It’s not often that I agree with far-right Liberal MP Alex Hawke. But his call for Q&A to be taken off air seemed like an excellent idea to me. Not because I was offended by what happened on Monday night – I don’t watch it – but because it is in general a terrible program, with lousy guests, and a host who hasn’t been held to account for his role in helping launch the Northern Territory Intervention.
Some people have criticised the ABC for letting Zaky Mallah on air, in particular for his comment: “The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the Australian community, tonight, to leave and go to Syria and fight for ISIL because of ministers like him.”
This claim was a rather bold one. There aren’t “many” Australian Muslims who are going to go and fight for ISIS, because the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and in the rest of the world are repulsed by it.
ISIS is overwhelmingly devoted to the slaughter of other Muslims, and its emergence in Syria and Iraq comes from a particular political context in those countries. The reason Australian Muslims go to fight with ISIS are complex. It is likely that one factor is anti-Muslim fearmongering and demonisation – perhaps illustrated by Liberal MP Steve Ciobo’s forthright assertion that he would like Zaky Mallah expelled from Australia, though he was acquitted of terrorism offences, and only has Australian citizenship.
Yet Alex Hawke’s call to get Q&A off air for hosting Mr Mallah seems to me in a sense unfair. And the same applies to others who have criticised the ABC. Tony Abbott complained that the ABC gave “a platform to a convicted criminal and terrorist sympathiser – they have given this individual, this disgraceful individual, a platform and in so doing, I believe the national broadcaster has badly let us down”.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull similarly said the ABC had committed a “grave error of judgment”, showing his traditional commitment to keeping the ABC “free” and “independent” from government control and influence.
Yet the ABC isn’t the only media outlet to “badly let us down” by giving this “disgraceful individual” a platform. The Guardian decided to let him respond to the controversy in his own op ed. He says that he opposes ISIS, and has changed since being a “dumb and naive” 20-year-old, convicted of threatening to kill ASIO officers.
Now, Mallah is “on good terms with ASIO and counter-terrorism police. I meet with them regularly, they shout me a coffee, we chat about Syria and national security.” Which is kind of amazing, as we will see. As yet, Abbott and the other Liberals have not commented on ASIO’s relationship with Mallah, and whether they too have committed a “grave error of judgment”.
Jonathan Holmes at the ABC took to Twitter to defend Zaky Mallah. The former host of Media Watch tweeted Turnbull, asking if he knew about Mallah’s youtube videos denouncing “extremism”. Holmes said that “Just been on with @rglover702 explaining that Zaky Mallah is an outspoken OPPONENT of IS. Entire 702 discussion assumed he's a supporter”.
Holmes thinks “we need reformed radicals like him.” Holmes explained that “people change their views. He was jailed at 19 and that changed his.”
These are bold claims, in light of the fact that Mallah’s youtube videos are easily accessible, as is his twitter page which directs readers to his videos. Here’s his video from May 30 on Jabhat al-Nusra.
In it, he begins by saying that he saw an interview on Al Jazeera with the man known as Abu-Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Mallah immediately pays tribute to al-Jawlani, who “knows jihad”, and the “strategies and tactics of jihad inside out”. He is leading “true mujahideen” in the fight against Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria. If Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki was alive today, he would “no doubt be with Jabhat al-Nusra”.
The “Australian government needs to understand that Jabhat al Nusra is very well loved in Syria… Do you know why they love them? Because they are humble towards their fellow citizens of Syria. They give them donations, they give them money, they give them bread, they give them milk, they feed them. They look after them.”
They are also loved for their “Islamic-ness. Their Muslim-ness. Their Qur’an-ness. Their Sunna-ness. Everything about Jabhat al Nusra is loved.”
Therefore, labelling Jabhat al Nusra a terrorist organisation is “doing harm”, because it’s protecting the people of Syria from Assad.
Mallah distinguishes Jabhat al Nusra from ISIS: “ISIS is hated by the people of Syria.”
For those wondering who “Sheikh” Anwar al-Awlaki is, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen explains that he was a “midlevel religious functionary” in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the Yemen branch of al Qaeda. He advocated Muslims attacking people in the United States, and was eventually assassinated by the US, despite his American citizenship.
On June 8, Mallah was invited onto Channel 10 news to offer his thoughts on Syria. In a very brief comment, he was paraphrased as regarding Jabhat al Nusra (JAN) as “moderate” compared to ISIS.
As one might expect, from someone who explicitly and openly admires the “Islamic-ness” and “Muslim-ness” of JAN. But no one thought Channel 10 was being irresponsible or letting anyone down that day.
