How we’re exploiting the terrorism threat

According to our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, this is likely to be the week in which Australia formally decides to re-engage in the War on Terror.

With the Prime Minister still transiting home from his first mission to the UN Security Council, it was left to Bishop to flag during a weekend television interview that a series of meetings this week would determine whether (or more likely, when) Australia would join the US-led air strikes over Iraq.

Bishop advised that a final decision would be taken by the Cabinet “presumably during the course of this week”, following a meeting of the National Security Committee.

It’s not known whether these discussions will canvass the ramifications of Australia’s willingness to use military force against an extremist group that brandishes elements of Islam to justify its barbaric actions.

It would be fair to say Muslims have had an uncomfortable existence in Australia since the influx of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran began in 1999. A general antipathy towards people from the Middle East was exacerbated by the Tampa incident in August 2001 and then the Al Qaeda attacks in September of the same year.

Not long after, then defence minister Peter Reith made the first connection in Australians’ minds between boat-borne asylum seekers and terrorists, saying in a television interview “security and border protection go hand in hand”.

By the time of the federal election, the Howard government was shamelessly hinting that asylum seekers could be terrorists trying to slip into Australia through the back door.

Since that time, it has been in successive governments’ interests to maintain voters’ perception that asylum seekers, and particularly those of the Muslim faith, are a “threat” to our nation’s security and “our way of life”. A para-military edifice has been constructed around Australia’s border “protection” regime to simultaneously heighten our anxiety about apparent hordes of maybe-terrorists lingering off our northern shores, while giving assurance that Operation Sovereign Borders will protect us from those same barbarians.

It’s the classic political sleight of hand: create a problem and then provide the solution in order to look like a hero.

This tactic has inflicted a high price in terms of Australia’s social cohesion. The irresponsible branding of asylum seekers as potential jihadists has so infected our collective psyche that we now feel threatenedby the mere presence of Middle Eastern men or Islamic accoutrements like the Burqa.

It’s hardly surprising then that some young Muslims have felt marginalised and been drawn to the siren call of extremists offering a community in which to belong.

Whether Australia is responsible or not for the eventual rise of Islamic State, along with the other prosecutors of the War on Terror, it is responsible at least in part for the radicalisation of its local Muslim population.

No matter how warranted this latest military intervention into Iraq is, there is a responsibility incumbent on all concerned to ensure the “campaign for the campaign” does not exacerbate the isolation already being felt by Australian Muslims or antagonise any antipathy towards them.

It’s one thing for the Government to describe the need for enhanced security measures in terms of the increased threat from which they’re designed to protect us; it’s quite another to create unnecessary anxiety to pressure the community into acquiescence. The latter course simply provides a platform for bigotry and hate-mongering such as that expressed by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambie.

It doesn’t help either to simply dismiss the Government’s talk of heightened threat levels as a mere shadow under the bed, or nothing more than an attempted deflection from its other woes. This does nothing to placate those members of the community who feel real anxiety about the threat of terrorism, or validate the good intentions of the vast majority of Australian Muslims.

Similarly, hyperbole should have no place in this discussion. It serves no good purpose for the Greens’ Leader Christine Milne to say Tony Abbott’s decision to go to war in Iraq is “tearing apart the fabric of Australian society” and that some parts of Australia are racist and should just give Muslims “a fair go”.

In essence, Milne is no less exploitative of the issue than the Government, by being divisive in the name of inclusiveness.

Any discussion of those exploiting the current terror threat debate would not be complete without a mention of the media.

In the true spirit of the “if it bleeds, it leads” edict, Australia’s media has had a field day reporting the latest campaign in the War on Terror with must-buy front pages and click-worthy headlines. In the rush to secure an exclusive, the print media in particular has presented readers with factually anorexic stories and unedifying headlines such as “Police Kill Abbott Jihadi” and “Jihad Joey”. Another newspaper identified the wrong man altogether on its front page as an alleged terrorist.

When it comes to exploitation of the terrorism threat, nobody’s hands are clean: not those of politicians, the media, or even our own.

Home-grown extremism is a multifaceted and complex issue, fraught with the vagaries of the human condition. It’s a diabolical problem that cannot easily be addressed.

