After last week’s siege in central Sydney, Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post analysed the media coverage and found it severely lacking. I was asked to add a comment (starting at 9:25):
My weekly Guardian column:
The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.
This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.
Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”
In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.
Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.
While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.
Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”
A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.
The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.
The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.
The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”
When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?
Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.
The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.
Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.
My weekly Guardian column:
The terms of the current battle in Australia over the ABC, its budget and place in public life have been set by its most vociferous critics, mostly in the Murdoch press. If only the lines weren’t so predictable. Their campaign fits neatly into a global trend: to reduce the public’s faith in public broadcasting, and to prepare for its selloff to corporate competitors.
Neutering the BBC and ABC, and the US public broadcasters NPR and PBS, is part of the Murdoch empire’s core business. As many of its papers continue to lose money every day, it’s no surprise that their fixation on halting so-called digital “mission creep” is a worldwide obsession.
In 2013, Rupert Murdoch tweeted about his favourite enemy, the BBC: “huge lack of balance in UK media with 8,000 BBC left wing journalists far outnumbering all national print journalists.” He added that the BBC was a “massive taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for tiny circulation leftist Guardian”.
And in 2006, James MacManus, executive director of News International, said it was “outrageous” that the BBC was able to run on public money because the broadcaster had “blatantly commercial ambitions” and was trying to “create a digital empire”.
The same criticisms were made of ABC managing director Mark Scott in the papers last week: that he is creating a “superfluous digital empire” that impinges on the commercial realities of privately-owned media.
The message from Murdoch and other commercial enterprises is that their investment in journalism and innovation keeps a vibrant press alive – and that any limit to their commercial operations is an intrusion on free speech.
What that means in practice is quite different. To the Murdoch empire, a “free” press means the right to, for instance, sponsor the tricks of prominent British Murdoch reporter Mazher Mahmood – the “fake sheikh”.
For a well-resourced and independent BBC, the Guardian’s Peter Preston argued in his commentary on the BBC’s Mahmood expose, freedom is the “in-house means to dig, expose, take risks, and clear its decks for action” – vital journalistic functions that serve democracy.
Although many in the UK still like and admire the BBC, the institution has fallen greatly in the last ten years. Scandals, mismanagement and the perception that the broadcaster remains too close to the political establishment have harmed the BBC’s reputation. The cover-up of the crimes of serial paedophile Jimmy Savile was a watershed moment for the BBC – nearly half the British public lost trust in the Beeb after the scandal broke.
The difference is, every scandal at the public broadcaster is ammunition for the critics and privatisers. As British journalist Charlotte Higgins wrote earlier this year in the wake of ongoing crises in the BBC:
“It is in the nature of BBC rows to escalate quickly to question the very basis on which it is run. Some of the corporation’s enemies clearly hold the view that if one undermines the foundations, the edifice might be more swiftly destroyed: like digging a mine in a medieval siege.”
Murdoch would be pleased to recently read that the foundations are indeed getting shaky: BBC management is considering placing leading current affairs shows into a commercial subsidiary, yet another arm of the organisation that could suffer hits to their credibility were it exposed to commercial realities. David Cameron’s government has always been amenable to Murdoch’s grander ambitions – in opposition he argued the BBC “was squeezing and crushing … commercial competition” in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also had a cosy relationship with the media mogul, despite a recent critical turn.
PBS and NPR
The American public are fighting an even more important battle. A mere six corporations control 90% of the press, and consumer confidence in the media is at an all-time low. Publicly funded outlets PBS and NPR have been marginalised and starved of funds for so long that they now sometimes take corporate largesse, diluting their integrity.
Republican critics of US public broadcasting argue that the high salaries of top management, and the success of its childrens’ programmes like Sesame Street, are arguments for cutting it loose from taxpayer funding. Again, parallels can be drawn with the Australian example: just look at the intense interest in Quentin Dempster’s salary and the children’s show, Peppa Pig.
Were PBS or NPR to be diminished, a handful of multinational media outlets would completely dominate the US media market. Murdoch’s burning desire to still consume Time Warner would guarantee an even larger voice for the multinational.
During the 2012 US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said Washington should “stop the subsidy” to PBS, due to his ideological set against state funding for media. In reality, like with the ABC and BBC, government support is tiny and decreasing. NPR and PBS received $445m from 2012 to 2014, .012 percent of the federal budget.
Stations in rural areas are closing and shrinking and public radio states are decreasing, leaving only corporate alternatives. A 2012 poll found 55% of voters opposed cuts in public television spending. Murdoch, through Fox News, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, tirelessly campaigns and backs candidates who argue that the digital revolution makes public media obsolete.
We hear exactly the same rhetoric in Australia. The Lewis review urged the ABC to dump digital radio and charge for online content, opening the way for Murdoch to capitalise on a reduced ABC footprint.
