I have lived in Northern Ireland (NI) for nearly five years; I conducted research, and despite that I was researching the Muslim community, through some NI friends I had access to that complex society, including the complex paramilitary reality. Indeed, it was so complex that when a friend and I wanted to start a university student’s netzine and selected an acronym as a name for it, we were informed that we had to think of a better name, since those few letters represented a not very well known but still active paramilitary group. The Northern Irish conflict, despite being prominently political, has religious connotations; Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists have fought each other since the UK partitioned the island. This conflict became later known as “The Troubles”.
History is never neutral and recent history even less so, but when I asked about how the NI Loyalist paramilitary groups started, my Protestant informants told me that they started emerging in the 1960s as vigilante groups to protect Protestant neighbourhoods from attacks. They then developed into terrorist organisations opposed to a united Ireland.
So, you might ask, what has this to do with Australia and the current terrorist threat?
A few days ago we woke up in Sydney—which recently saw a terrorist attack,the so called ‘Sydney Siege‘, in its economic centre —to the news that two terrorist suspects had been arrested at a granny flat in Fairfield, Western Sydney. They were in possession of a machete, large hunting knife and IS flag, and also a video, which allegedly showed one of the men declaring to have committed the terrorist attack in the name of Islamic State. Indeed it is alleged that they planned to carry out a Daesh ritualistic beheading the same day that they were arrested. This of course will not be the last of these plots in Australia and I am certain that some of them will unfortunately succeed.
There are different kinds of terrorist attacks. However, those that are unpredictable, target innocent civilians, and are organised and carried out by ordinary individuals, instead of by trained agents or military forces, are the most feared by the public. It does not help that those involved are often second generation citizens, immigrants or even former refugees. In other words, when the perpetrators are considered to be people whom have arrived from overseas and benefited from Australia, many Australians will read this as a betrayal, and some indeed express such feelings.
Australia is under attack. There is no doubt about it. Yet what exactly is attacking it remains unclear: it is not a country with an army, it is not even an organised movement such as al-Qaeda, but instead it seems a dark magma of different forms of frustrations that are sometimes channeled into fascist religious ideas. We have a chaotic reality that harms community relations and polarises opinions.
Among Muslim communities there are a majority who are silent and may fear both to become a victim of terrorism and victim of right-wing anti-Muslim propaganda and who condemn terrorism and the killing of innocent people. There are also Muslims whom point to the double standards of the West, yet they use very similar rhetoric to that of extremists except they do not advocate violence. Finally there are those who, openly or latently, support Daesh and wish to see the black flag, hijacked by the group as symbol of death and destruction, flown in Australia. Unfortunately, many who hold such views are very active in the social media sphere. Since these extreme messages attract attention, the people on the fringes of Muslim communities who create them and spread anti-Australian and anti-Western hatred will shape perceptions of Muslim Australians despite that a majority want nothing to do with such discourse. This sad fact may increase the anxiety among non-Muslim Australians who are unaware of that and believe instead that there exists an ‘enemy within’.
This dynamic reminds me of what people told me in Northern Ireland about how the paramilitary organisations, in particular within the Protestant communities, started to form. It was fear, and a fear which spread from one side to the other, that brought such disaster to NI. People want security and security is paramount to normal ordinary life. Security, however, does not exist per-se, as it is a cognitive category, an idea. Hence security, or the illusion of it, can be achieved through action, since inaction can make people feel even more insecure.
When a community feels threatened, and especially if the community is in the majority, it is not unusual that vigilante groups develop. As NI teaches us, the jump from vigilantes to paramilitary groups is easy. Daesh calls for random attacks on soft targets. This, when there are evidences that some are listening, creates a deep and diffuse suspicion and fear towards anything that happens to be Muslim or Islamic. Organisations such as Q-Society provides the “intellectual” background to the less intellectual and more hooligan style organisations such as the Australian Defence League, and more recent anti-halal movements have shown to attract fascists. Of course, these movements claim to be peaceful and simply exercising their freedom to oppose what they dislike — but so does HT in Australia, which the Australian government wants to ban.
However, if the above mentioned groups never transform into paramilitary organisations, they are the kind of group which may facilitate the creation of vigilantes and paramilitary groups through their line of thought and become the pool from which members may be sought.
The risk that Australia and, in particular, the state of New South Wales are facing in the medium term is to see the formation of anti-terrorist paramilitary groups that inevitably will target innocent Muslims, and this will produce the counter-effect of Muslim paramilitary groups, which however will not be directly linked with international terrorist organisations.
Are we today doing enough to prevent such a trajectory and is such trajectory even preventable? I have the impression that not enough is done. It is clear that the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims is widening in this period. The responsibility for this does not lay with one single side. I think also that a different approach to the issue of terrorism is needed in Australia. Yet we must also re-discuss how the ideology of multiculturalism has been implemented (or not implemented) and the confusion that it has created among the generations who grew up with it. Yet this topic is for another post to discuss.