Tuesday, June 16, 2015

OPINION: Bishop's mission to Iran raises more questions than it answers

What a crazy few weeks leading up to Anzac Day period it's been. We've had Reclaim Australia holding rallies in most major cities calling for jihad against halal vegemite. We've had hundreds of police swoop on a bunch of kids accused of plotting to kill more police, giving The Daily Telegraph an opportunity to report of "a devastating new terror threat planned for its most revered day", with one columnist reminding us: 

Oh, Islam. How the left so cravenly folds when that particular grievance card hits the table.

By now we should be convinced the Diggers went to Gallipoli to fight 100 per cent  halal-certified terrorists and their leftist allies, who are now threatening our Prime Minister's right to down a pint of beer in one go. Surely it's time to ban the burqa.

Which raises the question. What on earth was our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, doing dressed in what looked like an Emirates uniform? Why did she have to wear that thing on her head? And why, of all places, in the home of beady-eyed mad mullahs and ayatollahs that is Tehran? Couldn't she have appeared bare-headed, in solidarity with millions of Iranian women who hate being forced to wear it? True, our Julie would prefer not to be labelled a feminist, but what about human rights?

Yes? What about it? Julie's mission wasn't to lecture the bearded, turbaned President Rouhani about human rights. Or about trade or halal meat. The mission, as far as the Abbott government was concerned, was dealing with nasty not-so-white Iranian asylum seekers and quite-often-white foreign fighters. Ms Bishop was in Tehran - almost completely covered - to talk about Iran taking back refugee fish that her colleague Peter Dutton rejects.

The Iranians must be scratching their heads wondering what took her so long. It has been three months since a man Tehran insisted was a fraudulent travel agent posing as a Shiite cleric walked into the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place and murdered two Australians in cold blood. Iranian prosecutors wanted Monis on charges of defrauding his customers. Australia granted Monis asylum.
Liberal pollsters will be disappointed Iran refuses to be involved in forced repatriation of failed asylum seekers, many of whom are found to be economic refugees. Perhaps they might be less hesitant to return if sanctions are lifted and Iran's economy opens up to the rest of the world. We can then sell Tehran 100 per cent halal certified coal.

What surely must surprise anyone born around 1970 or earlier is how quickly all this has happened. Not long ago Iran was regarded by many in Australia as the Great Satan. The 1979 Islamic Revolution removed a pro-Western monarch from power. The first Islamic Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, was regarded as a supporter of terrorist groups in Lebanon who engaged in suicide bombings and kidnappings of Westerners. He established strong relations with more radical Arab leaders including Syria's Hafez al-Assaad.

It wasn't long ago that Israel's embarrassingly hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Pro-Israel lobby groups worked overtime to convince politicians (including our own) that Iran is evil. Iran's holocaust cartoon competitions weren't helping the cause. And a few days before Ms Bishop's arrival, an Army Day military parade in Tehran featured a truck with a huge sign loudly proclaiming "Death to Israel".

But thanks to the moronic antics of the "Coalition of the Willing" (which included Australia) in invading Iraq and overthrowing the brutal Saddam Hussein, and thanks to an incompetent sectarian government we are propping up, Iran is now the most powerful non-Arab player in Iraq. We need Iran more than Iran needs us. It is surely George W. Bush's greatest nightmare that the United States' Deputy Sheriff is now looking to one part of the Axis of Evil for help.

So what's in it for Iran? Increased international respectability. Access to more Iranian dissidents perhaps. And for Australia? A willing partner in solving our asylum woes. Intelligence to fight Islamic State of perhaps better quality than the intelligence used to invade Iraq in the first place. Even more Iranian students.

At this stage, Iran has been a trading partner but not exactly our best friend. Perhaps that status can be gained by Mr Abbott turning up to Tehran sporting a turban. Either way, both Iran and Australia can be well pleased with diplomacy well done.

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, at Deakin University. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on Tuesdau 21 April 2015.

OPINION: Muslims shouldn't have to keep apologising for terrorist attacks

The general response in the West to the appalling January 7 Paris attacks show that the Western view of terrorism has barely changed since 9/11. The same themes persist - "they" are terrorising "us". "Their" moderates need to do more to stop "their" extremists from attacking "us". Why aren't more of "their" moderates speaking out? Why don't "they" respect "our" values? Why don't "they" take responsibility?

Surely holding all Muslims (one-quarter of the world's population) collectively responsible for the actions of fringe groups should be universally hounded as imbecilic. Instead, many of the "official" Muslim spokespeople have taken this exclusionary message to heart.

Each time there is a terrorist attack on a Western country, they all but trip over themselves and each other to condemn - at times not even waiting for anyone to confirm the actual motives of those ultimately held responsible.

The same set formula, the same mantras are reported. "We condemn. It has nothing to do with us or our faith."

One can hardly blame them for this. In the Australian imagination, terrorism and Islam are interchangeable.

Whether it be small evangelical and far-right groups complaining about halal certification of Vegemite or opponents of mosque developments, the spectre of terrorism is ever present.

Even after it was established that a fringe loner was responsible for the Martin Place attack, some commentators insisted "sheikh" Haron had a substantial following.

Those who scream the loudest about the alleged Islamic threat to Australia are often those complaining they aren't free to speak loudly about the threat because of "stifling political correctness" or Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Yet there's a new generation of Muslims born and brought up in Australia who better understand and are less afraid to engage with media, politics and mainstream culture than their elders.

