“The best defence against radicalisation is through well-informed and well-equipped families, communities and institutions,” the Prime Minister claimed this morning, announcing a package of over $60 million in measures targeting “young Australians being radicalised”.

Wrong, PM. The best defence against radicalisation is to avoid gratuitous military attacks on Muslim countries. Who says? Baroness Manningham-Buller:

“By 2003/2004 we were receiving an increasing number of leads to terrorist activity from within the UK and the — our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people, some British citizens — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who were — saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam… Of course, also we were dealing at that time with a number of young British citizens who went to Iraq to fight not with Her Majesty’s forces but against them …”

Manningham-Buller is better known as the former head of MI5, and that was her evidence to the Chilcott inquiry in 2010, in which she explained at length how the UK’s participation in the attack on Iraq substantially increased the threat of terrorism to Britons.

This “young jihadis” line from the government, in co-operation with News Corp tabloids, is another stage in its hyping of the terrorist threat of the Islamic State, which has proved a useful distraction from the government’s domestic problems. Not that the Abbott government is the only government doing this: the Obama administration has been guilty of the same wild hype, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week declaring IS a greater threat than al-Qaeda and “beyond just a terrorist group“. Bear in mind, for the purposes of that comparison, that al-Qaeda was claimed during the 2000s to have access to weapons of mass destruction, while IS so far has concentrated on the terrorist theatre of individual beheadings and other gruesome forms of execution. That dissonance was reflected in the fact that, at the same time that Hagel was claiming IS a bigger threat than al-Qaeda, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were saying it posed “no specific or credible threat” to the United States. But for the purposes of the War on Terror, there must always be a bigger threat looming.

“Radicalisation is not some random event … but a coherent response by (mostly) young Muslim men to the perception that Western governments are at war with Islamic countries.”

Abbott’s version of “radicalisation” is the same as that memorably articulated by ASIO head David Irvine, in which radicalisation is seen as a kind of virus that might infect one if one’s security hygiene is poor, rather than a specific and, from the point of view of the individual radicalised, entirely rational response to external events. In 2011, Irvine argued that the internet was the vector for radicalisation-as-virus, saying: “The rampant use of the internet, the democratisation of communication, has resulted in new and effective means for individuals to propagate and absorb unfettered ideas and information and to be radicalised – literally, in their lounge rooms.” Irvine’s conception of radicalisation was that of a disease that could strike anywhere, anytime, even in that safe domestic space of the lounge room, unless one took steps to prevent it — with the implication that Muslims were particularly susceptible to being infected. The funding provided by Abbott today is similarly based on this approach, with funding primarily directed to law enforcement agencies to “monitor” and “disrupt” vectors of radicalisation like returned foreign fighters and extremist groups.

As Manningham-Butler explained, however, radicalisation is not some random event like contracting meningitis, but a coherent response by (mostly) young Muslim men to the perception that Western governments are at war with Islamic countries. The hyping of the threat of IS — which serves to maximise the transgressive appeal of the militants, and transgressive appeal is one of the most powerful marketing tools when it comes to young people — and increased Western military intervention directed at IS is likely to simply renew the cycle of radicalisation. That cycle resulted in Britons carrying out terrorist bombings in the UK and British men fighting against their own country in Iraq.

The question continues to be: are Western governments making the same mistakes as a decade ago in ignorance, or are they doing it deliberately, knowing full well they perpetuate the War on Terror in doing so?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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