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Sunday, December 21, 2014

After the Siege

If there's one thing we should learn from the Sydney siege it is that inclusion rather than marginalisation will help combat terrorism.

The Sydney siege was a tragic event that unfolded in front of Australians through continuous coverage by most television networks. The event was televised live almost from the moment that Man Haron Monis took 17 hostages in the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place, through to its tragic conclusion in which two hostages, Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, as well as Monis were killed some 16 hours later.

Monis ordered some of the hostages to hold up a black flag with white Arabic writing. It was originally reported as being an Islamic State (ISIS) flag and there has been speculation that Monis had originally mistaken it for an ISIS flag as well. However, it was simply the Shahada, one of the basic statements of Islam that says 'there is no god but God and Mohammed is his messenger'.

Monis forced a number of the hostages to voice his demands through a video camera and through their facebook accounts. These demands included:

  • if Prime Minister Abbott called him by live broadcast, five hostages would be released
  • if politicians announced the siege was an attack by Islamic State, two hostages would be released
  • if he was given an Islamic State flag he would release one hostage.
  • for the 'other 2 brothers' not to explode the bombs.
Facebook status of one of the hostages, Marcia Mikhael

Following the siege, the telecasts continued focusing on what had happened, why it had happened, what could have been done to prevent it as well as who the hostages were and the condition they were in.

It was called terrorism by a number of commentators who stated that Australia had now lost its innocence with terror finally coming to its shores. Some called him a jihadi, an Islamic terrorist, an extremist.

The media whipped up fears of Muslim terrorists which has only served to fuel Islamophobia and racism. Just because it was perpetrated by a Muslim doesn't mean it was spawned from religious rationale. It was aimed to cause fear in the community so on that basis it could be called terrorism, however, it lacked organisation and had no real political or religious goals unlike most terrorist attacks. The Sydney siege was not the loss of Australia's innocence. If it is to be called terrorism, then it was not Australia's first terror attack. How quick we forget:

  • East Melbourne Family Planning Clinic (2001) - Peter James Knight, an anti-abortionist, attacked the abortion clinic armed with a rifle, kerosene and lighters. He killed a security guard before being arrested.
  • Port Arthur massacre (1996) - gunman Martin Bryant entered the popular tourist spot and shot dead 35 people and injured 23. 
  • Assassination of John Newman, NSW MP (1994) - Newman had campaigned against Asian organised crime syndicates and corruption in Cabramatta. He was shot dead in a hit ordered by Phuong Ngo, a political opponent and former local government Councillor.
  • Hoddle Street massacre (1987) - gunman Julian Knight randomly fired at cars and pedestrians, killing seven people and seriously wounding 19. 
  • Turkish consulate bombing (1986) - a car-bomb exploded in the car-park of the Turkish Consulate killing only the bomber who had links to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation
  • Russell Street bombing (1986) - a car-bomb was detonated in front of police headquarters killing a policewoman and injuring 22 others. It was in retaliation for previous arrests of the perpetrators.
  • Israeli Consulate in Sydney and Hakoah Club in Bondi bombings (1982) - both bombings occured on the same day (23 December) by three suspects. Two people were injured in the Israeli Consulate bombing and no injuries were recorded in the Hakoah bombing. 
  • Assassination of Turkish Consul General (1980) - General Şarık Arıyak and his security attaché Engin Sever were assassinated by two men on a motor-cycle. Although they were never caught, the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide claimed responsibility.
  • Hilton Hotel bombing (1977) - politicians from across the Commonwealth were gathered for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting, when members of a Hindu sect, Ananda Marga, detonated a bomb which killed three people and injured eleven others. 
  • Whisky Au Go Go fire (1973) - two 23 litre drums of diesel were set alight in the foyer of the packed nightclub, resulting in the deaths of 15 people. It was apparently an extortion attempt by the perpetrators. 
  • Yugoslav General Trade and Tourist Agency bombing (1972) - the bombing injured 16 people.
  • Battle of Broken Hill (1915) - On 1 January, two Turkish men shot dead four people and wounded seven others. They claimed it was in relation to ongoing hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire.

It is believed that Monis was acting alone. There were no 'other brothers' with bombs and he was not an agent of Islamic State. IS are quick to take responsibility for terrorist attacks but have not claimed this one. Monis was not a terrorist. He was a very disturbed individual. Some of his claims and demands were delusional.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott focused on a number of issues regarding Monis. He revealed that Monis was an Iranian refugee who had applied for asylum in 1996 and was granted permanent residency in 2001. Abbott has questioned how this could have happened given his violent history. This is an irrelevant question. Monis would have been granted asylum based on the facts and information at the time. The decision to grant him asylum cannot be taken in the context of events that happened in the years after it. 

Abbott also questioned why Monis was on welfare when he was 'able-bodied'. What welfare was he on? Was he on a disability pension or unemployment benefits? There is no restriction to able-bodied people receiving the dole. By all accounts, Monis was mentally deranged. Being able-bodied does not mean he was of sound mind or particularly employable.

