Who Let All These Aussie-Born Jihadists Into The Country?


Look … many of the people that we’re interested in this particular operation are Australian citizens. The vast majority of them are Australian citizens. So, in terms of their ethnicity, I think we need to understand that these are people who are in many cases born and bred Australians. Now, many of them have linkages back to the Middle East, Afghan in particular, however, I don’t want to overplay the particular ethnicity because these are Australian citizens.

— Andrew Colvin, (then Acting) AFP Commissioner, 7.30, 18 September

The current, often hysterical, public debate over the terrorist threat in Australia is one in which all sides have danced around the most important empirical fact of all — that the Jihadists are a product of modern Australian society after more than a decade of the so-called War on Terror.

Of course security agencies, the media and politicos have not denied this fact. It’s just that even when it is mentioned, its implications not only go unstated, but Jihadists as automatically painted as an “other” of some kind.

When Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front page on Numan Haider titled “Jihad Joey” it was not to agonise over what kind of country could produce this would-be terrorist, but to situate Haider as having stepped outside Australian norms.

Even in more measured analyses the question of the connection “between the global world of wickedly complicated geopolitics and the local, of suburban anomie and teenage despair” is raised but put into the too-hard basket.

The reality, according to Time magazine, is that Australia is the biggest per capita net exporter of Jihadists to Syria and Iraq of any Western country. You’d think this might raise questions about why Australia has become a successful incubator of what Tony Abbott calls a “death cult”.

Instead the threat is seen as coming from the Middle East, of “radicalization” being “imported”, and how this underpins an important justification for Australia to participate in a new military assault on Iraq, to keep us safe by degrading and destroying the terrorists “over there”.

The illogicality of this should be obvious. Australia is better at producing terrorists than importing them. The government’s policy of cancelling the visas of suspected Jihadists is meant to stem this flow.

However, it also means the government is actually keeping terrorists in the country rather than letting them leave. As even Miranda Devine has noted, this also increases the chance that Jihadist youth will be emboldened to see themselves as martyrs and act out here. The idea that such moves will make the rest of us safer would be a joke if it wasn’t so serious.

Abbott’s approach also perpetuates the notion “moderate” community leaders should police their own ethno-religious group to stop “radicalization”. It is this which led him to upset some of his own supporters by giving up his plan to water down 18C — so that he would have the latitude to take on “Islamic preachers of hate”.

Abbott is saying that Muslims are fully inside the tent as part of “Team Australia”, yet he is also saying they must accept responsibility for what a minuscule minority of “their” part of Australian society does. In doing so he treats one part of Australian society — its Muslim section — as effectively outside that society, except that they are allowed inside only as long as they are happy to be treated as separate and different.

For right-wing pundits like Andrew Bolt, on the other hand, the terror threat is the result of a combination of too much immigration from the Middle East, an irredeemably violent core to Islam, and the failures of multiculturalism. He counterposes vague, idealized notions of a more homogenously European Australia to the reality he criticizes. While his explanations fit with the themes he pursues in multiple daily blog posts, they make little sense when applied to the current situation.

First of all, given that most of the Jihadists reported on in the media were born, bred, educated and socialized in Australia, surely the problem is not people coming from overseas but Australian society’s inability to integrate some of its own citizens.

Secondly, whatever one’s interpretation of Islamic doctrine (in all its varieties), the fact all but a very tiny minority of Muslims are appalled and repelled by Jihadist terrorism means that blaming “Islam” is not a useful way of explaining their behaviour.

And, thirdly, Bolt’s anti-multicultural stance carries an implicit demand that being part of Australian society should require submitting to a very narrow cultural framework.

Yet if anything marks accounts of the “radicalization” of Jihadists like Australia’s “most wanted man”, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, it is their profound alienation from Australian society on a cultural basis that would be welcomed by the Right in any other circumstance.

As Baryalei said while street preaching in Sydney, “There’s landmines all around us and what are the landmines? Pornography, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, brothels, girls … violence [and]crime.”

On every count such explanations and proposed solutions for the terror threat avoid dealing with its thoroughly domestic nature. This is why so much store is put in the claim that we are fighting an “ideology”, because by seeing homegrown terrorist activity as the product of bad ideas brought from overseas and implanted in the heads of Australians can Jihadists more easily be treated as if they were not part of “us”.