Many of them see their elders' rush to condemn terrorist acts as having the opposite effect to that intended. They see their elders' statements as reinforcing a dominant mindset on Islam and Muslims that is patronising and at times even xenophobic.

Conventional wisdom about terrorism is certainly worth questioning.

Jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State regard many, if not most, Muslims as kuffar, plural of kafir or infidel. These groups have killed a far greater number of Muslims than Jews and Christians.

In December, about 132 students and 13 staff at the Army Public School in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar were gunned down by the Pakistan Taliban. The Peshawar attacks received nowhere near as much media coverage nor pious statements from world leaders.

Nor was there much said about Boko Haram's assaults in Nigeria. In one such assault, which took place around the same time as the Paris attack, more than 1000 people were murdered. The Nigerian schoolgirls have still not been captured, though they have been immortalised in a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting them as pregnant welfare queens demanding no one touch their payments.

Muslims are often accused of seeing themselves as victims. But when so little emphasis is placed on a far greater number of non-Western terror deaths, young Western Muslims can be forgiven for seeing this as an indication of chronic Western victimhood.

Westerners are the only victims - or at least the only victims who matter.

No one should be murdered for drawing cartoons or for working as a policeman or for visiting a supermarket. But our knowledge and consciousness of terrorism is almost always limited to our own cultural backyard. Our sense of reality is distorted.

According to the 2013 Global Terrorism Index, 80 per cent of all terrorism-related deaths occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.

In sixth place was India, where terrorist deaths doubled. And who are the most feared group in India?

Communist terrorist groups are by far the most frequent perpetrators and the main cause of deaths in India ... Three Maoist communist groups claimed responsibility for 192 deaths in 2013, which was nearly half of all deaths from terrorism in India.

The Maoist uprising, which started in 1967, has been operating in 20 of India's 29 states.

But is the hypocrisy and victimhood that pervades much of the Australian and the broader Western debate on terrorism enough reason for community spokespersons not to speak the truth and call a spade a spade?

Haters can allow their hate to compromise their beliefs. They can point the finger at Muslims for being terrorists whilst ignoring them - and others - as victims.

Perhaps the issue is not whether to condemn terrorism but rather when, to condemn all political violence regardless of who are perpetrators and who are victims. Ultimately it doesn't matter who the victims are. Unjustly killing one is equivalent to killing all humanity. Surely that's a Biblical and Qur'anic principle we can all agree on.​

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamofascist. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 January 2015.

Monday, March 30, 2015

CRIKEY: How the Western media supports terrorism ...

Daesh supporters post gruesome photographs on social media to spread propaganda. And the Western media have been very willing to help out with that.

I’m looking at a story from Friday’s Australian on my laptop. The author is Victorian editor John Ferguson. A headshot shows him smiling, below which is a larger photo of two younger men in military fatigues, also beaming smiles. One of the smiling men, believed to be a former RMIT student, is holding a severed head, thankfully with its face blurred. Part of the rest of the body is also shown.
The photo described above was apparently taken from social media and posted by supporters of Daesh (also called Islamic State or ISIS). Thought bubbles have been superimposed on the photo. The Melbourne student, pointing to both the severed head and the body, thinks “STINKY DOG”. The other giggles the letters “LOL”.
Apart from being fighters in a guerrilla war, these men also fit into the category of “terrorist” under relevant Australian law. The media organisations that constantly display gruesome images of these and other young men holding severed heads or boasting about their sex slaves or standing guard while a victim in an orange jumpsuit is beheaded or burned alive, are aware that the images show not just gruesome but also illegal conduct.
This raises a simple question: why are Australian media organisations effectively providing free propaganda services to terrorists? If there are troubled or sick individuals tempted by such activities or by nasty images in general, why are mainstream news organisations feeding their fetish? Why are their advertisers not kicking up a fuss? And why haven’t the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and other erstwhile parliamentarians even said a word?
We are, after all, involved in a war with Daesh. We are trying to stop the (albeit small) flow of young Sunni Muslim men and women to the war zone in Syria and Iraq. Their actions have led to serious but unnecessary changes in anti-terror laws, which are in addition to current laws that have barely been used.
It remains to be seen whether the laws will be applied consistently to other foreign fighters, including former NT Labor Party president Matthew Gardiner,who is believed to be fighting with a Kurdish outfit in Syria called the “Peoples Protection Units”. Certainly the Attorney-General’s office has made it clear that ”if you fight illegally in overseas conflicts, you face up to life in prison upon your return to Australia”, regardless of which side you are on.
When Daesh first came to the Western media’s attention for beheading aid workers and journalists, there were requests from the victims’ families that images of the final moments of the victims not be shown. By and large, Australian newspapers ignored these requests. In my opinion, this was grossly insensitive. Perhaps on the occasions above, where Daesh fighters are shown holding severed heads or even laying in a “martyred” state, media outlets might suggest that there are no living victims involved.

That’s assuming you don’t regard the families of these young men and women as victims. The student referred to above comes from a highly educated family of south Asian extraction. His friends have told me that the family were extremely distressed when they heard their son had left for Syria. Imagine how much this distress is compounded by knowing that images of their son holding an AK-47, holding a severed head and finally dead on the ground are on major news websites and newspapers.
Yes, it’s true. These photos are taken from Daesh supporters and used for propaganda purposes. So why do terrorists’ propaganda for them?

First published in Crikey on 26 March 2015.

