Those who were paying attention to SBS news last Friday would have noticed a story promoting a new federal government website “to help communities tackle extremism”, as part of the struggle against terrorism.
It might have aroused mixed feelings, as it did with me. On one hand, we want governments to be alert to the risk of an Anders Breivik appearing in our midst. On the other hand, there are some fairly obvious dangers in having the government monitoring people’s political beliefs and deciding what counts as “extremism”.
But hopes and fears are mistaken. As became obvious from the SBS report, without ever being stated, the website is actually targeted at Muslims. Getting the grand mufti to comment was a dead giveaway.
Similarly, the Attorney-General’s press release manages to avoid mentioning the word “Muslim” while using language that makes no sense on any other interpretation.
Just as the term “terrorism” has become functionally equivalent to “Muslim terrorism”, we seem to have entered a world where the only extremism that counts is Muslim extremism.
Perhaps I’m being unfair here. It’s true that the Resilient Communities website talks about multiculturalism in general, and advertises Hindu festivals and the like. So it may be that the government is monitoring ethnic and religious hatreds in general, not just in Muslim communities. But that’s still a very restricted understanding of “extremism”.
Oddly enough, the section on “What is violent extremism?” is admirably clear, covering violence from the full range of political motives. But there’s no suggestion that “communities” are defined broadly enough to cover most of these; no one from the Attorney-General’s department is going to show up at the “far-right blogging community”, for example, to teach them how to be more “resilient” and less prone to “violent extremism”.
And while the idea is tempting, that’s probably a good thing. Some of us remember the days of the Cold War, when ASIO and its state counterparts infiltrated and spied on left-wing organisations of all sorts, compiling dossiers on any number of non-violent activists and generally trying to criminalise dissent. They may have prevented the occasional violent incident along the way, but at an unacceptable cost.
We don’t want to go back to those days. Law enforcement certainly needs intelligence, but it needs to be handled, well, intelligently, and not degenerate into propaganda for or against particular political beliefs.
Whether it’s Socialist Alternative, or PETA, or Catch the Fire ministries, or the Lavoisier Group, extremists are entitled to put their point of view without the state trying to restrict them to an “acceptable” range.
But as long as it’s only Muslims being singled out, nobody much seems to care. And that in turn just reinforces the perception that terrorism is a problem only for the “ethnics”, and we don’t have to worry about violent rhetoric that doesn’t come attached to its own “community”.
Which, as Norway discovered, is a dangerous illusion.