By Gerard Henderson, chief of staff to John Howard and is executive director of the Sydney Institute, a forum for debate and discussion. He is in Britain as the guest of Policy Exchange (THE TIMES, 15/01/07):
Australians are sometimes accused of being direct, even blunt. But this way of going about things seems to have worked well enough when dealing with the threat of radical Islamism Down Under. Its approach is worthy of close examination — not least in Britain. And what has been accomplished so far, though controversial, has been done with a high degree of bipartisan co-operation.
Like other predominantly Anglo-Celtic nations, Australia is a tolerant and accepting society — in spite of what some members of the domestic left intelligentsia and the civil liberties lobby proclaim. While not without racial tensions, Australia has a relatively low level of ethnically motivated crime and a relatively high level of inter-marriage between the numerous ethnic groups. The country has not fought a war of independence or a civil war and has not been in imminent danger of invasion — even though Japan briefly considered doing so in 1942. Al-Qaeda’s act of war against the United States on September 11, 2001, was the first major attack to take place on American soil.
Similarly, Jamaah Islamiyah’s bombs, which exploded at the Bali tourist resort in Indonesia on October 12, 2002, brought civilian Australians into the front line. Some 20 Australians were murdered on 9/11. The Australian death toll at Bali was 88 — a horrendous toll for a population that is about a third that of Britain.
Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, happened to be in Washington on 9/11. Australia immediately committed special forces to the war against the Taleban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which was under way when Mr Howard’s Liberal-National Party conservative coalition defeated Labor, led by Kim Beazley, at the election in November 2001. Labor supported Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan but opposed Mr Howard’s decision to commit Australia to the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq (in support of the US and Britain) in 2003.
Despite their differences on Iraq, the major parties have been more or less united on the need for a tough-minded approach to national security. Mr Beazley generally supported Mr Howard’s anti-terrorism legislation and his position has been followed by Kevin Rudd, who took over as Opposition leader last December.
While the political conservatives dominate Australian national politics at the moment, the social democrats are in office in the six states and two territories that comprise the federation. By and large, the Labor Premiers, who control the police forces, have backed Mr Howard on national security. This amounts to strong bipartisan support — since about 80 per cent of Australians vote for either the conservatives or social democrats.
Since 9/11 — and particularly since the Bali bombing — the debate on national security in Australia has been frank. Australia is an immigrant nation and Muslims have been part of the immigrant experience for more than a century. Muslims from Afghanistan, Turkey and South-East Asia, among other places, have settled in well and made a significant contribution to Australian society. Yet, as in other Western democracies, there is a radical Islamist presence in Australia that has been growing in recent years and that owes its allegiance to Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The composition of the Australian Muslim population is significantly different from that of Britain. Radical Muslims — or their parents or grandparents — have come mostly from Lebanon or North Africa, with some from the sub-continent. In addition there are a few home-grown converts to the cause — the best known of whom are David Hicks, who is held at Guantanamo Bay, and Jack Thomas.
The evidence indicates that all radical Islamists in Australia were either born there or entered the country on valid visas. Asylum seekers, who arrived unlawfully, have not comprised a potential threat to national security.
It so happens that the approach advocated for Britain by Martin Bright in his important Policy Exchange pamphlet When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries is consistent with what has occurred Down Under over the past five years. Put briefly, the Australian system takes Islamist ideology seriously. It does not deal with radical Islamists. It confronts extremists’ views, rather than seeking to co-opt “pragmatic” radicals who happen not to be in favour of the use of violence in the here and now for purely tactical reasons. After the bombings of 7/7 in London, Tony Blair declared correctly that “the rules of the game had changed”. In Australia the rules changed dramatically some time earlier. A few recent examples illustrate the point.
After the shock of 7/7 Mr Howard established a Muslim Community Reference Group and said that no radicals would be invited to join. When Sheikh Taj Aldin al-Hilali (the Mufti of Australia) ventured into Holocaust denial, Andrew Robb (the Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism) let it be known that he would not be reappointed to the group. Last February Peter Costello (Mr Howard’s deputy) publicly declared that, if the radical Muslim cleric Abdul Nasser Ben Brika really wanted to live under Sharia law, he might choose voluntary deportation to Iran. The next month the Prime Minister told Reuters TV that Australia could not ignore “that there is a small section of the Islamic population which identifies with some of the more extremist views associated with support of terrorism”. In New South Wales the former Labor Premier, Bob Carr, and his successor, Morris Iemma, have made similar candid statements where necessary.
There remains a significant terror threat in Australia — with some convictions for terrorist-related offences and a number of Muslim men in Sydney and Melbourne awaiting trial on serious charges. However, the tough line on security seems to have worked well and there have been no terrorist attacks.
The Howard Government has let it be known that radical Islamism is also a threat to the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community and reminded its leaders of their responsibilities to resolve potential problems in their own self-interest. This approach has strengthened the position of moderate Muslims.
Meanwhile, the conservatives, with the support of social democrats, have advanced the cause of citizenship tests as a means of emphasising that all who choose to live in Australia are expected to sign-on to our democratic values. Moreover, imams have been advised to preach in English. There is little backing in Australia for the extremist right-wing view that Muslim immigration should be banned. But there is bipartisan support for tackling the real threat posed by radical Islamism in a direct, even blunt, manner.