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Like many another aspect of our ever more ossified public life, the terrorism panic currently underway is following increasingly ritualised forms.

Yesterday, exactly as the vile butchers of Islamic State would want, the Prime Minister hysterically warned that beheadings like that of James Foley could happen in Australia. Yes, Prime Minister, that’s exactly why IS chose an executioner with a British accent, to induce hysteria from people like you. Like the UK’s David Cameron, who warned of the establishment of a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean”, Abbott is, along with IS, anxious to play up the domestic threat to his own constituents. At least there is some basis for Cameron’s concerns about domestic terrorism in the UK. There is no evidence, none of any kind, that such a threat exists in Australia.

It is, however, a very real threat in Saudi Arabia. Just this month alone, according to Al Jazeera, the Saudia Arabian government has beheaded 19 Saudi and foreign nationals — including one for “sorcery”. What’s the difference between beheading a Western journalist and beheading an individual for an entirely fictional crime? Well, one was done by a group of terrorist butchers, the other by our close ally in the War on Terror with which we have a valued trade relationship. Perhaps Andrew Robb can express our disgust at beheading people for fictional crimes next time he’s in Riyadh.

It’s also noteworthy that beheadings in Iraq are being used explicitly to justify further increases in the powers of intelligence and law enforcement agencies here at the expense of individuals’ basic rights and justify massive increases in the budgets of those agencies. Remember that the anti-terrorism laws established by the Howard government (partly in response to the increase in the terrorist threat that government helped cause via the attack on Iraq) were justified as necessary to stop an insidious enemy, operating in deep secrecy, which may have had access to weapons of mass destruction, which posed a vast threat, occasionally and incorrectly called “existential”. Now, more laws and more money are apparently necessary to stop terrorists who, far from operating in secrecy, advertise themselves on social media, and who rather than using WMDs, use knives. One can only wonder which of the three logical consequences of the new demand for more powers applies: the laws we’ve had hitherto have been grossly inadequate given the threat, or our security agencies’ competence has deteriorated significantly, or the justification is nonsensical.

In any event, as we undertake the time-honoured “better to fight them in Iraq/Syria/Vietnam/Korea/Blenheim/Agincourt/Sparta/etc than here” debate, another ritual is being played out, with the Muslim community being targeted as insufficiently enthusiastic in the War on Terror. This time around, however, there’s been something of a variant, with both the government and intelligence agencies going out of their way to cultivate Muslim community sentiment. Typically, the government’s effort has been inept, having been built on the focus-grouped “Team Australia” theme, a line begging for parody that it has persisted with, including yesterday when Abbott made the remarkable statement that “the vast majority of Muslims in this country” wanted him as their “captain”. But the cack-handedness aside, Abbott’s inclusionary, rather than exclusionary, instincts on the issue should be commended.

This has, nonetheless, induced complaints that the government is “pandering” to Muslims. This is a long-running claim from reactionaries that the Muslim community, instead of being traduced, relentlessly surveilled, infiltrated by security agencies and treated as freaks by the tabloid media, wield some secret influence that makes Western governments bend over backwards to oblige them. Andrew Bolt criticised the government’s decision not to proceed with changes to the Racial Discrimination Act as evidence of a willingness to “assimilate to immigrant values” of “Muslims, jihadists, people from the Middle East”. The Western Australian Liberals savaged Abbott and compared him to Neville Chamberlain, with one senior figure calling the RDA backdown an “unconditional surrender” to the “narrow interest groups” such as the Muslim community. News Corp’s in-house bloviator Piers Akerman also accused Liberal MPs like Craig Laundy, a vocal opponent of the RDA changes, and Labor of “pandering” to Muslim constituents.

And as always, Muslims are called upon to (presumably taking time out from their busy schedule of being pandered to by governments) condemn various terrorist atrocities, just like, um, white male conservatives are called upon to condemn the actions of white male conservative terrorists. The reluctance of many in the Muslim community to join in this elaborate charade of terrorism hysteria is in turn portrayed as evidence of their fundamental inability to “embrace Australian values”, as though there’s something quintessentially Aussie about suspending your critical faculties and allowing yourself to be used as a prop for a politician’s effort to distract from their domestic political problems by hyping terrorism.

We’ve seen all this before, in the march to war in Iraq and the inordinate grab for power by governments and security agencies in the 2000s. Now we’re doing it all again, as though it will somehow be different this time around.

Peter Fray

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