A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Dialogue, opportunity key bridges beyond terror, say local Muslims

Local Muslims have faced relentless scrutiny in the face of terror being waged by radical Islamists, but rhetoric following the Paris attacks is being cited by some as signalling a shift, reports Freddy Woodhouse.

 

The offices of the Islamic Council of Victoria can be found in an inconspicuous building on a quiet street in West Melbourne. Depending on the time of day, visitors will be greeted either by a reflective silence or the sound of prayers emanating from the mosque on its first floor. 

A stained glass panel is mounted on the wall at the top of the stairs to the third floor offices. It depicts the tree of life, ornamented with a dazzling canopy of multi-coloured leaves. 

This quiet atmosphere gives no indication of the intense public scrutiny under which the organisation periodically finds itself, the result of heightened anxiety about the perceived threat posed by young Muslim men seduced by violent ideologies. 

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Nail Aykan, the council’s executive director, says volunteer staff were deluged with calls in September last year when police shot and killed Numan Haider, a young Afghan suspected of developing extremist sympathies.

“The media has been absolutely unforgiving,” he laments. “Some outlets are so aggressive they won’t stop harassing you. Anything that happens we get asked to explain. Everyone was a bit overwhelmed.”

The Islamic Council of Victoria is the peak body for the state’s Muslim groups, with 47 member organisations. As well as advocacy and the provision of welfare to disadvantaged members of its community, the council runs outreach programs that include interfaith dialogue with Jewish and Christian groups. In August last year, the council gained media attention for boycotting a proposed meeting with Tony Abbott, labelling it a “media stunt”.

“It was too much, too soon,” Mr Aykan explains, listing each headline-grabbing event. There was the rise of ISIS, or Islamic State, and the raising of Australia’s terror threat from medium to high. There were the counter-terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane. Then there was the counter-terrorism legislation. 

Then, the shooting of 18-year-old Haider, followed by the soldier in Sydney who falsely claimed he was attacked by a Muslim and the debate over the wearing of the burkha in parliament, which Mr Aykan describes as “completely obnoxious . . . idiotic”.

And almost a year ago, there came the so-called “Sydney siege” in which lone wolf Man Haron Monis held 10 people hostage in a cafe, an act which led to the deaths of two of them, as well as Monis himself.

Despite the taxing media attention, Mr Aykan makes an effort to remain cheerful. “If you were to ask me as a joke which was more of a challenge, ISIS or the media, the media may weigh on us a little more,” he says tongue-in-cheek.

“The media has been absolutely unforgiving. Some outlets are so aggressive they won’t stop harassing you. Anything that happens we get asked to explain. Everyone was a bit overwhelmed.” — Nail Aykan; executive director, Islamic Council of Victoria

For Mr Aykan and the ICV’s volunteers, the recent terror attacks in Paris are just one of many incidents that has placed serious demands on their time and energy.

But this time the impact has been different. This time, he believes there has been little of the “sensationalist fearmongering” about Australian Muslims that often follows in the wake of such attacks. Mr Aykan says he’s been heartened by the coverage of the story by mainstream media outlets generally.

Yet, it’s progress in the political sphere that Mr Aykan is most enthusiastic about. He believes that since the Liberal coup that elevated Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership, the narrative emanating from Canberra on Muslim issues has been a “game changer”. He says that to compare Mr Turnbull’s treatment of the Muslim community to that of his predecessor is to compare “sunshine to darkness”.

As evidence for this optimism, Mr Aykan points to Mr Turnbull’s insistence during the recent G20 summit in Turkey that Muslim communities must not be demonized in the wake of such attacks, and that he chose in his speech to G20 leaders to quote from a letter sent to him by the ICV.

Muslims, Mr Aykan continues, are tired of being called to account for the actions of a few.

“The number one question we’re asked is: ‘Do you condemn?’ Condemn, condemn, condemn. It becomes quite a burden. Do the Catholic population get asked to condemn cases of child abuse?”

