Christmas drinks with former colleagues in Canberra after sending last Sunday’s Commentary have been followed by some important developments and questions about government policies both here and overseas.
First, I had suggested in that Commentary that the head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, needed to correct his statement that he doesn’t “buy the notion the issue of extremism is in some way fostered or sponsored or supported by the Muslim religion”. I also questioned whether that statement had been prompted by Turnbull.
Today’s “The Australian” has a lead item accusing Lewis of “playing politics” (see this “Statement by ASIO Head”) by phoning Coalition MPs and urging them to talk about extremist Islam in “soothing language”. It also suggests that the PM’s office was involved in arranging for the phone calls, although this is “emphatically denied” by that office. Whether or not the office was involved, it is important that Turnbull himself explain why Lewis made the calls (it would be astonishing if he had done so without first having cleared the matter with Turnbull or a senior minister).
More importantly in one sense, Turnbull now needs to explain what legitimate basis exists for any policy avoiding mention of a linkage between extremism and the Muslim religion (there are reports that Foreign Minister Bishop has defended Lewis making public commentary if he considers the work of ASIO at risk in countering terrorism but that is a matter for a minister not a bureaucrat). Leaving aside the Koran, that linkage is now patently obvious to the general public and its continued avoidance by the government leaves the counter-terrorist policy, as enunciated, lacking in credibility. Moreover, given that a majority of Muslims are “peaceful”, that should still allow ASIO to access information from at least some of them. Some Muslims have in fact expressed concern at extremist type statements by fellow Muslims and advantage should be taken of that to frame a government policy statement (see this report on an attitude by a Sydney Muslim entitled “Muslim to Muslim: if you don’t like it here, leave”).
The reality is that the government’s policy should be much tougher. It should be open to jail/detain those who advocate/plan violence or actually commit it. The agreement reached with state governments that those extremists already in jail should continue there provides a basis for a policy applying to a wider group (see “Terrorists to Stay in Jail”). And, as I have argued for some time, a policy document is needed explaining why the extremist version of the Muslim religion is not acceptable in western societies.
Second, “The Australian” has published a report indicating that Australia’s Grand Mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, has publicly supported an extremist member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi, at his base in Qatar (see “Grand Mufti – Islamic?”). Turnbull, who has declared the GM to be a friend, should seek an explanation from him and request that he withdraw his name from a petition originated by Qaradawi which urges Muslims to fight in Syria and approves suicide bombing. This report has been followed today by a report that at the Parramatta Mosque a group of Muslims has discussed the pledging of an alliance to the Islamic State, which Australian air forces are fighting against. The GM should be asked about this too.
Third, “The Australian” reports that Obama has made a new statement in which he declares that the leaders of IS will be killed and that the US and its allies will hit IS harder. While Obama again rejected using US troops on the ground, he seemed to emphasise the role being played by US special forces in Syria and to acknowledge the need to speed up the attack on IS. This speeding up strategy may reflect polling showing that 60% now disapprove of Obama’s counter-terrorist policy and that only 43% approve of his job performance. This new statement by Obama suggests a possible increased role for Australia ie the opposite to the quick rejection of such a role a few days ago by Turnbull and his Defence minister.
Fourth, “The Australian” reports that Saudi Arabia has announced a 34 nation military alliance to respond to terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. The extent of this alliance is not clear but it raises the possibility of some meaningful anti-terrorist group amongst Middle Eastern countries and certainly provides political justification for Australia to be involved both overseas and domestically.
Fifth, the need for increased action comes at a time when the terrorist threat appears to be greater almost every day. ISIS appears for example to have established more than a “beachhead” in Libya and the extent of the potential threat of terrorism in France is revealed by the cancellation of passes to Paris airports of 70 suspected radicals.