How effective are Australian strategies to counter violent extremism?

Published 20 May, 8:35am 2015 by The Lowy Institute for International Policy 

Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney (image Flickr)

The Australian Government has just announced that more than $22 million will be spent on battling the radicalisation of young Muslims in Australia. But just how effective are these counter-terrorism programs?

Critics of the Federal Government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy have highlighted problems that have emerged after nine years of CVE community engagement and intervention. One concern is that CVE policies have the potential to divide Muslim communities because they embrace questionable notions of what it means to be ‘moderate’ or a ‘radical’, preferencing and seeking to ‘deputise‘ the former in order to keep the latter in check.
Community critics of the CVE strategy also emphasise that law enforcement leadership of CVE outreach programs is problematic, firstly because it indicates that the Government has ‘securitised’ the Muslim community, and secondly because such outreach strategies have the tendency to be experienced as an extra layer of unwanted scrutiny on a community of predominantly law-abiding citizens. These issues have the potential to erode trustbetween law enforcement and Muslim communities. Because positive relations between communities and law enforcement are so central public safety, the Government has an interest in carefully measuring the impact of its CVE activities on its target communities.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been at the forefront of proactive community engagement responses to CVE since establishing its Islamic Liaison Team in 2007. The team also assisted in contributing to national policy initiatives as part of the Federal Government’s national CVE strategy. The philosophy behind the AFP’s initiative reflected CVE trends emerging at that time. The terrorist threat, it was argued, could be reduced by building‘positive, trusting and cohesive relationships with the community, (which) over time will help increase (the community’s) resilience to extremist behaviours by creating greater levels of social cohesion.’ Within this strategy, ‘at-risk’ groups could be targeted with engagement programs to ‘promote social inclusion.’

But some members of the community argue that this kind of policy has a tendency to reinforce the notion ‘that the entire Muslim community is to blame for its few bad apples.’ As a result, the current CVE model of engagement has begun to be viewed with suspicion by the community, with some leaders calling on the community to boycottparticipation in AFP initiatives such as the Iftar dinner and Eid festivals. But, in the words of one AFP officer, the AFP are ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’ continue such programs. The AFP executive is convinced that community engagement is central to CVE, and parts of the Muslim community also expect that the Government will help them to provide ‘social support’ to their young people to prevent them from radicalising, despite others in the community criticising such programs.

Beside the potential to alienate the Muslim community, the effectiveness of CVE community engagement measures as a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy has not been properly measured. As Prof Basia Spalek points out, ‘there has been little empirical investigation of community-based approaches within a CT context…As a result, there is little empirical understanding of…whether (these types of policies) may clash and serve to undermine each other.’.

The perception from some in the Muslim community that the Government’s counter-terrorism approach treats Muslim communities not as partners but as ‘suspect’ presents significant challenges, especially because of the potential this uninvited scrutiny has to create another level of alienation in young people. The latest policy announcement, which devotes $22 million to the Muslim community’s presumed social disadvantage by helping new Muslim migrants find education and employment, also ignores the reality that the causal link between socio-economic troubles and radicalisation is tenuous.

There is much international literature detailing the importance of reducing risks of alienation and radicalisation through redressing policies seen as racially or religiously targeting one community. Studies have come from the US,UK as well as Australia. Yet the focus on the Muslim community by CVE strategies helps perpetuate ‘essentialist stereotypes of terrorists as religious Muslims,’ and leave the community feeling over-scrutinised.

The prime directive of CVE policy is ‘first, to do no harm’. To date, there is little evidence that Australian CVE policy has been informed by this directive. Nor is there an indication our policy-makers have assessed the effectiveness of the CVE programs that have been in operation for the past nine years. The Australian Government needs to take onlessons from US and the UK which show that, in order to reduce the terrorist threat, we need counter-terrorism policies that don’t alienate those most vulnerable to radicalisation.

The Interpreter is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney, publishing daily commentary and analysis on international events.

Despite uncertainty, Indonesians remain hopeful

One of a series of articles I wrote in the lead-up to Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election for The Kashmir Walla Magazine. Published July 18, 2014

Indonesia's Election Commission (KPU). Image
Indonesia’s Election Commission (Komisi Pilihan Umum, KPU). Image

“We Indonesians believe that no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 Democracy Activist (active in recent campaigning, who decided here to remain unnamed)

Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy with 187 million voters including 67 million first-time voters, voted last Wednesday July 12 for their next President. By the time the exit-polls had been counted, it felt like the nation exhaled momentarily. But that relief has been short-lived.

