In Defence Of The People Behind Violent, Radical Environmentalist ‘Karen’


Since last week, there has been a lot of ridicule of the government’s anti-radicalisation paper. Much of this has been in relation to the case study of “Karen”, an environmentalist who the paper acknowledges never engaged in any sort of violent activity. In my view, the case study was often misinterpreted. Whilst I think the paper does exhibit a bias against activism, which I will discuss further below, I think there are also elements of the paper which should be welcomed.

Whilst I have been critical of the Federal Government’s approach to addressing jihadi terrorism, I think the paper, whilst flawed, in some ways is an improvement. It presents a more intelligent and, frankly, less racist approach than we might have expected from Abbott’s government. Here I’ll discuss the paper firstly in terms of the overall framework, its status quo bias, other problems, and then some of its interesting contributions.


The paper itself is called Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia. Readers may think of this as a euphemistic way of saying it’s about addressing terrorism. The paper itself mostly avoids using the term “terrorism” or “terrorist”, but can be seen as a study within the ideologically saturated framework of terrorism studies.

These days, terrorism is mostly regarded as violence by Muslims that doesn’t serve Western interests. The challenge is finding a conceptual framework to provide some kind of intellectual framework based on the premises that Western violence is good, and Muslim violence is both different and awful.

Academic debate over how to define terrorism has mostly focused on this conundrum of finding a framework that condemns some violence whilst exonerating the West. One striking example comes from Edward Peck. He observed that in:

“1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism… they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.”

The radicalisation paper doesn’t explicitly say it is about fighting “terrorism”. It is “about how individuals might become engaged in violent extremism through the process of radicalisation and provides information on how to help them disengage from violent ideologies.”

The paper explains: “The process involves a series of decisions which, in certain circumstances will end in an act of violent extremism. As a person radicalises, they begin to develop and adopt attitudes and behaviours that seek to substantially transform the nature of society and government. These attitudes differ significantly from how most members of society view social issues and participate politically”.

So essentially, a person is radicalised when they want to “substantially transform” Australia, and when they “differ significantly” from most Australians on these points. The paper argues repeatedly that radicalisation itself is not the problem, but only radicalisation to the point of violent extremism.

It claims that in “most instances” radicalisation “does not pose a danger and can even benefit the Australian community.” In a section on myths, the paper observes

“Having extreme or radical thoughts is not a problem. Advocacy and legal protest are legitimate ways to seek change in a democratic society, and radical ideas and actions have had a positive impact in Australia’s history. Radical thoughts are only considered dangerous, and are of concern to the Australian Government and law enforcement agencies, if they justify or promote the use of violence or other illegal activity.”

The paper rejects an intrinsic link between radicalisation and violence:

“Some movements advocate and attempt to implement positive, non-violent attitudes and actions to change politics and society. For example, the suffragettes who struggled to get the right to vote for women in the early twentieth-century can be seen as a radical movement and those involved would have gone through a process of radicalisation to come to these beliefs. Groups that advocate such attitudes often offer a challenge to conventional understanding that can radically transform a country’s social and political landscape. This is different from radicalisation towards violent extremism where individuals advocate or use violence or other unlawful activity to support their beliefs.”

Violent extremism, within the framework of the paper, refers to those who want to substantially transform society using violence. That is, they are radicals who use violence. The paper claims that the government rejects “all forms of violent extremism and promotes a harmonious and inclusive society”, but does not condemn radicalisation per se.

The status quo

The paper sets up only one type of violence that it rejects in every instance. That is, it always rejects violence devoted to radically changing the status quo. Violence used to uphold the status quo, however, is passed over in silence. Seeking change is by definition violent extremism. Accepting how things are is tacitly assumed to be ideologically neutral. Seeking change is treated as suspicious and problematic in a way that keeping things the way they are is not.

Consider the paper’s example of “positive, non-violent” activists: the suffragettes. The historian Adam Hochschild reviewed their violent extremism in Britain, when:

“suffragettes rampaged through central London with hammers hidden in their muffs, breaking windows at newspapers, hotels, the Guards’ Club, a host of government offices, and nearly 400 shops. Fearing arrest, Christabel [Pankhurst] fled to Paris, where she continued to edit the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union] newspaper and call for ever more vandalism. Her mother and two other women made a surprise raid by taxi on 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence, and smashed two windows. (Emmeline managed to wrench herself away from policemen long enough to throw a rock through a Colonial Office window as well.) Britain had seldom seen anything like this.
WSPU supporters, shrinking in number but ever more extreme, set on fire an orchid house at Kew Gardens, a London church, and a racecourse grandstand; blew up a deserted railway station; and smashed a jewel case at the Tower of London. They cut the telephone wires linking London and Glasgow, and slashed the words “NO VOTES, NO GOLF” into golf course greens and then poured acid in the letters so grass would not grow. One newspaper estimated that suffragettes had inflicted £500,000 worth of property damage, some $60 million in to-day’s money. By now, more than 1,000 of them had gone to prison…”

All of this might properly be regarded as terrorism, and in the framework of the paper, certainly would qualify as violent extremism. Yet prison authorities forcibly feeding hunger-striking suffragettes isn’t violent extremism: extremism is measured in terms of how far one accepts the status quo.

