9/11 anniversary: reflections on the ripple-down effect

The Cronulla riots saw ugly attacks on people of “Middle Eastern appearance”. AAP

It’s about that moment; if you’re old enough it’s the indelible memory of JFK being shot. As a teenager I was listening to the car radio when I heard.

For Gen X it’s 9/11, the midnight phonecalls, the blurry-eyed peering at impossible images of Hollywood disaster movies. Then later, the voices of George Bush and the accidental witness John Howard declaring war on terror.

In Australia the double whammy of Tampa and 9/11 swept a previously embattled Howard back into power, reigniting the fluttering flame of Phillip Ruddock’s political career (he would go on continuing from Darryl Williams as Attorney General to build the fiercest armoury of “security” legislation the country could ever have imagined).

The day after 9/11 I was seated before the impersonal eye of a Sky News remote studio camera reflecting on the way terrorism is designed to divide the people against whom it is aimed.

It relies on the reaction of governments to turn their own citizens into suspects; I counselled care in avoiding action that would create a fifth column of embittered Australians as a consequence of draconian targeting of any Australian of Muslim or Middle Eastern background.

Later that morning an angry colleague from another university who had seen the interview, an American, rang me screaming in rage that I should give such comfort to “the enemy”. Australia was to have the dubious honour of experiencing the first retaliatory “mosque burning”, when the Kuraby mosque in Brisbane was fire-bombed the following night, and a busload of Muslim school children stoned.

Australia’s Muslim population today is likely to be close to fifty percent larger than it was in 2001.

The census taken just before 9/11 had 280,000 people identifying as Muslim; by 2006 this had grown to 340,000, with 42% born in Australia.

While the latest census has just occurred and no figures are available, it is likely the figure is now approaching 430,000, with a small majority Australian-born.

Australia’s Muslims come from more than sixty different national backgrounds, with no overseas country contributing more than 10% of the total. It is thus extraordinarily diverse, with no single group or region predominating.

Reflecting on the last decade, 9/11 has had some remarkable effects on the Australian political and social landscape. While Gulf War I of 1991 had turned the spotlight for the first time on the potential “enemy within”, it took 9/11 to trigger a battery of legislation designed to reveal, pursue and cauterise that enemy.

Within twelve months, ten laws had been passed, mostly uncontested by an opposition stunned by the magnitude of its defeat.

Those from 2001 essentially removed border security from the attention of the criminal law, permitting all and any actions in defence of the maritime border, then a provision to allow indefinite detention of asylum seekers was introduced.

In 2002, in the wake of the Bali bombings, four amendments to the Criminal Code defined offences “against Australians” outside Australia, extended the definition of espionage, criminalised hoaxes and extended the capacity to pursue the “suppression of terrorist bombings” (including potentially hot pursuit and pre-emptive strikes). In addition broad terrorism legislation was passed, as was a prohibition on the financing of terrorism.

In 2004 and 2005 the next raft of legislation came in, primarily through a number of anti-terrorism Acts, one of which updated the sedition provisions first introduced by Menzies in 1949 to recover the dignity he had lost as Attorney General in 1938 when he had been made a fool of by Czech anti-Nazi campaigner Egon Kisch.

As a consequence globally-respected scholar Prof Riaz Hassan from Adelaide was prohibited by Attorney General Ruddock from carrying out research in which he would interview terrorists, demonstrating that ideology remains more important than science as the basis for policy.

In a bizarre irony it was 9/11 that resurrected the policy of multiculturalism that Howard had desired to abolish in the years after his victory of 1996.

The government had reduced the resources going to this policy, though a review in 1999 had argued for its continuation. The racism across Australian society against and between ethnic groups, revealed by Eureka (now Ipsos) research in 1998 during the height of the Hanson surge produced three connected policy directions – a subdued Racial Vilification Act with no criminal sanctions, a Living in Harmony (Harmony Day) project to avoid recognising the International Day to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and a focus on the threats from internal enemies.

9/11 occurred in an environment already “salted” with anti-Muslim sentiments, ignited in 1991, and expanding through the 1990s (especially in Sydney following shootings and rapes connected with young men of Muslim background).

The Australian response to Muslim communities was further polarised in the wake of the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, in which many Australian tourists were killed.

In 2003, the Alert but not Alarmed campaign set the scene for the invasion of Iraq.

In December 2005 the two trajectories of social polarisation, antipathy to Muslims in parts of the wider community, and anger at their marginalisation and stereotyping among some young Muslims, culminated in the so-called Cronulla riots.

The initial attack at Cronulla beach, instigated by White Power groups and directed against Muslims (and indeed anyone who might have any indication of a “Middle Eastern appearance”), was followed by retaliatory raids on eastern suburb beaches by young Muslim men wreaking vengeance.

Australians were shocked at the violence; the government response was to create a Muslim Advisory Council, and focus multicultural funding on Muslim communities and their “integration”, rather than “White Australia” and its persistent racism.

The Advisory Council proved controversial within the Muslim communities, some members of whom criticised it as unrepresentative and mouthpiece for the government.

However it did serve to redirect government attention to ameliorate some of the effects of five years of stigmatisation, and to stimulate wider inter-faith engagements.

When the ALP government took over responsibility for multicultural affairs, the Muslim council had lapsed, though the heavy focus on “counter-radicalisation” of Muslim youth had not.

The Australian Multicultural Council, appointed in August 2011, has six of its ten members with Muslim links, a clear indication that at the top of government the “Multiculturalism equals Muslim” equation has taken firm roots.

Another sign of the government’s wariness on these issues was its 2010 decision not to allow human rights legislation to be brought forward, partly in fear of what a legislated human rights regime might reveal about Australia’s practices of control.

The third dimension of the 9/11 impact in Australia lies in the deepening divisions around Australia’s presence in the post-9/11 wars in the Green Crescent, and the concomitant hostilities associated with the Israel/Palestine conflicts.

The Israeli boycott strategies adopted by pro-Palestinian groups have invaded federal politics, especially through the NSW Greens, who have sought to have local councils they control ban Israeli links and products. In Victoria this has led to legislation outlawing such boycotts being proposed by the Coalition government.

9/11 has thus had many ripples throughout Australian society, intensifying surveillance and control of dissent, limiting human rights, racialising previously civil conversations, and toughening the internal debate on foreign relations.

The tension has been generated by the competing values of ensuring security while protecting freedom.

For some Australians this has reinforced and hardened their prejudices, for others it has been a recipe for exclusion, while as a whole the ramifications of these social divisions are tracking deeper into the social fabric, with little sign government is fully aware of their implications.