Australia is riding into another conflict in the Arab world but the real fight will be at home.
Two hundred elite special forces soldiers are headed for Iraq within days after the PM Tony Abbott agreed to provide planes and 600 personnel to the US-led multinational strike force against Islamic terrorists running amok in Iraq and Syria.
The decision follows US President Barack Obama’s declaration last week that a coalition of nations would degrade and ultimately destroy the group that calls itself Islamic State.
This operation does not present a daunting strategic challenge. At best, IS has about 30 000 fighters and is no match for US airpower. There is nowhere to hide from the drones and fighter aircraft raining down destruction from above. It must be a welcome change for Obama’s military commanders to face an insurgent force that is prepared to fight like a conventional army seeking to take territory and towns.
But even as they kill the militants, new recruits and converts to the struggle will take their place. They won’t be fighting in the deserts of the Middle East but in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne and other western cities. The Federal Government and ASIO are right to raise the terror alert. There is a sense that a local terror attack is now inevitable. Sending troops to fight our own kids who have joined IS as foreign fighters has guaranteed that.
The thread of resentment and radicalisation has a long history in Sydney’s south-west. In 1999, a street gang called “DK’s Boys” gang carried out a drive-by shooting on the Lakemba police station.
Five officers ducked for cover as 16 bullets from semi-automatic pistols passed through the station’s foyer windows. It was an incident without precedent in Australia, an open declaration of war from Muslim youth. This has followed years of claimed harassment and racial profiling of Middle Eastern youth in the area.
Then NSW police commissioner Peter Ryan pledged to track down those responsible and to make the streets of Sydney safe. This was never achieved. The police response was heavy-handed and poorly thought through. Ryan’s forces descended on south-west Sydney like an invading army. Soon the Middle Eastern crime squad was kicking down doors as if the only sources of local crime were Middle Eastern youth. The alienation of young Muslims in Sydney was profound. Within a few years, the Cronulla race riots underlined the gulf between young Muslims and their “Aussie” counterparts.
Ryan’s march into south-west Sydney failed dismally and divided the community. People who had previously co-operated with police now avoided being seen talking to cops. Police lost valuable resources in the Muslim community. Without intelligence from insiders, policing this diverse ethnic community was impossible. Fifteen years later NSW Police are still trying to recover lost ground.
A number of Sydney Muslims who grew up in this period have joined IS. They see no place for themselves in mainstream Australia. So instead, they seek fellowship and purpose in Tony Abbott’s “death cult.” If we don’t address the root cause of IS’ popularity among disaffected Muslim youth, no amount of success in the Iraq or Syria will have any value. There will be no peace in our streets.
We need to respond with passion in our own community to support the idea that decency and compassion can survive. Instead, our media has sent the message that we have something to fear from Muslims in our community.
We fear those in our society that yesterday we were unaware of. The harrowing vision of the killing of innocents in Iraq creates outrage in the media. The anger that follows further alienates Australian Muslims.
I have watched disaffected young men of Middle Eastern origin queue up to join 1% motorcycle clubs in Australia over the past decade because they achieve a sense of belonging and fraternity they feel they cannot get in Australian society. Ironically, they are less likely to commit crime while a member of a club than in the religious or criminal milieus they otherwise fall in with. The future looks bleak unless we resist IS’ dismal message getting into our kids. I find myself reluctantly but inexorably drawn to vague ideas of censorship, even if it’s self-control. To maintain the value of our existence and the real weight of our opinions, perhaps we need to be slightly less informed, slightly less connected. We might be more resilient in our belief in the concept of human grace when not faced 24/7 with this foul tide of savagery. These killers who behead innocent journos and aid workers for the camera are winning the propaganda war. But we disarm them when we stop clicking on the links to their depraved videos.