Planned changes to anti-terror laws outlined by Tony Abbott and George Brandis on 5 August amount to a staggering new attack on basic civil rights.
Most prominent among the raft of proposals is “making it an offence to travel to a designated area where terrorist organisations are conducting hostile activities unless there is a legitimate purpose”.
The only countries named by Abbott as places where “Australians are fighting overseas” were Iraq and Syria. But given both the government’s almost exclusive focus on Muslims as the source of terrorism, and the extremely broad definition of what it considers to be a “terrorist organisation”, almost any country in the Middle East could be considered an area where “terrorist organisations are conducting hostile activities” (except Israel, whose hundreds of foreign fighters, including many Australians, spread only love).
What we are talking about is a potential situation where Australians who travel to Cairo, Tripoli or Mecca, let along to Baghdad or Damascus, would be forced to prove to ASIO or to a court that they were not there to participate in terrorist activities.
This is a complete reversal of the burden of proof and a scandal of the highest order.
As Greg Barns, barrister and spokesperson for Australian Lawyers Alliance, told the ABC’s World Today program: “What you’re going to find here, if you lower the standard of proof, you will get innocent people who will go to jail.” This is particularly outrageous, Barns pointed out, when “one considers that the penalties, when found guilty of terrorism offences, effectively are from five years up to life”.
The government also plans to broaden the listing criteria for terrorist organisations to “ensure advocacy of terrorist acts is not limited to specific acts and that advocacy captures promotion and encouragement of terrorism”.
Even in the best of circumstances, such a change would be draconian and make a mockery of attorney general George Brandis’s claim to support freedom of speech. It is made many times worse by a context in which the definition of terrorism is highly ideologically charged to suit the pro-Israeli, anti-Muslim prejudices of the Australian government.
When Julie Bishop announced on 17 July that the Australian government “has listed Hamas as a terrorist organisation pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1373”, she essentially declared anyone who supports the right of Palestinians to resist the invasion of Gaza to be a supporter of terrorism. This is in spite of the fact that the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are illegal under international law.
It is also in spite of the fact that the right to resist occupation is similarly enshrined in repeated UN declarations that affirm “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle”.
Declaring national resistance movements to be terrorist and changing the law to make “promotion and encouragement” of such movements a basis for an organisation or individual to be considered terrorist – by this logic the United Nations should be a banned terrorist organisation and its representatives jailed.
In all probability the idea of jailing UN officials as terrorist sympathisers would be greeted with much enthusiasm at private Liberal Party gatherings, whatever they say in public. These proposed new laws – in concert with the government’s relentlessly pro-Israel line as the children of Gaza had their limbs ripped apart and their parents blown to bits – are a chilling indicator of the real mentality of the people who run this country.
But it is not just the Liberal Party. When buzz words like “terrorism” and “Muslim extremism” appear in the papers, the ALP can be relied upon to have sold off its backbone five times over before you’ve gotten out of bed.
The Guardian reports that Labor has said it “would like to offer bipartisan support but wanted to ensure the need for security was balanced with the right to privacy”.
But if Labor has been predictably pathetic, the government may have gotten a surprise from the various Islamic community organisations that have come out much more strongly than at any time in the last 15 years.
Islamic Council of Queensland president Mohammed Yusuf said, “Why are Muslim leaders being called upon to condemn what is happening in Iraq and Syria when the government has not come out to condemn what is going on in Gaza – 1,800 lives lost and government has not said a word about it.
“The people are of the view that why should we cooperate with the government on this, when our own people are being killed and it doesn’t matter. This is why we are all having second thoughts on to what extent we are going to cooperate with the government when it comes to anti-terrorism.”
Ghaith Krayem, secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said in a statement, “The Islamic community is not what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. We will no longer stand by and be treated as the demon used by political parties for their own gains.”
Such defiance is welcome, brave and necessary. It is now the responsibility of the whole left to stand with the Muslim community and oppose these laws.
Full statement issued on 7 August by the Islamic Council of Victoria:
On Tuesday 5 August the prime minister and the attorney general announced firstly that the proposed changes to the Anti-Discrimination Act would not go ahead and secondly that there will be an expansion of the anti-terror legislation to give security organisations more powers – particularly in regards to individuals travelling overseas to locations that the government has or will identify as regions of concern.
It goes without saying that the ICV is pleased at the first announcement and fundamentally opposed to the second. This however is not the most significant issue with the prime minister’s staged press conference. The issue of greatest concern is that the prime minister clearly linked the two issues, with the Muslim community as the focus of the two.
Essentially the prime minister said that the reason for not proceeding with the anti-discrimination changes was that it had become a threat to community “unity”, particularly with support the government needed from the Muslim community [for] the anti-terror regime. He then went on to say that we should all be part of “team Australia”, effectively labelling anyone un-Australian who didn’t support the changes. Given his specific mention of our community this was clearly aimed at ourselves.
The ICV is appalled at such behaviour by the prime minister for the following reasons:
• There is no connection whatsoever between the two issues and by linking them through the Islamic community has clearly used our community for his political schemes.
• The announcement gave the impression that the Islamic community had in fact been “bought” through the abandoning of the anti-discrimination changes.
• This will fuel the Islamophobic sentiment in the community.
• Once again we are being asked to prove our “Australianness”.
We categorically object to this and in no way support the expansion of the anti-terror legislation.
We will no longer allow such insults and cheap rhetoric to go unanswered.
Our community has been repeatedly targeted in this regard for over two decades now and we will not tolerate it any longer. Muslims have been a part of the Australian landscape since before the arrival of Europeans to this land. We have and will continue to make significant contributions to this society and we find it insulting and offensive that we are repeatedly asked to reassert our connection with this country.
Finally we would give the prime minister and his government some free advice. Criminalising the support of rebellions overseas will in no way stop young Australians from doing this. The government needs to stop focusing on these sensationalist symptoms that accrue them political mileage and genuinely look at the root causes.
The question of why young Australians would willingly put themselves in harm’s way is much more complex than some spurious notion of religious extremism. We would point the government to its own foreign policies as a starting point. The government stance on the issue of Israel and the massacres in Gaza over the last 4 weeks has done more to “radicalise” people than this boogie monster of radicalisation that it uses to periodically scare the community and divert attention away from the reality.
The Islamic community is not what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. We will no longer stand by and be treated as the demon used by political parties for their own gains. The sooner all politicians come to terms with this the sooner we can have genuine engagement.
Secretary, Islamic Council of Victoria