• Mohamad Tabbaa

Trajectories of Terror: Tracing Muslim Responses

Updated: May 26, 2020

Everything was going great for a while. We were invisible – and quite grateful for it. No major news stories. No dreaded condemnations. No media fiasco. No internal bickering.*

And then, on a fine Melbourne afternoon, as if out of thin air, it struck.

More accurately, he struck.

A Muslim man killed someone. Terrorism.

And suddenly, we are woke. Here we go again…

But it wasn’t the same this time. In the 17 years since the War on Terror was launched, it seems we may have learned a thing or two about how (not) to respond to terror.

Times have changed.

What used to be an auto-response, almost a pre-recorded message of condemnation, was barely audible this time round. Muslims didn’t queue up to fall in line with the Prime Minister’s comments, eager to show that we were also singing from the same hymnbook.

No. There was opposition this time; refusals, denunciations, call-outs and criticisms. There was a battle for our position in the narrative.

In light of this altered state of affairs, I thought it worthwhile to cast an eye over the main responses, how these differ in strategy to previous responses, and where these leave us as a community living under terror’s forceful embrace. In order to maintain focus on the broader picture, I’ve decided to categorise responses broadly and not focus on specifics, names or organisations.

The Pleasing

Let’s start with the good.

As mentioned, there was an almost universal refusal to condemn the acts, thankfully breaking a decades-long, painful tradition; perhaps, ironically, the only tradition the majority of the Muslim community used to actually agree upon. While a few still saw necessary to perform the condemnation ritual (because perhaps condemnation number 38,422 will be the one that finally absolves us!), they were in no way prominent. And of course, it goes without saying that behind the public performances, many of our imams were eager to remind their congregations in the Jumuah sermon to follow, that randomly killing people is a no-no.

But there was more than a mere refusal to condemn. There was in fact a condemnation of the government’s response, of the perpetual demand to condemn, of the blame and responsibility apportioned to Muslims on account of this act. We’ve finally had enough, it seems. We refuse to be put under the spotlight any further, to be blamed for something we didn’t commit, and scapegoated for political point-scoring.

Many also expressed their sheer exhaustion at being tasked with the heavy responsibility of solving terror, without the resources, expertise or support to do so. It’s the job of police to police, they argued. Fair call.

We also saw, finally, much less of the public disagreement and bickering we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to. Those in the limelight, although not sharing the exact same message, more or less stayed out of each other’s way and avoided the usual finger-pointing; no more blaming this fundamentalist group or that incorrect reading of Islam for political violence. We certainly didn’t get the outright apologies of the past, or the demonization by leaders of their own youth.


The Promising

Aside from the outright changes in our responses, there were also a number of laudable changes in community attitudes that are worth noting.

Most prominently, the community did not fall into a full-blown panic as a result of the attack. Let us pause here for a moment, as this is no small feat. Behind us are the days, hopefully, of grovelling at the feet of politicians to ward off the concentration camps some imagined were imminent because some of us dared to speak back (true story). This could be due to the resignation of certain personalities from the public realm and their replacement with more level-headed figures, or the general increase in confidence across the board – likely both. Regardless, it’s a definite blessing that we can now survive a media storm without collectively holding our breath in anticipation of the next wildly-irresponsible statement from some prominent figure or other.

Secondly, and no less substantive, is the fact that many young and active Muslims, particularly those involved in student societies, are simply not having any of the apologetics.

A younger generation more confident of their place in the world is less forgiving of diffident performances. They are demanding responsible leadership and genuine accountability.

We are seeing less excuses for poor performance (‘you don’t know what’s in their heart!’ – who remembers that gem?) and more demands for justifications and explanations. Many have probably never witnessed the sheer betrayal of the Muslim responses of old, and I pray, if they maintain the pressure, they will never have to.

Finally, the community as a whole is obtaining greater visibility of who exactly is colluding with government agencies in their Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), deradicalization and similar (‘social cohesion’, anyone?) programs aimed at pacifying Muslim resistance. We’re seeing a greater interest in understanding whose outward politics matches their inner-workings with authorities, which is a great start, but much more work is required here to understand the breadth of the problem. Even at a glance, I’m sad to report the extent to which these programs have infiltrated our organisations is devastating, and is rapidly shaping the agendas of many organisations. The change in tone, censoring of government criticism and ‘disinterested’ programs we’ve already witnessed is only the beginning; with many millions of government dollars being thrown at this across the country, it will not be long before Fatawa and basic Islamic teachings are infused with counter-terror messaging to such a degree that they begin to sound organic.

We’re not yet quite where we need to be on these matters, but the signs are promising.

The Painful

Despite the advances made in some of our responses, there still remain some problematics.

Some of these are the ghosts of a moderate past that simply refuse to accept their cultural defeat. Examples of this are stubborn performances of condemnation mentioned above, the echoes of the moderate hallmark, ‘Islam is peace’ slogan, or the recurring expressions of gratitude to the police for ‘showing restraint’, which, in this case, is simply perplexing. I’d be interested to see what a lack of restraint would have looked like considering they killed the guy.