The politicians who sent soldiers to march to their deaths in our wars, from Europe to Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere are not violent extremists, nor are their intellectual propagandists. However, someone who strongly opposes our foreign policy is a radical, who might radicalise to violent extremism.

Behind its dispassionate tone, the paper is thus conceptually defined to support the status quo, and treat with suspicion those who might change it. Whilst it repeatedly states that we should not be wary of radicals, radicalisation is viewed as the first step towards danger, and it recommends “early intervention”, and advises of triggers that can help “push someone onto a path of radicalisation”.

The paper doesn’t explicitly advocate ideological complacency, yet this is the logic the paper subtly embraces.

You can get a sense of the paper’s ideological blindspot from its claim that “Australia has enjoyed a peaceful history, relatively free from violent extremism.”

Peaceful for whom? If you put aside the slaughter of tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the dispossession and devastation of their nations and cultures, Australia has just joined two new wars on Iraq and Syria. Yet seeking social and political transformations in the Muslim countries we have invaded is not “extremism”.

Once the Taliban gained power in Afghanistan, its violence was no longer extremist. Under the paper’s framework, the apartheid regime in South Africa shouldn’t be accused of violent extremism: that epithet would be reserved for people like Nelson Mandela and organisations like the African National Congress.

My point is not to exonerate violence, or to advocate for it. My point is that terrorism studies are typically concerned with exonerating certain forms of violence – those committed by us – whilst finding a framework to condemn and redress other forms of violence – committed by official enemies.

Whilst it mostly avoids using the word “terrorism”, this paper mostly fits into that tradition.

Other problems

Humans are very complex, and trying to understand them, let alone shape how they think and act, is not an exact science. Those who promise to understand terrorists and how to deal with them can be lavishly rewarded by those convinced of their expertise in these matters. Thus, there is a tendency for so-called experts on terrorism to overstate their alleged expertise.

The paper, and its briefer summaries, also shows a tension between the desire of at least some of the academics to maintain some kind of intellectual standards, and the desire of the bureaucrats to have a kind of standardised form that could be handed out to non-professionals unlikely to read a 30-page paper.

Thus, the paper warns that, “There is no checklist to help recognise people who may be radicalised by viewing material online”.

The government still produced a two-page summary of radicalisation and the internet. It also warned there is no checklist, and then listed “signs” that someone might be “radicalising”.

What are these signs we should look out for? One is “Downloading large amounts of violent extremist content”.

That is, the esteemed experts assure us that if someone is downloading large amounts of violent extremist content – which by definition is content made by those who have radicalised beyond mere radicalisation – then they might be radicalising. Let’s hope the experts were adequately rewarded for that important insight.

Another sign is, “Using online social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to promote violence or other criminal behaviour to advance a cause”. That is, if someone is engaged in what the paper defines as violent extremism, then that is a sign they might be radicalising.

Turning to the paper, it warns, “A parent may notice their child downloading violent or hate speech videos and becoming more secretive about their online viewing habits”. So parents should look out for their kids downloading violent extremist content, or becoming “more secretive” about what they do online.

Putting aside the purely tautologous nature of the “sign” of radicalisation being the use and dissemination of violent extremist content, take a moment to consider if there are any other reasons kids might want privacy in relation to things they do on the internet. I suspect readers might not need a team of academic advisers to figure out non-terrorism reasons why adolescent boys might want privacy when browsing the internet.

Future attempts at standardised and over-simplified explanations are likely to come up with similarly unimpressive insights into “violent extremism”. Also noticeable is that the paper has a section defending ASIO against those who think it has “extraordinary and unaccountable power”. Perhaps a concern for civil liberties and critical views about ASIO are also a sign of radicalisation people are supposed to watch out for.


Whilst the paper operates in a framework of absolving Western violence, it also seems determined not to engage in finger-pointing at Muslims, which is a welcome, and even surprising development. It observes that radicalisation “can occur for people across a diverse range of ethnic, national, political and religious groups”.

The paper has four case studies of radicalisation and violent extremism. Two of them involve Muslims, though one of them so gingerly discusses the history of “Jay” that readers could easily miss that he is Muslim.

One involves a former white supremacist, “Erin”, and another involves “Karen”, the well-known anonymous environmentalist.

