Don’t take my word for it. That’s what Muslims told Michael Bachelard and Nino Bucci from the Sydney Moonbat Herald
Harun Mehicevic, leader of the closed al-Furqan Islamic Centre. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Another Islamic radical organisation crumpled under the pressure of serious scrutiny last week and shut the doors on its shrinking band of followers.
The al-Furqan Islamic Centre in Springvale had done much to make itself notorious. Its leader, Harun Mehicevic, famously picketed the Global Atheist Convention in 2012 and exhorted visiting celebrity disbeliever Christopher Hitchens to “burn in hell”.
His centre was raided by police and a member was arrested, and it hosted at various times Numan Haider, the 18-year-old who was killed last year as he tried to stab two police officers, Melbourne-born Islamic State recruiter-in-chief Neil Prakash, and Sevdet Besim and Harun Causevic, the two teenagers charged last week over an alleged Anzac Day plot.
Al-Furqan’s leaders blamed its closure on the “constant harassment, pressure and false accusations levelled against the centre – particularly by media and politicians”.
In Sydney a few months ago, the al-Risalah bookshop and prayer room in Bankstown also shut its doors. It was the same day last September the federal government raised the national terror alert from medium to high.
Al-Risalah reportedly had links to Sydney’s most bloodthirsty Islamic State recruits, Mohamed Elomar and Khaled Sharrouf, who posed last year with his child and the severed head of a dead man.
But not everyone agrees that the closure of these fringe, radical prayer rooms is a good idea.
“If they’d let Harun keep going [at al-Furqan], it would have fizzled out,” insists Mustafa Yusuf, a senior adviser to another Islamic fundamentalist group, the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah Association.
“Every time there’s a fuss [by authorities and media], young people who are disenfranchised, they actually flock towards these places.”
Yusuf is the spokesman for the grandfather of Islamic fundamentalism in Melbourne, Sheikh Mohammed Omran. It was Omran’s Brunswick mosque that first spawned Harun Mehicevic, and a few years earlier, the even more notorious jihadist, Abdul Nacer Benbrika, whose 2005 idea of bombing the Melbourne Cricket Ground saw 18 acolytes convicted in Victoria and NSW by Operation Pendennis.
Mehicevic and Benbrika both broke away from Omran’s circle, establishing more fringe offshoots, and Omran himself long ago retreated from the more dangerous interpretations of Islam.
“We’re not modernists,” Yusuf explains, “We are fundamentalist believers in Islam. But extremists? No, definitely not.”
Omran has made it clear that he believes Islamic State are khawarij, or outsiders.
Even so, his remaining prayer centres, ASWJ in Sydney and the Hume Islamic Youth Centre in Melbourne, have hosted a steady stream of jihadist adventurers. In Melbourne, Jake Bilardi, the troubled young Aussie who travelled to Iraq and suicided last month, his fellow teenage martyr Adam Dahman, and Islamic State recruit Dawod Elmir all passed through the doors of the Hume centre in north-suburban Coolaroo.
Hardcore preachers and influencers Musa Cerantonio and Junaid Thorne, both of whom have had their passports cancelled by the federal government, have preached at Omran’s centres.
But Yusuf says inviting the fringe inside is a necessary part of community deradicalisation. You need to allow the radicals to have their voice, he says, because they are the ones who speak to the anger and disillusionment of young Muslims. Once young people are listening, they can be encouraged back into the mainstream, though he admits it’s an inexact and “long-winded” process. If a touring firebrand made famous by his internet preaching is publicly seen in the mosque showing respect to Omran, Yusuf says that has a powerful effect on young minds.
“Musa Cerantonio and Junaid Thorne came to our centre. We did a lot of work to get those two misguided men to our centres,” Yusuf says. “Omran said, ‘your knowledge is shallow. Come and learn’.”
So far the efforts with those two have been unsuccessful, Yusuf concedes, but he insists it can work if given time and space – something he says the police and Abbott government are not providing. Abbott and his ministers have regularly told Muslim leaders they are not doing enough, and Yusuf believes the police have acted too heavy handedly in raiding these organisations.
“We are doing what the government is asking us to do – to treat the problem from within.”
Yusuf believes that forcing the closure of centres like al-Furqan and al-Risalah is counter-productive. Hotheads will take it as even more proof that mainstream society hates them, increasing their disillusionment, anger and alienation, he argues.
It’s a charge that Victoria Police seems sensitive to. Deputy commissioner Lucinda Nolan insisted the pressure on al-Furqan had been from the media, not the police.
“We don’t concentrate on locations. We concentrate on people and risks … associations don’t make someone guilty,” she says.
The closure also forces these young men into the arms of what Yusuf calls “Sheikh Google” for their Islamic knowledge, “and that’s dangerous”.
Bilardi, for one, left a long trail of online evidence that he was radicalised by his own hand and in his own bedroom on a government-funded laptop. Though he had visited the Hume Islamic Youth Centre, he was by no means a regular, connected figure there.
Derryn Hinch echoed the thoughts of many non-Muslims on last week’s Q&A when he said the police should shut al-Furqan and imprison the young firebrands.
Inside jail, though, Islam in all its forms, is rampant. It’s believed Mehicevic was first radicalised after he began visiting Benbrika in Port Phillip prison. Other jailed members of the Pendennis conspiracy, including Ezzit Raad, have spent their time in prison spreading their radical thoughts, then have gone straight to Syria or Iraq on their release.
Benbrika was recently moved to Barwon prison because of his malign influence.
“Islam is growing quite rapidly, and dangerous people are converting,” one insider says, including among some of the hardest men inside: Bega schoolgirls killer Les Camilleri, gunman Christopher “Badness” Binse, and suspected jailhouse killer Ali Ali.
“To a person who has been outcast by society, Islam gives you a chance to redeem your identity. Islam offers you morals … They tell you that you’re not the devil, that you have a better path ahead of you.”
Besides, the food is better, particularly during the fasting month, Ramadan.
Another prison insider said Muslims were the most powerful single group in Victorian jails. Muslims “run” Scarborough South, an open unit in Port Phillip prison, a source said.
“We call it the Bronx or Beirut. They do what they like.”
In NSW, the government announced last month that 13 Muslim inmates of Super Max, a unit inside Goulburn prison, would be banned from speaking Arabic during visits or phone calls, and that letters had to be written in English. NSW Attorney General Brad Hazzard said he ordered the crackdown in response to the upgraded terrorism alert. He was rewarded by having a number of prisoners go on hunger strike.
If prisons are having trouble quelling radical Islam, locking up young firebrands may only increase the risk for society when they are released.
Outside prison, meanwhile, the mainstream Islamic community feels friendless and without public funding, being battered by the government for not doing enough, and by its own people for being too compliant to secular authorities.
In this environment, according to Yusuf, the closure of al-Furqan and al-Risalah might be the worst thing that could happen.
“You’ve lost a very important voice, albeit a dumb voice. You’ve lost a place where those people could go and express their frustrations.”