By Michael Safi
9 March 2015
It begins with a sense of injustice. The sensitive kids feel it most.
“The community and especially these youngsters, they see a double standard,” Sheikh Wesam Charkawi says. “They see persecution of Muslims everywhere in the world. In Palestine, in Africa, Burma and so on.
“They feel Muslims have been abandoned and believe it is their sense of duty to help.”
Charkawi worked with a group of five schoolboys some time ago. They were expressing what he calls “superficial” approval of the work of Islamist groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and flirting openly with the idea of joining them.
For months social workers had tried to get through to the young men. Eventually the sheikh, who is based at the Auburn mosque in western Sydney, was asked to assist.
“I advised the young boys about the reality of Isis,” he says, gravel-voiced and brimming with authority. All the boys remain in Australia. “Their fixation with the group quickly dissipated,” he says.
Behind the scenes, Charkawi says he and other religious leaders are “working hard, literally sweating” to break the spell of groups such as Islamic State.
In the coming weeks the federal government will join them, rolling out its own measures to counter violent extremism.
But already scepticism of these programs is rife inside Australia’s Muslim communities. Rhetoric such as Tony Abbott’s recent remarks – that Muslim leaders must speak out for peace “more often, and mean it” – have set back the government’s efforts before they have even started.
That first identification of injustice in the world can be intoxicating. For most of the young people Charkawi counsels, the initial zeal fades quickly. But for a small minority it never lets up.
“It starts with what they perceive to be injustice. And then one thing leads to another, and before you know it they’ve got their information from certain preachers on the internet, and they end up going down that path,” he says.
Their numbers are tiny. “The idea that young men are waiting in line to become radicalised is a myth. This point is sensationalised by media and politicians,” he says.
But the ones who do flirt with the idea of joining Islamic State must be shown why the group’s actions are “Islamically” wrong, he says, and religious leaders are best placed to persuade them.
“[Isis] is using injustices of the world, and so-called religious justification, to perpetuate these crimes. The element that sticks with the young is the injustices in the world. But to say that double standards justify criminal actions is wrong,” Charkawi says.
“So we validate and say, yes, there are injustices in the world, there’s no doubt about that – but what do you do about it? That’s the question where Islam comes into the fold. Yes, there are injustices, but what are you, as a Muslim, required to do? That’s the point.”
Far from being the source of the problem, Charkawi says the Qur’an and Islamic religious tradition provide the pathway out of violence.
“When textual proof from the Holy Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad are given, it has a substantial bearing on their mindset.”
Shifting mindsets has been a key government priority since last August, when Abbott announced the government would spend $13.4m on “strengthen[ing] community engagement programs” to stop the flow of young people to Iraq and Syria.
Just how many have slipped into the region’s conflict zones since Islamic State declared its caliphate last July is unclear. Four boys from one Sydney family left in November, telling their family they had won a trip to Thailand. “We will see you in paradise,” one texted his sister. Abdullah Elmir, a Bankstown boy dubbed “the ginger Jihadi”, fled in July, later surfacing in Isis propaganda videos.
This past weekend, two boys were intercepted at Sydney airport allegedly trying to leave. Another Westerner thought to be British was identified by Fairfax Media on Monday as an 18-year-old from Melbourne named Jake.
In the ensuing seven months since Abbott’s announcement, three waves of counter-terrorism legislation have been passed. A fourth, including provisions for mandatory data retention, is on the way. The nation’s security and spy agencies have been given an extra $600m over four years. Soon biometric security at airports will be upgraded, the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has announced, to deal with “the return of potentially radicalised minors”.
Just $1m has been offered for community de-radicalisation. One-off, one-year grants of $50,000 are available to local organisations to develop mentoring, employment and education programs that might lead people off a violent path. Also being compiled is an official directory of “countering violent extremism” services, to whom authorities can refer youth at risk.
Applications for both are now closed. The attorney general’s department will not say how many groups have signed up, but says interest has been “significant”. High-profile organisations such as the Lebanese Muslim Association, the Muslim Women’s Association and the Arab Council of Australia have not applied.
