Responsible rhetoric is a crucial part of the anti-terror armoury

When a mosque is spray-painted with the word ‘Evil’ following last week’s raids, it’s a sign the community is getting the wrong message from the anti-terrorism campaign. AAP/Matt Jacob

While Australia has rightly joined the international fight to bring down Islamic State (IS) terrorists, at home its anti-terror campaign is fuelling more problems.

For example, following high-profile anti-terror raids in Brisbane and Sydney, incidents such as anti-Muslim hate messages and attacks, protests against mosques by non-Muslim Australians and Muslim protests against alleged police harassment made news headlines. Public fears are so rife that a white Australian passenger was kicked off a flight for just writing the word “terrorism” in his journal.

These repercussions could have been avoided. The raids were a specific act of containing potential terrorism as well as a general campaign against terrorism. However, the campaign-related aspect of the raid was perhaps less well thought out and executed.

What have been the rhetorical messages?

In my view, the terror raid campaign delivered four general messages.

  • First, this raid was a reassurance to the international community that Australia is committed to act against terrorism at home and abroad.

  • Second, Australian public safety was under threat as the alleged terror plot was to snatch a member of the public and behead them.

  • Third, terrorists live within the community. They are Muslims.

  • Fourth, the raid was a reassurance to the Australian community that the government is working hard to keep them safe.

These messages are factual and truthful, but the problem of framing an anti-terror campaign in such a manner is that it creates in the public imagination faceless enemies who are out there ready to behead people; they are followers of Islam, they are Muslims. This demonising of Muslims, which some media and commentators even encourage, misses the nuanced reality that Muslims - like every other community - are diverse in their lifestyle choices as well as in their political and even religious beliefs and practices.

Therefore, the anti-mosque protests, anti-Muslim hate messages and attacks, fears of terrorists and protests against police action are predictable reactions to the anti-terror campaign. The campaign could have done more to avoid stigmatising Muslims by emphasising that “they” are not all the same.

Unfortunately, elements of the anti-terror campaign are creating fear and igniting Islamophobia. It is essential that those leading the anti-terror campaign use careful, responsible rhetoric to minimise community disintegration and tension.

PM sets a responsible example

To this end, Tony Abbott’s speech in Parliament on Monday was a good example of using a responsible frame of rhetoric against the backdrop of an ongoing counter-terrorism campaign.

The prime minister said:

I refuse to call a terrorist movement Islamic State because to do so demeans Islam and mocks the duties that a legitimate state bears to its citizens.

It can hardly be Islamic to kill without compunction Shia, Yazidi, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians and Sunni who don’t share this death cult’s view of the world.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott got the rhetorical balance right in his statement to Parliament on Monday. AAP/Lukas Coch

Abbott maintained this position when he told the United Nations Security Council yesterday that “these terrorists aren’t fighting for God or for religious faith”. He described Australia as fighting for “a free, fair and multicultural society, a beacon of hope and exemplar of unity in diversity”.

Abbott was right. It is important for people who are carrying placards such as “Islam is the Cancer” and “Go back to where you come from” to understand the distinctions between Islam, terrorism and the diverse members of Muslim communities.

The dynamics of IS in Iraq and Syria are far more complex than the simple narrative of Muslim versus non-Muslims, or Islam versus the West. IS thugs have not only captured and decapitated white Westerners, they have murdered a far greater number of Muslims in Iraq and Syria. Alongside its systematic genocide of Muslims, IS forces raped hundreds of Muslim women in Syria and Iraq.

Yet, for some reason, the public perception of the anti-terror campaign has stigmatised Muslims living in the West.

It is a fact that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and 7/7 bombing in London, many Muslims around the world who are as peaceful as the average Westerner have faced unnecessary harassment and stigmatisation. They attract attention against the backdrop of anti-terror campaigns, sometimes simply because of their Muslim names.

Meanwhile, thousands of innocent Muslims died in Iraq as a consequence of the West’s “War on Terror” and many Muslim soldiers took part in the campaign. Many Muslims who were arrested as suspected terrorists and sent to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison later were found to be innocent. By then they had lost their dignity and were traumatised for life.

The point is not only that Muslims are victims of Islamist terrorism and are fighting against terrorism but also that they are victims of ill-considered anti-terror campaigns. This fact is lost on Australians who are protesting against mosques and creating pressure on religious freedom.

These perceptions of terror and anti-terror campaigns did not emerge from a vacuum but are tied to world events. That is why after the deplorable 9/11 attacks, a mosque in Queensland was burned down even though Australian Muslims had nothing to do with 9/11. A majority of Australians deplored that act but the fact remains that Muslims are being demonised and stereotyped in the eyes of some. In reality, a majority of Australian Muslims were sympathetic to the victims of 9/11 and as angry at the terrorists as were their non-Muslim counterparts.

Some Muslims are creating problems

Undeniably, some Muslims in Australia have contributed to creating stigmatised perceptions of Muslims. Take, for example, the Sydney protest at the anti-Muhammad Youtube film, The Innocence of Muslims, in 2012. It is difficult to understand why Australian Muslims would protest violently in Australia about an internet film that has nothing to do with Australia.

Some of the placards in that Sydney protest carried disturbing messages such as “Behead all those who insult the prophet” and “Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell”. Such messages could only create fear of Islam and, specifically, of Muslims in Australia.

Controversial political sermons in a few Australian mosques by immigrant imams who construct an imaginary Islam vs the West conflict further contributed to the disintegration of community relations. Muslim community leaders here need to step in to tackle community divisions over faith. They need to investigate why interpretations of Islam differ within the community to the extent of creating fear and violence and they need to tackle this problem.

In reality, most Muslims among us are very much part of the West and Australia as much as the West and Australia are part of Muslim life. Abbott’s counter-terrorism rhetoric was initially slow to recognise and promote this reality. It must be hoped authorities have begun moving, in word and deed, towards integrating community members in the fight against terror instead of carelessly fanning disintegration, fear-mongering and mistrust of each other.

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