Although the official results of Indonesia’s presidential election yesterday will not be known until July 22, both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, now have claimed victory based on exit polling and quick counts. As a result, political tensions in Jakarta are rising, and Indonesians are growing increasingly anxious as to what this means for Indonesia’s democracy.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today urged the election chief to ensure a transparent vote count following the disputed presidential poll, after both sides raised fears the other may party may tamper with the ballots. And this is not without reason.

Indonesia is one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries, and the country’s political elite is part of a very intertwined network of power and privilidge. Even though Indonesia made the transition from dictatorship to direct presidential elections a decade ago after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia is still ranked 114th among 177 on a 2013 Transparency International Survey, with the nation’s judiciary, police and parliament ranked among the least trustworthy institutions.

Although the election was violence-free, a result perceived as questionable by either side still risks major public protests. Speaking ahead of the election, the army chief of staff General Budiman had already said the potential for conflict between supporters of Prabowo and Jokowi was “high,” as the Jakarta Post reported on its website July 7. This is a particular risk given the very vast differences between the two candidates and their respective supporters: Jokowi is the “man of the people” candidate, from humble beginnings and without ties to the political elite, whilst Prabowo is a former military general and the former son-in-law of Suharto alleged to have ordered the abduction of democracy activists before the Suharto’s downfall. 

At a rally for Gaza yesterday Prabowo told journalists “there are reports that some election boxes have been stolen, our witnesses are being intimidated”. In making statements like these, it appears the former military man will not go quietly.

The quick counts give Jokowi a lead of around 8 million votes, which is a margin of about 4 percentage points. And it is this slim margin that has given rise to growing tension.

Fears of tension and potential violence by analysts are not just about the close margin, but more about what the some candidate’s supporters are capable of, in particular, Prabowo. Some analysts have expressed concern that with his history, his ties to military, citizen militia groups, and extensive and powerful networks across the country that he might try to bully the election commission or engage in violent protest.

But despite all the public discussion and debate about the potential for unrest, many Indonesians I have spoken to over the past week, from street merchants to members of Indonesia’s parliament, are quietly optimistic. This is in contrast to the many foreign observers.

For ordinary Indonesians, perhaps that comes with the experience of watching the country go through so much turmoil and change over the past 16 years. As one Indonesian who was active in student protests during the Suharto era told me, “we Indonesians believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate”.

Whilst alert to the all possibilities of what could happen over the next two weeks, it appears many Indonesians hope that the candidates and their supporters will accept and honour the results of the election, and that when the final results are revealed on July 22, the wheels of Indonesian democracy will keep turning.

We Have Banksy …NOW WHAT?

Banksy wall, courtesy IB Times
A Banksy wall, courtesy IB Times

Original Article published April 1, 2014 on Sassmouth

How can you criticise human rights activism? It’s kinda like kicking a puppy, isn’t it? But I feel compelled to talk about activism critically, after reading this piece written by Manus Island whistleblower Liz Thompson.* In it she articulates why she recently declined a profile speaking gig at refugee support rally; and her concern about “lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people” in the “refugee movement” which is now dominated by white faces.

The revelations Thompson made about the situation at Manus Island were obviously important, but her refusal to hog the spotlight at the expense of those directly affected by the policy is remarkably rare, and that this should be the case is something we should be talking about.

Thompson was criticised by many for the points she made in the piece –  her discomfort at the ‘”refugee movement’s” celebration of her as a whistleblower, and the need for those in the movement to examine their privilege. But this is an increasingly uncommon attitude in the world of activism: humility and a focus on what it is that a particular “movement” is trying to achieve. So, I’d like to add to this conversation, and talk a bit about ego and Personal Branding, which is now so pervasive in activism today. And I think we need to talk about this, because ultimately this endemic narcissism really is shutting down the ability of genuine groups to effectively orgnaise.