The aim isn’t to kill public broadcasting outright but to force a long war of attrition that slowly chips away at public’s respect and broadcasters’ desire to fight. It’s a messy strategy, but it’s working: trust in state-owned media like the ABC is in slow decline, even though it still leaves its critics for dead.
It’s a sign of how far this debate has skewed that the vast majority of heated conversations on public broadcasting are framed in purely economic terms. Can we afford it? Should we pay for it? How much does it cost? Can we sell off divisions?
We’re never discussing that terms of the debate disallow or discourage dissenting points of view. It’s far easier to obsess over the dry economics of an industry that doesn’t make anything tangible, like manufacturing or agriculture. The ABC is forced to explain its relevance in the face of ongoing attacks, when its charter prioritises the very things its commercial critics would see diminished: multiculturalism, education, diversity – and independence.
My weekly Guardian column:
The horror of ebola in West Africa has taken thousands of lives and spread fear around the world. This fact, coupled with ignorance and misinformation, has created the perfect storm. The risk is real, but you wouldn’t know the full picture from watching last weekend’s American 60 Minutes. Lara Logan’s report took her to Liberia, but it did not include any black African voices. It was as if colonialism never died, and the life-saving Americans were the only barrier between calm and chaos.
Meanwhile in Australia, last week’s news that private company Aspen Medical was awarded a $20m contract to run an ebola response in Sierra Leone was given surprisingly little scrutiny. Federal health minister Peter Dutton praised the company’s record and claimed that the firm was chosen because “they’ve got the capacity and the logistical capacity to deliver very quickly what governments want on the ground.” He played the patriotism card –“Aspen is an Australian company” – and said that Aspen “will have this up and running efficiently, effectively, saving lives.”
Non-government organisations with months of front line exposure in battling ebola were shunned for a corporation that won’t face any freedom of information requests because it’s a private entity. We have to take it on trust that taxpayer dollars will be spent appropriately. With former senior politicians and civil servants on Aspen’s board (a typical feature of companies that succeed in winning government contracts globally) financial benefits and political knowledge for the company are assured.
The company, established in 2003, has a history assisting Australian defence in the Solomon Islands, policing in East Timor and a range of other activities in the customs, health and fossil fuel arenas. Since 2007, the department of defence has awarded Aspen contracts worth more than $200m.
But deeper questions are being ignored in the rush to do something – anything – about Ebola. While it’s incredibly brave and noble for Australian nurses and doctors to volunteer with Aspen to establish a 100-bed treatment unit, most media coverage framed the discussion over awarding Aspen the contract as a partisan battle between the Abbott government and Labor opposition.
Victorian Greens senator and public health expert Richard Di Natale has been one of the sole voices questioning Aspen’s qualifications. He tells me that the contract “has a real stink about it. I’m at a loss. The only plausible explanation is that a government is so ideologically committed to advancing private interests, even when it’s counter-productive. ”
Di Natale says that Aspen’s win without a tender process bastardises democracy. “If it went to tender, a range of NGOs would have been able to get personnel in the field much more cheaply”, he argues. He worries that “mission creep” could happen, and that Aspen will require more funds to complete further work. The Greens MP is planning a trip to West Africa to examine the reality on the ground and hopes to receive help from Canberra in facilitating his visit.
He’s blunt on the reasons the Abbott government took so long to respond: “There aren’t any votes in black Africans dying. We’ve led the world in developing a vaccine for the Hendra virus which affects race horses, and yet when it comes to something like Ebola both in Australia and in the US we haven’t given it appropriate concern.”
One of the leaders in fighting Ebola remains Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Its Geneva headquarters tells me that they have concerns with the for-profit model that’s creeping into disaster relief. “Our concern is an uncoordinated approach overall that is inflexible and aid-money rather need-driven. It should not be about what governments want but what is needed to respond effectively to the needs on the ground.”
The scale of MSF’s commitments and the money it is spending places Aspen’s meager program in perspective. This year, the NGO has sent more than 700 international staff to the region, and admitted more than 5,600 patients in four West African states while providing roughly 600 isolation beds and two transit centres. This year, this has cost around $74m. As a rich Western nation, Australia’s contribution is stingy.
This era of unaccountable neo-liberalism has brought moves to privatise disaster management across the world. Recall former US Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggesting in 2012 that federal emergency assistance should be outsourced? Hurricane Sandy brought out the usual suspects of rent-seekers and disaster capitalists looking to make money from misery.
This ideology must be fought when fighting wars, disease or natural catastrophes at home or abroad.
My weekly Guardian column:
Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.
It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.
“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.
The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.
Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.
Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.
Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.
In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.
Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.
The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.
There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.
In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.
Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.
Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.
Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.
Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s the swaggering and unthinking bravado that hits you. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott threatens to “shirtfront” Russian leader Vladimir Putin when he arrives in Australia for the G20. Moscow responds via Pravda by comparing Abbott to Pol Pot and Hitler. Australian senator Jacqui Lambie then praises Putin as a “strong leader” with “great values”.
This is what passes for mainstream political dialogue in 2014. It’s unsurprising that a recent Griffith University study found Australians are deeply disenchanted with the political process.
“We are no longer citizens, we no longer have leaders”, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told The New Yorker last week: “We’re subjects, and we have rulers.”
He articulates a feeling many of us have about the modern world, of the political and media elites merely shifting deck chairs on the Titanic while powerful interests consolidate power and reduce our privacy. It’s inconceivable today that a leading Australian politician would publicly condemn ubiquitous, global spying undertaken by the US through the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. Apart from showing the effectiveness of the US lobby, it’s a sad reflection on our unquestioning subservience to US military and commercial interests.
Daily politics is often little more than theatre designed to distract us from the real issues of the day. Because parochial politicians have little power or willingness to challenge the fundamentals of our world – mass surveillance, vulture capitalism and endless war against ever-changing enemies – they prefer playing verbal games in futile attempts to protect us from the vagaries and unpredictability of the outside world. They fail because they benefit too much by maintaining the existing, unequal economic order.
Too many reporters are happy to play along, endlessly debating whether “shirtfronting” is appropriate language for a prime minister to articulate. It’s not, but what matters is how Australia celebrates ignorance on issues of truly great importance.
Take the recent discussion around the Abbott government’s changes to terrorism and surveillance laws. Apart from being supported by the Labor opposition – frontbencher Anthony Albanese’s belated and pointless disquiet over the laws was political posturing of the most transparent kind since his party had already acquiesced with them – it appeared that most politicians who heard the words terrorism and ISIS just waved the legislation through.
This week’s ABC Q&A featured Labor MP Kate Ellis and Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer and neither woman could adequately explain it. Co-panellist Julian Burnside tweeted: “Tonight’s #Qanda showed that at least two MPs had not actually read or understood the national security legislation they supported.”
In a healthy political culture, unlike ours, O’Dwyer and Ellis would be slammed for giving away our freedoms so casually. But this won’t happen because shows like Q&A elevate the art of banal conversations to an artform by expecting all guests to have opinions on issues over which they have no clue. That’s “democracy in action”.
This is not an argument for only “experts” to be heard in our media, far too often these are the same people who advocate war against any Muslim entity, but a call for public accountability of elected officials and journalists. Instead, we’re expected to believe that News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph tabloid, in a new TV ad featuring Liberal premier Mike Baird, isn’t a shameless attempt to proudly claim that Murdoch’s journalists aren’t insiders.
After all, Rupert’s great vision, expressed again recently to G20 finance ministers, is damning socialism, praising deregulation, small government and unfettered capitalism. Such thinking has helped him and his mates handsomely.
Australia is undergoing a Tea party revolution without the colourful Confederate flags. Apparently a t-shirt that reads, “if you don’t love it, leave” is a stirring paean to patriotism. Thanks, Miranda Devine. Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi, here seen suspiciously smiling while sitting alongside real-life Muslims, is one of the most effective spear-carriers for the local movement. Like its American cousins, supporters talk of small government (except when it comes to finding money for defence and bombing Islamic nations), endorse hyper partisanship, oppose action on climate change, distrust non-Christians and non-Zionists and embrace insularity.
The past is celebrated, the future is feared and the present is up for grabs. Bernardi’s recent statements about his fear of Muslims and the supposed security threats of the niqab or burqa were a perfect Tea party tactic, allowing xenophobia out of the bottle with its message spread by reliable media courtiers. Abbott then rushed in to restore order and condemn the move while still expressing unease with the head-wear.
While some dissenters vehemently oppose Abbott’s worldview and his willingness to utilise stereotypical macho imagery, in reality this problem is bipartisan. Getting past the inconsequential rhetoric flourishes, Labor and its journalistic supporters offer a remarkably similar vision of fealty to Washington’s dictates. One of the central ways to break this predictable cycle is resisting the dishonest and incendiary Murdoch agenda that rewards mates and celebrates a blokey, Anglosphere myopia. It’s no wonder his publications are so keen to dutifully join any conflict with a new Muslim foe.
Yesterday I was interviewed by Melbourne’s Triple R Spoke program about the current war against ISIS, the Middle East and media blindness and complicity:
My weekly Guardian column:
Nav K. Samir converted to Islam two years ago. He’s a young Sydney-based writer from an Indian background who recently featured in the successful new Facebook campaign, Australian Muslim Faces. Born into a Hindu family, Samir was attracted to the spiritual and intellectual life of Islam. At the age of 23, after six years of considering the switch, he became Muslim.
