Ever since September 11, 2001, Western nations have been living in the shadow of terrorism. The 2002 Bali bombings made the threat very real for Australians. More recently we’ve seen the attacks in Europe and in our own country a disturbed man claiming allegiance to Islamic State taking hostages in the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place and a politically motivated 15-year-old Iranian born boy shooting and killing a man outside the Parramatta police station before attempting to shoot police.
Episodes such as these receive wide publicity and have led many of us to equate Islam with terrorism, such that in the last week we have heard calls for a ban on Moslem migration.
Many of us are unaware that since September 11 there have been more terror attacks in Australia committed by white extremists than by Islamic extremists. An article on the conversation.com lists them:
- 2001, Peter Knight, a Christian anti-abortion extremist entered a fertility control clinic in Melbourne with the intention of shooting as many people as possible. He shot the security guard dead but was wrestled to the ground before he could shoot anybody else;
- 2004, three Asian restaurants in Perth are set on fire and spray-painted with swastikas;
- 2004, Jack Van Tongeren, leader of anti-Asian group the Australian Nationalist Movement and a group of his supporters are arrested and incarcerated for plans to firebomb a series of Chinese restaurants;
- 2006 the White Pride Coalition of Australia is suspected of circulating an article showing people how to make a bomb so that they could follow in the footsteps of white supremacist bombings in London in 1999;
- 2010, members of the Australian branch of neo-Nazi group Combat 18, shoot at a mosque in Perth.
I understand why people are afraid. That is the very point of terrorism, to make us afraid. But the answer is not to start sanctions against an entire group of people on the grounds that some of them are criminals. Do we start sanctioning Christians because there are anti-abortion extremists among them? Do we start sanctioning people who identify as Anglo because some of them are white supremacist extremists?
It seems to me that the correct response to terrorism, whether it be Christian, Islamic, white supremacist or any other kind, is threefold. First, treat it as a serious criminal offence. Investigate, prosecute and incarcerate those who would commit acts of political violence. Second, affirm our common humanity, embrace the rich diversity of cultures that make up our common humanity, and uphold the very freedoms that liberalism has given us (freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, etc). Third, refuse the drive to splinter our communities along religious lines. This is the time for those of us who are not Islamic to reach out in friendship and welcome to those who are, for surely our greatest strength against religious extremism is to build communities we refuse the logic that says we will discriminate against you on the grounds of your religion and instead to affirm that together we are a stronger community.
I remember the environmentalist David Suzuki once describing how he and his family, who were second and third generation Canadians, were locked up by Canadian authorities during the Second World War on the grounds that their Japanese heritage meant their loyalties would be suspect. The wounds it left on the Japanese Canadian community lingered long after the war ended and sent a very clear message: you’re not really one of us. You don’t belong here. Let’s not repeat that mistake.