At its very core, activism is about social and political change. History’s greatest activists have focused on the issues, not themselves. But these days I find it hard to ascertain the  motives of activists. Are they working towards the achievement of social change, or towards the enhancement of their LinkedIn or twitter profiles? Too often it seems the ingredients for activism are 80% narcissism, 20% organising skill, ethics and the rest. It’s more about the activist – their good deeds and heroicisms, and promoting said heroicisms on behalf of the organisation they represent.

Damn, this really does feel as terrible as kicking a puppy, really, but it needs to be said. Speaking out against human rights abuses cannot be a get out of jail of free card for your own indiscretions. And solidarity cannot be absolute, especially when it allows bad-faith to infiltrate and compromise objectives. That it has become so difficult to distinguish between activists working towards social change, and those using particular issues as a professional branding opportunities is extremely problematic  –  and we need to deal with it.

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a thriving cohort of activist types here, and  regularly hear tossers refer to “human rights being their thing”, being “largely interested in gender issues”, “environmental something or other”, blah blah blah [insert one of the innumerable things the world is worried about] being “their thing!” I’m now thirty and have only been around the activist community for ten years or so, and this shift has crept up on us somewhere in the last decade. No doubt it was a thing before this, but it now appears to be the dominant trend.

So, let’s get things straight. A plight is not a project. Human and societal failings are not areas of expertise to develop as your “thing”. A tragedy like that of the shooting death of a young on Manus Island is NOT a political or personal branding opportunity nor should it ever be.

This crap is happening at the personal level, but it also permeates organisations, campaigns and political processes. I witnessed with unease, the launch of the #withSyria campaign featuring the massive persona and artistic imagery of Bansky – a privileged (probably) white male. So loud is Banksy, and the calls to “join Banksy” that the  #withSyria campaign is bereft of a genuine Syrian voice, and completely smothers the dedicated and often dangerous work of Syrian activists.

The cultivation of narcissism has slowly but surely crept into activist movements over a number of years, until here we are, dominated by privileged white noise. So what is going on? I suspect it probably does have something to do with the online profiling thing, and the feedback loop thing that academics and psychologists talk about (just bear with me here).

Existing in the online world has necessitated the cultivation of online presence and branding of our personas. And it seems, everybody who wants to be a fucking hero these days can and will be. The instant affirmation of “likes” and clicks has become a breeding ground for narcissists. We are stuck in feedback loop in which such attention-seeking behaviors are rewarded with online flattery and attention –  thus perpetuating the cycle. Witness the selfie culture now adopted by activists: endless posts about their latest campaigns, and snaps with the “poor people” they claim to represent are now instantly rewarded by other chumps part of the same selfish movement. A system of perpetual buddy-praise  – and we are conflating these virtual pats on the back with purpose and efficacy.

Amid all  the energy being focused on the online sphere and all that fucken hot air and naval gazing that comes with it – it seems there are really very few examples of provocative and actually effective campaigning around today. There are campaigns, sure. But effective? As in, contributes in a measurable and meaningful way? We are #standingwithsyria –  but how will this influence the political climate, the arms deals, how will it end the tyranny of vested interests and give rise to a peaceful inclusive Syrian future? We have Banksy…now what?

There needs to be a comprehensive reassessment about the goals of so-caled “activists,” and those engaged in the selfie social movements need to engage in som hard consideration about the efficacy of their activism. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems like a LOT of the efforts of the past few years have been bloody useless. So, I guess what I’m saying is that when activist involvement causes confusion of motive, gives rise to fragmentation, or if it actually achieves very little of the intended social or political change – there needs to be a point at which activists take a big step back (and I’m looking at you privileged white folks here, but bad-faith comes in many guises). We need to have a long hard think, and to know when to sit the fuck down – because surprising as it may seem, at the end of the day it’s not actually about us, or the organisations we represent. If we want genuine social, political and economic change as profound as we claim – we need a fucking shake-up.

-Kate Grealy, @kategrealy

*A brief recap for those who don’t know: Liz Thompson was a contracted migration agent, and was sent to Manus Island to process asylum seeker claims. Thompson decided to blow the lid on the farce of a “processing” system currently in place. In her allegations she claimed that “processing” simply involves paying contractors to provide asylum seekers with vague allusions to resettlement, while omitting the detail that resettlement is in actuality an impossibility with things being as they are. – Ed.

 Original Article “We Have Banksy, Now What?” on Sassmouth Monthly Smart Arsed Feminist Reader