While Muslim community leaders combat youth radicalism, the federal police are considering how to utilise returned foreign fighters as deterrents. By Lauren Williams.

Fighting Muslim radicalisation

In what is usually a dance studio within the old stone walls of the University of Sydney, 400 Australian Muslim men are crammed onto Arabic carpets, kneeled in prayer. They are guided by Sheikh Ahmed Abdo, who has just delivered a commanding sermon urging them to control their anger.

“To suppress his anger is the challenge for every Muslim,” he says, “and indeed every person.” Quoting the Koran, he continues: “Those who restrain and suppress their anger and pardon others… God loves the doers of good.”

A bespectacled 34-year-old, Abdo, who trained in Yemen, speaks with a softly spoken authority. In his daily work with youth and Muslim police, the sheikh says he seeks to teach the principles of “virtue, selflessness, dignity, honour and universal principles that transcend race and religion, age and ethnicity”.

In Australia’s current political climate, there is a lot for young Muslims to feel angry about. Overarching counterterrorism legislation and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians are stymying efforts to counter violent extremism in the community before they even begin. Some critics argue the political rhetoric surrounding terrorism is perhaps the biggest contributor to a sense of alienation and radicalisation among young Muslims.

“We need to recognise that people have a right to be angry,” the sheikh says in the halls following prayer, conferring with two of his congregation from the Sydney University Muslim Students Association (SUMSA). “People that are angry are proactive, [they can] channel their anger in the right direction. But if you corner someone, they will react. Their response is not religious, it’s a human, emotional response.”

As he talks, 18-year-old Harun Causevic awaits trial for allegedly plotting with three others to conduct a public beheading in Melbourne on Anzac Day, inspired by the lslamic State militant group. Less than a week later, Causevic’s father, a refugee from Bosnia, will weep in court as the charges of terrorism are read out. Police will argue that Causevic and his accomplices were planning the attack to avenge the police shooting of Numan Haider last September, and had links to IS. His lawyer will argue that Causevic, a laid-off concreter, should get bail and that Islamic community leaders would be on hand to counsel the wayward teenager from his violent path.

Twenty-one-year-old engineering student and president of SUMSA, Mohammad Raad, is among those alarmed at reports Australians are joining IS. His organisation runs youth outreach and awareness programs and debates. 

“Their [IS] ideology is laughable – except it’s not funny,” says Raad. “People seem to think that they represent the majority of Muslims, but a lot of what they do is against Islamic principles.”

There are 150 Australians believed to be fighting with IS or other radical Islamists in Syria. The Australian Federal Police say they have prevented more than 200 would-be jihadists from leaving Australia to travel to conflict zones. Dozens are believed to have returned, while some 20 have been killed in fighting. A string of terrorism threats at home mean counterterrorism is dominating public discourse.

The government has responded by allocating $630 million to counterterrorism measures, mostly for policing and intelligence. Of that money, just $1.6 million has been allocated to community groups, in one-off $50,000 grants, and scepticism about the real political agenda behind schemes such as the Countering Violent Extremism program is pronounced.

1 . Government missteps

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is criticised by some Muslim community leaders as counterproductive in his use of what they say is antagonistic and inflammatory speech, leading Muslims to feel ostracised and angry.

In his national security address in February, Abbott said: “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.”

Words like these dismay leaders such as Abdo.

“One-hundred-and-twenty-six Muslim clerics from around the world wrote to the leader of ISIL and declared that it is against Islamic principles, then we have our prime minister saying that Muslims need to speak up,” he says. “We are talking the language of peace and respect, but you are not listening. It further fuels the rage. What more do you want me to be doing?”

Anne Aly, a counterterrorism expert at Curtin University who also works on peer-to-peer social media campaigns to engage youth in positive activities, said such language from the government “sets my work back 10 years”.

