Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thoughts on New Zealand Anti-Terror Strategies

A tiny minority of young Australian-born Muslims are increasingly being seen as a security threat.

Australian police recently arrested three young Muslim men, joining 15 or so co-religionists, the bulk of them born and brought up in Australia.

The most recent annual report by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) identifies a strategic change in the approach of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, a change which happened in 2002.

Dr Paul Buchanan's response on these pages supports the assessment of Australian security expert Clive Williams of the Australian National University. Williams argues that Australian involvement in Iraq and other overseas conflicts has put Australia on the terrorists' radar.

But in fighting terrorism, authorities must understand that Islamic teachings aren't the problem, nor are most Muslims.

Even critics will agree with the SIS's assessment that extremist groups have focused on recruiting "individuals inspired rather than directed who were citizens or permanent residents of the countries in question, and who were not previously regarded as of major security concern".

New Zealand's media have shown sensitivity to the religious sentiments of minorities, and Muslim communities need to take some responsibility. One cannot expect any religious denomination to act as an intelligence or law enforcement agency, but community leaders can limit the attraction of extremism by helping young Muslims get maximum exposure to the broad spectrum of Islamic theology and culture.

Sadly, some migrant Muslim communities treat Islam as a cultural relic. The needs of young people and converts are ignored, giving extremists more recruitment opportunities.

UK Muslim institutions are dominated by first-generation, largely sub-Continental migrants employing non-English speaking imams more interested in sectarian and cultural feuds of little relevance to British Muslims.

Those believed to be responsible for the London attacks were young emotional and ideological refugees from Muslim mosques and institutions uninterested in assisting young people caught swinging between spiritual and cultural poles.

The migration experience is traumatic. Sadly, the greater trauma of children growing up between multiple cultural and religious values and expectations is often ignored.

Many young Muslims feel alien, whether at home or outside, unsure of their identity and more prone to depression and anxiety than their peers who don't experience such cultural confusion. Those at the helm of Muslim institutions must understand that any failure to assist young Muslims manage identity-related crises could pose a security threat for the broader community.

Australia's leading Muslim organisations have not provided a good example. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has no youth representatives on its board and is composed almost exclusively of middle-aged men born outside Australia. Its adviser on youth affairs is an imam in his 60s with no English.

Subsequent generations of Australian Muslims find mainstream mosques irrelevant and instead are attracted to youth centres managed by more radical imams who speak fluent English and who gained their ideas studying in Saudi Arabia.

New Zealand's Muslim community doesn't have some of the negative features found in Australia. However, mosque management committees are often controlled by first-generation migrants, with no strategy for inter-generational transfer.

Muslim institutions must ensure Islam doesn't become a piece of cultural baggage left at the airport. If young people and converts are not catered for, most will eventually leave Islam altogether. But some may fall under the spell of extremist theology.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim bodies and independent schools. First published in the New Zealand Herald on 13 April 2006.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006