As Mallah observed, JAN is listed as a terrorist organisation by the Australian government.
The listing notes:
“Jabhat al-Nusra is a Syria-based Sunni extremist group that adheres to the global jihadist ideology of al-Qa'ida. In late 2011, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) sent operatives to Syria for the purpose of establishing Jabhat al-Nusra to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The group publicly announced its presence in Syria in a January 2012 video statement. In early April 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra pledged allegiance to al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and confirmed the group has received funding and operatives from AQI. The group has received direct endorsement from online extremist forums aligned with al-Qa'ida and leading salafist/jihadist figures. Previously, Jabhat al-Nusra had attempted to play down its extremist ideology and conceal its links to AQI to avoid alienating the Syrian population.”
It comments further that JAN “intends to expel the minority Alawite and Christian communities from Syria. This is substantiated by statements made by the group”. JAN is “well-funded; benefactors include AQI and Gulf-based salafist supporters.”
In early June, it committed a massacre of Druze Syrians. Syrian specialist Aron Lund observed that al-Jawlani’s interview with al Jazeera expressed “borderline genocidal” views. That is, that “Alawites will be left alone as soon as they agree to stop being Alawites.”
Claims that Mallah supports ISIS are indeed untrue. He hates ISIS so much, “I can't wait to honestly wait [sic]to see Bagdadi and Adnani captured and burnt alive! I wish this before Assad!” And “Maybe Juniad Thorne will 'wake up' in Prison and reflect on all the bullshit support he has given to ISIS which has murdered many Muslims.”
Extremist jihadis, like Zahran Alloush, identify ISIS as “khawarij”. Mallah announced on 31 May on Twitter “the Muslims worldwide need to start arming and start killing Khawarij. Starting in the West! US. Aus, UK, NZ”. And this: “Oh how much I'd love to sniper some Khawarij here in Australia.”
On 18 April last year, Mallah posted a video called “Zaky Mallah- Al Qaeda vs ISIS”.
In the video, he harshly denounces ISIS, which he identifies as a “Khawarij” group, which isn’t actually fighting Assad, Iran or Hezbollah. The “only thing” ISIS is good at is killing people from groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al Nusra. He hopes that those who go to Syria to fight their “mujahideen brothers” die, and are “killed by the hand of the true mujahideen”. He doesn’t explain who that might be, but I think we can guess.
Despite his views, he has made several appearances on Channel 10, as seen above, including an appearance on The Project last year, and Late News in 2013. And he appeared on 3AW radio in Melbourne. And on the BBC. And SBS.
Since his appearance on Q&A, media uproar has been over whether or not Mallah supports ISIS, which he doesn’t. Yet why is it that being pro al Qaeda in Syria is not a big deal, and hasn’t interested even ASIO?
Here, I think at least part of the answer lies in our foreign policy. An internal document from American intelligence in 2012 observed that the West supports the jihadist insurgency in Syria. In May, Fairfax’s correspondent reported that the conflict in Syria involved three sides. One side was Assad, backed by Hezbollah and Iran. Another was ISIS – whose supporters were unidentified. And another was a “new coalition of opposition groups”, “backed by the powerful regional alliance of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia”.
The coalition, known as the “Army of Conquest”, had, as her preferred analyst noted, “the Nusra Front as its main pillar and surrounded by the remnants of the Free Syrian Army as well as groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and others”. Officially, the West only supports the Free Syrian Army. This distinction becomes a bit academic when the FSA is in a coalition with JAN, and our regional allies support the coalition too.
If we support a coalition that includes JAN, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, then perhaps we can understand ASIO’s friendly relationship with a supporter of JAN.
The media’s friendly relationship with Mallah is a little harder to explain. I imagine lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh spoke for many Muslims when she tweeted “For crying out loud Zacky!! You don't speak for us! #QandA.”
Muslims never elected or appointed Mallah as their spokesperson. As impressive as certain media outlets might find his beard, an enthusiast for the official branch of al Qaeda in Syria does not represent Australian Muslims, let alone their most articulate form of opposing ISIS.
Mallah’s media profile was essentially created by clueless and ignorant white interviewers in the media. I imagine many of them had no idea they were giving a platform for a supporter of al Qaeda in Syria.
Which is a sad reflection on Australian media in general. It’s not everyday I agree with Liberal politicians. But the platform that has been repeatedly given to Mr Mallah – by a range of media outlets – has indeed let us down.
The fact that even now no-one seems to have noticed how extreme Mallah’s views are is a grimly hilarious illustration of the standards of Australian media in its selection of Muslim speakers and commentators.