Editor's Column

Terrorism Studies

The murder and attempted murder in Bourke Street, Melbourne, last month by the Somali-born terrorist Hassan Khalif Shire Ali produced one positive outcome. It prompted Prime Minister Scott Morrison to break the mould of over-cautious political statements that has so far determined responses to acts of this kind. Morrison declared radical Islam a threat to the Australian way of life. “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.” He called on Islamic religious leaders to use their unique position to prevent the radicalisation of youth, “to ensure that dangerous teachings and ideologies do not take root here.”

While Morrison’s comments appeared well received in the wider electorate, Islamic religious leaders did not like the advice to take a more proactive stand against terrorists. Instead, they reacted as they have in the past. They not only rejected Morrison’s appeal but demanded an apology for his statement which, in their view, insulted the whole Muslim community. At the same time, they absolved the terrorist of any moral responsibility for his actions. The Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR) said:

The Muslim community will not be scapegoated and we will endeavour to keep Australia safe where we can, but the actions of a mentally ill person suffering from a psychotic episode is not the fault of a whole religious community … We demand the withdrawal of his comments and an apology to the Muslim community.

An even more belligerent response came from Labor’s Anne Aly, the first Muslim woman elected to the Commonwealth Parliament. She mocked the idea that Islamic terrorism was a major threat to Australia and also absolved the Bourke Street terrorist of moral responsibility. “The biggest victims of violence in Australia aren’t victims of violent terrorism,” she said, “they are victims of domestic violence.” She said violence by jihadists “pales in comparison to the number of women who are being killed every week in domestic and partner violence”.

Some readers will recall that this last statement reprises an argument made on the ABC’s Q&A program in May last year when Aly shared a platform with the American physicist Laurence Krauss. To downplay the threat of Islamic terrorism, Krauss claimed that in the United States “you’re more likely to be killed by a refrigerator falling on you”. Aly’s comparison of domestic violence with terrorism deploys the same kind of moral contortion.

There are serious problems with Krauss’s rhetorical claim that were never examined at the time but still deserve exposure. For a start, he deceived his audience about American deaths from falling refrigerators. According to a 2018 report of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, in the entire period from 2000 to 2017 there were only thirty-five deaths in the USA from domestic appliances (other than television sets) falling over. Of these, twenty-five were deaths from falling stoves. There is no record of any American being killed by a falling refrigerator so far this century. Krauss’s claim was pure invention.

The more important point, however, is that accidental deaths from falling objects do not involve a wilful moral purpose, unlike an act of terrorism which has both motive and intention. About two hours after Krauss made his claim this point was driven home by another act of Islamic terrorism in Manchester, England, in which twenty-two people, mostly teenage girls, were killed when a home-made bomb exploded at a pop concert by Ariana Grande. The incident exposed the debate on the Q&A program as heartless. But there was no sign of contrition from anyone at the ABC for this shameful program, let alone any thought of public apology.

The basic concept of all morality is that individuals, or groups with a common cause, are responsible for their actions. We have had enough experience of Islamic terrorism since 2001 to know it fits the worst category of moral offence, which is why it makes the news and why normal people everywhere are outraged. In contrast, accidental deaths, or deaths caused by disease without any human agency, are events that are amoral. Most people recognise they are simply part of the risk involved in being alive and that moral outrage has no place.

Anne Aly’s argument is not much better than Krauss’s. Her claim that the women killed every week in domestic violence are “the biggest victims of violence in Australia” is untrue. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s latest report on homicide in Australia, from mid-2012 to mid-2014 there were 512 victims of homicide, of whom 328, or 64 per cent, were men. Women were a majority in only one category of homicide, those classified as “intimate partner killings”, where ninety-nine victims were female. Of these ninety-nine victims, no less than one-third were indigenous women. Where motives could be found, the biggest single cause was “domestic argument”; the second-biggest cause was “alcohol-related argument”. In other words, domestic violence that leads to death is usually impulsive rather than premeditated. It is well documented that many Aboriginal men in remote communities who, when blind drunk, kill their wives in domestic arguments later suffer prolonged remorse for what they have done.

In short, there is no comparable relationship between domestic violence and the terrorist act planned for Bourke Street. Even though he only succeeded in killing one man and wounding two others, the perpetrator’s main intention was to cause an explosion that killed numerous shoppers and office workers. Fortunately, his home-made bomb didn’t go off properly. Aly’s attempt to equate Australian domestic violence with this act of Islamic terrorism is an utter, indeed obnoxious, failure.

For some years Aly has been a well-known figure in the dubious field of de-radicalisation programs. In 2016 she won a grant of $286,400 from the Australian Research Council to study online violent extremist audiences. The Edith Cowan University website lists the total funds raised for this project as $974,512. The funding runs until the end of 2018, when Aly and her colleagues are due to report their findings. The project’s stated aim is “to apply an innovative research framework using media theories and concepts to the study of online violent extremism … developing understanding of how violent extremist messaging is received and interpreted”.

There are two obvious questions that arise from this project. First, how could someone with Aly’s apologetic approach to Islamic extremism, let alone her deployment of the intellectually feeble field of media theories, produce an objective piece of academic research? As the Labor Party member for Cowan since the 2016 election, she is obliged to serve her party’s interests and, where possible, to paint Coalition policy and practice in her field in as bad a hue as possible. Her intervention in the Bourke Street atrocity shows she is committed to this role at the expense of fair dealing in any future writing or analysis she does on the topic.

Second, since Section 44(iv) of the Constitution prohibits MPs from holding offices of profit under the Crown, shouldn’t Aly’s eligibility to hold her seat be investigated? In 1992, Phil Cleary, a teacher on leave without pay, won the federal seat of Wills, but was disqualified from Parliament by the High Court for breaching Section 44(iv). Aly has apparently stood down from her former position as a Professor at Edith Cowan University and is now called “Adjunct Professor” by that institution. But even if she is not now on salary at Edith Cowan, isn’t her status as an MP the same as that of Phil Cleary? Her adjunct professorship and role as investigator of the project on violent extremism look suspiciously like offices of profit under the Crown.

A few days before the Bourke Street atrocity the Commonwealth Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, decided to impose a “national interest test” onto the criteria for successful applications to the Australian Research Council. Tehan made this announcement after the revelation at a Senate Estimates hearing that his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, had vetoed eleven grants from the previous year’s original list of acceptances. They included one $335,788 project to examine the relationship between Soviet cinema and Hollywood between 1917 and 1950, and another worth $222,936 to study post-Orientalist arts at the Strait of Gibraltar. Useless left-wing academic projects like these, initially exposed when Brendan Nelson was Education Minister in the Howard government, have been a public scandal for decades but no one in Canberra has been game enough to do anything.

Tehan should take a close look at the list of more than 4000 ARC grants made since 2016 now under his jurisdiction. In the various categories of the humanities and social sciences there are many more that should be evaluated for his national interest test. Tehan should review not only the grant to Aly but all those ostensibly in the field of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation, since it is obvious that the peer review process for allocating grants has serious problems with its evaluation criteria. If the ARC cannot be trusted to serve the national interest the taxpayers who fund its research should know about it.

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