An outburst in court by accused terrorist Wissam Mahmoud Fattal has linked the issue of fanatical terrorism to the situations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.
No doubt Fattal’s words will be dismissed by the Government as an angry speech from a thwarted would-be terrorist. That is a mistake. We need to take a close look at the way our government responds to these and similar sentiments and ask if they are going to produce the results we want.
The reality is that many people in the Arab and Muslim communities, indeed the majority of them, completely agree with at least part of Fattal’s views.
Fattal’s comments have helped to consolidate his "courageous" image among those few who are inclined to act on the widespread feelings of desperation and guilt that go with the disempowering spectacle of watching innocent Arabs and Muslims die on the news every day.
While most Muslim and Arab Aussies are relieved at the thought that criminal acts may have been prevented, many are also privately cheering Fattal’s ability to give voice to an issue that is seen to be ignored, dismissed and actively contested by Members of Parliament, public servants, journalists, police officers and judges.
Saying this openly is not easy, but it is a reality that does require some honest acknowledgement, and the sooner we understand it the better.
It is a hard issue to confront, and though it is a simplistic typification (that can and does require contention) much Muslim extremism is fuelled by cultural attitudes adjoining justice, or the lack of it, for the suffering of compatriots and coreligionists.
A case in point is the impunity with which Israel conducted its disproportionate destruction of Gaza and the consequent estimated deaths of 1400 Arabs in comparison to 13 Israelis. The reality is that the spirit of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is a powerful force in both Israeli and Arab culture, and while most Australians don’t see the relevance, Arab and Muslim Aussies have no trouble doing the sums on these numbers.
For many these issues are disconnected, and for them it seems a stretch to blame a foreign injustice for "home-grown terrorism". In some ways that’s true — there is a big gap between outrage and action, but what makes this gap easy to cross is the one-eyed response of government and its attempt to avoid the issue altogether.
A number of examples from Melbourne illustrate this very real issue.
One obvious one is the lack of attendance by Victorian parliamentarians at any event associated with Al-Nakba, the annual Palestinian day of remembrance for the events of 1948 in which they were dispossessed of their homes by the Israeli state. While celebrations of Israeli Independence Day are annual events for politicians, even the slightest acknowledgement of Arab suffering or injustice is seen as politically out of bounds.
The irony of course is that most Arabs and Muslims, like victims of crime generally, are merely seeking an acknowledgment of their suffering.
Governments cannot continue to ignore this very real aspect to the roots of terrorism, defining it simply as a set of security issues with purely security-type responses.
Another problem is the common attitude that sees community engagement and strengthening as no more complex than simply paying community liaison officers to attend community meetings.
For example, the AFL with the full support of the Victorian Government and the Victorian Multicultural Commission supported the creation of a "Peace Team" of Israeli and Palestinian players to compete at the AFL International Cup. However, when the Palestinian community was engaged in the initiative, not a single one of their issues was taken on board by the project.
Of these the crucial aspect that was ignored was community concern that the initiative would be about "kudos" for the AFL and those involved, with little acknowledgement of the situation faced by Palestinians.
In fact many in the Palestinian community, myself included, had to sit and watch promos for the initiative that included footage of bus bombings and Israeli causalities with not a single mention of Palestinian suffering. This was despite explicit assurances from the AFL that they understood the importance of not ignoring the key issue of Arab suffering and community strengthening in the AFL’s pursuit of public acclaim.
In the end, not a single aspect of the so-called community engagement program eventuated. Meetings for the Palestinian players and the community were promptly forgotten, along with public talks on the reality of Palestinian life. Promises of star AFL athletes in attendance at halal sausage sizzles at community events and schools were never honoured.
This occurred despite clearly articulated warnings from the community that this one step forward for "peace" would be two steps backward for reconciliation if community engagement was not taken seriously.
Just as superficial were the nationwide community consultations managed by Andrew Robb for the Howard government in 2005–2006 as part of its "Muslim community engagement". Participants were actually told not to discuss or raise foreign affairs-type issues and those who did were immediately chastised.
Tragically, most of the individuals involved in these discussions and initiatives actually do have a sophisticated understanding and acceptance of all these issues. The missing element is an honest political motivation to deal with them promptly or properly, addressing the real issues underlying the injustices felt by many inside (and outside) the Muslim community.
What these and other examples illustrate is the chronic inability of Australian governments and their public servants to engage with people’s legitimate concerns, hoping those concerns can be rinsed away with the help of superficial and half-hearted attempts at community engagement with Arab and Muslim youth.
While this situation continues, it will be no surprise if our "efforts" to fight home-grown terrorism continue to fail.
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