Anti-Terror Laws and the Muslim Community: Where Does Terror End
and Security Begin?
Civil Rights Advocate & Education Worker, Sydney
1. I must confess that I have lost track of how many pieces of anti-terror legislation have been introduced since September 11. I used to know this number. I know that this time last year the number sat at 18, but I can't be sure anymore. At a recent rally I heard someone say it was 25 by their count, yet still others said it was as high as 33. When the latest piece, the Anti-Terrorism Act (No. 2) 2005 passed Parliament in December 2005, the Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said, "These new counter-terrorism laws place Australia in a strong position to prevent new and emerging threats and to stop terrorists carrying out their intended acts" , and that "this is a further demonstration of the Government's commitment to the national security of Australia" (Ruddock, 2005: 230/2005). No doubt these laws are intended to end terror, and to ensure security. But how effective are they in ending terror, and in introducing security? The Government has also said that the laws are not targeted at Muslims. The Prime Minister John Howard said, "There is nothing in our laws, nor will there be anything in our laws, that targets an individual group be it Islamic or otherwise" ( The Age , 9 November 2005). That is true. There is nothing in the laws that says, "Police have the power to search a person if they have facial hair or if they affix materials to their head." But the laws are drafted so broadly that they are really open to interpretation; and the removal of safeguards leaves much room for the laws to be applied in a discriminatory way. Just how effective are they in ending terror and in ensuring security, when members of the community are feeling fearful, nervous, targeted, when the community feels under siege? So where exactly does terror end and where exactly does security begin?
2. Since the unfathomable horror of September 11, I have witnessed a community being dragged through the maze of media, politics and fear. It has had to adapt very rapidly to suit these changing demands. When the first set of anti-terror legislation was introduced in 2002, many people already suspected that they would have potentially adverse effects on Muslim communities in Australia. These concerns were expressed to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee considering these laws by a range of different groups, including the Australian Arabic Council, the Ethnic Communities' Council of Victoria, the Supreme Islamic Council of NSW, the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) and the Victorian Council of Social Service. However, the laws went through, and things went on. Scarves were still being pulled off regularly on the streets, bearded men were viewed with suspicion, but by and large, people got on with their lives.
3. That is, until a series of raids happened in November 2002. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) raided approximately thirty homes, all Muslim families, some with young children and babies, some with elderly men and women. As many as 30 men would surround a suburban Muslim home, all of them with black balaclavas, black flak jackets, with submachine guns ready to shoot. Sometimes they would knock first, but other times without warning, they would break down the front door of these homes with sledgehammers. They held grown men to the ground by putting their foot on their head, and confiscated those critical elements of terrorist activities: family videos, passports, birth and marriage certificates, scanners, printers, and in one case, the all-important tabloid newspaper. None of these raids led to any terror charges, but Muslims started feeling terrorised.
4. Then there was the first arrest under the anti-terror laws, a 21-year old medical student called Izhar Ul-Haque in April 2004. His case is complex and interesting, but the odd thing was that for someone charged with a terrorist offence, it seemed that his activities were not really directly linked with a terrorist act. In his second bail hearing, the Court said that it was "important to note that it is no part of the Crown case that this young man poses any threat to anyone in this country". So what terror was there to end? To some of those who know Izhar, he has been said to be the antithesis of the terrorist stereotype. A friend said of him, "He is extremely sociable and interacts daily with non-Muslims and Muslims alike. He is bright, happy and polite" (Kadous, 2004). The response from Muslim organisations to the arrest was muted, even though from our informal interactions with members and organisations there were deep concerns about what this meant for them. They could identify with people like Izhar, someone who was perhaps a bit naïve, someone who might have made some mistakes in the past; but treating him as a dangerous threat to Australia by putting him in maximum security made other Muslims feel rather insecure.
5. Yet, there was very little public support for Izhar: while his former teachers, non-Muslim friends and even parents of non-Muslims friends came forward to defend him, his Muslim friends were advised by their parents not to even allude to the fact that they were acquaintances. I think that there were probably complex reasons for this, including the desire to avoid the stigma around "terrorism", and the complexities of the legal system. In the end, I think that some in the Muslim community hoped that the problem would go away, with many adopting a "don't rock the boat" attitude. What has been most striking to me is that while for many civil liberties are seen as a theoretical construct, in this new and difficult world of tough anti-terror laws, the personal impact of the losses of civil liberties, including freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to privacy, due process and freedom of association are very real for many Muslims in Australia.
