A few days ago in Melbourne, a Somali-born Islamist Khalif Shire Ali set his car alight and stabbed three people, one of them fatally, on a busy CBD street before being shot dead by the police.
In the aftermath, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had this to say: “Here in Australia, we would be kidding ourselves if we did not call out the fact that the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam.”
Labor MP and “counter-terrorism expert” Anne Aly called the Prime Minister’s comments “ignorant” and “politically desperate”. She went on:
“There is no country that is immune to the threat of terrorism.
“I don’t care how politically desperate you are, now is not the right time to divide the community.
“[Morrison needs to do a little bit of terrorism 101 … and know what he’s talking about before he starts dividing communities and pointing fingers at radical Islam.
“Yes, violent jihadism has been the predominant aspect of the religious wave of terrorism (of) the last 40 years or so (but) is it the biggest threat here in Australia in terms of violence and victims of violence? The biggest victims of violence in Australia aren’t victims of violent terrorism, they are victims of domestic violence.
“When we look at all forms of violence, violence perpetrated by violent jihadists — or radical Islam as the Prime Minister wants to put it — pales in comparison to the number of women who are being killed every week in domestic and partner violence…
“Now every researcher, every academic, every practitioner and every person in law enforcement knows that being extreme doesn’t always necessarily lead to violence.
“In fact we have many case of people have become violent but have not shown a process of extremism or radicalisation. We also have examples of people who are extreme, who we may consider holding extreme beliefs, extreme world views who have never become violent.”
Ummm, yes to all that, but so what? Aly seems to be debating herself rather than the Prime Minister. Morrison was pretty clear: “the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam”. He is talking about religious extremism and he is right – extremist Islam is a greater threat in Australia than extremist Christianity, extremist Judaism or extremist Buddhism. The PM is not talking about the greatest threat to national security (which I would argue is China) or the greatest threat in terms of violence in general – Aly is. And yes, domestic violence produces far greater number of victims – it is a tragedy and as a nation we need to work together against this phenomenon – but it’s irrelevant to the discussion of threats posed by religious extremism. Suicide, in turn, claims more lives than domestic violence, but likewise would be irrelevant to a discussion of domestic violence as it would be to a discussion of religious-inspired terrorism. We’re talking about different categories of problems, with different causes and different solutions.
The distinction between non-violent extremists and non-extreme terrorists is similarly spurious and serves only to cloud and confuse the debate. Aly seems to be arguing in effect that there are extreme Islamists in Australia who don’t become violent, which is true. She also seems to be arguing that there have been violent people “who have not shown a process of extremism or radicalisation”, which is true in an abstract (for example people suffering mental illness or common criminals) but clearly not true if one is talking about terrorists as violent people – by the very definition, these people are extremists who have been radicalised by a particular version of politics and/or religion.
“Being extreme doesn’t always necessarily lead to violence” is a truism. Sure, not every extremist becomes a terrorist, but every terrorist is an extremist. Extremism is the gateway drug to terrorism. Organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir are extremist but officially abjure violence and work for a world-wide caliphate to be achieved by legal and peaceful means. But terrorism experts have lost count how many terrorists have started as “peaceful extremists” before eventually, for a variety of reasons, proceeding to violence.
If Aly’s contribution to the debate is the best that “counter-terror experts” can do, then we are in strife. There is indeed no country that is immune to the threat of terrorism – which in an overwhelming majority of countries and cases is Islamist terrorism. Changing the topic to domestic violence or pointing out that not all Islamists kill won’t change that fact or do anything about it.