The Turnbull government must defiantly confront radicalised Muslims, many of whom are high-achievers buying in to a deadly ideology, not just disengaged hotheads.
In tragically fortuitous timing, a 15-year-old assassin gave the Turnbull government an early opportunity to signal its new, more inclusive, tone on national security. Speaking after Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar’s execution-style murder of a NSW police employee on Friday, Malcolm Turnbull warned against vilifying or blaming the entire Muslim community for the actions of a small number of violent extremists, adding: “The Australian Muslim community will be especially appalled and shocked by this [event].”
The accepted wisdom is that such comments are a welcome departure from Tony Abbott’s more combative approach to the half a million people from myriad ethnicities, and varying degrees of religiosity, who comprise “the Australian Muslim community”. And perhaps it’s right to say that most Muslims would be “especially appalled” by a shooting carried out in the name of Islam.
While teens from all walks of life succumb to drugs or petty crime, only Muslim teens succumb to IS. And while many of these teens are indeed vulnerable … they’re hardly ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘disengaged’.
Jabar waved his handgun after the killing, shouting “Allah, Allah,” or “religious slogans” as some media euphemistically reported. Surely, though, Muslims would be no more “shocked” by the attack than anyone else, and probably less so because as Julie Bishop pointed out last week, Muslim families constitute “our front line of defence against radicalised young people”. For Muslims to feel “especially shocked” by a problem they’re experiencing at close range they would have to be especially dim.
Chilling: Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar points his gun at a police officer. Photo: Channel Seven
Obviously, Turnbull was not suggesting this is the case. Clearly he was intending to promote harmony in a febrile atmosphere. But his words had potentially the opposite effect from what was intended.
It is a relief to have the rhetorical dial turned down from Abbott’s divisive and counterproductive exhortations for Muslims to sign up to “Team Australia”, and for Muslim leaders to condemn terrorism, which they had – countless times. But the answer shouldn’t be replacing divisive language with evasive sound bites that dance around the threat of Islamist extremism. In the long run that’s likely to be just as counterproductive – leaving both the Islamist narrative uncontested and inadvertently strengthening the hand of the anti-Muslim bigots, who market themselves as the brave ones prepared to speak uncomfortable truths.
The government has signalled it will seek to decouple the effort to tackle the radicalisation of Muslim youth from the national security challenge. The Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, says radicalisation can be more effectively countered if it’s seen as stemming from social disaffection. This makes sense at a tactical, grassroots level.
Fierravanti-Wells also says that just as some kids “go off the rails” to dabble in drugs, other alienated youth succumb to the lure of an apocalyptic holy war. “There is no doubt that amongst them, there are some hard-core criminals,” she said. But there are also “kids who are basically disengaged, disenfranchised”. Apparently, the Assistant Minister has been told that joining “Daesh” – Islamic State – is “a new way to rebel”.
Fierravanti-Wells has a long and impressive record working with multicultural communities. Her expertise makes her well fitted to the portfolio. All power to her, and to the community leaders and anti-radicalisation experts whose intervention might help pull young people back from the jihadist recruiters who prey on them.
But describing the appeal of IS as simply the latest manifestation of youth alienation – as if there’s a straight line from James Dean to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from bacardi and coke to beheading and sex slaves – is an assault on common sense.
To state the bleeding obvious: while teens from all walks of life succumb to drugs or petty crime, only Muslim teens succumb to IS. And while many of these teens are indeed vulnerable – the roll call of young jihadists brings pitiable stories of broken families, grief, bullying and illness – they’re hardly “disenfranchised” and “disengaged”.
The more than 4000 Westerners who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join IS are inspired, actually, by a global movement that’s bloody good at selling its message. Young jihadists are feverishly “engaged”; just not in the way we’d like.
Melbourne teen Jake Bilardi, who died in a suicide bombing in Iraq for IS, had once aspired to be a political journalist – his professed “love for Islam” sprang from his growing interest in the Middle East and disdain for US foreign policy.
The 15-year-old English boy who was last week sentenced for his role in the Anzac Day terror plot had 89 different Twitter accounts and tens of thousands of followers. He was described in court as “a child of articulation and consciousness, who is aware of national and international events”, and as “presenting as someone far more mature and with great knowledge of Islam and Islamic history and philosophy”.
The ranks of IS recruiters boast plenty of enfranchised high achievers. In March, nine British born and raised medical students travelled to Syria from Khartoum to offer their services to injured jihadists in IS-controlled hospitals.
Amira Abase, one of three high school girls from Bethnal Green who fled to Syria in February to become jihadist brides, had been top of her science class.
Logic dictates that this furious engagement from people susceptible to the jihadist message demands an equally engaged response from authorities. And that’s an intellectually honest response, which calls out the problem of violent Islamism, challenges the warped narrative of grievance on which it feeds and defends Western values. Shirking from a fight we didn’t ask for won’t make us any safer. It will do precisely the opposite.
Julie Szego is a Fairfax columnist, author and freelance journalist.