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View from The Hill

Terrorism debate can’t be stifled, must be managed

Australia’s grand mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a national day of unity event in Canberra. Mick Tsikas/AAP

The divide within government ranks over handling the terrorism issue has been highlighted by the tough words at the weekend from Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg.

While Malcolm Turnbull argues the danger from Islamic State (IS) should be kept in proportion and the language locally must avoid alienating the Muslim community, Frydenberg doesn’t mince his message.

He says people must understand the “sheer nature” of this threat and “acknowledge that religion is part of this problem”, adding that it is a problem – albeit one involving a minority – “within Islam” and poses a challenge to our way of life in Australia.

His words encouraged others to speak out. Former SAS officer and new member for Canning Andrew Hastie said debate about what was driving Islamic extremism was “clouded by political correctness”. NSW Liberal Craig Kelly made a similar point.

Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen moved a long motion (already on the notice paper) in parliament that called for:

… continued action in countering violent extremism and, in particular, radical Islam within Australia in order to prevent further acts of terrorism within our borders.

Frydenberg, a conservative, has been willing to express his strong views despite being a member of cabinet. Whether he is considered to have broken cabinet ranks or just differed in emphasis is a matter of opinion, but he has spoken with a distinct voice, including in his trenchant criticism of the grand mufti over his response to the Paris attacks.

His comments struck a chord in Coalition ranks on Monday.

Both sides of politics have a range of views on what is a common objective of trying to address terrorism and IS.

While Labor under Bill Shorten has taken a strictly bipartisan approach on security issues, some in caucus have been very unhappy at having to vote for several tranches of legislation that curb liberties. MPs such as Melissa Parke have expressed their concerns publicly.

Within the Coalition a minority – and most notably former prime minister Tony Abbott and former defence minister Kevin Andrews – advocate the allies’ military action against IS should be intensified in the air and/or with special forces on the ground.

The Abbott and Andrews interventions have been discounted as sour grapes or mischievous or both, and some in the government and the commentariat attack them for expressing such views at all.

Motives aside, it’s obvious that what Abbott and Andrews are arguing now reflects opinions they held in office but because of circumstances – notably the US’s position – could not express publicly.

It’s an over-reaction to say they shouldn’t put an opinion. But let’s face it: what happens with the military strategy over the next couple of years will primarily be determined by thinking in the US.

How the broader debate plays out within Australia about handling the terrorism threat will depend considerably on events abroad and at home. More attacks of the nature of Paris – or Parramatta – will drive reactions in Australia.

The situation is complex.

Avoiding the local Muslim community feeling ostracised is vital in combating terrorism and radicalisation, as repeatedly stressed by the Australian Federal Police and ASIO. In this, as AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin says, words matter.

Apart from that, the rights that should be accorded to ordinary, law-abiding Muslim citizens demand they are not loaded with any more responsibility for terrorism than are non-Muslim citizens.

But because IS promotes a perverted form of Islam the Muslim community generally and its leaders specifically will inevitably be in the middle of a debate that is difficult and, at times and for some, distressing. Handling that pressure will require empathy and support from the general community.

In the likely testing times ahead, several points need to be accepted.

First: we can minimise, through good policing/intelligence activities, the threat of local attacks – but we can’t eliminate that threat.

Second: we can limit, by best-practice community engagement, the radicalisation of young people. But we won’t be able to stop some individuals being radicalised. A small cohort of people will be attracted to evil causes for reasons that cannot be countered, however extensive the efforts.

Third: there will be legitimate political arguments about the best ways to counter terrorism. The challenge is to prevent the debate inflicting damage on a successful multicultural society, not to question people’s right to have it.

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