He says that one of the chief reasons the Islamic Council will always be quick to comment on terrorist attacks is that it is important not to give anyone a reason to be suspicious of the Muslim community.

“Silence can be interpreted as consent. It plays into the hands of the right-wingers who will continue to spread their hatred, paranoia and conspiracy theories.” — the ICV’s Nail Aykan

“Silence can be interpreted as consent. It plays into the hands of the right-wingers who will continue to spread their hatred, paranoia and conspiracy theories,” he says, adding that he’s worried that identifiably Muslim people, such as women who wear hijabs, might be attacked.

“That’s a reality. Just two weeks ago, a 21-year-old Malaysian student was attacked outside the State Library in broad daylight. If we can prevent that, it’s all worthwhile.”

It is, he adds, a sad reality. “It’s been the case for a very long time. We’re conditioned to it.”

But Mr Aykan is eager not to cast Australia’s Muslims as passive victims whose main problem is an unsympathetic or racist press. He insists that unfair or sensationalist media coverage of Muslim issues shouldn’t be used to downplay the danger of young, largely male Muslims adopting extremist beliefs.

It’s a problem he feels the Muslim community must work to overcome. Much of the discussion about radicalism has focused on cases where young Muslim men have travelled to Syria to fight with Islamic State.

While the number who have done so may seem insignificant — about 60 from a population of almost half a million Australian Muslims — Mr Aykan says that this shouldn’t detract from the importance of the problem. 

“It’s enough to warrant attention; to say ‘there’s a problem’. Our intelligence agency says there are 60 kids overseas. If it’s 60 kids that’s 60 too many.”

The Federal Government has placed a premium on social programs to address the complex social phenomenon that is extremism. These include connecting young people who are vulnerable to militancy with imams within the community, and backing programs such as that partnered by Victorian police and run through the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, as well as the Islamic Council’s own prison chaplaincy service. 

But government programs can be met with suspicion. Mohamad Tabbaa, a doctoral student in criminology at the University of Melbourne and a former Islamic Council media spokesman, says he does not expect them to achieve anything.

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Where Mr Aykan is keen to downplay the prevalence of Islamophobia, Mr Tabbaa believes that, along with issues such as poverty, it is one of the biggest problems currently facing young Muslims. He argues that extremism barely registers as a problem for the community.

Mr Tabbaa accuses many of the programs designed to confront extremism of being counter-productive. Their chief fault, he thinks, is that they ignore the anger that young Muslims feel as a consequence of discrimination.

“These programs do not attract the type of youth they’re intended for. A lot of them are seen, rightly or wrongly, almost as extensions of government and police, so there isn’t a lot of trust. When they enact programs like this it confirms that they are extensions of police.”

But Mr Aykan does not think the police involvement with community programs is a serious barrier and is positive about the relationship they have with the Muslim community. 

He says he is proud of his organisation’s chaplaincy service. An extension of the general prison chaplaincy services, it is a rehabilitation program co-ordinated with the police.

The service aims to meet the needs of prisoners in jail for terror-related offences. Mr Aykan says none of the participants had expressed extremist or militant views since leaving prison. 

But Mr Tabbaa thinks the antagonism between young Muslims and the police run too deep for such programs to be truly successful.

“The police force in Victoria is well-known, not just by Muslims, to be incredibly racist in its profiling and its policies,” he argues. “A lot of Muslim youth are responding to this prolonged experience of racism by police, by authorities, at times by the public.”

“These [social] programs do not attract the type of youth they’re intended for. A lot of them are seen, rightly or wrongly, almost as extensions of government and police, so there isn’t a lot of trust.” — Mohamad Tabbaa, a doctoral student in criminology and former Islamic Council media spokesman

In 2013, after the release of a report detailing methods the police would use to counter racism, the then-Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, acknowledged that police had been guilty of racial profiling.  

The Police Accountability Project, organised by the Kensington-Flemington Legal Centre, continues to document cases where racial discrimination has been alleged to have taken place.

