Anti-Muslim sentiment is “strong” and “probably quite widespread” among Australian defence force members and was higher among those who had undergone cultural sensitivity training, according to research commissioned by the army.
Soldiers from four special operations units based at Holsworthy army base were asked whether they believed “the Muslim religion promotes violence and terrorism”.
Of the 182 people who took part, an estimated 80% agreed with the sentiment, according to lead researcher Charles Miller from the Australian National University.
The survey was conducted as a “list experiment” to grant anonymity to the participants and reduce concerns that agreeing with the statement might invite repercussions.
“This study has found strong evidence that many members of the ADF’s elite units simply do not buy the official line presented by Western leaders from George W Bush on that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’,” Miller concluded.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment is strong at least among some of the elements of the ADF at the forefront of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Miller estimated that the proportion of soldiers who had undergone cultural sensitivity training and agreed that Islam promoted violence was about 91%.
“The corresponding figure for those who have not had cultural sensitivity training is a mere 17%,” he wrote in a paper published in the autumn edition of the Australian Army Journal (pdf).
But he cautioned against declaring the one-day cultural sensitivity training a failure, noting that only soldiers who were deployed to the battlefield underwent the course. “It could simply be that this [positive] effect is being comprehensively drowned out either by the effects of overseas deployment or by whichever factors caused individuals to join units which would be deployed overseas in the first place,” Miller said.
Special operations units at Holsworthy had “borne a heavy share of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan”, he noted.
He suggested “a higher ‘dose’ of the training” could improve perceptions of Islam among soldiers, but said further research was needed to make any conclusions about the effectiveness of the sensitivity course.
The ADF is engaged in currently engaged in official efforts to increase minority and female numbers among enlisted people.
The chief of army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, wrote an introduction to the paper noting it would “challenge your opinion of the way in which our army conducts and manages cultural sensitivity training. And challenge is a good thing.”
“We do not all have to agree. Both the evaluation board of the Australian Army Journal, which reviews these articles, and my staff, have a number of opposing views on this article’s content and its reflection on the lived experience of army values,” he wrote.
“That said, discussion on sensitive matters, supported by sound research and rigorous analysis, helps position army to understand difficult problems and deal with them appropriately.”