6. For example, the anti-terror laws that were passed in December 2005 increased the powers for police officers to stop, question and search people if the officer suspects on reasonable grounds that the person might have just committed, might be committing, or might be about to commit a terrorist act. In a "prescribed security zone", the police can exercise this power in relation to anyone without suspicion ( Anti-Terrorism Act (No. 2) 2005). But from the Muslim community perspective, greater street policing powers also increase the risk of discriminatory application, exposing visible communities - and the Muslim community is very visible - to arbitrary interference. Similarly discretionary laws, such as consorting and vagrancy laws have been shown to be open to abuse, especially against Indigenous communities. Unrestricted coercive powers of this type have the potential to encourage racial profiling. There is a danger that decisions by front-line police as to who they will stop, search and question will be affected by commonly held prejudices and personal biases. Not only that, these laws reinforce stereotypes. They encourage non-Muslim members of the community to suspect Muslims as a group, whether or not they are individually involved in terrorism.
7. The Anti-Terrorism Act (No. 2) 2005 also introduced a "preventative detention" power, where people may, especially in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, be detained for up to two weeks simply for the purpose of preserving evidence. In the tragic event of a terrorist attack, these provisions could be used to cast a wide net. Muslims would likely be severely affected by this. This is not mere speculation, but a concrete fear having observed the application of the notorious "material witness" measures in the US after the attacks of September 11. Under the material witness laws, individuals who have not committed any crime themselves may nonetheless be detained for extended periods of time (Levenson, 2002). Two months after the September 11 attacks, up to 1,100 people, mostly Muslim, were detained under the material witness provisions. The exact number is not known, as there is no requirement that they report on the number of people detained. But even as late as 2005, it is believed that up to 70 people are still being held as material witnesses. Many of the people detained had nothing at all to do with terrorism. Similar measures in Australia could clearly be misused and abused, which could lead to massive community tension and be extremely detrimental to the harmony of the community.
8. The sense of insecurity has also been exacerbated by the worrying trend of the creation of a parallel legal system. I'll give an example. Imagine a paddock (on Crown land), an abandoned car, and a person puts a bomb in the car, and detonates it. It makes a crater in the ground 5 metres wide and 2 metres deep, bits of the car fly off in different directions, the bomb could be heard 20 metres away, and was said to be as powerful as Oklahoma city explosion. Was that person a terrorist? It depends. If your name happens to be say, Mark John Avery, then you get a suspended sentence, 200 hours of community service and a slap on the wrist by the judge. But if your name was Mohammad Yusuf Islam, then you might find yourself in a very different situation. You might find yourself being accused of training for terrorist activities, or preparing for an unspecified act (as a result of an amendment of the Anti-Terrorism Act No. 1 (2005) there is no requirement that it be connected with a specific terrorist act) of terrorism, or possessing a thing in relation to a terrorist act (which is a true offence by the way under the laws). As it happens, this is a true story that happened early last year, and the person's name was Mark John Avery.
9. When what makes a terrorist is unclear, it allows for the creation of parallel legal systems. If they like you, and you happen to fit the right profile, then you're up for 200 hours of community service, as opposed to life imprisonment. Senator Kerry Nettle said of this in Parliament, "A bomb went off near the Rooty Hill mosque about three weeks ago. That person was not tried for terrorism offences; that person was tried under the criminal law. They faced 200 hours of community service. That was a non- Muslim Anglo member of community. Every Muslim community individual who has been picked up in similar circumstances has been tried under terrorism legislation. No wonder the Muslim community feels that there are two systems of justice in this country" (Nettle, 2004).
10. But this is not happening just in this country. A recent report in the UK by the Institute of Race Relations found that there was a discriminatory use of anti-terrorist powers when Muslim individuals are charged with terrorist offences for their involvement in routine criminal activities:
In a number of cases, Muslims who have been involved in crimes such as credit card fraud or forgery have also been charged as suspected terrorists. In this way, the police have, it seems, used the extra powers available under terrorism legislation against ordinary criminal suspects. This is a worrying trend in which powers granted by parliament to the police specifically for tackling terrorism are extended to other spheres in a discriminatory way. (Institute of Race Relations, 2004).