If the Right has peddled an evasive narrative, liberals and Leftists often haven’t been much better. Understandably, most progressives want to dissociate local Jihadism from Australian Muslims more generally, and to defend multiculturalism against right-wing and racist criticisms. Yet most such responses end up downplaying or denying the terrorist threat, or uncritically painting multiculturalism as an unalloyed success.

Bernard Keane in Crikey and Ben Eltham in New Matilda, for example, have claimed that because terrorism is relatively very rare in Australia, the current government and media response is the real problem.

While the statistics comparing low rates of death from terrorism to other causes of death are undeniable, they miss how terrorism involves motivated, intentional and political acts, and is not just a matter of bad luck or negligence. If even one person is killed in a terrorist act, shrugging our shoulders and telling people to calm down because the threat is exaggerated is unlikely to ease their anxieties.

Neither is it much use to suggest that Australian Muslims simply declare that terrorism is #NotInMyName to absolve themselves of guilt by association. As Australia’s first female Muslim MP Mehreen Faruqi has pointed out, such a strategy presumes that the majority of Muslims should accept the association in the first place.

Now that we come to the trickiest part of the debate: the role of “multiculturalism”. Some on the Right, like Bolt and Cory Bernardi, think that multiculturalism must be rolled back. It could be that Abbott is sympathetic to this line, especially in the way he has seized on the burqa issue. But the overwhelming view on all sides of politics is that multiculturalism is the only viable option currently available for the state to manage race relations.

The danger now is that the Left falls into a mindless defence of multiculturalism as guaranteeing “social cohesion” in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. In fact it has been a policy dividing Australian society into identity groups, each with “leaders” who superintend “community members” they often have little in common with, in exchange for a privileged relationship to government and politics.

In concrete terms, today that means expecting Muslim notables to take responsibility for Jihadist youth, a role they play again and again. Nobody seems to have blinked an eye at how crudely this subcontracting process plays out. Take ABC’s 7.30, which brought on a Lebanese Muslim community leader to respond to the actions of Haider, an Afghan Muslim youth, as if the difference doesn’t matter. Moreover it’s not obvious how such leaders, even if they were more sensitively chosen, could actually control those they are meant to be overseeing.

Finally, the idea that government policy can produce “cohesion” when all kinds of social divisions continue to stunt people’s lives — divisions of class, race, gender and many other lines of demarcation — underlines just how much such ideas play into state control of the citizenry while doing nothing about the social causes of inequality, injustice and conflict.

Which brings us back to the very Australian threat we face.

After 13 years of the War on Terror the threat of Jihadist terrorism in Australia has apparently increased. But our political class tells us the solution is more War on Terror. We have a situation where a weak government with little social base and its domestic agenda in tatters is playing up the “existential” threat of weak terrorist dregs that have even less of a social base in order to bolster its own authority. This then gives encouragement to a tiny coterie of violent Islamophobes and racists to also act out and compete for media attention. Yet all of these actors are equally products of modern Australian society.

The trap for progressives is getting caught up in taking sides rather than recognising the hollow and debased nature of the protagonists as symptoms of a hollow and debased society.

How different, really, is the nihilism of savvy Jihadist social media propaganda to that of other youth subcultures that also idealise violence and destructiveness? The difference is that for a minority of Muslim youth their nihilism and alienation from Australian society can find itself articulated in taking direct action and the possibility of martyrdom, now exaggerated by being put at the centre of the political agenda as our authority-starved government eagerly joins a war against Jihadists overseas.

The ALP has rushed to support Abbott’s national security push with few questions asked. Any political gains for Abbott will thus be over an ineffectual Left that feels paralysed by his turn, rather than with voters in terms of winning them to some profound agenda.

Unfortunately many Leftists will try to blame his success on the voters and their dark Islamophobic passions / love for authoritarian government / susceptibility to confected panics (pick your preferred David Marr meme) rather than admit the Left has failed to develop a social agenda that might address what is happening.

There is therefore a real risk that the Left will take a defensive position and back off from the kind of social critique it is supposed to be expert at, let alone formulating solutions that might address our modern condition. Yet it is in that modern condition that the roots of “extremism”, “radicalisation” and terrorist violence are to be found.

Tad Tietze is a Sydney-based psychiatrist who co-runs the political blog Left Flank. He was the co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe.