The weak flank in Abbott's terror response

Australia is at a cross-roads in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. By committing $13m in various programs to help young Muslims at risk of radicalisation, Tony Abbott has taken a step in the right direction, but it's nowhere near enough.

In 1974, the worst year of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the IRA detonated around 60 bombs in mainland Britain, many of them in London.

The bombings decreased after that, but remained a regular feature of life in the UK right up until the last ‘Real IRA’ bomb went off in 2001.

Just as that threat abated in the years following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, terror acts by Islamic extremists multiplied -- the 9/11 attacks set the world on edge and London experienced what is now known as the 7/7 co-ordinated attack in 2005.

On the other side of the world, Australia got a shocking taste of terrorism with the 2002 Bali bombing, and similar suicide bombings in Bali in 2005.

More recently around the world we’ve seen Anders Breivik gunning down youth members of a Norwegian political party in 2012, pressure-cooker bombs set off by a couple of Chechen brothers in the 2013 Boston Marathon, more high-school shootings and the questions over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in March.

And these are only the terror acts that make the western news cycle. Bombings in Pakistan or attacks in China’s western provinces usually fall off the radar.

Similar attacks on the Australian mainland have been less common, but feature such random acts as:

-- the racist Australian Nationalist Movement blowing up Chinese restaurants in Perth in the 1980s (one dopey ANM member admitted in a subsequent documentary that he and his wife had often enjoyed dining at one he’d destroyed)

-- the bizarre fire-bombing of the Whiskey a Go Go club in Sydney that killed 15 in 1973.

-- and what ASIO calls ‘active shooter’ events, such as the Hoddle Street shootings in Melbourne and the Port Arthur massacre.

There was also a foiled attempt by four men to stage a mass shooting at Holsworthy Army Barracks in NSW in 2009.

Terror attacks take many guises, and arise from varied motivations. The federal government’s National Counter-Terrorism Committee notes that they nearly always target “places of mass gathering” which are “attractive targets for religious and political extremists, as well as disgruntled or mentally impaired individuals.”

There are examples of all those types of perpetrators above.

What this thumbnail sketch is intended to illustrate is that terrorism has been a part of national security for years and will continue to be so for a variety of reasons.

At present, however, there is only one pressing threat. ASIO considers that “the main terrorist threat to Australia emanates from al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Islamist terrorists inspired by AQ’s world view.” That clearly encompasses the Islamic State fighters.

Nonetheless, the four-level terrorism alert scale used by the Australian government is still at “medium -- terrorist attack could occur”, and in fact has never been raised to the two higher settings: “high --terrorist attack is likely” or “extreme -- terrorist attack is imminent or has occurred”.

Sadly, the brutality of the apparent murder of US journalist James Foley by the Islamic State is having exactly the desired effect in Australia.

In recent days we have seen thinly disguised racism appearing from journalists and commentators, and our political leaders feeling once again they must ‘do something’ about fighters returning from the Iraq and Syria conflict zones, despite the fact we have had a sophisticated and multi-faceted counter-terrorism plan in place for years.

Prime Minister Abbott has tried to rally support among Muslim leaders for more stringent anti-terror laws, and has met some hostility.

For non-Muslims, such as the present author, it may be difficult to empathise with Muslims, who make up around 2.5 per cent of the Australian population, getting angry with the PM’s attempts to do something.

Perhaps an easier way to comprehend their anger is to think back to some of the attacks listed above, perpetrated by political, religious, or plain mentally-unwell individuals who were nominally Christian.

Did Christian minorities in, say, the then-British Hong Kong, come under pressure to denounce their bretheren in Northern Ireland? Were they asked to support the suspension of the normal onus of proof -- innocent until proven otherwise -- if they visited Northern Ireland?

Granted, the analogy is far from perfect, but increasing pressure is being placed on Australian Muslims to wail with penance when they, in fact, have done nothing wrong.

And all the while, the process of radicalisation which does take place in some Muslim-dominated suburbs of Australia, gets less attention than it deserves -- because the disenfranchisement, joblessness and poverty that underpin it is harder to address than apprehending people at the airport (and as indicated above, we already have sophisticated plans for dealing with such people).

Yet somebody in the Prime Minister’s office has noticed that disadvantage and disenfranchisement need to be addressed. The PM yesterday announced as part of a broader package, $13 million for education, youth activities and employment programs for young Muslims at risk of radicalisation.

In principle, this approach is correct.

In the aftermath of the 2005 Cronulla riots, in which Lebanese Muslims clashed with non-Muslims, the then Human Rights Commissioner Tom Calma noted in a speech in Brisbane that “international factors like September 11 and the Bali bombings, and more recently the London attacks, increase the level of discrimination and vilification experienced by Arab and Muslim Australian.

“This in turn alienates the community from the rest of society, which in turn exacerbates the level of discrimination that they experience. This spiral of discrimination followed by marginalisation and alienation is fuelled by fear and prejudice and manifests into hate and retaliation.”

The kind of programs Abbott announced yesterday are a clear acknowledgement that somebody in his office understands this process.

However, $13m is just a drop in the bucket. The sweeping reforms to social security announced in the May budget - particularly making jobless Australians wait up to six months to receive the dole – will do much more damaged in areas such as Sydney’s Lakemba, where unemployment is high, than $13m can repair.

Australia is at a cross-roads in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Some newspaper editors will be tempted to sell papers by trading on sweeping generalisations about Muslim Australia.

The government, if it were to stoop so low, could make political capital by ‘doing something’ with actions that fail to address the causes of radicalisation.

Or we could look at the roots of the problem in Australia, as Abbott appears to be doing is a small way at least, admit that terror is a weapon of all kinds of political, religious and disturbed individuals. And like Londoners during the bombing spree of 1974,  ‘keep calm and carry on’.