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.