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.