Unholy discourse clouds debate on Australians fighting in Syria
Ben “Ballistic” Meadows skipped imperiously towards the ring, draped in an Australian flag, buoyed by the strains of gangsta rap. But the battle cries of DMX blasting from the arena’s PA system were no match for the booing crowd impatient for the entrance of their man: Roger Abbas.
It was July 2012 at the Olympic Taekwondo Centre in Campbellfield, Melbourne, where the International Kickboxing Federation (Australia) titles were being hosted. Meadows and Abbas were competing in the 74-kilogram division. They were necessarily of the same weight, but Meadows was the taller fighter. Yet as the Islamic call to prayer came over the speakers, blending into a soundtrack of triumphant strings, Abbas towered in spirit and the crowd roared.
Meadows had a thick stroke of hair on his chin, like a Mohawk for the face. Abbas wore a thick beard with the moustache shaved off, and had a compact physique, like a strong, compressed spring. By definition, kickboxers are intense creatures, but Abbas seemed to radiate a special will to win.
The ringmaster bellowed into his mic. “In the red shorts … an early Ramadan present, Roger Abbas!” The crowd erupted again.
The fight didn’t last long. Less than two minutes in, an inelegant but persuasive right hook smashed into Meadows’ face and he collapsed to the canvas. Abbas had won in a knockout and was carried from the building – swollen with raucous approval – on the shoulders of a mate. Three months later, Roger Abbas was shot dead in Syria.
During last year’s federal election campaign, Tony Abbott was pilloried for his remark that, in Syria, “it’s not goodies versus baddies; it’s baddies versus baddies”. But the comment is an accurate, if crude, assessment. The recent incursions of the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) have shown how desperately messy and turgid sectarian violence has become in the Middle East. To also risk crudity, the situation is something like this: ISIL comprises Sunni Islamists, determined to overthrow the Shia government. ISIL also exercises some influence in Syria, where the dictator Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a sect of the Shia branch of Islam. Saudi Arabia, predominantly Sunni, is allegedly assisting ISIL. Iran, predominantly Shia, has an interest in halting them. Assad, meanwhile, a man who has deployed chemical weapons against civilians, is arguing to the West that he is the best-placed man to combat ISIL extremism.
Syria itself is complicatedly fractured. There is the government and the principle rebel force, the Free Syrian Army, who have received assistance from Britain, US and Saudi Arabia. Already, in sketching that patronage, you see an uncomfortable alliance between the donors. But there are other resistance groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIL and Nusra have effectively erased the Syrian and Iraqi border, while shoving aside Syrian moderates. This is by no means a comprehensive map of Middle Eastern tensions, but speaks to the bloody attenuation of its countries, and the difficulty of determining the intentions of Australians who travel there.
It’s been reported that in Syria, per capita more Australians are fighting than nationals of any other country outside the Middle East. Few have asked why. “I’m assuming it’s demographics,” says Shakira Hussein, of the national centre of excellence for Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne. “In Britain you have larger numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, for instance. Here, greater numbers of people of Lebanese origin. But I also think that they’re more conscious of the issues here.”
Hussein expanded upon that awareness. “There’s a global consciousness to Islam,” she says. “A sense of fraternity. Something happening overseas matters. It’s brothers and sisters being killed.”
Mohamad Tabbaa, of the social and political sciences school at Melbourne University, says the preponderance of Australians fighting in Syria is difficult to explain. So is their motive. “What I will say is that our constant search for a mystical or pathological explanation for such actions will leave us consistently perplexed. I imagine that people travel to fight in Syria or Iraq for much the same reasons that young Aussies join the military to fight in those same countries, without being questioned, or why Jewish Australians sign up to join the Israel Defence Forces. People witnessing injustice and feeling the need to respond with personal sacrifice is neither new nor strange.”
Attorney-General George Brandis recently announced that Australians returning from Syria or Iraq would be arrested at the airport. “We don’t want them here,” he said. He was invoking the Foreign Incursions and Recruitment Act, which prohibits Australian civilians entering other countries to engage in hostilities. The difficulty facing his application of this law is determining just what, precisely, they were doing over there. This week, while discussing the introduction of legislation empowering Australia’s two spy agencies to share greater data, Brandis stood beside ASIO’s director-general, David Irvine, who said: “We face significant threats of politically motivated violence…” On returning jihadists, he said “there were some tens of people who’ve already returned”.
