Back in September the government released its radicalisation awareness kit. The example contained in it of radical greenie Karen became the centre of attention in the twitterverse, on social media and in the mainstream media but should our concern end there?
All the detail and the booklet is available on the Living Safe Together government website. It was prepared on expert advice but how much was reworded by the public service on the orders of ministers and ministers’ offices we will probably never know.
It identifies three issues or three steps:
- radicalisation to violence
- violent extremism
Radicalisation: a process during which an individual’s beliefs move from being relatively mainstream to being supportive of drastic change in society that would have a negative impact on the rights and freedom of others. It does not necessarily mean a willingness to use violence to realise those beliefs, but some individuals come to believe that violence is justified to achieve ideological, political or social change.
That definition, from the glossary in the booklet, ignores that many radical ideas actually have as their aim the improvement of the rights and freedom of others, not just a negative impact. In other parts, the booklet actually acknowledges that when it states:
These attitudes differ significantly from how most members of society view social issues and participate politically. In most instances such behaviour does not pose a danger and can even benefit the Australian community. [emphasis added]
So the booklet is treading a fine line between radicalism and radicalism associated with violence but, in my view, does not do it well. Despite the statement quoted above, the overall impression is that radicalism will most often lead to violence.
It insists that Australia is a free society and people can express their views in many legal ways but radicalism is dangerous as soon as non-legal means are used (or ‘criminal activity’ as it is termed). The booklet concedes that some such activities may not cause serious harm but are still illegal: such as vandalism, minor property damage, trespassing or protesting in a violent way. It does state that:
Many forms of activism … can be disruptive but are often used simply to draw attention to a cause through peaceful means. This is a legitimate expression of freedom of belief and free speech in Australia.
The phrase ‘radical activism’ is used but never explained or explored. That term would better fit some of the minor illegal activities listed above: after all, how violent is trespassing? Instead the booklet seems to make a leap straight to violent extremism. Its occasional statements to the contrary seem to get lost or are ignored in making the link between radicalism and violence.
The well-publicised case study of Karen the environmentalist clearly shows the booklet’s blurred line between ‘activism’ and ‘violent extremism’. Karen’s activities, as listed, fit the description of activities that do not cause serious harm and it is in relation to Karen that the phrase ‘radical activism’ is used but her case study appears in the section on ‘violent extremism’. Surely there is a difference between trespassing, even spiking trees (for which a warning has been given), and planting a bomb in a public place? — but this booklet does not make that distinction. Even the experts whose research and information was used said that the example of Karen was a real-life case but had been shared with the department, one said, ‘as an example of someone who in fact did not radicalise’; another said she was a radical ‘but that does not make her a violent extremist’.
The booklet says the following on violent extremism:
If a person or group decides that fear, terror and violence are justified to achieve ideological, political or social change, and then acts on these beliefs, this is violent extremism.
The problem with that description is that it can also be applied to governments — the war in Iraq was to achieve ‘regime change’. History also shows that violence often arises in response to the violence of the state. When peaceful protests are met by water cannon, tear gas, baton charges, or in more extreme uses of force and violence, shooting into the demonstrators and using tanks, people movements often form a militant wing. The Black Panthers in America arose from the violence meted out to the non-violent protests of the civil rights marchers. The ANC in South Africa created a militant wing in response to violent government suppression of demonstrations. The current civil war in Syria arose from the reaction of the Assad government when it sent tanks against the mass street demonstrations opposing the government — people decided they needed to defend themselves. My point is, the resort to violence is not always a simple choice made by a radical group to achieve its aims but can arise from the actions of the state, when what start as peaceful protests are met by state-sanctioned violence.
While the booklet mentions ‘terror’, it does not explain it but I think there is an important distinction between terrorism and other acts of violence in support of radical ideas. While not supporting extreme violence, I must point out that current terrorism is often aimed at the civilian population. While there were examples of pure terrorism, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were also many overseas militant groups who targeted government and infrastructure and often gave warning of their attacks to avoid, or at least minimise, potential loss of life. Attacking infrastructure, while disruptive to the general population, put pressure on governments in terms of the cost of restoring services. I consider that modern terrorism, and what I would call genuine terrorism, targets the civilian population with the intent of creating fear and terror and attempting to put pressure on governments in that way. They should realise that it has never worked. Even the Blitz on London can be seen as a terrorist act in this context: Hitler turned the Luftwaffe from bombing military targets (airfields) and factories, to heavy bombing of the civilian population of London. He hoped that would pressure the British government to come to terms with him. It didn’t happen.
The booklet mentions potential sources of radical information which an individual may seek out:
Along with physical social networks, literature and music, the internet is often used by individuals to seek out perceived justifications or rationalisations of their use of violence.
A moderate statement except for the inclusion of music. The booklet does not make music a major issue but it is mentioned as well in the case study of Karen: turning to ‘alternative music’ was presented as one step on her road to radicalism. I hate to tell them but they should listen to a lot of folk music if they want to hear anti-establishment, anti-government messages. Over the centuries folk music has been important in supporting the oppressed and Ireland and many countries in South America have a long tradition of revolutionary music. I would no longer be termed a revolutionary but I still enjoy immensely listening to political and revolutionary folk songs: does that make me a radical inclined to violent extremism? — according to this booklet, perhaps it does.
