A world-renowned expert on terrorism and violent extremism, Professor Greg Barton has long been the media’s go-to researcher for insight on why terrorism exists and how we can prevent it.
The ‘accidental’ terrorism expert
A key commentator on attacks including the Bali bombings, Sydney's Lindt Cafe siege and the Christchurch mosque shootings, Professor Greg Barton is frequently interviewed for his take on the complexities underlying terrorist activity. In the wake of COVID-19, the media has increasingly called on him to explain why people fall for conspiracy theories and how such beliefs can lead to extremist violence.
Away from the camera, national and international governments rely on his research to understand extremist networks and how to intercept their recruitment of vulnerable young people.
The Chair in Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) says he never set out to become a terrorism expert. He wanted –– and would still prefer –– to talk about democracy and civil society, especially in Muslim countries.
‘My expertise is in understanding Islamic thought and movement, particularly progressive Islam, and how religious thought, individual beliefs and religious communities intersect with politics and democratic reform,’ he says.
Prof. Barton has led a long-term study of progressive Islamic thought in Indonesia for 35 years, and in Turkey for 20 years. His current Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded projects focus on the convergence of religion and politics in Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Mozambique, Turkey, Pakistan and Australia, and the role that community development groups can play to stem extremism and violence. He is working on a book exploring the ways in which populist leaders in Turkey and Indonesia misuse religion for political ends.
A path out of extremism
Although not his first love, Prof. Barton’s interest in security issues, specifically countering violent extremism in Southeast Asia and beyond, attracts the most public attention –– and funding. A major part of his work involves developing evidence-based interventions under contracts with the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Home Affairs.
He points out that many aspects of political violence and extremism, including white supremacism, and authoritarian populism, are justified by being framed in terms of religion and identity: ‘You can find passages to justify violence and hate in the scriptures of all world religions. Even Buddhism has its extremists.
‘We try to understand what it is that leads young people into radicalisation to hateful and violent extremism. Radicalisation is predominately a social process, often involving grooming and recruitment, that engages with the very human need to belong, to be accepted, and to have purpose. Extremist networks present a compelling narrative, and young people who have a deep need for friendship and belonging, and not a lot of religious knowledge, are particularly vulnerable.
‘If we can understand the pathways into extremism, we can help them avoid going down a destructive path.'
Some of the answers remain elusive, but Prof. Barton says the research confirms that more cohesive, open societies with good governance are much less impacted by violent extremism than are societies that have broken down, or become caught-up in conflict, such that terrorist organisations establish a parasitic presence.
‘We have done a lot of work trying to put in place structures that reduce extremism and vulnerability to extremist behaviour,' he says. 'We also work with people who are coming out the other side to learn what works best in disengagement and rehabilitation.'
Extremist networks present a compelling narrative, and young people who have a deep need for friendship and belonging, and not a lot of religious knowledge, are particularly vulnerable. If we can understand the pathways into extremism, we can help them avoid going down a destructive path.
Professor Greg Barton
A ‘Forrest Gump career trajectory’
Growing up in small-town SA, where students at the local high school were more focused on sport than academia, Professor Barton jumped at the opportunity to take a Rotary student exchange scholarship to India following Year 12.
‘I chose the place I thought was most exotic and least like where I had grown-up,' he says.
On his return he moved to Melbourne and launched into an aeronautical engineering degree, but his experience in India had set the seed for a lifelong interest and he exchanged engineering to study the culture and politics of Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia. A PhD on progressive Islamic thought in Indonesia followed.
'Following my interests ended up being a good career move, although I didn’t know it at the time,’ he says.
Prof. Barton joined Deakin in 1994 as a lecturer and was promoted to associate professor of politics before leaving in 2005 to join the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii. In 2007, he was appointed Herb Feith Research Professor for the Study of Indonesia at Monash University and then in 2015 was invited to return to Deakin to take up a Chair at ADI.
He has made countless trips to Indonesia and cumulatively spent several years living there, including months staying in the palace of the country's first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, while writing Wahid’s biography. It was published in 2001, just before the September 11 attacks.
‘When 9/11 happened, it was time to face up to the problem of extremism in Southeast Asia,’ Professor Barton says. ‘I had avoided it until then, but knew that there were serious problems. My research led me to writing a book, Indonesia's Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam, exploring the issues.
‘The 2002 Bali bombings confirmed the scale of extremism, and it has grown worse globally on the back of military responses that haven’t gone well and networks that have arisen from earlier conflicts.'
Was John Lennon right?
It can be tempting to ‘go down the John Lennon route’ and imagine a world with no religion, but Professor Barton says ‘you only have to look at non-religious countries like China and Russia to realise that human nature is behind these problems, not something inherent in religion.
'Whatever religious community you’re looking at, you meet some of the very best people in the world and some of the very worst,’ he says.
‘It is foolish to speak about “winning a war on terrorism”. But it is equally foolish not to recognise that by working together against the efforts of those who would use hate and violence, we can reduce and contain the threat,’ he wrote recently in The Conversation.
‘We’re making progress. It’s not a problem we can make go away, but things are getting better.’
More about Prof. Barton
- One of Australia's leading scholars on Indonesia
- Internationally renowned expert on terrorism, extremism and political history
- Chair in Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation
- Co-leads the South East Asian Network of Civil Society Organisations (SEAN-CSO), a project funded to date via seven successive contracts between Deakin and the Attorney General’s Department (2016 and 2017) and the Department of Home Affairs (2018,2019,2020,2021 and 2022)
- Sought after media commentator on topics ranging from terrorism to the war in Ukraine and extremism
- Author of 41 articles for The Conversation that have been viewed more than 893,000 times
- Author and editor of numerous books and book chapters, including Countering Violent and Hateful Extremism in Indonesia: Islam, Gender and Civil Society (2021)
- Asia Society Australia Think Tank Scholar-in-Residence 2022
Find out more about Prof. Barton’s work
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