The Problem With Hanson-Young’s (and Brandis’) Response to the Burqa Episode

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There has been a lot of discussion in Australia about Senator Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt. Many of those who have criticised her actions have argued that the act in itself presents a threat to national security – in part,  because of the potential to offend the sensibilities of Muslims. 

Green’s Senator Sarah Hanson Young, on a popular morning breakfast program, stated that Senator Pauline Hanson needs to reflect on the fact ‘security experts’ believe her actions could promote extremism (which experts by the way?). 

“You are doing ISIS’s work for them,” Senator Hanson-Young told the Seven Network on Monday.

“You are putting the entire country at risk.”

Senator George Brandis similarly said Australia’s half-million Muslims – the “vast majority of [whom] are good, law-abiding Australians” – are vital to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

These arguments reflect common misconceptions about terrorism and radicalisation in the West.

As Yassir Morsi, Muslim writer an academic stated (in a Facebook post),” It’s an argument often used to conceal that terrorism has more to do with wars and Western support for authoritarian Muslim leaders.”

The Brandis and Hanson-Young arguments reduce the ‘Muslim community’ to national security allies. Why is that we ask Muslims to participate in whole of community counter terrorism work, when within other crime types, the religious and ethnic backgrounds of those engaging in criminality are largely ignored, let alone discussed in such political and public forums? 

Omar Sakr’s tweet sums up the issue well:

“So glad we ordinary Muslims are valued, in the absence of default humanity, as intelligence officers, otherwise pretty sure we’d be screwed.”

https://twitter.com/OmarjSakr/status/898362057019408384

There needs to be a ‘radical’ shift in the way Western liberal democracies conceptualise Muslim communities in relation to counter terrorism and national security.

One the biggest failings of the  Australian Government’s ‘muslim engagement’ schemes is association of whole ‘Muslim communities’ with national security.

As I have argued several times, at its most benign, countering violent extremism (CVE) is a clumsy social policy, at its worst it has been found to be quite harmful. Australian Senators should know better, with their knowledge of national security issues and high level of education, than to continually associate the Muslim community with national security in public platforms.

P.s I quickly typed this up on my phone whilst stuck in a traffic jam (in Indonesia, lol). Apologies for any annoying errors, will attend to them later when I’m on my laptop 🙂

From Vigilantism to Terrorism?

On Friday April 4, Anti Terror Unit Detasemen Khusus 88 Antiteror (Densus 88) arrested three terror suspects in Lamongan, Jawa Timur. One of the suspects allegedly possessed a Front Pembela Islam (FPI) uniform and literature.

I have been asked on a few occasions about the implications of militia and vigilante violence for counter terrorism. Reports that suggest an alleged terror suspect arrested in these raids was part of the FPI, reviving discussions in Indonesia about the issue of possible cross-pollination between terrorist and militia groups. I address it briefly in this post.

There are very distinct differences between Indonesia’s violent Muslim militia groups and terrorist organisations. Although violent ormas (militia) do represent a form of Islamic militantism, their violence does not target the state. This is what differentiates it from the violence of terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyya and IS.

Yet members of violent ormas still have the potential to cross-over to more extreme forms of violence. As Heiduk has pointed out, it is possible that violent ormas (militia) could be radicalized and drawn to jihadist terrorism.[1] It is also possible that terrorist ideologies and tactics could merge, formally or informally, with the agendas of violent ormas as “a new variant in Indonesia’s spectrum of radical Islamists”.[2] As Carnegie suggests:

The ‘grey area’ between the radicalism [of groups like the Front Pembela Islam (FPI)] and outright terrorist activity … provide fertile conditions for incubating a transformation of intolerance and radical thinking into more home-grown forms of violence and terror.”[3]

A study by the Setara Institute has also suggested that membership of violent ormas has the potential to create pathways to radicalization,[4] providing an ideological ‘conveyor belt’ for those with the potential to become terrorists.[5] The International Crisis Group (ICG) also noted the potential for future threats to emerge if violent ormas were radicalized, citing an example in West Java where a group had begun to use different weaponry, moving from using “sticks and stones in the name of upholding morality and curbing ‘deviance’ to using bombs and guns.”[6]Yet the analyses provided by ICG also acknowledge that Indonesia’s Islamist preman and violent ormas differ inherently from terrorist organizations, primarily because of their very different aims.