Many have gotten the impression that the paper described an environmentalist out of a right-wing attempt to smear such concerns as akin to terrorism. Yet whilst the paper does have a bias against social change, it seems that it was crafted so that it wouldn’t be seen as singling out Muslims, or jihadi terrorists, but instead treating jihadi terrorism as merely one example of violent extremism.

The paper constantly cites other examples of radicals and violent extremists, like neo-Nazis, supporters of the Tamil Tigers, Basque separatists, and Peter James Knight, who attacked an abortion clinic and murdered someone there.

The example of Karen outraged many, because it was thought that she was being compared to terrorists like those in Daesh or al Qaeda. Yet this is the framework of the paper, which in some respects seems to be influenced by the work of Scot Atran, who has produced some very interesting and insightful work in this field.

The paper stresses the role of social relations in the radicalisation process. That is, people are pushed towards extremism through close personal relationships, as they draw away from others.

The paper dispassionately recounts various different types of motivations for violence, dividing them into ideological violence, issue-based violence, and ethnic/separatist violence.

Neo-Nazis and al Qaeda are regarded as ideological violence, animal liberationists and anti-abortionists are issue-based examples, and Tamil Tigers are examples of ethno-nationalist violence.

In a paper that determinedly doesn’t target Islam, it also subtly absolves Islam as the driving force of terrorism. For example, it observes “Ideologically-based violent extremism can also be motivated by religious beliefs. In such cases the underlying motivation is usually political, but is justified using interpretations of religious texts and teachings, or following guidance from influential people both here and overseas.”

Elsewhere, it notes:

Major religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam overwhelmingly advocate inclusion and peace. Unfortunately this message is distorted by a very small number of individuals who attempt to justify acts of violence using selectively literal interpretations of religious texts and teachings. There are many examples of violent extremist organisations around the world that have no links to particular religions or religious groups.

The paper seems to regard violent extremists as people pursuing their ideals, but who have been led astray. It observes, “Searching for meaning and belief is a part of human nature. However, if someone does not have a strong background in their belief tradition (eg religion), their incomplete knowledge may make them vulnerable to adopting negative ideas and violent extremism”.

It advocates a three-pronged response to the radicalised. A social response, to reconnect the person with people outside of the small group of fanatics – and it encourages trusted and respected adults, family members, social workers and so on to try to fill this role.

An ideological response – getting respected members of the appropriate ideological group to “provide grounding” in the relevant tradition, help them find more constructive ways of dealing with their issues and so on. And a behavioural response – which advises getting legal authorities involved as a last resort.

The idea is that these people are searching for meaning and belief, and that they should be guided to pursuing change in a non-violent manner.

The attempts at empathy with violent extremists seem out of keeping with the Abbott government’s usual approach. It comments on “positive feelings associated with belonging to a group that explains why the world seems unfair, says who is to blame and gives permission to exact justice on them.” It warns that, “Such individuals do not realise that violence is the least effective way to achieve political, religious or social change”.

Whether or not this is true, the paper’s approach is basically preventing radicalism, and funnelling violent extremism into non-violent radicalism. This concession to radicalism might offend warriors of the right in the media, if they ever get around to reading this paper.

Consider also this list of some of the paper’s prescribed issues that “can help push someone onto a path of radicalisation”:

• “anxiety, depression, paranoia, suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues
• personal issues such as health problems, addiction, anger or social problems
• confrontations with family members
• discrimination and social unfairness
• exposure to hateful attitudes and actions, either as victim or perpetrator, and
• overseas events that may harm their community”

The government can’t resolve all personal issues, or family troubles, because everyone will always have emotionally trying times. But discrimination and social unfairness? Exposure to hateful attitudes and actions? Overseas events that may harm their community?

Remember: this was put forward in a paper launched by the man Tony Abbott appointed Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism.

The most right-wing, anti-Muslim government we’re likely to have for a while put forward a paper on addressing “violent extremism”. And it has warned that to prevent “radicalisation”, we need to address issues like discrimination and overseas events that harm people’s communities. That is, there is a link between institutionalised racism and the wars we wage overseas, and the threat we face at home. That is a welcome development.

Indeed, whilst the paper has been widely attacked from the left, it is also likely to make the right uncomfortable with much of its content. Rather than treating terrorism as a matter of evil Muslims killing Westerners for our freedom, it puts so-called radicals on an apolitical spectrum, respects their right to hold their views, doesn’t single out Islam, and raises issues of discrimination and foreign policy as part of our conversation on terrorism – a term that the paper avoids.

Whilst few people have been as critical of the Abbott government’s record on these issues as I have been, it seems its posthumously released paper makes a more valuable contribution than people have realised.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).