Spy muster

This week the director-general of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, began telephoning members of parliament to caution them against using inflammatory language around Islam.

It was an extraordinary decision, made in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office. Implicit in it are two little discussed facts: that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation relies on good relations with the Muslim community for the majority of its intelligence about Islamic extremism, and that these tips are not enough to foil all plots, that the country’s leading spy agency is looking at causative factors because waiting to identify specific risks is too fraught.

Lewis’s initiative was met with predictable charges of political intervention. He was said to be setting back the agency’s independence. But Lewis is to be lauded. He is restoring sense to a conversation hijacked by opportunists.

Australia is largely good. The data is there in the latest Scanlon Foundation survey of social cohesion – great tracts of goodwill, of contented humanity.

When confronted with the proposition that multiculturalism has been positive for the country, 86 per cent of people agree. When asked of their sense of belonging, 69 per cent found it great. Asked of their sense of pride in Australia, 89 per cent put it in the upper brackets.

But on the question of Muslims, there is a stubborn rejection. Almost a quarter of Australians reported a negative or strongly negative attitude towards them.

It is this that Tony Abbott had in mind when he wrote: “We can’t remain in denial about the massive problem within Islam.” This is the panicked quarter the then opposition spokesman for immigration, Scott Morrison, was courting when in 2011 he encouraged the shadow cabinet to exploit fear of “Muslim immigration” and the “inability” of Muslims to integrate.

But there is bitter reality to this sort of politics. Preliminary findings by the Islamophobia Register Australia, to be released in a full report next year, show 280 reported incidents of anti-Muslim abuse in the past 12 months.

The register tracks spikes after specific events: terror raids in Sydney and Melbourne, the Martin Place siege, Reclaim Australia rallies. But there were also spikes related to discourse: after the proposal to ban the wearing of the burqa at Parliament House, after Tony Abbott’s national security statement in February, during the inquest into the Martin Place siege. Language matters.

About 12 per cent of this abuse is physical: assaults and vandalism. Another third or so is verbal intimidation or harassment. An alarming amount of these incidents target women in headscarves, and an alarming number happen in front of children – either the victim’s or the abuser’s.

These are the real casualties of the cheap politics of Islamophobia. These are ordinary people whose religion is being stolen from them by a small band of extremists, who are collateral damage in the profitable politics of division.

Pulling these divisions open further will not make Australia safer. Adding political credibility to ill-formed bigotry will only make the job of intelligence agencies and law enforcement more difficult.

Critics are right to say it should not fall to someone in Lewis’s position to make these points, but the sad fact is there is no one else: the parliamentarians who are exploiting division, who need to be spoken to, are the very ones the prime minister cannot control.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Spy muster". Subscribe here.