Contrary to the excitement post-9/11, no terrorist attack has ever truly shifted the global spectrum to a new realm. Instead, the climate of fear that erupts in the wake of such an assault simply uncovers what was already there, just metres below the surface: the deep-rooted, but inexplicable and repulsive, loathing of Muslim people, of multi-syllable last names, of any faith that does not sync up neatly with a deity that our white-bread "old Australian" lifestyle did not see us raised amongst, despite the fact that these communities have always been here.
Islamophobia and racism is not a new, ugly aftermath of a new, ugly act. Terrorism has been around for millenia. So long, in fact, that the definition itself remains subject to debate. Whilst the CIA definition has always been a preference of mine, given the expansive grey area in which one can scrutinise, it differs from that of the FBI, of the Australian Government, of M15. Terrorism is, like pornography, hard to define - though we know it when we see it. Or so the saying goes.
Like criminology and psychology, counter-terrorism is consistently the undergraduate class in the first semester of first year that is indubitably packed with students. The idea of making sense of the psyche and actions of history's baddest bad guys is titillating for anyone, not just a cluster of eighteen-year-olds who are thrilled by the opportunity to debate with one of the greats, Waleed Aly, as to whether the Joker from Batman was a terrorist, or just a nutcase. But as the semester ploughs on, and semantics of terrorism become a greater focus than gory details, class attendance tapers off. Students want to hear tales of good guys (white) triumphing bad guys (black... or, you know any other ethnicity that isn't caucasian). Nobody quite knows how to feel about the IRA, when it's Irish versus Irish. In stories without immediate justice, the students hunger for the bad guys to give "us" something to avenge, just like in the movies.
When the world beyond children's stories persists with binaries of good versus evil, it is an impossibility to prevent this black and white thinking from leaching into our common consciousness. Human beings are capable of frustratingly regressive tribalism, in which "our guys" are the champions, and "their guys" are the most wicked a collective of villains that the world has ever seen. Just look at the coverage of Israel and Palestine, a war that has seldom shuffled, through concession on either side, towards a meaningful, longitudinal peace. Sure, there have been temporary ceasefires, or overwhelming casualties, or moderate shifting of borders, but in essence, the war that has raged for 70 years has not achieved much by way of progress. No one side is at fault, but no one side is void of blame, either. Such is the problem with the way that political violence (through war, militia, or acts of terror) is marketed: when a battle is waged between good and evil, no side sees themselves as capable of villainy. If rules are danced outside of, or a particularly dubious technique is adopted, it is not perceived by the perpetrator as condemnable, but an act of cheekily "drawing outside the lines", borne of desperation. And if the international community reacts with outrage: "They wouldn't understand. They don't realise the extent of the evil we're up against. This is for the greater good."
Terrorism is the great boogeyman of our generation. That is not to say a legitimate threat to personal and community security as a result of political violence exists. However, the reactive and overdramatised fear of terrorism is a greater stress to the average Australian than the likelihood of the act itself. The "if you see something, say something" campaign was launched in October 2001 by the Australian Government, and it has not let up in thirteen years despite the fact that, to date, there has not been one legitimate political terrorist attack in-country (and to those who consider the Sydney Siege to be the grand debut of Daesh in Australia, I encourage you to read up on lone wolf attacks and the parallels between this siege, by a self-proclaimed Daesh agent without so much as an affiliation with the group, and Anders Breivik, the Utoya shooter, who was immediately categorised as the solo actor he was because he had the "good fortune" to be white, Christian, and right wing... ergo, none of the preferred categories to demonise). The fear of the "great evil from abroad" sweeping our coasts and shattering our way of life belies a fundamental ignorance of the Australian public, and domestic radicalisation.
Deradicalisation is the most confronting subset of counter-terrorist theory, because it places an onus upon the communities in which terrorist actors are made. Radicalisation does not happen as in the stories. There are no dusty desert outposts where turbanned men haul Kalashnikovs and glare South-East towards Australia with a furious envy of our "freedom". There are, however, digital forums. Community groups. Conversations occurring in dining rooms. Radicalisation, and the reality of terrorism in the 21st Century, is largely germinated in our own backyard. The Boston Marathon Bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, were, until their radicalisation, a classic immigrant-in-America success story. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, (who was captured alive), was the focal point for the brunt of media analysis after the attack. Why? Because his story was relatable, until it wasn't anymore. He was the younger brother, the one with a great future ahead of him; the handsome one who had thrived in his American life ever since his arrival in America at age nine. He was an athlete, a lifesaver, a scholarship recipient... His nickname was Jahar. A quintessentially all-American boy, if such a cliche exists, despite his "foreign" origins.
