I woke up on the morning of Thursday, 18th of September, to a buzzing of my phone. It wasn’t my alarm going off, but a series of messages from friends, alerting me to the fact that the police were raiding homes across western Sydney, in the name of terrorism. I remember sitting up and taking stock for a second, as the news websites I check every morning had not yet run stories on it, the Facebook statuses had not emerged yet and the texting had not become rampant. I prepared myself for what would inevitably be a very bad day.
All in all, 800 police officers were involved in raids on multiple houses in Beecroft, Bellavista, Guildford, Merrylands, Northmead, Wentworthville, Marsfield, Westmead, Castle Hill, Revesby, Bass Hill and Regents Park. Stories emerged of terrifying ordeals with families awoken suddenly at 4am as the police barged in, yelling and screaming, demanding they drop to their knees and raise their hands. Fifteen people were arrested and two were charged.
It was billed as the “largest counter-terrorism operation in Australian history” and it flooded the newsfeeds of many. It produced the kind of kneejerk reactions the Muslim Community prides itself on: from fear, panic, disillusion, anger and resentment, to the usual call for ‘unity’.
And it would be difficult to fault them.
Just as it would be difficult to outline how exactly we should be feeling. Should we feel a sense of injustice at what is, at the very least, a show of excessive force on what was essentially a group of boys? The disgusting episode showed just how dangerous it is to give the police force more powers, the kind of powers they usually crave. Knocking down people’s doors in the middle of the night is a terrible way of investigating a potential crime. Would it have been so hard to knock on the door in the middle of the day and do the search in a respectable manner?
The lack of restraint shown by the police, and those in charge of the police, is nothing less than despicable. It showed no respect for these people and their families, a majority of who are still yet to be charged. Tales of women forced to go without hijab as the police barged in is only further infuriating.
On the other hand, what if those young men hadn’t been stopped?
I can hear the backlash already, but spare me for a second, and consider if those young men had been successful in their plans to kidnap someone at random and behead them in the name of the ‘Islamic State’?
Wouldn’t we, as a community, be in a far worse place if this act of random violence had taken place? What kind of backlash would we face then?
Surely, far worse than what we are facing now. That isn’t to say the random acts of thuggery and Islamophobia that members of the Muslim community currently face aren’t already appalling, but to what extent would we have faced a far crueller fate at the hands of a public swayed by their fear mongering politicians and the xenophobic mainstream media?
The problem with making an argument like that is that it begins a slippery slope of rationalisation that could lead one to justifying the raids and even the new, proposed anti-terror amendments.
And even so, even if there were a legitimate fear that the people arrested were to carry out a random act of terror and even if there were a genuine threat, that doesn’t even come close to justifying the publicity and the violence that surrounded the raids. Why did we need to know the intricate details, why did we need to watch as the police searched homes and smashed down doors, why did the entirety of Australia need to watch, bewildered, as people’s lives came apart, live on television?
There can be little conclusion other than the fact that these raids were carried out so publicly as a means to shift public perceptions on the Government. And just like the far-right wing reaction to the Q&A episode dedicated to the raids claimed, these may be conspiracy theories, but there is the unavoidable fact that these raids and the ensuing debates splashed across the front pages of newspapers have been good to the Liberal Party.
Gone are the days where the controversial 2014 budget dominated public debate and gone are the days where the bumbling-around asylum seeker policy was a key player in the polls. We have now had nearly a month of continuous focus on the Muslim community. Whether in placing the emphasis on foreign policy and the strategy to stop ISIS or dealing with the idea of ‘home-grown’ terrorists, the Liberal Party has been hitting home run after home run with their vilification of Muslims in Australia.
And vilification it most definitely is. Although Senator George Brandis may insist his ‘Foreign Fighters Act’ – the anti-terror amendments he has proposed to the Senate – is not aimed at Muslims, there is no doubt who it is intended to affect. After all, as he proclaimed in his sham ‘consultation’ with leaders of the Muslim community, it is only Muslims going to and from Syria and Iraq.
And they continue to ask why there is such a feeling of disaffection amongst the Muslim youth. The amendments proposed by Brandis appeared to have the particular purpose of regulating talk of Australian foreign policy, as well as taking a stance on complex issues overseas. That is, only if the issues involve terrorist groups of some sort, usually reserved for Muslim groups.
