So now it has come to this. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, headed by David Irvine, has been depicted as ”racist”. Why? Well, because ASIO has acted to prevent young Australian Muslims from travelling to Syria to fight in a civil war against other Muslims. That’s why, apparently.
On the weekend, it was reported that ASIO cancelled the passports of about 20 men from western Sydney. Australian intelligence officials believe that they are possessed of a ”jihadi mentality” and are intent on travelling to Syria ”to engage in politically motivated violence”.
Monday’s Herald carried a story that Abu Bakr, a 19-year-old Bankstown labourer, has been identified as one of the Australian citizens against whom ASIO has acted. He accused ASIO of racism. Bakr was subsequently interviewed on ABC radio 702 by Linda Mottram.
It was not Mottram’s best interview and she gave the impression that she was avoiding the tough questions. Bakr denied that he wanted to fight in Syria. But he railed against ”killing innocent people, killing babies, killing the children [and] raping our women”. Bakr then declared: ”This is what the Americans and Israelis and the Alawites agree with – but I do not agree with this.”
In Syria, there is overwhelming evidence that children, women and men are being bombed and women raped. Neither the US nor Israel are militarily involved in Syria, which has become essentially a battleground between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, presides over an Alawite regime. The Alawite religion is a sect of Shiite Islam. In the appalling civil war, Assad has the support of the Shiites – primarily the government of Iran and Hezbollah. The opponents of the Assad regime are primarily Sunni Muslims, including many foreign fighters.
In its 2012-13 report to Parliament, ASIO comments that ”the Syrian conflict has resonated strongly in Australia, partly because of deep familial ties to Lebanon that exist here”. According to ASIO, ”as at 30 June, 2013, four Australians were known to have been killed in Syria”.
ASIO has also commented that a ”byproduct of the Syrian conflict has been sporadic incidents of small-scale communal violence along the line of the Middle East’s Sunni-Shi’a divide”.
Bakr may, or may not, want to travel to Syria. But some Australian Muslims have done so. One, from Queensland, became the first known Australian to have taken part in a car bomb murder/suicide attack. He was a Sunni and died while fighting with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist organisation.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims killed or injured over the past two decades have been the victims of other Muslims. The avoidance of this issue makes it possible for the likes of Bakr to present themselves as fighting against Americans or Israelis.
The number of radical Islamists in Australia appears to be relatively small. However, it is not in Australia’s national interest that its citizens, however few, become radicalised and skilled with weapons while engaging in civil wars.
Last weekend, police arrested and charged a Sydney disability pensioner with running a complicated scheme to enlist young Australian Muslims to fight with such Islamist terrorist movements as Jabhat al-Nusra against the Assad regime. Such recruitment is common in Europe and North America.
Australians have good reason to appreciate the work of intelligence agencies and Commonwealth, state and territory police to prevent terrorist attacks within Australia. When launching the national security strategy in January, then prime minister Julia Gillard addressed the issue of domestic terrorism. She said ”here, at home, numerous terrorist plots have been thwarted and 23 convictions have resulted from the prosecution of those who planned such attacks”.
In all cases, the accused Islamists were found guilty by juries. All received substantial prison sentences, despite the fact that some came before left-liberal judges. All the major convictions have prevailed when appeals were made. In short, what Gillard referred to were serious unsuccessful plans to kill and injure Australian children, women and men going about their everyday activities.
There is no suggestion that Australian Muslims intent on fighting in Syria want to harm Australia. However, it is believed that about a 10th of Islamists who fight overseas return radicalised to their home country.
In the November issue of Standpoint magazine, Douglas Murray documents how ”moderate movements in Islam have repeatedly lost to the hardliners”. Preventing radicals from fighting overseas is in the interest of the overwhelming majority of moderate Australian Muslims. It’s not racist.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.