CRIKEY: The enemy of my enemy? Beware of cherrypicking Islamic sects ...

Western governments have long tried to fight terrorism by supporting opposing sectarian Islamic groups. But this is not necessarily the way forward.

Words like “terrorism” and “radicalisation” may defy clear definition, but they describe real and preventable phenomena. And if we are to have any hope of effectively combatting them, we need to develop strategies built on facts and evidence, not ideology. And we need to do it in a timely manner. In key areas, the Abbott government and its predecessors have failed on both scores since the London bombings.
On Tuesday the PM was quoted as saying: “We are about to begin a very big campaign to try to counter the influence that the death cult has, particularly online, on vulnerable Australians”.
And just how is he going to do that? The headline on a page 2 story inThe Australian story reads “$5m lost reaching out to Islamists”. Maybe this is what Abbott meant when he remarked: “It’s important that we spend the money the right way, rather than just blow it.”
One common way money has been blown is bankrolling sectarian Muslim organisations to de-program kids. Often these projects are based on the idea that funding a group from a sect opposing the preferred sect (say, Wahhabism) of terrorists will drag people away from violent extremism. As if it’s all about religious denomination.
Back in 2005-07, the Howard government insisted it did not wish to deal with groups it considered extreme. The Australian had a field day linking people and institutions to Wahhabism (also known as Salafism) and hence to terrorism. The Howard government decided that bankrolling al-Ahbash, an anti-Wahhabi/Salafi sect based in Lebanon, was the way to fight terrorism. The result was the publication of a booklet whose strategy was built upon sectarian and ideological polemics.
One of the organisations named in The Australian is the Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA), which “received $100,000 to run an educational program”. At first glance, the choice of the LMA is curious — it allows only men eligible for Lebanese passports to hold full membership, to vote and to be elected to its executive.
Both the LMA and al-Ahbash compete for support from Lebanese Sunni Muslims, and they have a history of enmity dating back decades. LMA might have nationalistic and gender bias, but it certainly isn’t as sectarian as al-Ahbash. On the positive side, it engaged Aftab Malik, a very un-Lebanese expert from the UK with substantial experience in British Muslim anti-terror initiatives funded by the UK government’s Prevent Strategy.
However, Malik’s strategy was based on the false idea that “wrong” theology leads to violent extremism. As a leading figure in a Western Sunni movementcalling itself “Traditional Islam” (TI), Aftab was “[w]ithin the United Kingdom … critical in articulating and promoting TI perspectives”.
Perspectives? TI openly rejects a broad range of religious ideas and movements it sees as “Wahhabi/Salafi”, claiming these have direct theological links to Daesh, Boko Haram or any other group engaged in violent extremism. Even those (like myself) broadly sympathetic to TI’s position would be uncomfortable with a blatantly sectarian agenda dominating deradicalisation work.
There’s no suggestion the LMA used public funds to pursue a sectarian agenda, or that Malik engaged in sectarian activities (given my own preference for TI, I almost wish he did!). But his very presence in such a sensitive program could risk a national security program becoming a sectarian exercise. Perceptions are often more powerful than reality.
Deradicalising young people isn’t and should never be about attacking a set of religious ideas that happen to be within the theological range of Daesh. If Daesh can be described as “Wahhabi”, so can its most vicious opponentsamong Wahhabi religious scholarship across the world.
Foreign fighters heading for Daesh, like their predecessors heading for Afghanistan to fight the Soviets or heading to Spain to fight General Franco, are often less inspired by religion than by fighting for what they see as injustice which the rest of the world had turned its back on. As western Sydney imam Wesam Charkawi, who works with social workers and young people tempted by the political rhetoric of Daesh, told The Guardian: “The idea that young men are waiting in line to become radicalised is a myth. This point is sensationalised by media and politicians.”
With that in mind, perhaps one good strategy to stop Daesh is to stop marginalising people because of their religious heritage. And to create an environment where they aren’t powerless to address the inconsistencies in our foreign policy.​

First published in Crikey 12 March 2015.

CRIKEY: Abbott’s latest bizarre captain’s call a dog-whistle at cultural trolls ...

Islamic State is as Islamic as the Liberal Party is liberal — but you wouldn’t know it from Abbott’s dog-whistling.

Ask any person with an Arabic or Persian or Muslim-sounding name who blogs, tweets or regularly posts on Facebook groups. We’ve all had the same experience — trolls leaving nasty or narky or even violent comments about our religious or ethno-religious heritage. One guy used to leave messages on my blog warning of an impending “alcoholocaust” in which my type would be drowned in grog. Others would request I kindly commit suicide as I was “the fattest ugliest and smelliest lawyer in Australia”.
My favourite would be the snarky reference to “the religion of peace”. From far-Right wackos to the Facebook pages of the Fred Niles and Danny Nalliahs of this world, this cynical reference to George W. Bush’s remarks after 9/11 has become a staple hate-phrase of just about anyone with a gripe against someone who sort of looks mildly Muslim-ish.
And now the Prime Minister is echoing the trolls during a high-profile speech on national security. A speech introducing a report by two public servants into a single tragic incident that is still the subject of an investigation and report from the Coroner.
Abbott’s rhetoric surely must represent yet another ridiculous captain’s call. “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a religion of peace. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.” It was as if he’d just been told all Muslims worked on the same telephone sex line, leading him to wink at his fellow cultural trolls.

