WASHINGTON — On his first visit to the United States as Australia's head of government, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had meetings with President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter where, among other issues, he discussed the threat of the Islamic State. Turnbull arrived in the United States following a tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.
The prime minister addressed the challenge of combating the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, and underscored the need for political solutions in Syria and Iraq. He also gestured to the prevailing polarized conversations in the West surrounding Muslim refugees and migrants.
"We shouldn't be so delicate as to say ISIL has got nothing to do with Islam, but equally we shouldn't tag all Muslims or Islam itself as responsible for a tiny minority of criminals," Turnbull said, using an acronym for the jihadist group that still holds territory in Iraq and Syria and whose proxies have been able to strike at civilian targets as far afield as Paris and Jakarta.
In recent months, some European and American politicians have raised the threat of the Islamic State as justification for curbing Muslim migration. Others have ascribed the violence to Islam writ large.
Such rhetoric, Turbull suggested, is not helpful and could lead to further radicalization.
"This is exactly what ISIL wants us to do because it plays into their narrative of alienation," he said. "It enables them to say to a young Muslim, 'Look, they hate you, they don't want you, you've got no future here, you're not really an American or an Australian or a Briton.' "
Turnbull also stressed that it's important not to "amplify" the Islamic State's message by depicting the militants as an existential threat.
"You'll see some very extravagant language about ISIL, suggesting that it's the greatest threat since the Second World War, and that's just not right," he said. But he added that there needs to be a more robust effort to counteract the jihadists' sophisticated messaging and social media strategy, ideally involving local Muslim voices rather than foreign governments.
"The government's Twitter account is hardly likely to do the job," he said.
Turnbull came to power in September after winning a leadership battle within Australia's ruling Liberal Party, ousting Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Liberals are a conservative, center-right party.
Australia is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of Australian military personnel are stationed in the latter.
Turnbull called on all international and regional actors involved in the conflicts in the region to exercise a "creative pragmatism" to a find a peaceful solution in Syria – even one that could lead to the preservation of the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"These negotiations have to be very pragmatic, very open-minded," he said. "There are too many people homeless, too many people dying, too many people displaced for us not to look at every possible situation."
Australia will take in about 12,000 Syrian refugees over the next few years. Many of them will represent "oppressed minorities," including Christians.
"That is not a sectarian decision," Turbull cautioned. "The melancholic reality is that the outcome of the conflict is not going to be very promising for Christian communities," which, he said, "were very likely to get squeezed out" following the collapse of secular regimes.
At a speech Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Turnbull spoke of the challenge posed by a rising China and his country's role in balancing Asia's budding rivalries. He also praised the United States' history of guaranteeing security in the Asia-Pacific, a legacy that has in part enabled the economic success of many countries in the region.
"War writes its own headlines, and Americans must feel they have been at war for a very long time," he said. "But the big story – possibly the biggest story of modern times – is that the U.S.-anchored rules-based order has delivered the greatest run of peace and prosperity this planet has ever known."