‘Terror Australis’: the language of Australia’s domestic war on terror

Australia’s politicians and press are ratcheting up a rhetoric of pure Islamophobia. These escalating tactics are aimed, as ever, at forcing a shift in the balance of freedom and security, in favour of the latter.

Linda Briskman Scott Poynting
26 October 2014
Tony Abbott and John Kerry. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

Tony Abbott and John Kerry. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.Last year we authored an openDemocracy piece which maintained that the tabloid media was partly responsible for the upsurge in Islamophobic hate crime following the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London. But over the last month, events on the other side of the world have demonstrated that this was only a partial picture. The case of Australia has underlined that it is not only the media, but also the opportunistic and populist politicians whose message they carry, that bestow a sense of righteousness upon the mission of violent vigilantism and bigoted vilification against Muslims. And beyond the media and political hunger for stern action against radicalised jihadists and ‘their’ communities, the security agencies are perpetually calling for the bolstering of their war chests and legislative armoury.

Before dawn on 18 September, over 800 Australian federal and state police, along with security agents, raided households in Sydney and Brisbane. Some 15 men were arrested in what the acting Federal Police Commissioner called a “disruption exercise” and the Prime Minister described as a “show of strength”, and three men were held without charge and in secret under Australia’s 2005 anti-terrorism laws. One man was charged with conspiring to plan or prepare ‘a’ terrorist act. The ‘a’ is significant and was the result of a legislative change from ‘the’, such that the current law does not require any specific act to be planned or prepared for. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with appropriate regard for due process, had no trouble telling assembled journalists about ‘intelligence’ of an alleged ‘plan’ to commit a random and public beheading in Australia: “this is not just suspicion, this is intent”.

The media responded predictably, and indeed exactly as Abbott, a self-described previously frustrated journalist, could have anticipated. Even Melbourne’s respectable liberal broadsheet, The Age, deployed the headline "Terror Australis", a line used by the Murdoch-owned tabloid Daily Telegraph in October 2001. This time, Sydney’s Telegraph trumpeted: “Terror raids: Fanatics plotted to behead an innocent”. No plot has been proven, but the media has found little need to probe for information. The customary choreographed performance sufficed: the timely celebration of a demonstration of strength by the security forces, just as the Australian military departs to do battle with ISIS.

Meanwhile, Jacqui Lambie, one of two new senators for the right-wing Palmer United Party - founded eponymously by a mining magnate last year and on whose votes the government relies in the upper house - was quick to equate sharia law with terrorism and to demand that Muslims in Australia abandon it, or “pack their bags”, as well as calling for a ban on the burqa on security grounds. Despite being lambasted for her extreme views, Lambie later declared in Parliament that supporters of sharia law will not stop butchery and rape until every woman in Australia wears a burqa. Similarly Cory Bernadi, conservative Liberal Party senator, tweeted on the day of the raids: “Note burqa wearers in some of the houses raided this morning? This shroud of oppression and flag of fundamentalism is not right in Aust[ralia]”.

The escalating tactics have been a ‘proven’ success with headlines on 22 September reporting that Islamic State issued a ‘kill Australians’ decree, justifying Abbott’s own pronouncements on the very same day that Australians will have to balance their freedoms with the need for security. One Australian traveller can already attest to the proportionality of this trade-off. On a Tiger Airlines domestic flight in September, Oliver Buckworth was removed from the plane after his seating companion observed him doodling and writing sentences satirising the terrorism threat. ‘Dobbing’ on one’s neighbours, as the Australian expression goes, has been the norm since 2001 when the message of being “alert but not alarmed” was first instilled. That slogan accompanied the fridge magnet sent by the Howard government to every Australian household during the hysteria following 11 September 2001. But now we are to be alarmed as well. Posters plastered all over Melbourne’s Parliament underground station urge commuters to call police or the National Security Hotline if they “see something”.

Australia is fighting the ‘evil within’ on the home front, while sending war planes to Iraq, all the while trying to convince the public that this is a humanitarian exercise. Australia’s caring credentials are now suddenly enhanced, having turned away and incarcerated asylum seekers for a year under the Abbott government’s ‘stop the boats’ policy. It has been announced, with much media fanfare, that the nation has made space for about 4,400 people fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria. This ‘generous’ allowance comes from the existing comparatively meagre quota for refugees, and applies only to those who arrive via the ‘correct’ channels. The offer, significantly, will apply only to Iraqi Christians and Yazidis.

With hate crimes against Muslims increasingly reported, we cannot take Abbott seriously in his public rhetoric that anti-terrorism measures have nothing to do with religion. Letters and often opinion columns in major newspapers continue to propagate the usual prejudices against Islam, with barely any attempts made to challenge these. Fear and hate engendered by the attacks in the US in 2001 have continually festered. But opportunism has at best allowed this hate to be unrestrained, and at worst manipulated it for political advantage.

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