Australia in recent months has been flirting with the demon of division – social, religious and racial. For a country as diverse as any on Earth, embracing the demon would be deadly.
For the president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, Samier Dandan, the grinding tectonic plates of antagonism have built pressure for a dangerous upheaval.
"We are at the level where the volcano is about to erupt," he told me after taking part in a meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday. "We can't take it any more."
‘We are at the level where the volcano is about to erupt’Samier Dandan, Lebanese Muslim Association
This is also the essence of the message from Pauline Hanson, seeking a comeback on an anti-Muslim platform, promising "opposition to any more mosques, sharia law, halal certification & Muslim refugees. NO MORE!"
The pressures are gathering. Consider. Serial terrorist attacks in Australia claimed to be in the name of Islam. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation investigating several hundred people suspected of planning more. The terrorism alert level at its highest. The local chapter of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir calling for a "Muslim army in Australia" and the overthrow of democratic government.
Anti-Muslim rallies planned in front of mosques in Parramatta and Bendigo for Friday, the day of prayer, demanding the mosques be shut down. The far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders on his way to open a new anti-Muslim political party in Australia. Mainstream media outlets like The Daily Telegraph publishing columnists fomenting anti-Islamic resentment. In all this, we can see the demon dancing with glee.
Terrorism is a tactic of the weak against the strong. It succeeds not in the immediate death and destruction it creates, but in the reaction it seeks to promote.
Its aim is to turn the strength of its opponent against itself. It uses terror to spread fear, distort judgment, and sow division.
Most of the harm to the US from the 9/11 attacks on the US were not inflicted in the attacks but in the misjudged US responses. More than one and a half times the number of Americans died in the ill-begotten invasion of Iraq than on 9/11. The physical damage to the US from the attacks was tallied in the tens of billions of dollars but the Iraq war has cost over a trillion. US credibility in the world suffered not from the attack but from the blunders in response.
The murder of one, two or more citizens by terrorists can no more harm Australia's national success than can the murder of the same number by a criminal gang. The terrorists' great aim is to inflict national damage through our responses, turning our strength against us.
The Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs in the Turnbull government, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, bluntly declares that Australia is failing. "What we have done to counter violent extremism isn't working," she tells me.
"If the mark of success is the number of young people being stopped at the airport, we are not succeeding – we are going backwards."
Fierravanti-Wells is intimate with the problem – she was also a junior minister in the Abbott government and has consulted closely with scores of Muslim groups in Australia.
So long as this continues, the pressures will continue to build: "The hatred from all groups – and I include some Islamic groups as well – will feed more into the volcano for a bigger eruption if we don't create a different approach," says Dandan.
The advent of Turnbull as Prime Minister has created the opportunity for a different approach, and he is taking it.
"Clearly the temperature is rising," Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, tells me, "and the times are challenging but there has been an improvement in the tone of the political leadership."
Turnbull has changed the tone, galvanised by the dreadful murder of the NSW Police IT worker Curtis Cheng by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar.
Other things have changed as well. Tony Abbott was capable of being a unifying leader. On one of the most testing days of his prime ministership, when Man Haron Monis took hostages in Martin Place, Abbott rose to the occasion. He did not seek to inflame anger or resentment but to assure and unite. He isolated Monis, describing the incident as the "sick fantasy of a deeply disturbed individual". He explicitly said it was wrong to blame the Muslim community for the crimes of an individual.
Indeed, the former head of ASIO, David Irvine, had gone further in support of Australia's quarter-million Muslims. He described the Muslim community as Australia's greatest asset in managing the risks of extremism. "We should thank them, not blame them," he said.
But on some occasions Abbott did the exact opposite. "I've often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a religion of peace" the then prime minister said. "I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often and mean it." Abbott's repeated criticism of women wearing burqas was another example of his proclivity to fan resentments rather than to protect cohesion.
Abbott also was prone to spread fear. While advising Australians to go about their lives normally, he repeatedly broadcast to the country that "it is a serious situation when all you need to do to carry out a terrorist attacks is to have a knife, an iPhone and a victim". Spreading fear can only assist the terrorists.
Turnbull's first response to the murder of Cheng commiserated with Cheng's family, praised the police, urged people to live their lives normally, and assured the public that law enforcement agencies were making all efforts to ensure their security.
He also denounced a "shocking crime" that "appears to have been an act of terrorism". He went on to say: "It is also important to remember that the Australian Muslim community will be especially appalled and shocked by this. As Commissioner Scipione and the Premier have noted, we must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals. The Muslim community are our absolutely necessary partners in combating this type of violent extremism ... Efforts to blame or vilify the Muslim community are utterly counterproductive."
Turnbull quickly organised a conference call with the NSW Premier and the Muslim leadership to assure them and to draw them into helping solve the problem.
A prominent voice in the Muslim community, Dr Jamal Rifi, praised Turnbull's approach as being a "quantum leap" better than Abbott's.
In turn, the Muslim community has been encouraged to engage more energetically. Turnbull's approach had "reinvigorated the community" says Dandan. "We need to put our internal differences aside"– an acknowledgement that the Muslim community is in fact many communities speaking many languages – "and do what we can to safeguard our children."
As part of this new energy, this week saw a much more outspoken and vigorous response from Muslim leaders. The Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim abu Mohammed, on Friday told terrorist sympathisers to "stop messing with Australia" and affirmed the sanctity of all life in Islamic belief.
The head of the Parramatta Mosque where the killer Jabar had been given a gun, Neil El-Kadomi, said he would preach to his congregation that "if you don't like Australia, leave".
There has also been a re-examination of government policy. Turnbull tasked federal ministers and law enforcement agencies to work with NSW counterparts to produce new policy options.
On one area of extra effort required, Fierravanti-Wells agrees wholeheartedly with Muslim leaders. While the hard power of spying and policing is essential in dealing with the problem, it's not sufficient. The soft power of social psychology and community engagement is also essential.
"We need to go back to the reasons kids are going off the rails in the first place." Kids, she says, have long gone off the rails into many sad dead ends. Some choose Islamist extremism.
"This is a social problem with a national security aspect, not the other way around," she says.
"Every community comes to a crossroad in integrating in Australia, and this is the crossroads for the Muslim community. The have to own the problem and work out what to do – 'are we going to continue to be part of Australian society?' "
And she wants governments to do more to support the Muslim communities in detecting people turning to extremism and deflecting them from that path.
Turnbull also believes that the government's efforts in deradicalisation have been inadequate, and he's open to new policies. A guiding philosophy for the Turnbull government is that while governments cannot solve the problem of young people falling prey to extremism, it can enable the Muslim communities to solve it.
Social cohesion is a core national interest, not some soft, feel-good indulgence but a hard element of national power. Without it, unrest and violence rise, and deadweight spending on security rises with it.
National reputation and branding suffer. Security-sensitive industries like international education and tourism wither. Investors hesitate. The brightest young talent goes offshore to seek opportunity in more pleasant societies. Economic efficiency falls as suspicion and exclusion increase.
Fear and hate retard Australia. The only true winners are hate-mongers. The rise of Islamist terrorism has given them much to work with, but this week is also the beginning of an opportunity to deny the demon the divisions that it craves.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor Sydney Morning Herald Illustration: Rocco Fazzari