I met him earlier this year at the Lebanese Muslim association in Sydney and spoke with him recently about why he thinks a small number of young Muslims are attracted by the Isis message.
“There’s a lack of context, lack of spirituality and understanding, combined with impatience. Many Isis fighters are newly converted, newly pious … these men have grown a beard in three months and they don’t give Islam time to be understood.”
He is tired of having to defend his religion against bigots who take these instant Islamists to be the authentic representation of Islam.
“Keyboard warriors often ask: “Where is the universal Muslim condemnation of terror acts?” We’re distancing ourselves, so why do you keep asking? People just aren’t listening.”
“It’s been the same narrative of apology for decades and we’re sick of it. It’s like the probation the media is trying to grant me. I want to stand back, it’s got nothing to do with me and it’s nothing to do with Islam. I don’t need to come out and prove my innocence.”
The teenage converts – both male and female – who form much of Isis’ recruiting base in the West, are young and inexperienced. As a former Taliban “recruiter” remarked in early September, they targeted:
“People who didn’t know the religion as much. People who were converts, because converts would probably have problems with their parents at home, so they were more likely to stay in our company.”
Instant Islamists. And now we are suddenly deluged with instant experts on terrorism, too. Politicians and journalists compete for the snappiest sound bite on Islam, Isis and fundamentalism, mostly with little understanding of the issues.
We get fiery sermons from terrorism alarmists, lurid descriptions of apocalyptic death cults, pontificating war advocates who tell us that this new conflict against Isis will not be Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, and bigotry dressed up as insight.
This instant expertise about Islam is mirrored by reporters who learned little from every past terrorism hysteria, and simply repeat the same, old tired tropes to the same, skeptical audience.
Then there are the “instant Muslims” – like the young, white reporter from The Daily Telegraph who dressed up in a niqab “in two different parts of Sydney to see how people would react”. Unsurprisingly, she felt alien and uncomfortable.
Mimicking Muslims is fair game. Portraying them as odd, un-Australian and weird is standard operating procedure for vast swathes of the mainstream media.
When actual Muslims do appear and question Western policy in the Middle East, like they did on last week’s Q&A, The Australian calls it“crass anti-Western propaganda”.
Now a new “threat” has appeared out of thin air: The Khorasan Group, a hardened cell of Syrian terrorists “too radical for al-Qaida” that appears to be completely fictional.
Everything has happened so quickly, as if by command. But there are some things about our newest war at home and abroad that aren’t instant: the constant downplaying of the role played by US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar in fuelling and funding Isis; the amnesia surrounding the radicalisation in US detention of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – once, reportedly, a calm individual; and the emergence of Isis from the ashes of the disastrous Iraq war, a point well made by independent Australian MP Andrew Wilkie.
The ignorance of Australia’s elites is also deeply entrenched. A friend who works at one of Australia’s leading Muslim groups tells me that he’s contacted daily by journalists who demand to know what his organisation is doing to reduce the threat of terrorism – as if a Sydney-based Muslim is somehow responsible for Isis beheadings or mass rape.
It’s not difficult to show the diversity of the Muslim faith; take a look at Conor Ashleigh’s wonderful photography of a community in Newcastle. And it’s possible to treat radicalisation with the seriousness and context it demands, as The Saturday Paper’s Martin McKenzie-Murray did last week, in a forensic analysis of the killing of Abdul Numan Haider.
The pressure on the Australian Muslim community is immense, a feeling of being outsiders, exacerbated by a message that they’re different and under suspicion. Many Muslim women in particular feel disempowered and not trusted by the wider, white majority. Islamophobia is now unofficial government policy and some media’s central worldview.
Muslims have ample reason to be sceptical towards government and intelligence services; real journalists would investigate why. Sadly, most in the media are failing in their basic duty to question.
“Islam isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Samir says. His religion, just like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others, is complex, contradictory and open to various interpretations – but figuring that out can’t be done in an instant.
During the recent Byron Bay Writer’s Festival this event, broadcast by ABCTV1’s Big Ideas, was a robust discussion on the rights, responsibilities and pressures of conflict reporting in a post 9/11 world:
In this session writers Abbas El-Zein, Antony Loewenstein and Washington Post journalist David Finkel deliver strikingly different perspectives on the Iraqi and Afghan wars. An intense discussion develops about the nature of reporting and advocacy, with Finkel and Loewenstein very much opposed.
Finkel has covered wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, documenting the impact of war on the psyche of the soldiers at the front. Loewenstein explains that whilst he is not without empathy for the plight of the individual soldier, his sympathies lie with the Iraqis and the Afghans.
Finkel drives home the need to tell a story without an agenda “so that readers can feel what war can be.” El-Zein is in agreement and observes “the job of a journalist isn’t to judge” but to deliver to the public the most comprehensive information available.
This session was filmed at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and moderated by Jacqui Park.