22 Mar 2021
ASIO needs to counter terrorism with clear language
ASIO’s Director-General Mike Burgess has announced that ASIO isn’t going to use words connected with Islam when talking about Islamist terrorism nor use the words “right-wing extremist”. He says ASIO is conscious that the names and labels used are important because words “can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issues”.
ASIO will now use the terms “religiously motivated violent extremism” and “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.
This shift in terminology by our internal security service is a mistake. The fact is that terrorists operating against Western targets claim their acts are inspired, and in many cases required, by Islam. Believers in Islamist ideology, a philosophy and program of action which emerges out of one interpretation of Islam, are a small minority of Muslims. But we don’t want any of them to turn fiery rhetoric into bloody action.
It’s very disappointing that ASIO is dancing around this issue. They should absolutely call Islamist terrorism and right-wing terrorism for what it is. Pretending that the public don’t understand that the inspiration for Islamist terrorism is jihadist teaching is insulting their intelligence. They also know that the vast majority of Muslims in Australia reject extremism.
ASIO’s own submission to a Senate inquiry last July on issues facing diaspora communities in Australia was absolutely on the money. It said ASIO assesses that “the principal source of the terrorist threat remains Sunni Islamist extremism, emanating primarily from small groups and individuals inspired, directed or encouraged by extremist groups overseas”. ASIO’s submission went on to point out that “individuals motivated by other forms of extremism and ideology are increasingly present in Australia, including those drawn to and adopting extreme right-wing ideologies”.
ASIO shouldn’t be walking on egg shells in the way it talks about terrorism. The risk with the new terminology is that ASIO is seen as hostage to political correctness in failing to state publicly the underlying cause and motivation of terrorism.
ASIO needs to speak the most obvious truths about terrorism. It shouldn’t worry about being labelled Islamophobic or upsetting some politicians who don’t like the term “right” because of its association with conservatism and who somehow think they’re being tarred with an extremist brush.
It may be that our intelligence agencies don’t have much credibility disputing Islamic scholars who point to religious sources that reject terrorist behaviour. They don’t want to stir up trouble with moderate Muslims who oppose terrorism: ASIO understands the need for our Muslim communities to put trust in and co-operate with our counter-terrorism agencies.
But that shouldn’t require them to use nonsense language when it comes to the links between Islam and terrorism or to pander to those conservatives who take exception to the term “right-wing” being linked to terrorism.
The Left can certainly produce extremists and terrorists and left-wing terrorism does pose a threat. Think here of “new left” terrorism in the 1960s and ’70s. In West Germany, for example, the Red Army conducted assassinations and bombed business and military establishments.
But it’s not left-wing terrorism that ASIO is worried about. It just isn’t statistically significant. Rather it’s the extreme end of right-wing politics that’s the concern. The term “extreme” is the delineator. When you’ve got a misogynistic and racist group who believe in the inherent superiority of their in-group (mostly white men), who think the white race is under threat of extinction and that an authoritarian leader is needed to save them, then it’s right-wing extremism.
When you don’t call things by their real name, you insult the public by pretending the jihadist violence we’re seeing isn’t coming out of Muslim communities. Our security services should stop spending too much time worrying about community harmony (leave that to state multicultural agencies). It’s delusional to think that ASIO’s new terms will somehow shift how we tackle Islamist ideology that’s trying to destroy from within the Islamic religion.
Perhaps ASIO’s new terminology makes some sense when it comes to investigating specific individuals once they’re known. But the reality is that ASIO’s new umbrella terms don’t address the threats we face.
ASIO’s Director-General is warning that looking out to 2025, espionage and foreign interference will supplant terrorism as our principal security concern. But terrorism will remain a persistent problem: the threat level for terrorism remains at “probable”. Last week Victoria Police charged two men in Melbourne with planning a terrorist act and one with being a member of Islamic State.
Since his original statement on the new counter-terrorism terminology, ASIO’s head has said that it doesn’t preclude him from identification of groups and trends within those categories. That’s encouraging. In the meantime our political leaders shouldn’t be cowed when they call a spade a spade. They should use the terms Islamist terrorism and right-wing extremism that Australians well understand. When it comes to countering terrorism we should welcome clear language.