But Dzhokhar's bomb killed innocent people. His decision to maim and murder strangers this was a conscious one. He wanted to commit a terrorist act. And this reality was dissonant for many, who struggled to make sense as to the boy's motivations. The "Free Jahar" Campaign grew legs and got to running within days of his identity being revealed to the public. The logic, if you can call it that, was that he was "too handsome to be a terrorist... he's like one of us". Though this logic is absurd, there is merit in further scrutiny beyond the cursory, dismissive shrug of which such Twitterati anti-intellectualism is deserving. Why wouldn't pop culture-saturated people, ignorant to the nuances of political violence, consider someone like Dzhokhar innocent? He ticked all the boxes of a "good American boy". So if a good American boy can become a bad guy even as he mingles with the community at large, what does that tell us of terror and radicalisation?
Deradicalisation is the most fascinating counter-terrorism initiative that we are not talking about. In a more domestic scope, we have found that the pursuit of prospective terrorists by railing against the populous and diverse Muslim community is an obsolete witch-hunt. The persecution of a people whom the general public do not seemingly comprehend in their subtleties is a genuine disgrace. Even now, conversations are dominated by semantic explanations from those who know a little, for the benefit of people who know nothing. Still, we are trying to teach the ignorant that not all Muslim people are Arabic, that people of Persian descent do not all identify as Muslim, that Chechnya is not in the Middle East, etc etc etc. The reason such 101 lesses are still being had is because it is not convenient to see nuance when emotively reacting to violence. The prevailing means of demonising any and all people of colour or people of Muslim faith is a febrile tactic. It is adopted to sledgehammer grey areas in favour of sweeping generalisation, in a regressive means of maybe, just maybe, finding the needle of an authentic villain in the haystack of innocent people who are marginalised without impunity. Deradicalisation vetoes this systemic maligning of minorities, and invites these people to, instead, communicate as to how the general population can engage with members of their community who feel ostracised.
This measure is counter-terroristic in its scope, but is ultimately a preventative measure. In deradicalisation, there is an appreciation that hate groups often find strength in creating a bond between individuals who feel as if they are alienated elsewhere. The unity of people beneath a banner of shared frustration, without an outlet, is a social powder keg. All that is required is for one person to slip a dangerous idea into a vulnerable ear at a time when the subject is emotionally heightened, isolated, and seeks to affirm their own security by lashing out at something else. When a person who has been born and raised in Australia is treated with contempt or loathing because their name is Muhammad, or they wear hijab, is it any wonder resentment breeds? When the Speaker of your Parliament decrees that your religious dress is a threat to governmental security, and places you behind bulletproof glass when you simply want to engage with the political discourse, how else are you supposed to feel other than wounded, frustrated, and discriminated against?
Deradicalisation's holistic approach has yielded exceptional results in Singapore, though these processes do entail active communication with already-radicalised individuals. In other countries, this strategy has been difficult to effectively implement, largely because such an initiative cannot be done as a throwaway gesture of goodwill. Deradicalisation requires authentic engagement with minority groups who many governments around the world are uncomfortable in committing to. There are no votes to be won with the banner: "Let's treat the Hazara population in Australia like people". But a campaign such as: "Australia has a zero tolerance approach to Islamic terrorism"? Well, that's an easy vote winner. No wonder our fair country has no formal deradicalisation policy, despite the generous slices of the budgetary pie being allocated to Defence.
I empathise strongly with the situations in which marginalised communities in Australia may find themselves tempted by the prospect of radicalisation. I have the undeniable privilege of being a white-cast wog. My ethnic identity, regardless of how often I state it, is often disregarded as an inauthentic attempt to "exotify" myself, because despite the immediacy of my mother's racial diversity, I lack her colouring. I seethe when people, more often than one would expect, feel it necessary to deny my self-definition. But then, I consider my own frustrations in the context of those who have no choice in the way they wear their identity, for it is etched in their every hair, freckle, and skin follicle. I wonder, would I hunger for people to identify me by my ethnicity if my people were the Big Bad Wolf du jour?
Hysteria in the wake of terrorist acts has become a tedious song-and-dance of which everyone knows the routine, yet nobody sees it necessary to skip the ugly steps. I have lost count of the times in which the paranoid, the racist, the Islamophobic, and the outright "anti" mob spit into their talkback microphones, or from their lecterns: "Well, why don't the leaders of the community condemn this disgraceful act?" Nobody seems to remember that this is done, with the same regularity and fatigue on each and every occasion that a Muslim actor, anywhere on Earth, commits an act of violence. When a Muslim group in Australia boycotts a meeting with a Prime Minister who baits them in the days preceding with the condemnation that "Muslim people need to join Team Australia", the non-Muslim community reels upon them, demanding that they justify why they are not taking an opportunity to engage, to prove their solidarity, and to tapdance for scraps from the political elite. The gross assumption is that if Muslim leaders do not condemn this behaviour, then by exclusion, they must endorse it.
The expectation of Muslim people to ever be the voice of condemnation of lone wolves or radicals is sickening. "But it's not much effort," insist the neocons, "Why won't they just do it?" To this, I ask: why the hell should they have to? One can be part of a community without having a personal stake in the actions of each and every member. Islam is the most popular religion in the world, and it transcends entire continents of difference in the ways in which the tenets are obeyed. Asking all Muslim people to leap through hoops to safeguard themselves against being treated with suspicion and contempt from others is as explicit a form of racism as any other. Especially when a religion as diversely interpreted as Islam is treated as a monolith that it could never possibly be.
