Zaky Mallah: a cautionary tale of radicalisation and the need for belonging

Zaky Mallah argued that the government’s policies play into the hands of ‘recruitment propaganda’ designed to appeal to alienated young Muslims. ABC TV

This article is the first of several examining the rise of violent Islamist extremism and the challenge of countering the drivers of radicalisation.


Zaky Mallah’s recent altercation with government MP Steven Ciobo on the ABC’s Q&A programme offers an insight into “how some young Muslims look at the world”. Disaffected young people, regardless of their background, are doing it tough. When there is much alienation, inequality and few avenues for agency, is it any wonder some are attracted to extremist organisations?

As a former terrorism suspect, Mallah was wrong to generalise that:

The Liberals now have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him.

The taunt was unfair to Australian Muslims. But it is also important that we do not entirely dismiss Mallah – he sheds light on a seductive mechanism that is real.

To know how terrorism appeals to some young men is precisely what can enable us to identify the cause of their radicalisation. With this knowledge, as counter-terrorism expert Anne Aly has argued, prevention is possible.

Mallah has stood by the statements he made. He claims that the government’s controversial citizenship revocation bill plays into the hands of Islamic State’s (IS) “recruitment propaganda”, which is designed to appeal to alienated young Muslims. Mallah acknowledges his own brush with terrorism occurred when he was a vulnerable “dumb and naïve” 20-year-old.

Is terrorism a form of belonging?

The gravitation of some disenfranchised young Muslims towards IS is reminiscent of young Somali men joining al-Shabaab – the movement of warrior youth – which has claimed to be working in the name of Islamic insurgency.

There are concerns that engagement with terrorism may provide some with a sense of belonging. In the course of comparative research I conducted for a PhD on Somali belonging, I considered the extent to which Somali migrants feel at home in their new societies. I found that while Australia’s service provision to migrants within a multicultural model might be among the best in the world, full social and cultural belonging is limited.

For example, citizenship that is granted to those born on Australian soil is often not sufficient in providing those of culturally diverse backgrounds with a sense of being Australian.

What is missing in many cases is cultural citizenship. This is a “thick” (cultural) rather than a “thin” (official) sense of belonging to country. What is clear is that feeling at home in Australia is not as simple as becoming an Australian citizen.

The media’s role

One of the key factors influencing belonging is the way culturally diverse Australians are represented in the media. The media powerfully influence the ways in which group identity is constructed and framed and may “do” and “undo” the project of multiculturalism. In this sense, these depictions play a critical role in making Australia hospitable.

Media representations influence, shape and can curtail the sense of belonging experienced by Australians. Australian Muslims have often been figured as a threat to the security of other members of Australian society. Fear-based reporting thus has indirect yet material effects on the sense of belonging that young Muslim Australians might experience.

While we might agree that a sense of belonging is rarely ever complete, and representation can only ever be partial, limited conceptions of “Australianness” in the media have had a negative impact. Everyday belonging is rarely captured in dominant media.

Culturally specific media in Australia, such as SBS and Channel 31, provide a range of culturally and linguistically diverse programmes. But mainstream media make little effort to cater for the needs and interests of culturally diverse Australians.

Within the political economy of the media, most representations ostracise Muslims as an incompatible or “unmeltable” minority. Globally, the tendency within the media is to reproduce stereotypes that feed the “clash of civilisations” narrative that has framed most post-9/11 depictions of Islam in Western media.

This has generated the perception of a “Muslim-Australian” singular outgroup, which overrides the nuanced, dynamic and multiple ways people identify as Muslim. Muslims continue to be targeted and deprived of basic civil liberties. On Q&A, Mallah revealed he was detained by ASIO under counter-terrorism measures without the usual legal protocols afforded to Australian citizens.

The controversial changes to Australian citizenship laws further entrench an exclusive mentality about who qualifies as Australian. They may increase – in dangerous ways – the alienation of some young Muslims, as Mallah suggests.

Rather than taking away the citizenship of dual nationals, Australia should be focusing on providing all Australians the “equality of opportunity” lauded by the Q&A panel. This would undoubtedly lead to a more robust sense of belonging. Yet the Abbott government has diminished opportunities for young people, cutting services since it assumed office.

Revoking the Australian citizenship of dual nationals signifies a missed opportunity for the government to develop the understanding necessary to combat and prevent terrorism.