So, young Muslims are being asked not to care for the conflicts happening in their lands, the lands their parents grew up in and the lands which they consider holy. They’re being asked not to show a passion for it, not to involve themselves in it — even if they feel it is their religious duty – and to avoid anyone that speaks out on the issues.
Add to these proposed amendments the further powers they wish to give intelligence and policy agencies to spy on and watch hypothetical ‘offenders’ and the widening definition of terms such as ‘terrorism’ and you have a boiling pot of changes that will only serve to further heighten the sense of injustice that permeates the Muslim community.
It is genuinely baffling as to why the government has decided on this course of action in direct opposition to anything Muslim Community leaders have been suggesting in the years since the infamous Muslim ‘riots’ of 2012.
John Esposito suggests in his brilliant essay for Huffington Post that the source of this radicalisation is not quite what the Government is targeting. “In many cases terrorists are neither particularly religiously literate nor observant. Drivers of radicalization include moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. For many it is the experience or perception of living in a ‘hostile’ society, disenfranchisement and heightened political consciousness, anti-imperialism and social justice, emancipation and the personal search to be a good Muslim or the headscarf as liberation, bringing together a constellation of narratives.”
And this has been the advice given by leaders to the Australian Government for years. That is, the problem is not an Islamic one, nor one of a group of people obsessed with criminal behaviour, nor can it be explained by the reductionist approach of calling all radicals ‘nut-jobs’.
There is a huge web of factors that lead someone down a path where they believe violence in the name of Islam is justified in this context, especially with ISIS. Social, cultural, economic and educational factors are all major players in the path young people tread towards extremism in Islam, but it doesn’t completely do justice to the complex sand castles that form the basis of this mindset.
There is the influence of growing up in an over-politicised environment, as a post-9/11 young Muslim, with the face of a tradition rejected and questioned at every turn. Having to face down discrimination and racism in every aspect of life can go quite far in turning frustration into anger, a frustration at the climate we live in and a frustration at the feeling of powerlessness as we watch the destruction and colonisation of the Middle East and having no legitimate channel of release.
It would be unfair to judge these young people by the standards I may set myself, as I would probably have my own privileges get in the way. The truth is, educational opportunities provided to me could have been held back from others. The family environment I was in could be very different to the one others grew up in. And although I had my struggles as a teenager, I doubt they compare to others.
And this is where the Muslim reaction comes into play. There can be no denial that communication between players in the Muslim community can be stifled as they forget their own privileges and assume all western Muslims grew up in the same environment. As much as we would love to assume privilege doesn’t impact the Muslim community internally, it does and is one of the main reason there is such dissatisfaction and misunderstanding of community leadership.
That isn’t to criticise the leadership of the Muslim Community in Sydney, who have generally been stellar in their political lobbying and work with the media, with few exceptions. However, they are not immune to criticisms and should welcome people attempting to bring up valid points, no matter the medium.
The hysteria and panic that these events have inspired in the community has been depressing at best. From blame being thrown about as though we were playing volleyball, to slander and backbiting overshadowing genuine engagement between groups, as well as a discussion on the place of Western Muslims in Australia.
What is being forgotten is the Sunnah of being oppressed. That is, how should Muslims be responding to oppression they can and cannot change, locally and internationally? How that oppression is responded to is an important facet that has regularly been ignored in the discourse.
Perspective and contextualisation of the behaviours and reactions of the Prophet (pbuh) are an essential element to understanding how the Australian Muslim community should react. The recipe that our Prophet used to respond to the oppression he faced in his time in Mecca, before the Hijra, is to understand that there were short-term and long-term goals and that the Muslims had to be able to differentiate between the two. He requested and showed a great amount of patience as he and his Ummah were vilified and tortured. Finally, he turned to his Creator as the source of all in the Universe, as the source and the release of this oppression.
It is in this Sunnah that we find the structure for response to the complex situation we as a community find ourselves in. Patience, strategy, strength, accord, and most importantly, faith are the characteristics that marked the turbulent time RasulAllah spent under such oppression.
I can only hope we learn to turn to this Sunnah as we face down what could be the most turbulent time in the history of the Australian Muslim community.