On February 23, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, made a statement on national security intended to be his government’s response to recent terrorist events and policy reviews. The statement is laudable for setting in place some important innovations, such as the appointment of a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, and introduction of national security considerations in review of individual cases of access to social welfare entitlements. The statement sets many new and important benchmarks for public debate. In particular, a legal protection long missing from Australian criminal law has been proposed by Abbott: “stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting hatred.” Abbott can be commended for his leadership on these issues.
Yet the statement shows how deeply uncomfortable and out of touch Abbott’s government is with the complexity that the terrorism challenge presents. Some of the Prime Minister’s remarks are staggering for their naivety. He has revealed his continuing confusion about the country’s multi-faith community and Australian values.
In approaching the statement, I was prepared to give it the credit and seriousness it deserved. My objectivity faded as the speech continued. I collapsed laughing by the time I reached the end. Lest my critique be seen as one-sided or partisan, I can assure you that I would trust Abbott with national security before I would trust his untested Labor counterpart and leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, in that role.
Sadly, Abbott seems to be operating in a different reality from most of the rest of the country. Here are the pieces of his statement I found fault with. He said that “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace,’ and then he places the responsibility on followers of that religion to advocate this view. He said “I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.” This is a serious insult. First, he clearly is not listening to the Muslim leaders who say it. Is he keeping count or is this just uninformed cant? The mobilization of the Islamic community globally around the counter-jihadist has been wide ranging and effective. As Abbott himself notes, “I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’.”
Second, for Abbott to assert in this way that some Muslim leaders don’t mean it when they say Islam is a religion of peace, simply beggars belief. Of course it is true in one sense, as it is true of Christian leaders like Vladimir Putin who say he believes in Christianity and peace while supporting terrorism in Ukraine. But Abbott could not have made a more divisive and personally insulting statement to Australia’s Muslim leaders at a time when he and the country need their support.
The prime minister’s moral confusion and ignorance was at its most serious when he cited in favorable terms the words of the (quasi) elected dictator of Egypt, President al Sisi on the spiritual condition of Islam. Abbott said: “In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking.” This is the same al Sisi whose administration had kept Australian journalist, Peter Greste, behind bars for over a year on false charges of aiding the Muslim brotherhood. Obviously al Sisi, like Abbott, has missed the many spiritual revolutions in Islam. Of course, both al Sisi and Abbott are not only experts in Islam but are so omnipotent that feel they can judge when it needs a revolution!
But anyway, Islam and religion are not the problems. The problem is those who use violence in the name of religion, and this is common across the world. Is Abbott unaware that Israel was founded on the back of “Jewish” terrorism, that one of its most revered prime ministers was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist acting in the name of religious nationalism, and that the Ku Klux Klan perpetrated its worst violence against black Americans in the name of Christianity – all in living memory. The Israeli government today regards terrorism in the name of Judaism as a serious threat, with the Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon saying last year that “any connections [these groups] have with Jewish ethics or values does not exist”.
Abbott’s entirely inappropriate focus on Islam (as a religion) as the main cause of recent terrorism is the subject of a snow-balling anti-Abbott campaign in the country’s Islamic community, including a call from the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, for Abbott to consider “work in any field other than politics.”
What Australians need most from Abbott is practical politics that produce the intended counter-terrorism result: minimization of harm to Australians through application of the rule of law. His self-indulgent rhetorical flourishes in the speech distract seriously from the seriousness of the problem. He seems to promote an approach based on knowing, almost presciently, who are the “good eggs” and who are the “bad eggs” and privileging this sort of home-grown wisdom as a substitute for the administration of law in Australia.
The Prime Minister lost me, and I laughed loudly, when he said: “My Government will never underestimate the threat.” Well, with new national security laws or policies every few months, and little advance warning of the scale of the threat from the resurgence of Islamic State, he can’t really make the claim that the Australian government has been on top of the threat in the past eighteen months. Knee-jerk reactions after each new incident to do not inspire confidence.
Abbott promised that “We will make the difficult decisions that must be taken to keep you and your family safe.” I am afraid that he can’t promise to keep our families safe. He can promise a reduction of the threat. He was closer to the money when he said “I can’t promise that terrorist atrocities won’t ever again take place on Australian soil.” In my view, we can and must expect more.
In fact, the counter-terrorist problem Abbott should be addressing is the one he alluded to in the most laughable statements I ever heard pass his lips. He said: “We have the best national security agencies and the best police forces in the world.” I think we can assume we have reasonably good security agencies, and I understand his morale-boosting intent when he said it, but few specialists in the global intelligence community would rank these agencies as the best. Some of our police forces are dogged by corruption and inadequately equipped, staffed or trained for many of the counter-terrorism roles, especially community intelligence collection relating to potential lone-wolf actors.
A realistic and “competitive evaluation process” for the quality of our security agencies and police forces is the absolutely essential departure point of a counter-terrorism strategy premised on harm minimization. Until we see that from the Australian government, we cannot take seriously its self-congratulatory plaudits about these agencies. We certainly should not trust the government in its insistence on our blind loyalty to the security agencies in the absence of an honest, independent and public evaluation of their capability and their ethics in the counter-terrorism role.