They level familiar complaints about a lack of consultation. “The approach of the government has been, ‘Here’s some money, a small amount of money. Now go ahead and do it,’ ” the council’s chief executive, Randa Kattan, said.
“What we would really welcome is a holistic approach, worked out between the government and the communities. And it shouldn’t just be the Arab or Muslim community. Schools, education, employment services, they all need to be involved.”
Maha Abdo, who runs the Muslim Women’s Association, resents that the money has been made available under a “negative title” – namely, to deal with violent extremism. “It promotes an us-and-them mentality,” she says.
“From day one, we believed this money should have been injected into existing early intervention, leadership programs and family restoration. A lot of these programs are still run on a volunteer basis.”
She says society misunderstands extremism. “It’s like domestic violence. For so many years it’s been a women’s problem, but now I feel the whole community is coming out and taking responsibility for the solution.
“Anti-radicalisation is the whole community’s responsibility to deal with, not just the Muslim community.”
Other critics point to provisions in the funding deed for the directory that allow the department to disclose confidential information about participants “to the responsible minister or prime minister”, or to a parliamentary committee. One community advocate said she feared the directory was merely “an intelligence-gathering exercise”.
Suspicion of the government among Australian Muslims is high. Last month Australia’s grand mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, announced he had made a mistake voting for Abbott. He advised the prime minister to “work in any field other than politics”. More than 100 Muslim organisations signed a petition against the Abbott government’s latest proposed security crackdown, calling it a “predictable use of Muslim affairs … to stabilise a fragile leadership”.
This simmering distrust contributes to what a University of Queensland criminologist, Adrian Cherney, describes as “the greatest irony” of the government’s efforts.
“You cannot have government sponsored de-radicalisation programs because the individuals that are at most risk of being radicalised are not going to go to the government websites or programs for what they should be doing or believing,” he says.
In this atmosphere, paying for de-radicalisation programs presents a dilemma. Government funding can taint credibility. Private industry, not wanting to mix their brands with extremism – even in countering it – are reluctant to stump up any cash. One source said Muslim philanthropists, too, prefer to direct their largesse to new mosques rather than initiatives that might draw negative attention.
Curtin University associate professor Anne Aly was reluctant to apply for government money, but relented after members of Perth’s Muslim community approached her with ideas needing funding.
Those initiatives include exchange programs with US Muslim groups, soccer teams and youth TV and radio networks. “Just as there’s not one pathway into violent extremism, there’s no one way out of it,” she says.
“We’re modelling our work on the feedback we’re getting from the community.”
From her interviews with what she calls “formers” – extremists who have now repudiated violence – she has found that empowerment to effect positive change is key: “It’s really about diverting them, diverting their anger and grievance into something positive.
“Former violent extremists always say, ‘I was an activist, and I’m still an activist. Violence was the only option I saw. And if someone had given me the option I would have done something different,’ ” she says.
When asked, the solutions young people in Perth’s Muslim communities suggest tend to be simple: “Sport, education and employment. These are the three things we keep hearing people tell us they want.”
It would also help if the government changed the way it talks about Australian Muslims, she says. “The government rhetoric portrays all Muslims, particularly young Muslims, as the problem. It gives them no space to be part of the solution.”
Charkawi agrees. He says he was “completely disheartened” by the prime minister’s national security statement last month, which was widely perceived to question the commitment of Muslim leaders to countering the threat of terrorism. “Honestly, it’s very unreasonable. It saddens me,” he says.
“The prophet Muhammad said speak the truth, even if a harm will come from it. But always speak the truth. This is part and parcel of our teachings. And for someone to express words that indicate duplicity or deceit is very unreasonable.”
He nominates Craig Laundy, from the Liberals, and Labor’s Tony Burke – two Sydney MPs with substantial Muslim populations in their seats – as politicians “we love to work with”.
“But people just feel completely isolated from the government at the moment,” he says.
And ultimately, that makes his work with young people at risk harder. “It may be used as leverage against Muslim leaders. People may say, ‘You are saying to engage on the one hand but they seem to be calling you dishonest on the other hand.’
“It undermines the position of Muslim leaders.”