And which Muslim leaders is he talking about? Religious leaders? Fruit-loop dictators who imprison Australian journalists? Middle Eastern oil sheikhs? The captains of the Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and South African World Cup cricket squads?
And exactly when will Abbott be satisfied that Muslims actually mean it when they quote Dubya? What does it mean to mean you reckon your religion is all peace and love and flowers and VW vans?
Indeed, what does the peaceful or otherwise nature of 14 centuries of parallel traditions have to do with a crazed gunman who wore Iranian Shia robes and then decided he would support the vehemently anti-Shia Islamic State but took the wrong flag to the Lindt Cafe?
I know plenty of Muslims who are about as observant and pious as Mick Jagger. A fair few are atheist. Others might visit the mosque once a year. There are Muslims who drink, eat very non-halal meat, live in sin and yet still have some identification with their ancestral faith and culture. They aren’t the sort of people to give a rat’s backside about what some non-English-speaking mufti says.
Then there are more devout Muslims who would not associate with IS-type groups for religious and sectarian reasons. They don’t want their country to enter an “ominous” new “dark age”. They just want to go to work, pay their taxes and have enough money left over to take the kids shopping at their local Westfield regardless of any threats or the Jewish beliefs of certain Westfield managers. They probably wouldn’t feel inclined to sign some long-winded statement, many of whose signatories belong to an exclusivist denomination that regards other Muslims as unbelievers.
Grassroots communities don’t need lectures from Tony Abbott. They know what terrorism is because many have fled from it and have often spent years in detention centres. Perhaps the PM should talk to the group of Iraqi-Australians from Christian and Muslim denominations who met in January to discuss the issue of young Iraqi-Australians tempted to fight for either side. “The forum was organised by young people from the Iraqi Australian University Graduates Forum — which included people from Shia, Sunni, Assyrian, Christian, Chaldean, Syriac and Mandaean communities” and called for “an open debate on extremism”. Of course, it’s impossible to have an open debate when a substantial part of the whole community is made to feel like it’s all their fault.
All this fuss and dog-whistling about migrants and non-white people saysmore about Tony Abbott than it does about migrants and non-white people. Seriously, what kind of conservative prime minister introduces revolutionary changes to citizenship law on the basis of a single report by a couple of public servants? What kind of PM thinks we should change our laws due to the actions of a deranged migrant when our jails are full of deranged violent people who were born here? What kind of champion of Australian values awards the nation’s highest honour to a Greek chap with unsavoury connections? What kind of party introduces legislation attacking hate speech while sharing preferences each election with the likes of Fred Nile and while having supporters like Andrew Bolt? What kind of bloke appoints himself Minister for Women? With this kind of decision-making, is it any wonderAbbott is in deep poop?
Suggesting Man Haron Monis is reflective of Islam is about as silly as suggesting Tony Abbott is reflective of Catholicism and/or Australian values. As for Islamic State, it’s about as Islamic as the Liberal Party is liberal.

First published in Crikey on 24 February 2015.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

CRIKEY: Pakistan school massacre and the nature of terrorism

At funerals for the dead students kill Pakistan, mourners will recite the same words uttered by the terrorists. And yet some would have us believe Islam has something to answer for.

In his column yesterday, Chris Kenny lectured us on how “sections of the media and political class” are pressuring him and his colleagues to “play down the Islamist element” in various terror attacks affecting Australians. These forces would have us ignore the “horror of Islamic extremist terrorism”.
Kenny wrote of 9/11, when “10 of our nationals were killed”, then of the Bali bombings, when “88 of our citizens” were among the victims, then of the attack on our embassy in Jakarta. We are facing this. We are the victims. And all the left-wing elites care about is “a backlash” and of “repercussions against Muslims” that will never arrive. Kenny’s simplistic binary seems to be “we” Aussie versus them … um … er … Islamic Islamist types.
There wasn’t much evidence of playing down anything from Chris Uhlmann during his conversation with the PM this morning. Uhlmann asked some tough questions that needed answering, then made the extraordinary claim about a certain set of religious and legal denominations and traditions whose adherents make up one-quarter of humanity: “[T]his is a religion that is resistant to scrutiny or criticism, that is utterly incapable of laughing at itself, and when it is criticised the reaction often tends to be violent.”
Blaming this attack on Islam won’t help survivors of the hostage drama any more than an attack on Christianity would help victims of child sexual assault who gave evidence at the royal commission.
Right now people are in mourning. The Lindt Cafe is a popular destination, situated between the financial and legal districts of Sydney CBD. I’ve been shouted coffee there myself by barristers grateful for the work. It could have been me among those hostages. It could have been the mufti wearing a suit. It was almost Chris Kenny.
Of course, real terrorists who are part of real terrorist groups tend not to care much about having the right flag or talking to the prime minister or other delusional wishes. Real terrorists like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) don’t allow the age or gender or religion of their victims to stop them from walking into a school and starting to shoot.

Imagine being a year 10 student and witnessing 40 of your fellow students being murdered during an exam. Imagine being shot in both legs and then shoving a tie down your throat so that you don’t scream in agony and you can successfully play dead. Imagine being a parent and not knowing whether your children will still be in their school uniforms or draped in a burial shroud.
The idea that many terrorists are inspired by theocratic “Islamist” ideas is a given. Pakistani newspapers and Urdu cable TV channels are vociferous in their condemnation of dehshat gardi (terrorism). The current government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have won the argument about peace talks with the Taliban, but Pakistan looks like it is fast losing the war.
Now here’s a thought. At the funerals of the young students, people will be reciting the Arabic sentence hung up in the window of the Lindt coffee shop in Martin Place. They will recite Allahu Akbar (God is Greater) as was shouted by Taliban assailants as the bullets entered the victims. With whom do the mourners of Peshawar have more in common? The self-styled Sheikh Haron? The Taliban murderers? Or the Sydney folk of all colours and ethnicities and faiths laying flowers and praying at Martin Place?

