A sheikh in our apartment building in suburban Melbourne gives Koran classes to children, and a few of the women who bring their kids here for lessons wear niqab. After passing each other coming and going a few times, we started to exchange brief greetings and introductions (yes, it’s possible to recognise them despite the face veil, even on occasions when they don’t have the children in tow to serve as an identifier). The kids’ response to these exchanges — equal parts surprise and delight — indicates that they have probably come to expect hostility from strangers on the street.
Of course, the anti-niqab crowd would say that the children are more likely looking to me for rescue from their mothers’ abnormal behaviour, but their pleasure in these interactions encompasses their mothers as well as themselves. A little boy of about five greeted me with immense excitement. “I know you from before!” Then he started telling his mother about it, as though I were a special treat for her, and directed me, “You come with my mother!” His mother and I laughed together at his enthusiasm (yes, niqabis can laugh).
Afterwards, I remembered the kind of language that is being used about Tara Nettleton‘s children after reports that she is seeking to return to Australia from the Islamic State-controlled area of Syria where she has been living with her husband, Khaled Sharrouf.
Sharrouf’s family achieved global notoriety last year after he tweeted a photograph of his then-seven-year-old son holding a severed head. His 14-year-old daughter (or at least someone using her identity) has been tweeting about the delights of living under the so-called Khalifah, and in March triumphantly announced that she had just become the wife of her father’s friend (and fellow Australian) Mohamed Elomar.
The below-the-line comments describing the Sharrouf children as “demon spawn” and hoping for their grisly deaths are only fractionally more toxic than many of the descriptions from politicians, journalists and commentators. Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton could have responded to requests to repatriate Nettleton and her children by referring to the government’s inability to assist Australian citizens in IS-controlled territory, but of course they didn’t forego the opportunity to display their tough-on-terrorism credentials — even when the terrorists concerned are children.
They will face the force of the law along with their parents, and even if they are not guilty of any crime they may end up in state care. This macho talk further diminishes the already remote prospects of having the children returned to safety in Australia. (Sharrouf himself has shown no desire to return.)
David Penberthy endorsed the government’s response in an article headlined “Australia is not their home anymore”:
“If you’ve been raised by Sharrouf, you’ve been taught to believe that Australia is exactly the kind of country where you should practice your despicable brand of violence. Civil society wouldn’t’ be their sanctuary, civil society would be their target.
“There is every chance that the Sharrouf parents have created the next generation of domestic terrorists, should these children somehow return home.”
Damned, then, for the sins of the father (and the mother) — with no hope of redemption.
But, like it or not (and of course Abbott and Dutton most certainly do not), Khaled Sharrouf is an Aussie as well — a product of the Australian educational, legal and mental health systems, who is now triumphantly and joyfully committing horrific crimes against Syrian civilians as well as abuses against his own children.
It goes without saying that those children must be immensely damaged by their recent experience. That ought to be a reason for facilitating their return, if at all possible, not scoring further points against their already reviled parents.
But why should any of this come as a surprise? Australians tolerate sending children into offshore detention camps to suffer all manner of abuse even when their parents’ only “crime” is to seek asylum by boat. We’re obviously capable of seeing children as monsters, as demon spawn.