But these are easily dealt with and, I firmly believe, quickly becoming a relic of a bygone era of respectability politics. More troublesome are the problematic responses that are not only well-intentioned, but direct attempts at ‘changing the narrative’, actually confronting the Islamophobic basis of the War on Terror discourse. These responses are, in effect, attempting to incorporate previous critiques and feedback, and for that their authors deserve praise.

But, as I’ve written previously regarding well-intended responses, they miss the mark in fundamental ways.

The prime culprit here is a response that made its way into almost every reaction, from the painfully apologetic to the boastfully bold. When accused of not doing enough to combat violence and radicalisation amongst their flock, many, many Muslims, breaking with past approaches, took offence and pointed the finger squarely back at law enforcement: ‘actually, it was the police who failed,’ they hit back. The attacker was under ASIO’s radar and had his passport cancelled in 2015, so the logic goes that, if he was being watched by authorities, how come he was allowed to roam free and commit this heinous crime?

Given they knew he was a threat, why didn’t they just detain him, remove him and his harmful potential from society?

I can understand the logic that has led them here, I really can, and pointing the finger of accusation back at your accuser can be a powerful gesture. But not like this. The reason the attacker was not locked up is simple: he hadn’t committed any crimes for which he must be detained, and hadn’t committed any crimes related to terrorism, despite the very low bar of evidence required to charge suspects on such grounds (possession of a ‘thing’, literally). So, unless we would like police to start locking up more people based purely on suspicion, then what is it exactly that we’re critiquing about their actions? Did we really not anticipate how accusing police of not doing enough would be read as an open invitation to expand their powers, increase their funding, and afford them an even greater cover to act with impunity?

Well, lo and behold, to everybody’s utter shock, the very next day, the opposition promised to provide an additional $89.5 million in funding to policing bodies if they won next week’s state election; an election which is now increasingly being characterised by a ‘tough on crime’ approach.

Is this the solution we wanted? Would it not have been more prudent to point out the fact that, if anything, it is the excessive policing that contributes to, rather than reduces, the potential for political violence?

The next ploy was more painful and less forgivable. Pointing out the noticeable absence of a profile for the third stabbing victim, some began suggesting (hoping?) that he may have been Muslim, and a concerted effort was under way to determine his religion. Then, finally, after a prolonged yet hopeful silence, the news we had all been waiting for: Praise be to God, it was a Muslim who was stabbed.

Again, as with above, this hope was based on a false premise that a ‘Good Muslim’ story, in which he’s an almost-hero and a victim, could undo some of the damage caused to our image from the ‘Bad Muslim’ villain that hurt people. In fact, the Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim trope is a core part of the War on Terror narrative that sets Muslims against each other and dictates the acceptable boundaries of their political engagement. Having a Muslim hero/victim in the story simply fuels this narrative, not challenges it.

A third common and worrying response was the desperate attempt to dismiss the attack as a case of mental health, thereby removing the political and more challenging element; it means we don’t have to explain away a link between Islam and violence. It was noted that the attacker suffered from mental health concerns, and was experiencing hallucinations in the lead up to the attack, having refused attempts by his family to seek help. Over the years, we as a community have made many attempts to escape the political nature of terrorism – blaming theology, pathology and any other ology we can hide behind.

We won’t ever know for sure what motivated his attack, now that he is no longer alive to share his story. However, what we do (or should) know by now, is that the exact details of this case, or any other for that matter, are secondary to the discourse of terror, which is always political. There is no escaping the politics of terror, nor should we attempt to do so. Presiding within a privileged part of the world as we do, our response to being afforded a national platform to voice our concerns should not be to deflect attention from ourselves, but rather to fulfil our obligations to victims of violence worldwide. As I wrote four years ago, "Our role is to bring an end to terrorism by bringing an end to the conditions that produce and encourage it, not by helping to conceal those conditions."

For what I fear these responses demonstrate is, firstly, that we’ve not invested the energy into actually understanding the problems of the War on Terror discourse; we’ve simply responded to local pressures to stop doing one thing (condemnation, for example), and replaced it with an equally problematic alternative (blaming police, for example). These lulls in pressure that we experience should not be cause for rest or, worse, apathy, but rather present opportunities to begin to take this responsibility seriously, and that begins with a sincere commitment to learn the problem we’re attempting to address.

Think about this for a moment: of all those who’ve commented publicly on this story, and there have been many, how many have undergone media training so that they can identify and counter common media tactics? And of them, how many are well versed in the Humanities such that they can navigate their way around discursive traps?

Secondly, these responses demonstrate that, in our many years of focusing on correcting the narrative, we’ve ultimately lost sight of the bigger picture. Looking at the vast majority of responses to this incident, it would be easy to forget that there is in fact a mammoth, global war under way, where Muslims are the primary victims. $5.9 trillion buys a lot of casualties. Where were these casualties in our responses? Did they figure in our attempts to placate the Australian public’s anxiety about us being violent?

In 2012, after one of the first terror raids conducted in Melbourne, I confronted Islamic organisations for speaking extensively to media, government and police, but not taking the time to check in with the victims of the raids and their families, none of whom were charged. They were shocked at the very idea that they should engage Muslims suspected of terror.

Has any of this changed in the six years since?

We spent much of our recent energy assuring Australia that we are doing everything possible to combat terror, with examples to match. Can we provide the same assurance – with examples – to our own community, that we’re doing everything possible to combat the War on Terror?


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