First published in Crikey on 17 December 2014.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

CRIKEY: Think you know the world’s terrorism hotspots? Think again

India does not spring to mind as a global terrorism hotspot, but lawyer and commentator Irfan Yusuf finds there’s much we don’t know about the world’s second-most populous nation.

India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently told Commonwealth lawmakers in Canberra that Australia was firmly at the centre of his nation’s gaze. Meanwhile, our national broadcaster has announced it is closing its New Delhi bureau. And most Australians wouldn’t have much of a clue about the world’s second-most populous nation or its neighbours.

India doesn’t just want our uranium and coal; Modi has pledged to work with Australia to fight what he describes as the “menace of terrorism”.

But what does terrorism mean in India? Do publications like The Times of India or The Hindu or Caravan see terrorism as purely a Middle Eastern or Islamic problem?

The 2013 Global Terrorism Index placed India at sixth in the world when it came to number of terrorist attacks. Above India were Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. These countries accounted for some 80% of all terrorism deaths. India experienced the largest increase in terrorist attacks, with deaths almost doubling (238 to 404) from 2012-13.

Yes, there certainly are jihadists operating in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. But the GTI Report states what most Indians already take for granted:

In 2013 around 70% of attacks were non-lethal. Communist terrorist groups are by far the most frequent perpetrators and the main cause of deaths in India. Three Maoist communist groups claimed responsibility for 192 deaths in 2013, which was nearly half of all deaths from terrorism in India. Police are overwhelmingly the biggest targets of Maoists, accounting for half of all deaths and injuries.

The Maoist insurgency has much to do with farmers in impoverished tribal areas being forced off their land. The uprising has been going since 1967, with the Naxal movement operating in 20 of India’s 29 states. Terrorism doesn’t happen in an economic or political vacuum.

Perhaps the most dangerous form of extremism can be found in the Indian ruling coalition. Before being elected Prime Minister in a landslide, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat province in the north-west of the country. Gujarat was also the home state of an eccentric barrister named Gandhi, who was once labeled a terrorist by Her Majesty’s government.

Far from engaging in violence, Gandhi preached a novel form of non-violent resistance with a view to securing independence for India. He was assassinated by a small cabal of extremists from his own Hindu faith, people who did not share his cosmopolitan vision for a multi-confessional India.

This coalition of theocrats has been quite happy to use violence and terror to put religious minorities — especially Catholics and Muslims — in their place. They include people within the current PM’s inner circle as well as convicted religious terrorists. They were behind some of India’s worst violence in its post-independence history.

And when it comes to violent Hindutva theocracy, guess which side the current Indian PM belongs to.

Indians (and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans and Nepalese) take this stuff for granted. But rarely will you read or hear or see much use of words like Hindutva or Naxalite in our own media. ​

First published in Crikey on 21 November 2014.

CRIKEY: As we chuckle at the ‘cali-fatties’, real questions remain unanswered

Western young men travelling to the Middle East to become jihadis is a serious problem that demands serious coverage. But all the tabloids care about it is jelly belly jihadis. Irfan Yusuf, lawyer, author and commentator, reports.

The anonymous parents sit in their Sydney home consumed with grief. They believe four of their sons, aged 17, 23, 25 and 28, have travelled to Syria to join Islamic State or one of the other groups battling each other and the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They’d been told by their oldest son he’d won a free holiday to Thailand and was taking his three brothers, one of whom had just finished his year 12 exams. The others had stable jobs.

The mother received a text stating the boys were now Syria and looked forward to seeing her “in paradise”. At fist she assumed it was a joke and deleted it. Now she believes it is real. The mother begs for her sons to come home. Who knows what she and other members of her family are going through.

Why did this happen? Assuming they have signed up for a militia in Syria, how did four young “cleanskins” become indoctrinated to leave behind loving parents, stable jobs and bright futures to join a war whose contours they might barely understand?

These are serious questions requiring serious analysis. Instead, what we have received is a chorus of fat jokes from the tabloids. The right-hand corner of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph front page carried the headline: “TOO FAT FOR JIHAD. Weight might stop Sydney’s would-be death cult recruits”. Page 6 carried the headlines “JELLY-BELLY JIHADIS” and “Sydney’s biggest losers too overweight to join IS cali-fat”. A photo is shown of a boy holding his head on his chin with his right fist while holding a half-eaten kebab in his left.

Two of the boys each weigh allegedly 140 kilograms and “can’t even run on the field”. A similar report appeared in the Daily Mail Australia, which cited a source saying:
‘We are hoping the fact that because two of them are quite obese they will not good foot soldiers, they are over 140 kg. People are going to realise, what are we going to do with them? Are they going to eat al [sic] the food and you can’t even run on the field.’
The source for the boys’ physical fitness or lack thereof? Dr Jamal Rifi, a GP who says he is a friend of the family. Is there any evidence that Islamic State will reject them? Any kind of statement that they are not fit enough to become soldiers? Nope.

