Counter Points: A narrative worth telling

Involving Australia’s Muslim communities for the best outcomes

Isaac Kfir

Government and governance, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia

6 May 2019

In the fifth of his series, Isaac Kfir argues that Australia must rethink its counter-narrative to Salafi-Jihadist ideology while being more mindful of how it engages with local Muslim communities.

One of the shortcomings of Australia’s 2015 Counterterrorism Strategy is its inability to construct a strong counter-narrative while effectively engaging local Muslim communities. All the while, senior politicians fail to recognise that their own actions fuel extensive resentment across the community.

The last decade has seen several reputable studies (for example, here, here, and here) on policing and countering violent extremism. Nowhere near as much investment has been made in assessing Australia’s counter-narrative, though, as the country remains fixated on factors and indicators associated with radicalisation and attacks.

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The failing is understandable. Until recently, the literature on these issues was embryonic.

In 2015, it was recognised – mostly amongst European scholars – that the Muslim community was justifiably disillusioned and angry with governments’ approach to deradicalisation, and more specifically, with their approach to preventing and countering violent extremism within individual communities.

The general view was that the Muslim community as a whole had been unfairly castigated for the actions of a few. Understandably, they were angry that when Christians launched attacks, western authorities and media refrained from classifying them as ‘terrorists’ and from demanding that the entire Christian community take responsibility for their actions.

For example, after the recent Christchurch massacre, British tabloid Daily Mirror was scrutinised for describing the shooter as an ‘angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer’, while on the other hand calling Omar Mateen, the perpetrator of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, an ‘ISIS manic’. Both killed 49 people.

Early attempts at community engagement in Australia have had mixed results. ‘Living Safe Together’ is one of such attempts put forth by the government, emphasising the deradicalisation of individuals through tailored education, engagement activities, and several online initiatives.

The campaign successfully makes the important distinction between radicalisation and violent extremism, noting that someone that is radicalised doesn’t automatically or necessarily engage in the latter. For the program to prove truly effective, though, the community must first be convinced of its necessity.

One can only wonder how willing a community that feels increasingly marginalised would be to work with the authorities. Here, however, it must also be noted that there’s a difference between when a specific community leader refuses to work with the government and when entire communities decide to do so.

Many Muslims in Australia already feel unfairly targeted by counterterrorism laws and programs, as well as feeling unjustly stigmatised based on the actions of a small minority. Generalisations are often made about ‘the Muslim community’ without discerning between sects, traditions, and levels of religiosity – amongst other things.

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On top of all of this, both the presence and severity of Islamophobia in Australia has often been denied or downplayed.

A starting point for rethinking Australia’s counter-narrative would be to clarify its purpose. Does it aim to dispel conspiracies about the government – like al-Qaeda’s claim that the Chinese state had murdered over 4 million Muslims in 1949? Or does it emphasise the conspiratorial, salvific, and apocalyptic nature of the Salafi-jihadi movement?

Though subtle, such differences are important. Depending on the focus of Australia’s counter-narrative, extremist groups will recruit by painting a narrative that either encourages individuals to fulfil their religious duties or that scares them with a coming apocalypse.

Australia must also decide whether to focus on deradicalisation efforts or disengagement strategies, as it’s impossible for an effective counter-narrative to accomplish both.

Moreover, it’s imperative for the counter-narrative to be mindful of the complexities of Islam. It shouldn’t, for example, read as an exegesis of the Qur’an. The Salafi-jihadi milieu is more complex than perceivable, involving an array of arguments, ideas, and values that must not be manipulated to elicit certain emotional reactions. Rethinking the narrative demands genuine appreciation of the intellectual genealogy of ISIL and the movement.

An effective counter-narrative campaign must recognise the role of foreign policy as well, especially with Salafi-jihadi rhetoric condemning western governments for being hypocritical. It claims that, while they preach liberal democratic values and argue for the respect for human rights, they also ignore harm inflicted on Muslims locally and in places such as Syria, China, and Yemen.

Thus, if western governments – including Australia – want to successfully fight the Salafi-jihadi narrative, they must be honest as to why they’ve yet to confront the Chinese government vis-à-vis its abuse of the Uyghurs or Myanmar’s government regarding its treatment of the Rohingya.

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In the past, China has freely wielded its economic might against its challengers. For example, in response to Australia banning Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network projects, it reduced Australian coal imports and introduced ‘new environment and safety checks on foreign cargoes’. This might explain why the Australian government has largely chosen to turn a blind eye on human rights violations against Muslims.

Such examples often create much distrust in the government within Muslim communities – all the more reason why Australia’s counter-narrative must involve more inter-disciplinary planning, as well as employing former radicals and individuals who were at the Caliphate or seduced by extremist ideology.

Policymakers must also remember that many from the Muslim community, despite some being resentful of counterterrorism laws and initiatives, encourage states to focus on the peaceful aspects of Islam. Only through involving them in the reconsideration process, and through further collaborative efforts, can Australia’s new counter-narrative convince local Muslim communities of its potential.

Australia has been able to make improvements to its counterterrorism strategy, but now it’s time that it invests in a better counter-narrative as well. Successive governments, police, and security agencies must effectively engage with a community that already feels marginalised.

They can do so by recognising the Muslim community’s genuine sense of disillusionment with those in power, as well as acknowledging that politicians mostly only show interest in their community when seeking votes or after horrific incidents like Christchurch. People want sincerity and they know when actions are genuine or not.

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