Who's Afraid Of Terrorists?

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The terror raids in Melbourne this week have revived the question of "home-grown terrorism", and have again focused the spotlight on Melbourne’s Muslim community. In Sydney, the Hyde Park protests have had a similar effect.

As has become increasingly common in the aftermath of such situations, Muslims are pushed in certain directions, and asked to respond to certain criticisms: do you condemn terrorism? Does the group in question represent Muslim views? Does Islam condone violence?

Unfortunately, many Muslims have taken comfort in the usual, reactionary responses to such questions, and many have thus jumped on the condemnation bandwagon as a result. We are hearing more of the common responses put forward by Muslim groups: "Islam denounces violence", "Muslims are law-abiding citizens", "Islam means peace", and a bunch of other catch-cries apologising for the fact that Muslims are not perfect.

So what is the problem with such responses? Surely the logical thing to do is to allay the fears of an already anxious public, who perhaps already look toward their Muslim neighbours with slight suspicion?

In fact, there are a number of problems with this approach.

Apologising for such actions only further entrenches the false idea that terrorism is a Muslim problem; after all, why would someone apologise for something they were not responsible for? Condemning terrorism only fuels the demand for more condemnation, and the past decade has convincingly illustrated this fact.

The more serious and harmful results of such responses, however, stem from the fact that reactions such as these serve to further criminalise and marginalise the Muslim community. How so? Well, by distancing ourselves from groups considered "radical" or "on the fringe", we open up the discussion about what makes a "good" Muslim, and, by default, what makes a "bad" Muslim.

These discussions quickly enter the public discourse, which means that the definition of what constitutes a good or bad Muslim is open to things like political manipulation, prejudice, racism, and even mere ignorance. We see this occurring often, as TV presenters, radio commentators, politicians and even the general public throw in their two cents as to what they believe a good Muslim ought to be. The core identity of the Muslim community is thus left to the purview of the general community, who, it’s safe to say, are not well-versed in all things Muslim.

The Muslim community becomes fragmented as a result; we basically create a radical minority within a minority, and the usual characteristics of exclusion quickly ensue. Verbal distancing (marginal group, on the fringe) and vilification (radicals, extremists, terrorists) become commonplace. Once this occurs, it becomes very easy for individuals or groups to harass this minority, safe in the knowledge that they are not really harming Muslims, but only "radicals" or "terrorists". In the case of the terror raids in Melbourne, the police authorities could violently raid the houses of a number of innocent citizens — terrorising the inhabitants — while still claiming to have been engaged with and respectful of the Muslim community. But which community exactly is being referred to here? Were the people raided not part of that Muslim community, or do they no longer belong? And who exactly has made that decision?

A number of other disturbing trends also usually follow such raids, and this case is unfortunately no different. For example, rather than focusing on the rights of those raided, on their presumption of innocence, or even on the excessive powers police now posses to carry out such raids, instead the focus is elsewhere, on issues of little to no relevance. The Herald Sun, for example, discusses a neighbour’s reaction to a family that was raided, who importantly states that, despite the fact that they "would say hello back…they were not that friendly".  Of course, the demeanour of the family in question towards a complete stranger is the most important fact in this case, and so obviously requires mentioning.

Worse yet was a media release by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), who, instead of defending the rights of the Victorian Muslims it claims to represent, found it more pressing to mention that those raided came from a "marginalised group…with a handful of followers"; that their group Al-Furqan was not part of the ICV; that their leader Harun was not part of the Board of Imams; while also complaining about the group’s tone, manner and language. The ICV has since altered their media release after numerous complaints from the Muslim community. Distancing themselves from the targeted group appeared to be more important to the ICV than actually defending them or questioning the police about their intelligence or approach.

What relevance do a neighbour’s feelings have on the outcome of this case? Why is it so important for the ICV to strenuously distance itself from a group which, by all standards, is entirely innocent?

Focusing on these irrelevant aspects of the case serves to realign our sympathies and refocus our attention. Our sympathies are aligned away from the terrified children and their parents, whose doors were kicked in by heavily-armed police at the break of dawn, and shifted instead toward the poor neighbour who felt that these people were not as friendly as she would have liked them to be. The neighbour here comes to represent the anxious public, who seem quite happy to allow for blatant rights violations and damaging discrimination merely to feel safe — similar to the reaction towards asylum seekers.

Our focus then shifts away from the fact that, rather than defending their community from harassment, the ICV is instead siding with repressive government authorities. Sadly, what is focused on is the fact that the tone used by this group was not as nice as the ICV would have wished. Such tactics only further marginalise a minority group already under much pressure, facing constant discrimination and violence, including over-policing.

These responses and tactics, unfortunately, are not restricted to the ICV, and are common amongst Muslim leaders both in Victoria and across the country.
Similar condemnation and distancing has now been targeted towards Sydney’s protesters, with some Muslim leaders publicly condemning them as "criminals", despite the fact that they have not even gone through the legal system yet. Again, as with above, this shifts our focus away from the fact that such leaders ought to be defending their right to the presumption of innocence, even if they have committed crimes, rather than labelling them as criminals; defending their right to peacefully protest; and also interrogating the harsh police tactics used, and calling for investigations into the disturbing claims that it may have been police who actually instigated the violence in some circumstances. Instead, as with the terror raids, certain leaders seem to be more concerned with preserving their own image as ‘good Muslims’, than with the rights and well-being of their community members.

What results from characterising ourselves as "good" Muslims, and attacking "bad" Muslims in this way, is that the "bad Muslims" group gets criminalised and charged — not for crimes they have committed — but merely for being "bad people"; they basically get criminalised for not being mainstream or nice enough, as if that in itself were a crime. So rather than critiquing the ever-increasing powers of the state and police authorities, we find ourselves stuck demonising a "handful of people" for speaking in a disapproved manner while possessing a USB stick.

If we’re as passionate about free speech as many have proudly professed to be — especially in light of the latest Muslim-bashing movie — then we really ought to be defending the rights to speech of those whom we disagree with most; otherwise, freedom of speech becomes little more than the "freedom" to sound like the majority.

New Matilda

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