Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site

Muslim families can't be expected to turn their backs on teens who have done the wrong thing

By John Coyne and Lydia Shelly

The arrest of two Sydney teenagers earlier this month for terrorism-related offences demonstrates how good our police and intelligence agencies are getting at disrupting alleged terror plots.

The arrests were an operational success for all agencies involved. No police or members of the public or offenders were harmed.

It's a pity that our post-arrest efforts to counter violent extremism aren't achieving the same levels of success as our investigations.

The media has reported that there was a cluster of extremist links surrounding the two Sydney boys involved in this latest alleged plot. As part of the investigation, authorities will be trying to determine if the boys had any links with people who support terrorism.

Although not immune to criticism, police and intelligence agencies are more aware that the manner in which they conduct post arrest inquiries can alienate Muslim communities. These post-arrest inquiries are still conducted within a context of deep mistrust between segments of Muslim communities and police and intelligence agencies. But the messaging is clear, the police are investigating a criminal offence – not a family, community or religion.

The journey to radicalisation is a personal one. But there's some common threads – such as isolation, disenfranchisement, disengagement from society and mental health – that are strong contributing factors.

The families and friends of the latest two alleged terrorists are being criticised for being conservative Muslims. But being a conservative Muslim doesn't make you a violent extremist or a terrorist. Communities, police, intelligence agencies and media shouldn't conflate conservative religious practices with violent extremism.

When Jill Hickson Wran, wife of former NSW Premier Neville Wran, stood by her daughter Harriet, after she was convicted of being an accessory after the fact of murder and robbery in company, there was no public outcry or criticism. That's what parents do: blood's thicker than water.

The family members and friends of those accused for terrorist offences have a very different experience.

Their love for their boys is viewed as tacit support for terrorism. But in almost every case this isn't true.

For 15 years there have been voices here criticising Muslim communities for not making public statements against terrorism after attacks and arrests.

It's argued that by not constantly denouncing acts of terrorism, Muslims are supporting violent extremism. This is built on the fallacy that by default Muslims support terrorism.

Little surprise then that the family and friends of alleged and convicted terrorists report that their communities are turning their backs on them. There are many Australian Muslims and those of the broader public that would welcome such behaviour.

But this just assists terrorist groups: it isolates potential recruits from their support networks and communities. It reinforces extremist propaganda that the West is persecuting Muslims. It also reinforces the concept that Australian Muslims are overwhelmingly viewed through a security lens, where even acts of goodwill or charity are deemed suspicious.

There are members of Australia's Muslim communities who are trying to break this cycle of arrests and isolation.

The members of Sydney's Muslim communities who have visited the families of the latest alleged terrorists should be supported. This kind of engagement and communication plays an important role in disrupting pathways to radicalisation.

Efforts to support families experiencing grief, confusion and isolation shouldn't be read as supporting terrorism.

If we're to prevent the radicalisation of other Australians, communities need to be encouraged not to turn their backs on those in crisis.

Community members supporting at risk families should be provided with training in how to access government support services, personal safety, mental health and grief counselling.

The Turnbull government needs to consider whether our social cohesion programs are unnecessarily undermining legitimate efforts to counter violent extremism by being too obviously linked with police and national security agencies.

Should the two alleged boy terrorists be found guilty, they're likely to serve long prison sentences. These sentences will have devastating impacts on the lives of the boys, as well as those of their families.

If they're proven innocent, it is highly likely that they will bear this incident like the mark of Cain – a mark that will stigmatise them within the Muslim and broader Australian community and follow them well into adulthood.

This represents a tragedy for the whole community. If our post-arrest efforts to counter violent extremism aren't enhanced we are likely to experience further tragedies. 

Dr John Coyne is the Head of Border Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Lydia Shelly is a lawyer and community advocate.
Originally published: The Age. 24 October 2016. 

Originally published by: The Age on 24 Oct 2016