Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Radical Islam: playing the blame game

After concerns that Islamic State-inspired sectarian violence had come to the streets of Sydney, Tony Abbott said Australians must reject the "death cult" with its "apocalyptic millennial ideology". Similarly, Justice Minister Michael Keenan this week addressed an international forum about the importance of "meeting the challenge of violent extremism and the radicalisation of Australian citizens". 

We must stop young Muslims in the West from becoming "radicalised" - how many times have we heard this mission statement? How many times have we heard the word "radicalised"? Does this almost obsessive focus on radicalisation run the risk of radicalising would-be radicals? I'm not being flippant. Some commentators say indeed it does. Some of the Muslim community representatives on Monday's Q&A implied public discussion about radicalisation in Muslim communities fuels the very problem it seeks to combat.

I'm dying to understand what leads young Australians or Canadians or Swedes to embrace violent Islamism. Yet a layperson trying to navigate the theories of radicalisation espoused by security experts, politicians and community interlocutors is destined for confusion. What causes radicalisation? How long is a piece of rope? 

The umbrella theory, it seems, is that young men and women turn to ISIL or other extremist movements because they are alienated and disaffected. That's the sweeping, dumbed-down, Radicalism 101. But what causes alienation and disaffection? Poverty and unemployment were popular theories after 9/11. Look at the immigrant ghettos on the outskirts of Paris, people said. Look at Britain's depressed northern communities. On Q&A, Neil Gaughan from the Australian Federal Police referred in passing to the "socio-economic" causes of radicalisation. But the theory is less fashionable now that many a trust-fund youngster has succumbed to jihad.


We're more likely to hear alienation discussed as a response to racism and discrimination against Muslims. This includes the West going to war with Muslim countries. In the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, intelligence agencies in the US and Britain found that the war had strengthened the forces of global jihad. Some Muslim leaders also claim the government's support for Israel is a root cause of radicalisation. In September, Greens leader Christine Milne said the decision to join the campaign against ISIL in Iraq was "tearing apart the fabric of Australian society". 

Meanwhile, security experts say ISIL propaganda videos, including the executions of Western journalists, are recruitment tools. See evil, this line of thinking implies, and you might turn evil. 

After September's anti-terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane, which mobilised 800 police officers, Dr Ashutosh Misra from Griffith University praised the authorities' crackdown on extremism, but warned the recent raids would be used as "a fodder" for these groups' radicalisation programs. Some critics slammed the raids as political theatre. This led Federal Liberal MP Alex Hawke to label such accusations inflammatory, which suggests they might provoke a radical response.

So depending on which way you swing, the anti-terror raids - and the way we talked about them - either helped smother radicalisation or helped fuel it. Same thing with the travel restrictions to Syria and Iraq. The government says banning travel to these countries will help curb radicalisation. Critics say banning people from going there will seed the resentment that leads to radicalism. 

During the terror raids Cory Bernardi mused that the burqa was a "flag of fundamentalism". Yet a 2011 ASIO report warned banning the burqa "would likely have negative implications, including providing further fuel for extremist propaganda, recruitment, and radicalisation efforts". So does the burqa signify a radical mindset? Or would banning the burqa harvest radicals? What about talking about banning the burqa? Am I lighting the flame as we speak? 

After terror attacks, Western leaders routinely call on Muslim clerics and community representatives to condemn the acts as a message to would-be radicals in their flock. But for Muslim radicals, wrote University of South Australia academic Yassir Morsi in The Guardian in August, being condemned "is itself an affirmation".  According to this school of thought, supine community leaders provoke contempt among young Muslims, further entrenching their rad... I know, it's getting tedious. 

On the shopping list of factors that are/might/could encourage radicalisation are proposals to cut welfare payments to people engaged in extremist conduct and not having Islamic chaplains in schools. Add to all this the bewildering and varied individual vulnerabilities to radicalisation, the needles in the haystack: single parent households, drug use, criminal activity, religious conversion, mental illness. 

The point of this exercise is not to weigh the merits of these theories. Suffice to say, some seem sensible enough, others less so. (The one that made me laugh out loud came from American commentator Lee Smith who asserted teenage girls in Europe are joining ISIL because the West can't offer them "meaning and purpose", all but laying the blame at the feet of One Direction.)

The problem with this loose talk about radicalisation is probably twofold. In the racism of low expectations it verges on casting Muslims as tinderbox volatile, at risk of exploding if the wrong thing is broadcast or said or done. On the flip side, there's a subtle intimidation at work. Everything we do is fatally wrong. We're damned if we move against extremism, we're damned if we don't - and should a catastrophic attack occur then sure as night follows day it'll be our fault. 

Julie Szego is a Fairfax columnist, author and freelance journalist.

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