The Australian government is currently proffering a range of solutions for “radicalisation”, but no one seems to be too concerned about explaining exactly what radicalisation is, how it proceeds, and what its connection to terrorism might be. At this point, you might begin to suspect that the fuzziness with which this concept is being deployed is deliberate, or that they themselves don’t know what they mean by it, or both.
On the evidence of recent days, it takes in everything from toting a gun in Syria to moody behaviour at school. The only common thread is that for now, radicalisation is something that happens exclusively to Australian Muslims.
On one hand, we have heard a lot from the government over a long time about the phenomenon of Australian citizens going overseas to fight for Isis. Estimates of how many people are actually doing this fluctuate over time, and with the teller of the tale. In April it was reported that there were around 100 people there, and around 30 have died doing it.
This, we are told, is the fruit of radicalisation: strapping on an AK for the “Death Cult”. This behaviour has already been criminalised, and what’s more, anyone who is found to have engaged in it risks having their passport revoked.
Now the government is insisting that these people must be moved completely beyond the pale of the law and the state. The new proposal is that anyone doing it who is a dual citizen be stripped of their Australian citizenship altogether by ministerial fiat.
Reportedly, this is a climbdown! Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton wanted the power to strip even sole citizens of their status, creating a new class of the stateless.
There are few things so punitive or arbitrary that a Coalition cabinet minister can’t bring themselves to consider them. Remember that locking up children, permanently storing everyone’s phone records and browsing history, and depriving the unemployed of any means of sustenance are all acceptable to this bunch.
But even notorious hypocrites like George Brandis couldn’t come at this. Apart from sounding like the kind of brain fart that might come from a talkback caller, it creates the weird and alarming mirror image of Isis’s own grandiose proclamations about the creation of a Caliphate, and a nation of believers, that transcend the existing state system.
Perhaps it also raised for some members of cabinet the same question that it does in any sensible person: if the threat of jail or of losing your passport doesn’t curb your desire to fight and die for Isis, why on earth would this?
We can debate where these proposals for actual Isis fighters lie on the continuum between ill-considered and insane. But at least they are aimed at people who have acted. Others appear to be directed at far more nebulous things, like people’s thoughts.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Phillip Ruddock will be leading a “national conversation” which will “consider whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are well understood”. The discussion paper that goes along with this effort has been delayed, apparently as a result of the cabinet disagreement, but we are told that it will extend the government’s “broader strategy for countering violent extremism”.
You may notice if you read the transcript of Abbott’s press conference that this is political communication that doesn’t impart any information. Is “radicalisation” the same as “violent extremism”? Does one cause the other?
Are they linked in a causal chain? What should we be looking for? What is acceptable for citizens in a democracy to say, think, or read and what isn’t? What is the distinction between “extremism” and ordinary Muslim belief that the government keeps insisting that they respect? From whence comes the assumption that this is related to an insufficient inculcation of the virtues and responsibilities of citizenship?
Anyone who looks to the attorney general’s department’s materials will find a lack of clarity on all of this that is either chilling or embarrassing, depending on your point of view.
We’re told that “People can become radicalised to violent extremism due to a range of factors.” We’re also informed that people can get grants for combatting it to provide support for a range of activities, including mentoring, counselling, “case management” and sport, “But we are open to a wide range of ideas!” And we’re also told that the list of organisations offering services in this area will be collated without being made public. All in all, it’s bewildering.
To the observer, it may seem that debate without any specific terms is being had about existing schemes without clear public criteria of success, with the promise of further discussion whose terms are murky. There’s no reference to the extant scholarly and professional discussion about why and how people drift to Islamism, which emphasises the role of perceived injustice.
More cynically, you might say that this all works pretty well to keep terms like “radicalisation” and “extremism” as content-free, flexible terms that do little more than gesture towards the Muslims in our midst as a source of potential danger, and authorise governments to protect us from that danger, whatever it is, and empower them to to police deviations from an equally imaginary moderate middle. A lot of reporting is not helping to clarify the situation: it’s simply taking all of this as read.
This effort by government to produce a vague sense of insecurity, then offer to protect us from it, can lead us in strange and alarming directions. Last week Christopher Pyne mooted a “jihadi-watch” scheme for schools, where education authorities would move to train students and teachers “to watch for shifts in behaviour such as students drifting away from their friends, running into minor trouble with the law and arguing with those who have different ideological views to their own”.
By those standards, I am glad the scheme wasn’t in place when I was in high school. I would have ended up on a watchlist.
What’s more alarming still is the steady bipartisan drift in a direction that normalises all of this. Fierravanti-Wells has been beating the drum on the need for immigrants to sign up unquestioningly to Australian values for a decade. In 2006, in a Senate debate on multiculturalism, she said that:
Australia today is … tied by a set of common beliefs and values – a belief in a free and competitive market system, freedom of choice, respect for human life and respect for the rule of law. This means that those who come from societies which are less contemporarily progressive than our own need to have an acceptance of these values and beliefs.
That was a time when the ALP was prepared to push back against this kind of insulting nonsense. John Faulkner immediately replied to Fierravanti-Wells: “It is easy to find scapegoats in members of our community who look different. It is comfortable to pretend that the flaws in our society are all the fault of others: the different, the foreign, the strangely dressed”.
Who will push back now against a move which threatens to require young Muslims to perennially prove their loyalty, and their very claim to citizenship, under free-ranging scrutiny and surveillance?
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