Lunch with Greg Barton: “Making sense of terrorism and IS”

Greg Barton knows his subjects and has level-headed, good-hearted opinions.

“Terrorism expert” Greg Barton might well be the most interviewed person in the Australian media this year, and is almost certainly the most cited academic in the press. He says he gets at least a couple of dozen media requests a week but “some weeks, it’s many dozens”. A quiet day for Barton would be “a couple of radio or print interviews, TV maybe four times a week. But it depends,” he says. “Some weeks it’s just relentless.”

The reason I am interviewing him is the fact he gets interviewed so often, yet I am still surprised when he breaks off our lunch interview to do a brief TV interview with a film crew in the street outside the restaurant.

Barton is incredibly popular with the media because he knows his subjects – terrorism, ISIS, Islam, Indonesia – and he has level-headed, good-hearted opinions, which he is able to package in a way that makes them palatable to every outlet from the ABC’s Lateline to Sydney’s peculiar talkback radio shows. He is also invariably available. His interviewer tells me other academics might agree to do a news piece but need a week to prepare for it, by which time it’s no longer news. Barton will get on the phone, or in the studio, or even on the street, immediately.

Barton and I meet for lunch at Yuni’s Kitchen, an Indonesian restaurant in the grounds of a church in Northcote, Melbourne. Barton is a professor in Indonesian studies at Monash University. He lived for a while in a presidential palace in Jakarta, and married a Malaysian academic, so he is more than familiar with the hot, sour and sweet flavours of Indonesian cuisine, and also that weird coffee made from beans partially digested by a civet cat. He orders soto ayam, a spicy chicken soup. I choose beef rendang.

Barton was born in Mount Gambier where his father was a chartered accountant who got a partnership in nearby Millicent. “It’s the sort of place where you finish high school and basically you move to Adelaide or Melbourne,” he says. “And it’s hard to go back. You’ve gone to a bigger world.” Between school and university, Barton took a Rotary scholarship to India for a year. His tastebuds never re-adjusted, he says, and nothing was the same again. He began a degree in aeronautical engineering at  Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology but, three years into his study, “I had the confronting, out-of-the-closet experience of realising I was really a man of letters,” he says. “I faced that most dishonourable option for an engineering student of becoming an arts student.”

His real interests lay in Asia, so he took up South-east Asian studies at Monash, specialising in Malaysian and Indonesian history, culture and politics. For his doctorate, he focused on progressive Islamic thought in Indonesia, and first came to the notice of the media during Indonesia’s transition to democracy in the late 1990s, when Australia needed a voice to explain what was going on. He became close to Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, and spent much of Wahid’s brief term in office living in his palace and ultimately writing his biography. After the Bali bombings, Barton wrote a book about Jemaah Islamiyah, the organisation responsible, and was often called to speak on issues such as Muslim democracy, terrorism and the Arab Spring.

“I thought I was quite busy,” he says. “But 12 months ago, all hell broke loose with Islamic State, and it’s been a different kind of busyness.”

Barton’s over-arching point is that the problem does not lie within Islam itself. He and his wife are practicing Christians and, he says, “There’s no more a problem with Islam than there is with Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism. When these religions turn toxic, they’re truly awful: most of what’s positioned as being religious conflict is actually ethno-nationalist conflict.” If Islamic State truly represented mainstream Islamic thought, “You’d have 1.6 billion angry people,” he says. “It would be a different world.”

At the moment, he is most often asked to talk about the radicalisation of local Muslim youth, and how they might possibly be tempted to join the Islamic State. “Part of what they believe is they’re joining the good guys, the freedom fighters,” he says. “There are some young men, particularly, who are drawn without much redeeming quality to their personal journey. It’s just sort of ‘Lord of the Flies’. Or some young women who just fall in love with the romance of marrying the jihadi warrior. But if we think of it only like that – and we tend to think of it like that when he hear the prime minister talk about a “death cult”, what that obscures to us is we have a lot of kids who’ve been very skilfully approached by recruiters who befriend them. They’re asking quite genuine questions about social injustice, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and so forth, their new friends – on line or in life – give them very convincing answers.