I hope to God that the boys were playing a joke on their parents, that they return to Australia soon and that they make a fast buck pursuing defamation proceedings. No doubt that would wipe the tears off their parents’ faces.

Tabloid media discussion on these issues has tended to demonise not just those fleeing to Syria but the communities they leave behind. The same communities that more likely than not despise IS and other groups, which seem to have a knack for beheading more Muslims than anyone else. Now in the case of the four Sydney boys, the tabloids have resorted to ridicule. It might entertain the readers, but I doubt it generates much sympathy for the poor parents.​

First published in Crikey on 19 November 2014.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CRIKEY: Emma Alberici (and the West) doesn’t understand anything about Muslims

Emma Alberici’s drawn praise for her heated interview with the head of a radical Islam group, but her conduct was not exemplary.

Tony Abbott copped a few guffaws when he said that in Syria there were no clear goodies and baddies, just lots of baddies. But in fact it was one of the wisest things he ever said about foreign policy. If only he didn’t limit such wisdom to Syria.
What Abbott and the rest of Australia (including our fourth estate) needs to understand is that the national boundaries drawn up in the Middle East were the result of shenanigans of colonial powers on their last legs. Religious, cultural and language groups were split up and even denied some kind of nationhood. Artificial nations were created.
In his memoir Leave to Remain, Australian Lebanese writer Abbas El-Zein recounts his visits to Iraq, where his relatives, from a long line of Shia Muslim religious scholars, studied and worked. He visited what is perhaps the largest cemetery on earth, the Wadi al-Salaam (Valley of Peace) in Najaf Iraq, where Shia Muslims from across the globe aspire to be laid to rest.

Yes, it’s true. Shia Muslims in southern Lebanon have direct links to Shia Muslims in Iraq. Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have direct family and spiritual links to Sunni Muslims in Syria. A Sunni Muslim tribe in Syria is being housed by their direct tribal relatives from Jordan. The boundaries may be real to us, living in the Westphalian world of nation states. But to the people of the region, it really doesn’t make sense. The ties of language and culture and faith and sect go back much further. Those ties and loyalties may extend to communities in Australia, affecting even people born here. It may well be much more complex than just Shias hating Sunnis.
It also explains why the simplistic vision of “the Muslim world”, a singular rump of 25% of humanity yearning for a caliphate, also makes little sense to all but a tiny minority of nominally Muslim migrants and their offspring. This is the fringe simplistic ideology promoted by groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the organisation of “hate preachers” Tony Abbott has promised another hate preacher he will ban.
Emma Alberici’s Lateline interview  with former HT Australian spokesman Wassim Doureihi started well enough. “We’ve invited you here tonight to help Australians better understand what it is that you stand for.” It went downhill from there, with decontextualised questions like, “Do you support the murderous campaign being waged by Islamic State fighters in Iraq?”
Then again, Doureihi could have just used some strategic sense. He’s in luck that HT leaders overseas were having serious issues with ISIS/ISIL/IS before the first Western aid worker or journalist was decapitated. Or rather, when other Western journalists were ignoring the large number of Lebanese, Kurds and other non-Westerners being slaughtered by Daesh, which is the correct Arabic name for Islamic State.
All Doureihi had to do is read out the HT rejection of the Daesh caliphate. Inane questions such as these are something any seasoned media operator should be used to. And Doureihi is about as seasoned as they come. He’s been an HT spokesman since around 2006.
But Doureihi cannot remove himself from this simplistic vision of human beings as computer hardware who just need the correct religious and political software to operate a caliphate network. HT see the idea of a caliphate as sole political glue that binds Muslims together, despite the fact that Shia Muslims don’t believe in a caliphate. As if issues like language never led to the phenomenon of Kurdish separatism or the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971 and the ongoing tensions within this relatively new Muslim nation.
Perhaps Alberici could have asked Doureihi to explain this diagram from The Guardian  — it doesn’t look much like a singular Muslim world to me. Or if complicated is her thing, perhaps this one from Slate. But then Alberici was stuck in a simplistic paradigm handed to her, one where a handful of white people being decapitated was more tragic than thousands of brown people being slaughtered by Daesh and then bombed to shreds by righteous Western forces.

Doureihi had an opportunity to decontextualise and recontextualise all he wanted if he just got past Alberici’s threshold questions. Instead, he became bogged down in a sad attempt to rejig the war on terror “narrative” in a single interview.
WASSIM DOUREIHI: Let me make it very clear: you’ve invited me on to this platform to express my views.
WASSIM DOUREIHI: You’re not allowing me to do that.
EMMA ALBERICI: But you want to express your views quite separate to the questions that I’m putting to you.
WASSIM DOUREIHI: I’m answering the question that I deem appropriate.
How hard is it to say, “I am against beheadings. I am against genocide. And I was wondering why we never gave a flying fuck about the toxic fallout in Fallujah being worse than Hiroshima”?
But Alberici’s own responses to Doureihi’s questions reinforced Doureihi’s claims that some kind of underlying narrative was at play. She was becoming flustered by a phenomenon — an interviewee answering her question in a manner he wished — that she should be well used to. Heck, politicians do this all the time. HT is a political party. Doureihi is a Muslim politician wannabe.
Alberici lectured Doureihi on how to combat phobia. “You can dispel any supposed phobia out there by putting a line in the sand and giving people a yes or a no about what your position is”. She even asks : “What are Islamic State fighters doing in your name?”