Groups associated with transnational organizations such as utopian Salafis, radical internationalists, and those such as Jemaah Islamiyya and IS believe in the implementation of a global Islamic Caliphate focusing on “internationalist and revolutionary aims.”[7] Islamist ormas or preman groups like the FPI  are locally based, nationalist in orientation, and certainly “not interested in implementing an Islamic caliphate,”[8] or challenging the Indonesian state (sometimes they act in concert with the police in morality operations).

Instead, these groups are more concerned with establishing greater power at the street-level.[9] In light of this, groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender’s Front – FPI)  remain “out of the boxes” commonly used in post 9/11 analyses of contemporary Islamist movements. [10] But because of the tendency of militia to use violence to achieve their political goals, it must be recognised that their members could be vulnerable to recruitment to terrorist organisations and movements.

Andrew Zammit and I will talk more about this issue on our podcast Sub Rosa next week. 

[1] Felix Heiduk, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Radical Islam in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” International Journal of Conflict and violence 6, no. 1 (2012), 37.

[2] Ibid

[3] Paul James Carnegie, “Is Militant Islamism a Busted Flush in Indonesia?,” Journal of Terrorism Research 4, no. 2 (September 24, 2013), accessed April 28, 2016, doi:10.15664/jtr.563, 19.[4] Setara Institute. “Organisasi Radikal di Jawa Tengah & Yogyakarta: Relasi dan Transformasi” (Jakarta: Setara Institute, 2015), http://www.scribd.com/doc/113570933/ringkasan-pdf#scribd p. 38

[5] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon.” Asia Briefing N°132 Jakarta/Brussels (26 January, 2012), accessed 2 May, 2016, http://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east…/indonesia-vigilantism-terrorism-cirebon, 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ismail Hasani, The Faces of Islam ‘Defenders’ (Jakarta: The Setara Institute, 2010), 20.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Robinson, “Political Economy and the Explanation of Islamic Politics in the Contemporary World,” in Between Dissent and Power: The transformation of Islamic Politics in the Middle East and Asia, ed. Khoo Boo Teik, Yoshihiro Nakanishi and Vedi Hadiz (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). 22.

[10] Mark Woodward et al., “The Islamic Defenders Front: Demonization, Violence and the State in Indonesia,” Contemporary Islam 8, no. 2 (December 28, 2013), doi:10.1007/s11562-013-0288-1, 9.

Can Education and Vocational Training Play a Role in Countering Violent Extremism? 

Discussion about incorporating CVE initiatives within Australia’s education and vocation sectors has re emerged. While Education and vocational training have been shown in some particular cases to reduce engagement in VE, this has only been shown to work in countries experiencing violent conflict. In these cases, the application of CVE has been be specific and justified. 

Blanket approaches to CVE are problematic for several reasons. Primarily, they have been shown to increase distrust of authorities and alienate minority communities. These approaches are also impossible to evaluate, as practitioners are to measure whether this type of program has had any effect. When governments and international organisations are measuring the impact of the activities, if the aim is to counter violent extremism, then that should be what is measured. As Martine Zeuthen explains:

“Some policy makers and practitioners do not wish to target their interventions towards individuals and communities at risk of recruitment and radicalisation but rather wish to have inclusive programmes. In other words their end goal is to contribute to building an inclusive society rather than managing the present problem of radicalisation and recruitment to violent groups. I respect and see a value in this approach as a type of long term development intervention. But the more inclusive the programme, the more difficult it is to show that the intervention prevented violent extremism.  The further we move from the problem the more tangential the intervention is and the harder it becomes to measure any effect.”

For more on this issue, see Countering Violent Extremism – can Education and Vocational Training Play a Role? – http://wp.me/p2mGCr-wH

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.