Aly says she targets youths who are at the “searching phase” of their identity. They are asking questions, she says, about their “self-esteem and sense of belonging, questions about justice, questions about meaning and belonging”. They do so as they receive mixed messages from all around: the media and political leadership, as well as radical dogma and IS propaganda.

“The whole narrative is that Muslims are victims, that they are under attack, that they are justified in going to defend the religion in jihad. Then they look at their own situation and see Pauline Hanson, they see Reclaim Australia, and ‘ban halal’. They are angry at what they see happening overseas. They see dawn raids, they see Muslims portrayed negatively in the media, they see our leaders shaking hands with those they are angry with – and all they are told is not to be angry. They have no one to talk to about their anger except those who want to lead them astray.”

For Randa Kattan, the CEO of Arab Council Australia, the language and tokenistic funding was enough to boycott the government’s grant scheme.

“They are getting it all wrong,” she says. “Given the language and rhetoric coming out from the government and the prime minister – the labelling of the community, the racism, the language that is absolutely negative – as a service provider, we have to ask: Who is going to come and engage with us under a program that is called Countering Violent Extremism?”

Kattan, who says she almost daily refers racist and abusive threats directed at her organisation to police, sees a clear political agenda. “It’s exactly the same thing that happened with the refugees. It’s the fear of the other, the demonising the minorities. It’s a fear factory.”

2 . Engaging returned fighters

Jamal Rifi, a community leader in south-west Sydney, says the community is in crisis. He claims to have received death threats from Islamic extremists in Australia for his outspoken stance against IS and willingness to engage with government.

“[The Syrian conflict] is a global event that is impacting on us in the most severe way. IS have relied on the community goodwill and support for the Syrian revolution. They have also preyed on the parents’ experience of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. They tapped into a reservoir of anger towards the Assad regime and used our religion to spread a message of hate.

“We are living among wolves. There are recruiters here and online. Our kids have been easy prey.” He says the best method of countering this misinformation is with voices of authority in the community, rather than the media, police, or those too closely associated with a government that is mistrusted on the issue. “We [community leaders] expose IS for the truth that it is: they are not liberating Syria. We use people who can inform about the reality of the situation in Syria.”

There is some thought being given also to the de-radicalising value of hearing from those who have witnessed firsthand the horrific reality of IS. It is understood more than 20 Australians who fought for IS in Syria have returned here. Many have not been prosecuted because they came back before the passing of the Foreign Fighters Bill that outlaws such travel. The AFP says it is engaging with some who have returned and that investigations into their movements are continuing.

Authorities fear those who leave Australia may return radicalised and present a security risk on home soil, and legislation to rescind the passports of those who have joined foreign conflicts is designed to be a deterrent. But as returnees may also present a unique deterrent, police are actively trying to recruit them.

Detective Superintendent John O’Reilly, head of New South Wales’ Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Command, said those who have “seen the reality of life under IS and its downsides have the potential to send very strong counter-narratives that could prevent other young Muslims from making the same mistake”.

“It’s not all beer and skittles,” he says.

But fear of prosecution is an obstacle. “There is a mistrust of authority, fear of incriminating themselves, the fear of isolating themselves socially,” O’Reilly says. “It takes courage to come forward in that situation. Often the easier thing is to sit tight and say nothing.”

De-radicalised individuals can provide a powerful disincentive for others, says Greg Barton, professor of political science at Monash University, “but we need some serious thought about how we treat people who feel that if they do speak up, they will be in jeopardy. The current rhetoric is lock ’em up, and these will be the consequences if you go. It’s not really providing us a way forward.

“It’s much easier to go for policing and intelligence,” Barton says. “Policy shifts take a really long time to roll out and we are dealing with a very fast-moving crisis.”

Sheikh Abdo says the key is mutual respect.

“If young people are not given the right tools with which to respond,” he says, “then you will see hearts that are blemished, scarred and damaged.”

This story was modified on May 18, 2015, to make clear that Mohammad Raad had not travelled to Jordan to assist refugees.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Radical proposals".

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Lauren Williams is a freelance journalist.

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