Terror ad campaign threatens values it aims to protect

by Joseph Wakim (The Age, January 1 2003)


The "dob in a terrorist" ads don't make scapegoats of Arab and Muslim Australians, but they avoid the real problem, writes Joseph Wakim.

The collective sigh of relief from the living rooms of thousands of Australian households was almost audible when the first of the Federal Government's terrorist warning advertisements was aired on Sunday night. Despite the Prime Minister's assurances that the campaign "would not cause Muslims to be made scapegoats", many Arab and Muslim Australians were dreading any Hollywood stereotypes of terrorists and a national call for a witch-hunt of anyone who resembled the enemy.

It is appropriate that the Federal Government has launched its anti-terrorism campaign and national security hotline during the silly season. The 1 800 number attracted 500 calls in its first day - an early warning sign of how paranoid and suspicious we already are.

The campaign is riddled with ironies.

The first stage of this public education campaign adopts a simplistic approach to a complex phenomenon. There is an appeal to our collective consciousness - "Together, let's look out for Australia". And exactly what do we look out for? The radio script reads: "If you see something unusual or suspicious, use your judgment, if it doesn't add up, ring up." The national security website lists examples such as large purchases of explosives, unusual photography of energy installations, abandoned vehicles or bags in public places and suspicious vehicle rentals. However, we already know from the "masterminds" behind the recent wave of terror attacks that their practices are discreet and sophisticated and unlikely to leave such clues and trails.

This appeal relies on subjective discretion, as these more obvious examples should be reported by responsible citizens regardless of the campaign.

It is commendable that the motto starts with the word "Together". During my participation in an Australian Arabic Council meeting with Mr Howard on December 20, 2002, I recounted the experience of ASIO meeting with Arabic community leaders during the 1991 Gulf War. The cooperative exchange helped to reverse the perception that ASIO was targeting Arab Australians.

The ASIO officers were humanised as they reiterated citizens' rights and responsibilities. With everybody on side, we could collectively weed out threats. Indeed, we have seen this cooperation result in recent arrests of potential terrorists, thanks to the local Muslim community.

This "together" relationship with ASIO and other national security authorities works best if it is reciprocal. It must extend to protecting Australian citizens of Arab or Muslim background from being terrorised, threatened or persecuted by fellow Australians. The ASIO Act 1979 defines "security" as the protection of Australia and its people from politically motivated violence, the promotion of communal violence, and acts of foreign interference. As the war against Iraq moves from rhetoric to reality, and Australian soldiers' lives could again become part of the "collateral damage", what guarantee can there be that there would be no repeat of the violent backlash against local Arabs and Muslims we experienced a decade ago?

The ASIO Act refers to Australia "and its people", without exception. Does this guarantee that ASIO will intervene when Australian citizens of Arab and Muslim background require protection from the "promotion of communal violence"? It would be tragic and ironic if such violence was inadvertently promoted by the latter stages of the government's anti-terror campaign.

The definition of security also refers to acts of foreign interference. It is ironic that it is Arab Australians whose loyalty is questioned whenever there is a "Gulf war". Those who have lived under or fled from oppressive regimes are the first to defend Australia's civil rights and "way of life". They are the last to want to jeopardise what they so dearly treasure, and what many Australian-born citizens may take for granted.

Indeed, it is precisely because they are so loyal and protective of Australia's national interests that many Arab Australians have spoken out against our government's alliance with the US. In their previous homelands, many Arab Australians have experienced the effects of two unequal governments forging an alliance, and the national interests of one inevitably prevailing.

The Australian Arabic Council opposes Australia's involvement in another "Gulf war", not because Arab Australians are loyal to some foreign interests but because they see Australian involvement as the pursuit of foreign (US) interests.

Arab Australians have been an inseparable part of the national life for more than 150 years, and any terror attacks against Australia are equally dreaded by their families: their children, properties, investments and future are all in Australia, so where else can their loyalties lie?

It is Arab Australians who are passionate about this issue because they have also seen the effect on trade and potential trade with the Middle East. The reputation of Australia as a "friendly" nation, with a healthy distance from the US, Britain and Asia, has been irreversibly eroded in the past 12 months. When our government aligns Australia with the US and its history of foreign interference, we implicate ourselves into an enemy camp. This in turn necessitates protection and an even closer alliance with the sole superpower.

The campaign asserts that "the way of life that we value so highly must go on". This may have been possible if we maintained our careful neutrality, as other nations have done. But we cannot have it both ways - friendly people with unfriendly foreign policies in the Middle East.

One cannot help but wonder whether this $15 million campaign would be necessary if our government had been more "alert" to "look out for Australia" before it responded to the US President's arrogant and simplistic ultimatum: "Either you are with us or with the terrorists."

Joseph Wakim is founder of the Australian Arabic Council and former commissioner of multicultural affairs.

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