Abbott claims that Monis was 'having a lend of us' by being granted asylum and being on welfare. It is Abbott who is having a lend of us. By questioning both the asylum application and receipt of welfare, Abbott is fueling the fears and hatred of many in community against all asylum seekers and refugees. Abbott, yet again, is manipulating the electorate's xenophobia. He is dragging welfare recipients into this to justify his own budget attacks on pensions, welfare and low income earners.

Abbott questioned why Monis wasn't on an ASIO watch-list. While this is a fair question and one that ASIO will need to answer, Abbott has revealed that Monis was not in contact with any known radicals. Had Monis been on a watch-list it wouldn't have stopped the siege. Even 24 hour surveillance would not have detected if Monis had hidden a sawn-off shotgun in his bag. His bus ride into Martin Place would not have looked out of place and wouldn't have raised any alarm. Because he was acting alone it would have been unlikely that there would be any electronic communication that would have warned surveillance operatives of his intentions. There is no law against what someone thinks and no surveillance can read a person's mind.

While the siege was terrible and tragic, it should not be used to justify further authoritarian laws. Australia already has a raft of state and federal legislation that prohibit terrorism, murder and deprivation of liberty.

The siege also should not be used to justify hate crimes or demonisation and marginalisation of particular groups of people, such as Muslims or asylum seekers. Yes, Monis was a Muslim but his actions are not typical of the vast majority of Muslims. His actions were condemned by Muslims across the globe. Monis's own idea of Islam is questionable. He had converted from Shia to Sunni in what appears to be his own process rather than a formal one. He also established himself as a cleric with no certification or recognition from the Islamic community. In 2007, Ikebal Patel, head of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, accused Monis of being a fake who was 'deliberately stirring up anti-Islamic sentiment'.

The siege resulted in an outpouring of grief from the community with many people touched, upset and fearful. It also resulted in a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #IllRideWithYou in response to the expected attacks on Muslims in the wake of the siege.

Queensland MP, George Christensen claimed the #IllRideWithYou campaign was a 'pathetic left-wing black arm band' campaign that was offensive and portrayed Australians as 'racists who will endanger Muslims'. News for you George, is that some Aussies are violent racists who endanger Muslims. Cronulla riots mean anything? There have been numerous attacks on Muslim women wearing head coverings, on mosques and even on a Sikh who was mistaken as being a Muslim.

On the other side of the fence, some Muslims have felt that the #IllRideWithYou campaign is patronising. This may have some merit, however, given the bigotry and racism that many Australians have expressed against Islam, the hash-tag campaign is as important for non-Muslim Australians as it is for Muslims in showing that not all Aussies are consumed by the rabid Islamophobia gripping the right-wing fear-mongers.

Senator Leyonjhelm is using the siege to push for a relaxation of Australia's gun laws. He feels that the siege most likely wouldn't have happened had the hostages been armed. Perhaps Senator Leyonjhelm should acquaint himself with the 2009 Fort Hood massacre in which a gunman attacked a United States military base. Even with armed soldiers, the gunman Nidal Hasan, managed to kill 13 people and wound at least 30 others. In 2014, another shooting occurred at Fort Hood. On that occasion, Ivan Lopez, killed three soldiers before killing himself. Allowing civilians to go armed in public is a monumentally stupid idea. If anything, armed civilians will be the first ones targeted by an attacker. They are also likely to be carried by fearful people who are happy to shoot first and ask questions later if feeling threatened. Given their perpetual state of fear this will only mean far more innocent people killed than if they weren't armed.

A lot has been made about Monis being on bail for allegedly arranging the murder of his ex-wife and while facing more than 40 sexual assault allegations associated with his 'spiritual healing' business. It's certainly worth questioning what rationale would have been used for releasing him while facing such serious charges, however, it's been reported that Police didn't oppose bail.

There will be a number of inquiries into the siege. It is not known at this stage who killed Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson. Some reports have claimed that Monis fired a warning shot when some of the hostages escaped and that all the fatalities occurred when police stormed in firing multiple rounds. Other reports are that Tori was executed by Monis.

It is clear that Monis was not right in the head. In terms of religion, he was confused and manipulative. Prime Minister Abbott has said that Islam cannot be blamed for this siege, however, there is plenty of activity on social media that indicates many are blaming Islam. Those who want to wage war against Islam should consider the cost. As American talk show host, Pauline Phillips (Abigail Van Buren) once said, 'People who fight fire with fire usually end up in ashes'.

The siege is a tragedy which should not be used to promote political agendas or to reinforce bigotry, racism or xenophobia. Instead of marginalising Muslims, Australians should ensure an inclusive society that doesn't tolerate hate crimes regardless of which religion or political ideology is perpetrating it. Isolation and marginalisation only serve to encourage anger and terrorism. Working together and living as equals in society will help to prevent hate crimes and terrorist attacks.

Imam Ali, the fourth Khalifa after the Prophet Mohammed, stated 'People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity'.

Rather than using the siege to create more division and more hatred, let's live as family, as equals. 

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