Tony Abbott has said Australians have been “played for mugs” by “bad people” and the government would no longer give “the benefit of doubt” when it comes to immigration, residency, welfare and citizenship. [Guardian 15 Feb 2015]
This statement from our Prime Minister, who is under threat from a very dissatisfied back bench, suggests a new “Tampa Moment” but this time aimed at his own Liberal Party rather than national opinion in election mode, like last time. The electorate in this instance is very different from mainstream Australian society. It consists of a political party with few moderates left, strongly influenced by the American extremist Tea Party stream of politics.
The attitude of the broad Australian society cannot be totally ignored, as we still live in a democracy, but elections are a long time in the future, so some very nasty behavior can be expected in the short term.
An important source of unbiased news, unlike the stable of Murdoch propaganda sheets, is “The Conversation”, written by academic experts from all over Australia. In its edition of 17 February 2015, after this ‘benefit of the doubt’ speech from Abbott, Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland, and Suzanna Fay-Ramirez, Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the same institution, wrote: “Abbott’s stoking of terrorist fears may be a political sideshow.” “Abbott is reeling from a series of poor “captain’s calls”, serious and unresolved questions about his leadership and disastrous opinion polling. In this context, the return to the safe conservative ground of national security suggests itself as an obvious diversionary tactic.”
Whipping up fear and taking public and political party attention away from the incompetence of the government leadership is an old and tried political tactic. However it can be more serious than this. As the authors point out, exciting party and public fears of a terror crisis can be used to justify extreme measures which would not otherwise be accepted. “Dangers of the “threat within” can be used to justify significant domestic restrictions of civil liberties or even military action abroad.”
They warn that the mention by Abbott of a harder policy on immigration, citizenship and welfare “suggests a less open and inclusive society.”
The Queensland University academics put the effects of such social change very plainly. “Research tells us that a hardline approach to “suspect” communities will further ingrain their sense of marginalisation and make radicalisation more likely. In this sense, effective responses to the terrorist “threat within” might require us to be more open and engaged, finding new opportunities for drawing such communities into the national community.”
We know full well which communities are the ‘suspect communities.’ Sheikh Wesam Charkawi, a high school chaplain working in western Sydney, said: ”I work on a daily basis with the youth and what I see at the moment is severe distress regarding the new counter-terrorism laws. The Muslim community feels targeted and besieged. Muslims are almost exclusively viewed through the prism of counter-terrorism laws.” [19 February 2015 Guardian]
Associate Professor Anne Aly of Curtin University’s countering online violent extremism research program said “Abbott’s statement and the government’s narrative on national security was making her work harder because it alienated young Muslims who feel under pressure from the language of the national security debate.” She finds herself not only battling the extremist narrative but also the increasingly xenophobic attitude of Abbott and his close supporters. In Australia the hard stance on national security is the only policy we seem to be developing, unlike the USA, the UK and Europe where it is understood that the struggle cannot be carried out in just this area. As she pointed out, “while the Abbott government had announced $13.4m for programs to counter violent extremism last year out of a $630m package to strengthen government police and intelligence agencies, only $1m had been announced so far and that round had not yet closed, so no funding in the area had yet been released.” [15 February 2015 Guardian]
A narrow, security based assault on radicalization will not bring about change, if that is what is actually sought. The placing of welfare in the hands of Scott Morrison, of Manus and Nauru fame, and residency and citizenship under the new Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with threats to the citizenship of dual passport holders under the Australian Citizenship and Other Legislation Amendment Bill, which has yet to pass the Senate, add up to a threat to our way of life. To marginalize a vulnerable community even further will not diminish the threat of radicalization and plays into the hands of the extremists. This places an even greater stress on our Muslim community, which, like Anne Aly, must struggle against the alienation of our youth from both government xenophobia and online lunacy.
Post-National Security Statement
The tide of negative comment in response to the Prime Minister’s statement on February 23 indicates that Australia is undergoing rapid change. In the immediate response to the 9/11 atrocity in 2001, the whole Muslim community felt the hostility and it was a time when there had been little public discussion of Islam and extremism. Although there has been the usual upsurge in racist attack and bigoted comment, it is very minor compared to past experience. That bigots feel empowered by the singling out of a vulnerable community must have been well understood since the Hanson days. Our political leadership must know this.
Nowadays the general population is more aware of how the “terror threat” is being politicised for very narrow purposes, to do with political ambition. It is also well understood by this stage that in order to prevent immature and disturbed individuals being drawn into the criminal terrorist web, their alienation and marginalization from mainstream Muslim society and broad Australian society must be addressed. Denouncing Islamic leaders as two-faced secret supporters of terror, which is what the Prime Minister inferred with his “and mean it” statement and his apparent questioning of Islamic teaching on the killing of innocents, can only increase feelings of alienation and of not being part of Australian society. He must know this.
That the religious leadership of the Muslim community has stood up to the bullying and bigotry we are now encountering, supported by a huge proportion of the Australian community, is very encouraging. Racism and bigotry as political weapons are diminishing in impact, indicating a very positive future.