any sort of a problem, they say, “Oh, who am I gonna call? Oh, Dr Rifi.”…

JAMAL RIFI: And if there is a lie, you speak against it. And if you see injustice, you try and stop it. If you can’t do it by your action, you do it by your words. This is my life, that’s the way I do things.

ISLAMIC STATE SPOKESMAN: Any aggression towards the Islamic State is aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life.

JAMAL RIFI: I had been thinking about making some public statement against the Islamic State, because their actions became more and more barbaric.

LANA RIFI, WIFE: Jamal couldn’t sleep at night and I said to him, “Why can’t you, you know, why are you tossing and turning?” He said, “Lana, I can’t. I have to do something. Someone has to speak out about these people.” And he said it might affect us, like, security-wise. I said, “Well, we’ll just take whatever, you know, we’ll take it step by step.”

JAMAL RIFI: When I saw the picture of Khalid Sharrouf’s son holding the severed head, I was shocked because I had known his family in Lebanon. I had to speak out.

JAMAL RIFI (Aug. 2014): My message to Sharrouf: mate, don’t pretend you are a Muslim. All your actions are non-Islamic. Don’t pretend you are a good father. You are a despicable person.

SCOTT MORRISON, FRIEND AND SOCIAL SERVICES MINISTER: And there was Jamal, as always, denouncing it but in a very clear and articulate way and speaking with passion. And I immediately text him and saying, “That is an act of real courage, Jamal and good on you for doing it. It’s what people want to hear.”…

On the other hand there is the characteristic stance of columnist Andrew Bolt:

Waleed Aly is our most prominent and – in my opinion – insidious apologist for radical Islam.

He is a columnist for The Age, host of The Project and, of all things, a lecturer in a terrorism unit at Monash University.

He seems astonishingly unable or unwilling to acknowledge the obvious – that Islamist terrorist groups are driven in large part by Islam itself.

Here is today’s effort, warning against fighting the Islamic State and mocking Tony Abbott’s description of it as a “death cult” – itself a phrase, ironically, designed to deny the group’s Islamic roots…

The logic of Andrew Bolt, it seems to me, comes dangerously close to suggesting that anything “Islamic” – such as the Taj Mahal – must ipso facto likely be terrorist, or that around one third of the world’s population are all out to destroy us. I find his stance, compared with what I saw on Australian Story, utterly unhelpful. Bolt was answering Waleed Aly’s recent Bomb Islamic State: is that our only strategy? – an article I found thoughtful and well-informed. I am utterly amazed by the canard that Waleed Aly is “our most prominent and … insidious apologist for radical Islam.” Rather, his is a rare voice of reason in this area, with the advantage of familiarity with what he is talking about. We should listen to people like him.

In my opinion “death cult”  — while it is true that the phrase aims to separate the illegitimate entity in the Levant from Islam – is an unfortunate phrase. It oversimplifies for starters, and smacks of “evil empire” and other adolescent propaganda lines we have heard before. Aly is right: it does tend to leave unexplained and inexplicable phenomena such as that sad veg Jake Bilardi.

Death cult. There’s a certain catharsis in saying it, isn’t there? Somehow, when you’re confronted with the jawdropping atrocities Islamic State churns out with gruesome frequency, “terrorist” seems puny, unsatisfactory. We’re looking for something that distils our rage and drips with disdain. So, death cult: it implies a kind of unhinged violence directed to no rational purpose; a group beyond comprehension that appeals only to those on the limits of sanity. So, for instance, when three young Englishwomen skip the country to join, we have no explanation other than that they were brainwashed, or that their decision, in Julie Bishop’s phrase, “defies logic”. That, after all, is the nature of cults.

The fact is – and five years ago I actually read some of this stuff – there is a level of intellectual argument from history and contemporary world politics that can be and is deployed by some political Muslims. Just saying “death cult” fails to address this, and indeed in the minds of questioning young people may even make these arguments more attractive. There are after all quite a few groups and individuals, not all Muslim, who don’t accept that US hegemony, capitalism and the State of Israel are entirely good things.

Don’t get me wrong: I am utterly appalled by the Illegitimate Entity in the Levant, Boko Haram, and all they represent. Just one example of mind-bending awfulness and stupidity: Nimrud: ISIL’s cultural vandalism as chilling as its bloodlust. So far as military intervention may help rid us of such people I support it.

But in our thinking we do better to heed Waleed Aly or Jamal Rifi than the other loud voices in our ears.

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