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‘Condemn or be condemned’: the optics of responding to jihad

When it comes to acts of Islamic terrorism, Muslim community leaders feel they have no choice but to wade into a debate that has little to do with them.

On Friday, Australian jihadi Khaled Sharrouf posted an image to Twitter of his young son holding up a severed head. The image appeared on the front page of The Australian on Monday, revealing to Australia the horror that a young Australian child was being exposed to by his father.

Politicians lined up to condemn the image, but perhaps that’s not surprising. Politicians are always asked to comment on topical issues. But there was another group asked to do the same thing. Many of Australia’s Muslim and Arabic community organisations were quoted in the press sharing in the outrage.

In The Australian, the NSW Islamic Council’s Khaled Sukkarieh described the images as “beyond belief”. “[W]e condemn it all in the name of Islam,” he told the newspaper. Also quoted was the Board of Imams Victoria President Sheikh Gul Saeed Shah, who discouraged young men from travelling overseas for jihad, as well as several other Islamic community leaders. In The Sydney Morning Herald Sharrouf’s actions were slammed by Lebanese Muslim Association President Samier Dandan, as well as GP and former Australian of the Year Dr Jamal Rifi. The ABC also carried condemnations from Dandan, who called the photos “the act of a lunatic,” and from Rifi.

Such public condemnations are not rare — it’s a common journalistic trope to find local representatives to comment on global issues, and minority groups are often called to account for, or at least help shed light on, the actions of the few. But whether or not to condemn such outrages has been a topic of growing concern within Australia’s Islamic communities. Some leaders conclude they have little choice. Despite a growing weariness within the Australian Islamic community of being called to account for the actions of jihadis overseas who march to a far more radical beat, a failure to condemn would have led to worse headlines, Ghaith Krayem, from the Islamic Council of Victoria, told Crikey yesterday.

It solidifies in people’s imaginations that this is a problem of the Australian Muslim community …”

In the wake of the photo, the ICV put out a press release deploring the image. But Krayem says he would rather the organisation he represents wasn’t part of the conversation at all. “Of course we want to give no comment.” he said. “As human beings we condemn this… but it has nothing to do with [the ICV]. But the reality is if we were to completely ignore the image, it would have caused a huge emotive outcry. If we said nothing, that would have been the next headline.”

In The Australian yesterday, former Australian army chief Peter Leahy seemed to lay the problem at the feet of the Islamic community. “The vast majority of Muslims would be completely horrified by this,” he told the newspaper. “The only solution has to come from within Islam … Their leaders must speak up and publicly condemn this behaviour.”

But Dr Yassir Morsi, an expert in Australian Islamophobia from the University of South Australia, says public condemnations from so-called “moderate Muslims” do nothing to discourage young men from going to Syria to wage jihad. “This type of thing doesn’t sedate the anger,” Morsi says. “It’s historically based, and has more to do with foreign policy than what minority group representatives say or don’t say.” He also resents the fact that dealing with this problem has been placed at the feet of under-resourced Islamic community groups, who he says lack the training and expertise in dealing with men like Sharrouf anyway (Sharrouf experimented with drugs in his youth, and has previously been diagnosed with a depressive anxiety disorder and schizophrenia).

Public denunciations of terrorism from local Islamic organisations do nothing to distance the community from what others do overseas in the name of the same religion, Morsi added. “It solidifies in people’s imaginations that this is a problem of the Australian Muslim community … It affirms in people’s minds that it’s a conversation about us. It places collective responsibility. But there is massive pressure on us to comment. To boil it down, it’s either condemn or be condemned. You have no choice.”

Krayem says he has in the past refused to comment on global Islamic issues when asked by journalists. “But it’s always tricky. Journalists get frustrated with you.” Like Morsi, he says this is about foreign policy. “And that’s the harder discussion few want to have.”

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