“They direct them to really slickly produced material,” he says. “They slip into a bubble socially, and in terms of the information they’re consuming, that’s quite cut off. They stop watching the evening news, the papers, they don’t believe it anymore. They consume their own social media and Islamic State’s propaganda material, and they invert the world. They say, ‘What the ABC’s telling me, or what Channel 7’s telling me, that’s just nonsense. I’ve got the real story.’ You ask them why would you go with the group that’s beheading or burning alive a Jordanian pilot who’s a Muslim. And they’ll give you complicated answers along the lines of, ‘Well, the media’s not reporting this reliably’, or ‘There were certain circumstances where it had to be done’.”

Barton has to slip outside to explain the same stuff to the Network Ten crew, then returns. There is a marked difference, he tells me, between the material Islamic State produces to attract recruits, and the online videos they publicise to enrage their foes. “The Jordanian pilot is burned alive,” he says, “so that the Jordanian people get angry and demand that their government send their troops in – because this group is also an apocalyptic cult that actually believes they will defeat ‘The Crusaders’, as they call them, including the local Arab powers.”

But Islamic State’s recruitment propaganda is “really clever”, he says. “Dabiq, their monthly e-magazine, is fascinating. The production values are very high – the layout, the use of imagery, the prose also: the fanboy stuff is full of annoying schoolboy errors. I’ve not seen a typo or a grammatical mistake in Dabiq magazine. They’ve taken this British journalist John Cantlie and got him to write a column every month, and his column reads like something John Pilger would write.

“I’m too old – or too cynical – to believe in John Pilger anymore, but if you’re younger and idealistic, you read John Pilger and think, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ And you read the John Cantlie stuff and think, ‘That actually makes sense.'”

Terrorist sympathisers rarely abuse Barton. “The largest number of unsolicited correspondence I get comes from right-wing nutters,” he says. “A lot of people are angry with me because they think I’m soft or stupid when it comes to Islam. They think I don’t understand. The message to me is always, ‘Haven’t you read the Koran? It’s got these angry verses. Clearly, that’s the problem.’ On the Islamist side, I’ve had very little experience of direct antagonism. They probably don’t see any point in bothering.”

Barton believes he almost always gets a fair hearing in the media. “I’ve very rarely had the experience of being set up, or the feeling people are being disingenuous or they just want a soundbite. The conversations we have after the piece tend to suggest they are genuinely trying to make sense of things.

“The hardest questions to answer are when there’s genuine hostility and prejudice directed towards Islam and Muslims, but that’s fairly rare. Even Sydney talkback radio, I find that, if in a pithy and engaging way, you can make it your case – and you can wrap a bit of self-interest up in it, in terms of protecting Australia, our security – people are, on the whole, willing to accept that the problem is not Islam and Muslims, it’s a particular group, a particular fringe element.”

Barton believes the answer to radicalisation is to work with Muslim communities, rather than alienate them with asinine campaigns against halal sausages. He set out to become an expert on Muslim democratic thought, not Islamist terrorism but he no longer sees himself as a disinterested observer but an actor in the battle against Islamic State.

In academia, he says. “I think some people probably look at me and say I’ve gone over to the dark side of working with police and security, but I see it differently. I think of myself as working in a space that’s trying to do some good, that’s contiguous with the way I started. I’ve actually found some very enlightened views – with police, with security and with military. To be fair, most of my colleagues have not been openly critical of me, but there’s certainly a sense of suspicion. In the area of Middle-East Studies and Muslim Society, that suspicion is probably more acute.”

He believes Islamic State will have to be defeated by conventional military force before its influence will wane, and before Australian society can fulfil the challenge of defeating local terrorism and radicalisation.

“It’s not the biggest challenge we face,” he says. “Domestic violence …., violent assault in general… , substance abuse, the perennial problem of Aboriginal Australians, questions of incarceration: these are all big problems. This is, in many ways, one of the smaller problems, but it’s rising fast, it’s insidious, and it demands a response from us, and there’s a danger the response will be the wrong response that’ll damage community relations, damage our society, our culture. Or it could actually be that, in responding to a difficult challenge, we rise to the better angels of our nature and do something good.”


1962 Born in Mount Gambier
1985 Marries Siew Nee
1996 Awarded PhD (Monash University); daughter, Hannah, born
1997 Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies & Politics, Deakin University
2006 Associate Professor, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), Hawaii
2005 Associate Professor, Politics, Deakin University
2007 Herb Feith Research Professor for the Study of Indonesia, Monash University
2010 Wins The Dean’s Award for Media Engagement