Similarly, here in Australia commentators suspect that the same will happen with our expansive anti-terror laws. In the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties' recent appearance before the Senate Inquiry, they expressed exactly the same concerns. President Cameron Murphy stated, "I have said in the past that it allows ordinary criminal matters to suddenly morph into terrorism investigation. If you cannot obtain a search warrant in a tax evasion matter or some other criminal matter then suddenly it can become a terrorism investigation and you can obtain the evidence that way. That is the real danger" (Murphy, 2005).
11. These are the easily measurable effects, but there are also very serious psychological effects. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission produced a comprehensive report Isma in 2004 that detailed the findings of their national consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. A lot of participants of the consultations felt the Muslim community in Australia had been unfairly targeted in investigations by ASIO officers and Australian Federal Police following the Bali bombings in October 2002 (Isma, 2004: 67). In a consultation with nine young people in Adelaide, four of the participants reported being questioned by ASIO in their homes, and they believed this was done solely on the basis that they are Muslim. A participant said: "There is a fear in the community that one day you will wake up and your husband will be taken away under the new ASIO laws. The way the government treated people who underwent the raids was shocking..." ( Isma, 2004: 67). This was a consistent message we see from other independent research. The "Living with Racism Report" released by the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney in April 2004 also documents a widespread fear and alienation reported by Arab and Muslim respondents. It found that "80% of survey respondents reported that since September 11 they are more worried or afraid of something bad happening to them personally because of their race, culture or religion" (Reported in Isma, 2004: 77). More importantly, it also highlights a perception from the Muslim and Arabic communities of the lack of avenues to report harassment from the police or by ASIO.
12. Our regular consultations with the Muslim community confirm the findings of these reports. There is a general perception within the Muslim community that the terrorism-laws are "100% directed at Muslims"; there is some underlying assumption that Muslims are not wanted, that they are targeted by these laws, and that they are being used as scapegoats. Take the offence of association, for example, that allows for someone to be imprisoned for up to 3 years for talking to a person who is a member of a proscribed organisation. In an Islamic studies class I attended recently, a lady pulled out a newspaper clipping about the anti-terrorism laws, and said, "They don't want us to talk to anyone anymore". I said, "How so?" She said, "These association laws - they stop us from talking to our fellow Muslims. Will they really care if what I say is in support of the organisation? They will just look at me, look at my scarf, and put me in the terrorist bin."
13. McCulloch (2002) points out that there is a distinct difference between protecting national security (which McCulloch suggests is a byword for the political and economic status quo) and protecting human security (which is to protect the life, liberty and property of those living within the state). What has happened as a result of these new anti-terror laws is a perceived gain in national security for an actual loss of human security for a minority of Australians - in this case Muslims. Judging from debates about anti-terrorism in Australian newspapers, it seems to me that the rest of the community (having had no loss in human security and an apparent gain in national security) appear to see the anti-terror laws as reasonable since they come at no cost to them. However, this is a myopic reading of the situation. With insecurity of the Muslim community comes a host of problems. Members of the community start to develop a siege mentality, others adopt the mindset of victimhood, and yet some others show manifestations of fear and isolation. Each of these phenomenon, coupled with the perception of miscarriage of justice, causes ripples of fear and disempowerment through the Muslim community. More dangerously, they also undermine the spirit of cooperation that must exist between Muslims, the wider community and the authorities if terrorism is to be fought and eliminated.
14. While the anti-terror laws, as McCulloch argues, may not increase either national security or human security, they really introduce terror of a different kind especially for Muslim communities: of insecurity, of fear, or paranoia. In this sense, it is no longer clear to me - as a Muslim civil rights advocate - where terror ends and security begins.
Agnes Chong is a co-founder and current co-convenor of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network (AMCRAN), an organisation that presents an Islamic perspective on civil rights issues in the Australian context. She is a policy and education worker in the community legal sector in NSW and is a board member of the Combined Community Legal Centres Group as well as co-convenor of the Law Reform and Policy committee of the Group.
Author unknown, PM Not 'Targeting' Muslims, The Age, 9 November 2005.
Greenland, Hall, Operation Terror, The Bulletin, 9 March 2005.
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Kadous, M W, Detention of Student is Unjust Logic, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2004.
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Media Release, Passage of Anti-Terrorism Bill (No. 2) 2005, the Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, 230/2005, 7 December 2005.
Murphy, C. Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee Hansard, 17 November 2005.
Nettle, K. Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee Hansard, 17 June 2004.
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© borderlands ejournal 2006