Sunday, October 11, 2015

TERRORISM: Balancing security and individual liberty - when radicalisation becomes a threat to government thinking

We were all radicals in one way or another. Some of us become more radical with age. Tony Abbott's views on abortion (at least as expressed in his book Battlelines) were quite radical for a man who once wanted to become a priest. It's unlikely that today's Murdoch tabloid columnists would have shown as little respect for an official war narrative Keith Murdoch.

Radical ideas are needed for individual and social reform. But sometimes radical thinking is seen as a threat to all of us, especially when they turn violent. The consensus these days is that the most dangerous form of radicalism is radical Islam. This consensus has a ring of truth to it, though it is also used by anti-Islam radicals with a distinctly sectarian (and at times violent) agenda.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his media allies, the Commonwealth has tried its best to avoid pointing the finger. Funding for "deradicalisation" projects has been awarded to a range of organisations from the ethno-religious Lebanese Muslim Association to the non-sectarian People Against Violent Extremism (PAVE) to Centacare in Cairns.

Emphasising the non-sectarian nature of counter-"radicalisation" measures can get you into some trouble, as the Turnbull government recently discovered following the release of its Preventing Violent Extremism & Radicalisation In Australia kit which has been sent to school teachers across Australia.

The criticism hasn't just come from the "usual suspects" – civil libertarians, Muslim community advocates and the Greens. Some professional education groups have been critical of the idea that one kit can solve all teachers' problems. Instead, as the Global Learning Centre stated in a recent press release:
Preventing violent extremism and radicalisation in our students is not about targeting individuals. It's about creating a more cohesive and connected community. This is a challenge that involves us all … Australian teachers are more desperate than ever to develop globally-ready classrooms.
Teachers cannot counter a narrow view of the world unless they have a broader and more cosmopolitan view. Kids need to be taught that being good citizens of Australia and of the globe are not mutually exclusive. The "kit" (which, according to one of its main authors Emeritus Professor Gary Bouma of Monash University, was never meant to be used as a kit) has also been ridiculed for the examples it gives of "radicalised" young people "cured" of their radicalism.

The booklet distinguishes between mere "radicalisation" ("[w]hen a person's beliefs move from being relatively conventional to being radical, and they want a drastic change in society" and which isn't necessarily bad) and when "it becomes a concern to everybody, including families, communities and law enforcement, if a person begins to advocate or use violence to achieve a political, religious or ideological goal".

The definition of advocating or using violence has been the butt of many jokes on social media, especially the hashtag #freekaren on Twitter, named in honour of the case study "Karen". Karen's interest in environmental protection led her to attend a forest camp where she and others would "disrupt logging activities by barricading areas that were being logged, spiking trees, and sabotaging machinery". Scuffles broke out between her group and loggers, and she was arrested.

The scenario may sound laughable, but the booklet's authors were obviously trying to show that violent extremism can take many forms and may not harm everyone. Unlike Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram whose targets of choice are almost exclusively Muslims.

But you wouldn't believe it if you believed everything you read about terrorism fed to a tabloid by the former prime minister's office. Tony Abbott just loved talking about the "death cult" that was coming to get us all. It made his government look tough, even if it was accompanied by ridiculous stunts such as the recent Australian Border Force fiasco in Melbourne. It also gave oxygen to far-Right extremists who were rarely seen as a threat.

The Abbott government's policies might be described as a case of "militant democracy", when democracy compromises itself and its values in order to fight its perceived existential enemies. Abbott told Australians they would need to be prepared to enjoy less freedoms to fight terrorism. He used this reasoning to justify citizen stripping and other laws.

At least in his rhetoric, then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed discomfort with where all this was going. On July 7, 2015, Turnbull lectured the Sydney Institute on "balancing security and individual liberty".

"It is a balance our Government has, I believe, got right," Turnbull remarked. But the expression was wrong. And those with dissenting views were dismissed.

If, as Prime Minister, Turnbull wishes to sell Mr Abbott's militant democracy to us, he needs to appreciate that counter-terrorism isn't just an issue affecting "vulnerable groups". He also must be prepared to be ridiculed. Australians no longer take their liberties lightly.

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 1 October 2015.

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