It’s easy for Doureihi and others (including me) to be offended by this. Daesh don’t fight in my name. They are violent wackos, thugs, criminals. I don’t think HT are violent, even if they are silly. But to ban them would be ridiculous. If Abbott and other pollies cannot win such a simple battle of ideas against such simpleton opponents, it says a lot about the pathetic discourse on foreign policy in this country.​
First published in Crikey on Friday 10 October 2014.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

CRIKEY: The complicated calculus of terrorists -v- war criminals

Why have we been focusing all of our attention on lone-wolf terror suspects, while a man accused of horrific war crimes attracts scant mention?

It’s easy to sit here in our Crikey ivory towers sipping sharia-compliant champagne while we ponder why 800 police officers are required for raids that yield a handful of arrests across three cities. But we can’t help but notice that all the fuss about lone-wolf, suspected Muslim terrorists has been somewhat absent in other cases.

I’ve been seriously trying not to be cynical about the Abbott government’s mini-Domestic-War-On-Terror-Suspects and almost succeeded when I noticed a piece published in yesterday’s Canberra Times. At a time when deceased teenage suspect Numan Haider was a mere toddler, a suspected war criminal named Krunoslav Bonic was openly and comfortably living in Canberra within 30 minutes of the Federal Police HQ.

In the grand scheme of horrors that was the 1990s’ Balkan Wars — horrors committed on all sides that include concentration camps, mass murders in cities and towns like Srebrenicagang rapes of civilian women, ethnic cleansing, etc — Bonic’s crimes aren’t at the most gruesome end.

Bonic is not accused of orchestrating the gang rapes of girls as young as 12. He was not part of a force that massacred 8000 men and boys over a few days. He did not hold emaciated civilians to be beaten and tortured in concentration camps. It isn’t suggested that he destroyed world heritage monuments such as the famous 16th-century Ottoman Stari Most Bridge.

The War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague has heard evidence that Bonic cut the ears and other bodily parts off dead soldiers to make money. He also rounded up and beat civilians.

True, it’s only a tad worse than the actions of our allies at Abu Ghraib. But if the evidence survives court scrutiny, Bonic’s alleged actions would almost certainly constitute war crimes. He would be yet another war criminal our authorities ignored in favour of pursuing potential terrorists.

One would hope that pursuing potential war criminals would also warrant a media circus, even if (in the case of ACT-based Bonic) only worthy of a few local Canberra newspapers. War criminals do matter, and not just as friendly hosts to our asylum seekers.

First published in Crikey on 2 October 2014.

OPINION: Tabloid speculation on Numan Haider and Islamic State threat is best ignored

Last Friday, the Herald Sun editorialised that there are "actively 100 Australians actively supporting terrorist organisations" in the Middle East. It's a figure that gets thrown around a lot these days. Support for terror has blown out among Australians who tick the Muslim box on their census forms.

Metropolitan newspapers across the country have provided saturation coverage to terror "suspects" and terror "supporters". And none of us are any wiser about exactly who they are or exactly what their relationship to ISIS is.
We see Facebook photos of young men boldly brandishing flags that we think look like ISIS flags. Pieces of cloth sprawled with Arabic writing. Arabic, a language spoken by millions of Christians and Muslims and Jews and people of all faiths and none. Arabic script or similar scripts used in Iran and Pakistan. It's so scary, so foreign. But more often than not, the scary words on the flags merely state that there is only one God. Hardly a revelation for a Jew or a Christian or even a Sikh.
Then we're told that Muslim extremists want to implement a strict form of sharia law where women wear burqa and infidel Westerners are beheaded. You don't expect them to be like young Melbourne teenager Numan Haider, having girlfriends and eating not-so-halal burgers at Hungry Jacks.

Haider is an unlikely suspect for what Sydney's Daily Telegraph described as "the country's first Islamic terrorist attack on home soil". And what makes the incident a terrorist attack? The 18 year old stabbed one, perhaps two, police officers. He had a knife. They had guns. He was outnumbered.

We don't know if young Haider was known to police, was involved in petty or even violent crime and had a substantial criminal record. Indeed there is no suggestion of any criminal disposition. All we know is that he was once photographed holding up a black and white flag on Facebook (whether seriously or in jest we won't know), another time driving car. We know he had been dating a girl he met at school in Year 11. We know his siblings were university students. We know he came from an Afghan family, but we have no idea what ethnic group (Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik or other) they came from or whether they were sunni or shiite.

Haider was supposed to be a "known terror suspect" How? By attending a particular mosque when he was not visiting his girlfriend? By hanging around with some radical loud mouths? By accessing online publicly available information to track the Prime Minister's movements in Melbourne? This act of online "terrorism" led one newspaper to declare Haider to be an "Abbott jihadi" or words to that effect.

Saturation reporting transformed Numan Haider. No longer was he a young man from a stable family in a stable relationship. Instead, he was an angry knife-wielding terrorist allegedly trying to behead a police officer. Or perhaps two officers. Perhaps even the PM. And until any CCTV footage is revealed, we won't have any idea of what really happened.
Incidentally, hidden in the middle of a Herald Sun story on Friday were these words: "Victoria Police said it had no evidence of a plot to behead a police officer". So how was the stabbing a terrorist act?

Stabbing police officers is an extremely serious crime. But was Mr Haider the first person to have pulled a knife on a police officer? Or to be shot dead in response? In August last year, an experienced Victorian highway patrol officer shot dead a 44-year-old man after he allegedly pulled a knife. Police Professional Standards and the Coroner became involved in that case.