I asked Hussein, who was aggrieved by Brandis’s assertions, how we could know that Australians were joining al-Qaeda rather than, say, donating blood.
“There’s genuine anger amongst Muslims when they see what’s happening in Gaza … but to say that anger is the same thing as beheading people for ISIL is crazy. This ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim’ distinction is weak and it applies to people travelling to Syria.”
Hussein spoke of the difficulty of Muslims voicing anger in a country where moderation had come to mean passivity.
I asked Keysar Trad, the semi-notorious founder of the Islamic Friendship Association, why there was such a high representation of Australians in Syria. Trad has come under fire from various quarters, most recently from Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who denounced him over talks he had been in for preselection with both the Labor and Liberal parties. Shakira Hussein is dismayed that he receives so much attention, believing his views to be both abhorrent and injurious to race relations. Regardless, they echoed each other’s statements on the confines placed on Muslim expression. “Muslim Australians are not allowed to be angry or to respond in the same way to stimuli as other Australians,” Trad tells me. “We have been levelled with the most preposterous accusations and rather than society saying ‘this is preposterous’, society in fact entertains these allegations and makes life difficult for Muslims.”
Trad doubted the reported numbers of Australians in Syria. “In my opinion, it is speculation and my movements in the community do not support [those numbers]. Having said that, it is not strange for Australian Muslims to care about the plight of the displaced, wounded or orphaned people of Syria. Historically, there was a very strong connection between Lebanon and Syria and the majority of Australian Muslims are of Lebanese ancestry.”
Constraints on debate
Initial reports said kickboxer Roger Abbas had been shot by crossfire while volunteering in a refugee camp, a story earnestly relayed by his family. But US academic Aaron Zelin, who works at the Washington Institute, has been conducting surveys of martyrdom lists posted online by terrorist outfits. He noted Abbas’s name, believing him to have joined Jabhat al-Nusra. When asked by the ABC about this, Abbas’s sister responded: “To be quite honest with you, after what I witnessed, it doesn’t matter whether he was a fighter or whether he was doing humanitarian work – he was doing that for Syrian civilians.”
The various Muslims I spoke to – of varying beliefs and backgrounds – returned to the political constraints on debate. Mohamad Tabbaa told me, “The only thing we’re allowed – indeed pressured – to say is condemnation of other Muslims. Anything outside of that scope, anything which calls attention to the rising Islamophobia in this country, becomes proof of our treacherous ways.”
I ask an adviser of the current grand mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, about the mufti’s thoughts on whether debate was stifled by cynical definitions of “moderation”. “How do you define moderation?” he asked me suspiciously.
It is a good question and one that splits our conversations. The pro-caliphate group Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia believes that demands for moderation – harmonising private faith with liberal traditions – is racist coercion. A spokesperson for the group, Uthman Badar, recently became a feature of our news cycle when his planned speech “Honour Killings are Morally Justified” was dropped from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas after public outcry. Keysar Trad denounced the organisation as a “minority fringe group which gets more attention than it deserves … argumentative but not dangerous”. Muslim academics have told me the same about Trad.
“As Muslims, there are only certain things which are accepted of us to say,” Tabbaa tells me. “For example, ‘I condemn terrorism.’ It encroaches our political space over time. Each time any Muslim makes a mistake, commits a crime, challenges any aspect of Australian society, our loyalty is called into question, and we are required to publicly re-declare this loyalty. This is a very efficient mechanism for silencing dissent.”
Back in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s north, Abbas is a martyr as well as a slain brother and son. Framed photos of him, fist raised in triumph after a fight, sit on mantlepieces. But in Canberra, he’s held up as the reason legal powers need to be increased to repel homegrown extremists from our borders. Among many Muslims, he’s symbolic of the state of our discussions on Islam.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2014 as "Unholy discourse". Subscribe here.