Yet like most incendiary situations, the first step is clear: we need to take the heat out of it. The main players need to resist the temptation to exploit the terror threat discussion by exaggerating, scoring political points, sensationalising or using stereotypes.

This would make a strong first step towards repairing the damage caused by more than a decade of having demonised Australian Muslims. By putting social cohesion first, we could do more for national security than fighting a foreign war ever could.

Friendship and war: Abbott should tread carefully

The last time Australia went to war, in 2003, the decision was as much about friendship as it was about peace.

The commitment of Australian troops to Iraq was a product of the strong political friendship between our conservative prime minister, John Howard, and the Republican president George W Bush – forged during the dark hours of September 11, 2001 – as much as the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Everyday Australians felt little connection at the time with the need to fight America’s war against the brutal oppressor, but Howard leveraged our shared horror of the tumbling twin towers and the bombings in Bali into a grudging acceptance that overthrowing Hussein would aid in the fight against Al Qaeda.

Eleven years later, it’s hard to see how that campaign or the broader war on terror has made the world a safer place. Howard admitted as much in his autobiography, acknowledging that the “liberating forces” did not adequately think through the consequences of their actions in Iraq, or what might fill the vacuum once they left.

The perpetrators of terror have proven to be as enduring as George W Bush once admitted they would be when he called the war on terror “a task that does not end”.

Al Qaeda spawned the Islamic State in the years that followed Iraq’s “liberation”, and now another conservative Australian Prime Minister has agreed to participate in a new American campaign to deliver the world from this latest manifestation of terrorism.

Democrat president Barack Obama may have called our PM Tony Abbott “my friend” when recently briefing him on the intended campaign, but there is no searing experience shared between the two men to reinforce the ANZUS pact in the way there was between Bush and Howard. Nor has there been a compelling event like the Bali bombings to generate public acceptance of the need for Australia to participate.

This is going to make it more difficult for Abbott to warrant putting the lives of Australian troops on the line. But justify it he will. By participating in this campaign Abbott aims not only to nurture our important strategic relationship with the US, but also to strengthen the only card he has left to play on the domestic front – the protection of national security.

One advantage Abbott does have over Howard in rationalising our involvement in foreign military action is a greater awareness on the part of the general community of the role that terrorism is playing in international events. The downing of MH17 (although by insurgents and not terrorists) first drew the eyes of usually disengaged Australians to foreign shores, and the beheadings by IS of two American journalists and a British aid worker have kept them there.

However, such awareness is only the pre-cursor to public acceptance. Australians must also feel they have a personal stake in the outcome, as they did after the events in Bali.

Similarly, public support for the extreme measures taken to “stop” the boats is grounded in a vague but real concern that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are a threat either to our safety, our predominantly western culture, or to our job security and standard of living. Involvement of defence force personnel and the use of military terms such as Operation Sovereign Borders deliberately reinforce that concern while also presenting the Government as protection from the perceived scourge.

That’s why Abbott and his senior cabinet members have made so much of the “home-grown” terror that could be lurking in our own doorways if we are not prepared to act.

Nor is it a coincidence that the Commander In Chief of Operational Sovereign Borders, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison – the second most popular minister amongst Coalition supporters – was wheeled out on the weekend to make the connection for us, saying that:

We need to act in our interests, we can never be intimidated by terrorists and extremists, and I know that the Australian community strongly supports a very strong stand on this in standing up for our values and our way of life.

That’s not to suggest the threat isn’t real, or that it hasn’t increased in recent times. It is clear, however, that the Government is leveraging the prospect of Australians facing terrorist acts from their own countrymen to justify a range of security initiatives including the mandatory retention of metadata as well as the joint action with the US against IS in Iraq.

The results of this tactic are likely to be mixed. While it may be eminently logical to bolster security measures to deal with the rise of organised and lone wolf terrorists at home, it makes little sense to participate in a military campaign similar to the one that caused home-grown extremists to arise in the first place.

And while Abbott may not really be able to claim the US president as his friend, he should listen closely to the last Australian PM who could. Howard now concedes the folly of entering into an open-ended war in Iraq; Abbott should think carefully before doing the same.