“There was one case of a young kid, I think he was 16 at the time,” Mr Tabbaa recalls. “He was literally plucked off the street, thrown into the back of a van, driven around for a long time and thrown out on a street he didn’t recognise. He thought he was going to die.” 

Despite their differences, both Mr Tabbaa and Mr Aykan agree that social welfare programs such as those aimed at prisoners only work on the effects of the problem while neglecting the causes.

For Mr Aykan, these are more complicated than just the exposure of Muslim youths to radical ideas. He argues that the roots of the problem are more economic and social than ideological.

“Most [offenders] tend to come from lower socio-economic areas,” he says. “They have a rough-and-tough background. A good number come from broken families.” 

Mr Aykan is also worried about the drug ice. Although he says there is no direct link between extreme militant beliefs and drug use, he believes that the narcotics problem is a symptom of hopelessness, revealing something about the condition in which many young Muslim men and women live.

“They’re bored, they’re disenfranchised. They’re not getting job interviews because of their name. They feel discriminated against. Even if they’re born here, they feel there’s nothing on offer for them.” 

Because he thinks the sources of radicalism lie in deep-rooted social issues, Mr Aykan admits that community engagement programs by themselves will not work. Sitting young Muslim men down in front of moderate preachers but doing little else is an inadequate solution. Most imams, he says, are older men who have been trained overseas and are unable to relate to young, local Muslims. 

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What is it that he thinks will be most effective at blunting the allure that radical groups may have for some young Muslims? 

His answer is hardly a radical one. It is jobs, he says, that will have the biggest impact. A career, a sense of purpose, the ability to buy a house and raise a family — all of these things offer a way out for disaffected youth who may see violent groups such as ISIS as a way out of tedium and hopelessness. 

“It has to be a collaborative response,” he argues. “It can’t be seen as a Muslim problem. You can’t just throw money at the Muslim community and get them to solve the problem. We don’t have the resources or the skills. Employment has to come from high up.”  

Mr Tabbaa concurs, insisting that unless community leaders are able to acknowledge the social and political reasons for the anger that many of these vulnerable young men feel, the problem will persist. 

“You don’t sit back and have a coffee and think: ‘I’m going to blow something up today’,” he says. “We don’t respond to terrorism so much as terrorism responds to us.”

But unlike Mr Aykan, Mr Tabbaa is cynical about the prospect of government help. “Nothing else is being addressed other than what the government sees as important. In a local sense, we don’t get to self-determine what we will address and what we won’t. It’s almost pre-determined for us and we simply have to respond to it.” 

For Mr Tabbaa, this control amounts to a form of discrimination. Instead of attending to the needs of their communities, Muslim organisations are constantly required to appease white Australia’s fear of the “brown Muslim menace”. 

“They’re bored, they’re disenfranchised. They’re not getting job interviews because of their name. They feel discriminated against. Even if they’re born here, they feel there’s nothing on offer for them.” — the ICV’s Nail Aykan on vulnerable Muslim youth

The Islamic Council is careful not to describe the situation in such pessimistic terms. Despite the similarity of their views over the social and economic causes of militant ideology, Mr Aykan is dismissive of what he calls the “cynical” perspective. Although he says he doesn’t want to make excuses on behalf of the police or the government, he believes they are capable of providing the support he feels Muslim communities need. 

He argues that a report released by the Scanlon Foundation showing that most Australians are happy with the police is a reason for the Muslim community to remain confident. The police, he says, are willing to learn from their mistakes and work with the community. 

And although some parliamentary rhetoric disturbs him, he extends his charitable outlook to the political sphere as well. While the debate over banning people from wearing the burkha in parliament was outrageous, he says it would be wrong to see it as heralding a rise of Islamophobia. 

“A respected member of the Liberal Party once told us that we’ve got a really great democracy, but occasionally fools get through the cracks. I think he summed it up really well.” 

He believes that most Muslims share his hope for the future. “The cynics on either side are a minority,” he insists for a second time, as he prepares to meet another visitor who has been waiting patiently.

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