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Understanding the terrorism argument


Cite as: (2007) 81(12) LIJ, p. 29

In the lead-up to the federal election, lecturer and Melbourne lawyer Waleed Aly encouraged an Australian conversation about terrorism.

Terrorists form a movement not a group, and terrorism is a persuasion not a war, Australian-born Muslim Waleed Aly told a recent Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) President’s Luncheon.

Mr Aly, a lawyer, university lecturer and Islamic Council of Victoria board member, said Australia must change its attitude towards terrorism.

He said the government should understand a war involved two opposing sides where conflict and intent were clear.

“The image of terrorism is not that. It is constantly evolving, it is in no way conventional or solid,” he said.

Australian policies on terrorism, multiculturalism and basic civil rights reflected an “old way of thinking” generated by the US White House, he said.

“That is ... you [non-Muslims] will never be able to learn to live in peace with them [Muslims] because they are not able to live in peace with you.”

He said both sides of the so-called War on Terror claimed to act in self-defence, each claimed the other side started it and each claimed that they were going to finish it.

Mr Aly said he was disappointed with Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition leader Kevin Rudd’s “hard power” attitude towards defeating terrorism.

“The discourse is the same as it always has been: ‘I have a hard line on terrorism and these people are just evil’,” he said.

Mr Howard said during the federal election Australian Press Club debate on 21 October that he would never surrender the right to determine foreign and national policy on terrorists.

Mr Rudd said he believed in a hardline approach to terrorism, but described sending troops to Iraq as Australia’s single greatest error since Vietnam.

Australia had committed $10.4 billion to its hard power response to terrorism, including in areas of military, security and legislative reform, Mr Aly said.

He said by comparison Australia had spent only $35 million on analysing the argument of the War on Terror or what he called the “soft power” issues.

Mr Aly said governments should examine how many people were moving towards a more radicalised direction, particularly if they were exposed to the global terrorism narrative through modern media.

“Countries with a democracy are actually popular targets for terrorists because they know you get free exposure, free advertising because the media will report it and that will scare people.”

He said terrorists knew in democratic countries media coverage of terror events led to governments making a tougher response to terrorism, which then increased the likelihood of another attack.

Australia must better understand the argument of the enemy, including the fact that Guantanamo Bay was part of the argument, he said.

“If you don’t engage with it in that holistic way, all you get is a cycle of violence.”

Mr Aly said the US government had spent about $800 billion on the War on Terror.

“Most of this was spent on Iraq, and despite that the scope of the threat of terror has actually increased,” he said.

Mr Aly’s book People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, released in September, encouraged an Australian conversation about Islam.

He said opportunities in Australia to improve cross-cultural understanding were hindered by public fear and prejudice.

One example of this was how the Australian Federal Police and government handled the Dr Mohamed Haneef matter in August, Mr Aly said.

Dr Haneef was detained for 12 days before being charged with recklessly providing support to a terrorist organisation. The charge was later dropped after a Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions inquiry.

“After the Haneef episode there was a spike in concern about the Australian Federal Police and a feeling that we [Muslims] are being targeted,” he said.

“The Haneef episode has alienated a whole section of the community ... but the [federal] government’s response is ‘no, the Haneef case showed the system works’.”

LIV president Geoff Provis said the 140 luncheon guests were better informed about terrorism and Australia’s position on the global phenomenon because of Mr Aly’s insight.



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