It should not permissible for someone to say: "You've lived in Australia your entire life and have never met your family back in Iraq, but you define yourself as Muslim? Denounce the actions of a hodgepodge group of political actors (many of whom are not even from Iraq) or be forever pigeonholed as an endorser of terrorism!" No chance. If I was expected to bow and scrape every time a white person perpetuated an act of violence, I'd find a way to make my peace with outsiders defining me as a bad guy out of pure exhaustion.
The onus should not be on Muslim, Arabic, or Persian people to justify why others should not hate them, purely because extremists exists elsewhere in their broad culture. Nobody asks American youth to, in unity and with systemically emphatic terms, denounce the actions of each individual school shooter, over and over again. They may be young people who attend schools, just like the hypothetical shooters, but we can respect the nuances in this metaphor with more empathy than we do in the case of Muslim people. In the school shooting story, we accept that no one person is responsible for the violent actions of strangers, distant acquaintances, or even their best friends, just because they are students in the same space. Soliciting the condemnation of these fictional youth is, as with Muslim communities, little more than a foolish derailment from the genuinely important conversations that need to be happening in the wake of political violence.
We need to be having conversations as to how one can affirm against violence, and for the greater good, in the wake of such acts. This ground is nowhere near as well-trod as it could be, and it deserves more column space in our editorial sections. In the aftermath of political violence, it is not uncommon for people removed from the lived experience to act reactively in their enthusiasm to demonstrate solidarity to the perceived victim, and, by extension, express their condemnation of the act. In the wake of the Sydney Siege, it was considered a spit in the face of radicalism to patronise Lindt cafes. This reaction, whilst well-intentioned, is completely naive in the context of the attack itself. The target was not Lindt. The company was not chosen for being, in any way, a political foe of the besieger. Its selection was tactical: directly across the street from a news broadcaster. Lindt was less a focus of the attack than mere collateral damage. The individuals working there, the patrons besieged in that experience, the lives lost and families affected: these people, and likely many others whom I have not listed, are all, without a doubt, victims. But swapping your morning cuppa away from your favourite coffee shop for a few weeks is not any kind of retaliation against the bad guys. Which is fine... so long as we aren't foolish enough to pretend it is one.
Such, too, is the issue with the "Je suis Charlie" campaign that is currently the slacktivist trend of the day. It goes without saying the nobody should be killed for exercising free speech. Ever. But one would be either an extremely naive reader, or have never read Charlie Hebdo in the first place, to see the paper as anything other than a racist, inflammatory and bigoted rag. It is reasonable to feel deep sorrow for the people whose lives were lost as a result of their cartoons. They did not deserve to die. But the way that Charlie Hebdo "satirised" the Muslim faith (for example, depicting the young girls stolen and sold into sex slavery by Boko Haram as a tribe of pregnant welfare bludgers) was as hateful as any other "I'm not racist, but..." joke I've ever seen. Good satire exists to lampoon the perceived elite, but comedy that kicks down the hierarchy against those already being marginalised, is nothing short of twisting the knife. It is baffling that the indignant masses considered this magazine to be the ideal figurehead upon which to latch. To announce, with pride, "Je suis Charlie" is to self-identify as the political equivalent of a dick drawing. Again, we are brought back to the "good guys and bad guys" dichotomy. Where is the sense in aligning oneself on the side of the "good guys" if the so-called "good guys" perpetuate hate speech? Just because extremist violence is unilaterally despicable, it does not render Charlie Hebdo, and all that it has contributed to the Islamophobic neoconservative wave in France, above critique or contempt. The cartoonists who lost their lives should never have been killed for their work. However, they should have been ashamed for producing it in the first place.
I can only hope that Australia, and in time, the rest of the world, will dial back its implicit othering of those who adhere to the Muslim faith. I would, like many, be loath to endorse the othering of people simply trying to live their lives by virtue of my silence. I would hate for this country to alienate any person to the extent that they turn to radical ideology for solace. We do not want our own Dzhokhar Tsarnaev here. But bad guys are not born in vacuums. They the byproduct of systemic bigotry. If we are to nip the seed of radicalisation in the bud, we can start in our own day-to-day practice: by opening our hearts, our minds, and showing kindness, curiosity, and acceptance of cultures we do not adhere to, or maybe lack insight into. In phrasing our questions with kindness and curiosity, we invite conversation, not defensiveness.
The simplest way to combat resentment and alienation is to smother it with love. So get out there, and love. Hard.
And for the sceptical reader who is dubious as to my my intentions in writing this post, make no mistake: I do not condone any act of terrorism. I am no apologist for violence. But to think that I need to make that disclaimer after 3,000 words wherein I ask us all to take responsibility for the ways in which we contribute to a status quo that may foster radicalisation... well, that kind of says it all, doesn't it?
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.