The booklet lists behaviours that indicate an increasing level of intensity towards radical violent extremism, and labels the behaviours as: ‘notable’, which should be addressed by those close to the person; ‘concerning’ which may require responses from a number sources, including law enforcement agencies; and behaviours requiring ‘attention’. To list some:
Some of those would still fit me: I hold an ideological view that is different from the mainstream, in fact, I pride myself on it; I don’t think my normal behaviour has changed but that may be because I have held a radical view for so long; in many situations, I do see government and law enforcement as the enemy of the poor and oppressed; and I do accept that, in some circumstances, violence is acceptable and necessary, particularly in response to state violence. Luckily Australia is not so bad that I would apply all those views here.
- The individual begins to identify with a group or ideology that is very different from the mainstream. (notable)
- Changes in normal behaviour may also occur. (notable)
- The person becomes closed to those whose explanations or views do not agree with their ideology. (concerning)
- They may begin to use language advocating violence or aggression. (concerning)
- They are very hostile towards people they see as the ‘enemy’ including law enforcement and the government. (attention)
- They see using violence as a way of achieving their ideological goals as acceptable and necessary. (attention)
Now Tony Abbott: he certainly held a radical view different to the mainstream, as evidenced by the popular rejection of his neo-liberal agenda in the 2014 budget; he was certainly closed to opposing views, including on climate change; and he used the language of aggression against his ‘enemies’ and certainly saw that as a means of achieving his political and ideological objectives, the only difference being he was in government and could legitimately use law enforcement and violence. So was Tony Abbott also a radical inclined to violent extremism? — perhaps so if you believe this booklet.
When you have two opposing ideologies like that and one is being enforced by the state, is there a reciprocal right to violence to oppose the state? That is the key philosophical question but, as I explained earlier, the violence should be directed against the state and not inflicted upon the civilian population if it is to be justified — otherwise, in my terms, it does become terrorism plain and simple.
While the booklet pays lip service to freedom of ideas and expression, it comes down strongly on the side of peaceful protest by legal means. If, however, governments change the laws, as Bjelke-Petersen did, to restrict demonstrations, then which rules apply? — the right to express dissent or the obligation to obey the law. In other words, legal protest may not always be possible, and this booklet cannot cope with that situation.
The booklet is very careful not to target Muslims and does use examples from the right and left of the political spectrum. It adds that religion can be a factor in underpinning radicalism and violent extremism but makes sure that it also mentions the violence of the more extreme Christian anti-abortionists. The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Terrorism, Michael Keenan, however, made clear:
Despite the environmental case study, Mr Keenan said the main targets of the booklet were young people at risk of being radicalised by Islamic groups such as Islamic State.
So despite the efforts made to retain a ‘neutral approach’, Keenan laid bare the real intention. The NSW Teachers’ Federation suggested the booklet was ‘not to make anyone feel safer but to engender fear and intolerance’. I’m inclined to agree because, as I have pointed out, there are statements dotted throughout the booklet that offer a quite realistic assessment but they are over-shadowed by the general tone that any radicalisation is ‘bad’ and leads to violence. That is also what made me question whether words had been added, beyond the original words of the experts, to ensure that message came across — the experts’ own comments seem to confirm that.
Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations — Asia Pacific, one of the experts quoted in the booklet, has said:
… it was never intended to be distributed to schools.
The overt purpose of the booklet is, I think, legitimate. It is valid to try to stop young people being attracted to terrorism but its approach also threatens what I would consider legitimate radical activism which may include illegal activities that do not cause major damage nor harm to people. In that regard, the underlying purpose of the booklet is to maintain the status quo: you are allowed to protest, to express dissent, but only within the law, no matter how repressive those laws may be. You are a radical if you wish to change society, even without resorting to violence. As Michael Brull put it in an article for New Matilda:
“It was meant for professionals who are leaders in communities, and to be used in training sessions to make people aware of the background of social and cultural factors that lead in very rare cases to radicalisation,” he said. [emphasis added]
“We workshopped it with communities … then out of the blue the Attorney General’s Department decided to send it around to schools.”
The paper sets up only one type of violence that it rejects in every instance. That is, it always rejects violence devoted to radically changing the status quo. Violence used to uphold the status quo, however, is passed over in silence. Seeking change is by definition violent extremism. Accepting how things are is tacitly assumed to be ideologically neutral. Seeking change is treated as suspicious and problematic in a way that keeping things the way they are is not.
In that sense one can see the conservative mind-set driving the approach — any change is threatening. Where does that leave ‘progressives’, let alone radicals? If one can take account of all that is said in this booklet, it could be said to be relatively neutral, but that is not the prevailing message that comes through and if that message was to be believed then almost anyone demanding social or political change would be classified as a radical capable of violent extremism. It is itself an extreme message that appears to have twisted what the experts involved were saying. Perhaps it is best seen as a remnant of the Abbott era.
What do you think?
With Abbott gone we may hear less about ‘radicalisation’ but the booklet is out there — it was sent to schools. If Ken is right, the real message to young people is to ‘toe the line’ and not demand change in society. Without the ‘radicals’ of the past we would not have some of the freedoms and rights we do today, so such a message is for the conservative maintenance of society. It should not go unchallenged.
Next week 2353 discusses corporate attempts to patent genes in ‘You can’t patent ethics’.