I'm not suggesting police should not protect themselves when accosted with threats. Victorian Assistant Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius was right to have said last August: "Where an officer chooses to take another person's life, that is a choice which is invariably made and must be made in defence of one's own life or in defence of another person who is facing an imminent threat of serious injury or loss of life."

When Brazilian tourist Roberto Laudisio Curti was killed by a police officer using a Taser gun in Pitt Street, Sydney, in 2012 after stealing two packets of biscuits from a convenience store, both the NSW Ombudsman and the Coroner savaged police actions as "thuggish.

Similar investigations will be carried out into police actions on that fateful night at Endeavour Hills. But that will be unlikely to stop imbecilic reporting that describes the deceased as a "dead terrorist" or that splashes photos of an upset family friend attending the Haider family home to prepare for the young man's funeral.

Tabloid columnists may regard asking critical and forensic questions undermining their simplistic narrative as being akin to "slandering our country". Let them direct their hysterical allegations at the Coroner and Police Professional Standards. The rest of us can ignore tabloid speculation and pray for the families of the dead boy and the injured police officers doing their job.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and award-winning author. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 2 October 2014.

CRIKEY: Terror hysteria: Herald Sun plays judge, jury and executioner

What do you get when you cross a blatant disregard for facts and legal due process with a “feral Andrew Bolt column”? The Herald Sun, of course.

Regular Herald Sun readers can now breathe easy, secure in the knowledge that an 18-year-old-man has been found guilty of terrorism by the newspaper and is now buried six feet under the ground. For the past week, the tabloid of choice for Victoria’s McDonald’s patrons to spill their special sauce on has been running a campaign against Numan Haider, his family, their friends and anyone deemed to share their faith.

 Haider did stab two police officers before being shot dead. He likely had his passport cancelled and was suspected of being involved in activities that, had he carried them out, might have been found by a court to have breached the provisions of anti-terror laws.

In the real world, he had not been charged, let alone convicted. No evidence against him was brought before a properly constituted court. But as far as the Hun was concerned, all this is legal mumbo jumbo. Haider was a terrorist who planned to assassinate the Prime Minister, even if police denied there was ever such a plot.

The coverage, the allegations, the group responsibility and the hysteria was relentless. The cover of the Hun on Wednesday, September 24, carried the words “DEADLY THREAT TO ABBOTT”, and the deceased was described on page 2 as “A TEEN terror suspect under investigation for making threats against Prime Minister Tony Abbott”. Following this allegation were 11 paragraphs citing a midnight police press conference after Haider’s shooting, during which no mention was made of a plot to kill the PM. One wonders how the five reporters (Angus Thompson, Anthony Dowsley, Wes Hosking, David Hurley and Simon Benson) could not cite a single source for their allegation.

The headline of Thursday, September 25 screamed “JIHAD REVENGE FEARS” and spoke of “terror reprisals”. The following eight pages ended with a feral Andrew Bolt column arguing that the fault for terrorism inevitably is with the 1400-year-old set of religious traditions shared by almost one-quarter of humanity.

The front page of Friday, September 26 featured a man visiting the grieving Haider family holding what appeared to be prayer beads and a cup of coffee in one hand while throwing a stone with the other. “ANGER ERUPTS AS FAMILY PREPARE FOR FUNERAL” screamed the headline. Sensitive choice of photo to match such delicate journalism. More allegations were made including “DEAD TERRORIST GOOGLED PM’S MELBOURNE TRIPS” and allegations the deceased and his friends planned to ambush police at Hungry Jack’s.

On Saturday, September 27, on page 5, the headline read: “Tears for teenage terrorist lost to hate”. The story commenced with the words: “Numan Haider will be remembered as a teenage terrorist”. The cover page showed a young man attending the funeral wearing a hoodie, a black beanie and a black cloth to cover his face. The headline screamed out “DEATH STARE” followed by “MOURNER WEARS PROVOCATIVE MASK TO FUNERAL” and “RAW EMOTION AS FAMILY BURY DEAD TERRORIST”. Yep, they’re a scary lot when they bury terrorists. 

Provocative mask, you say? Given Fairfax newspapers plastered the wrong kid on its front cover and described him as a terrorist, and given the tabloid hysteria leading to hate crimes, who could blame the young man?

On Monday, Hun columnist Rita Panahi argued that the actions of a fictitious uniform entity called “the Muslim community” was behaving in a manner that “threatens to turn inclusive Australians into frightened xenophobes”. Perhaps she imagines all inclusive non-Muslim Australians read her newspaper.

She then says Muslim leaders need to “finally dissociate the Muslim community from the extremist scourge”. As if they haven’t done so already. But two can play that game. I’ll dissociate myself from pseudo-religious nutcases whose actions I have no control over if you dissociate yourself and your buddies from the disgusting criminal actions of your colleagues that led to the closing of the News Of The World and the imprisonment of a number of its staff. Deal?

The Hun can count its lucky stars young Numan Haider is no longer with us. Imagine if he survived the gunshot wounds. Imagine if he were put on trial and convicted of a serious criminal offence that was not terrorism-related. Defamation lawyers would be queuing up to represent him. Andrew Bolt wouldn’t be able to cry freedom of speech then. And he’d look like a right royal fool if he blamed Islam.

First published in Crikey on 30 September 2014.