Radicalization of Muslim youth

In the past 13 years Australians have watched from the sidelines some of the world’s most bizarre events unfold. In New York, at our doorstep in Jakarta and Bali, in the Middle East, in Madrid, Istanbul, London and most recently Boston. This global trend has forced many Western nations such as Australia to rethink their whole national security strategies and laws. Australia has systematically reviewed its security strategies and implemented far-reaching changes to its laws that will re-shape the nature of Australian society forever. Some may say that the Australian people have had to pay a large price for the politics of a single ‘super-powered’ world.

But how real is the threat of a terrorist act in Australia?

I have lived and worked with the Muslim community in Sydney all my life and more recent times I have met many Muslims from Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Canberra and other capital cities. I have worked as a high school teacher in private schools where there have been a majority of Muslims or at least as a large percentage in other schools. I have also run many youth programs and worked with many organizations and community groups.

I can safely say that I know and understand the Muslim communities of Australia better than the average Muslim person in Australia. And I have made documentary films about Muslims. My research has led me to believe that while there are Muslims with extreme ideas in Australia, they by and large do not advocate violence or any form of terrorism. The number of people with violent tendencies with knowledge of bomb-making technology let alone the conviction to die for a cause, is extremely rare. This does not mean we should just relax and hope for the best, we should still be vigilant and ensure that young people are given as much support as possible in school. But we can definitely tone down the fear mongering rhetoric which does little for the average Mohamed and Fatima who have to live with the stares and the taunts on a daily basis. The very grave issue of over-stating the facts particularly if it can create a negative backlash against Muslims must be addressed.

One very simple reason why Australia is an unlikely place where homegrown terrorism can take root is that Muslims here are one of the most integrated Muslim communities living in the West. Muslims in Australia cannot be compared to the British model where over 2 million Muslims mainly from the sub-continent have very wide ranging levels of socio-economic standards. In some of the cities of England such as Birmingham and Bradford, hundreds of thousands of Muslims live in marginalized ghetto like suburbs which provide deep cover for fomenting dissent and rebellion. Here in Australia the comparatively small and localized community of Muslims live, by world standards in relative affluence and comfort. Here the average Australian family receives around $800 a week and sometimes with two jobs and lots of overtime, plus family assistance this can be blown out to a fairly handsome income. Another fact that we cannot ignore is that 15% of Muslims in Australia possess a degree or above, which raises their income levels. In Australia most Muslims whose parents migrated here in the 70’s have grown up in a society which has nurtured a fairly easy going nature and world view. Many people are into their sport, others enjoy the wide open spaces and the great beaches and most stick to a strong work ethos and spend most of their time working hard.

As in almost every religion we can find extreme views and teachings. In Hinduism, the ultra-nationalistic views can lead to the burning of Catholic priests in their cars or dismantling of ancient mosques or even worse the massacres of civilians in Gujarat. In Buddhist societies such as in Myanmar wholesale massacres of Rohingyan Muslims have occurred and even as we speak they are being persecuted, in Sri Lanka, one of the first groups to use suicide bombing, the Tamil Tigers are no strangers to radicalization and of course the Kana Chai, a Jewish terror organisation in Israel are well known for their unsavoury methods and there are many samples of Christian, usually white supremacist groups who have killed in the name of their faith.

In the 21st century we are seeing a new phenomenon which involves worldwide dissent amongst Muslim societies which have been freed from the shackles of US and Soviet dominance and in basic terms running wild and directionless. What we are seeing in the Muslim world today is many people dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the world particularly the way Muslims live today in places like Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and Nigeria and so forth, when only 100 years ago, the Islamic world was regarded as the leading superpower and enjoyed a glorious past. Some Muslims wish for a return to that glory and harbor a resentment towards the West for many of their losses.

In the early 20th century a new movement emerged in the Middle East which advocated a return to family and community values which it was believed that Islam had lost its way in a secular and materialistic world. Most of the post Great War Muslim world had been occupied by Western powers and western systems of administration had been imposed on the people. Certain charismatic leaders advocated a refusal of Westernisation and a return to Islamic values and principles of spirituality and social welfare. Within a decade this movement was hijacked by extremists. Today, we are still entangled in a struggle between traditional Muslim and extreme interpretations. It is an endless tale of conflict between fellow Muslims. There is the old joke that goes if you have two Muslims in a debate you will get three opinions. The debate continues and what we are finding even here in Australia is a divided Muslim migrant community who are not only divided along ethnic lines but also on ideological lines.

Yet, in Australia, radicalization is a very small threat and a threat that can be isolated to just a small segment of the Muslim Australian community. Just as it is in the Christian community, the Jewish or the Hindu and so forth. In Australia we have nutcases and radicals who preach that Muslim should protect themselves from the evil influences of a non-believing society. That is relatively harmless albeit distasteful. But this is reality. Differences of opinion are healthy for societies and in many respects keep our lives dynamic and challenging. In Australia the average Muslim lives an invisible life. On the fringe those who tend to hold strong views about government policies and feel passionate about international affairs tend to be more vocal and conspicuous about the way the look and dress. Yet, in terms of numbers they are significantly small and only a tiny percentage within that tiny percentage have the potential for extreme violent behaviour. More people are likely to die from road rage accidents involving Middle Eastern drivers than a home grown Middle Eastern terrorist.

The argument that Muslims are more prone to radicalization in Australia because its a new country with no traditional base for Muslims to fall back on is exactly the reason why terrorism instigated by Muslims will never eventuate here. In Australia the fact that we do not have a long history of Islamic traditions and that the Muslim community is made up from a wide spectrum of cultural and ideological viewpoints, makes Australia a place where difference can be tolerated and opposing groups co-exist in harmony. Australia does have one great tradition that transcends all religious boundaries and that is the freedom to believe what you want and to live your life the way you want as long as you don’t try to stuff it down others’ throats. That’s a great motto to live by, don’t you think?