Strengthening Australian policy to counter violent extremism
10 Feb 2015|

Fairfax Media’s Deborah Snow points out that, while the federal government has made much of its commitment to programs aimed at diverting young Muslims who might be on the path to radicalisation, the Lebanese Muslim Association isn’t yet on board, with push-back also coming from the Arab Council of Australia.

Snow suggests that it’s a perceived imbalance in government priorities that’s driving Islamic community scepticism:

The Living Safe Together program has just $1 million to disperse among Muslim community groups to come forward with ideas for “helping individuals move away from violent extremism”, with grants up to a maximum $50,000 and for one year only, with no promise of future funding…[T]he Lebanese Muslim Association is saying little about the reasons for its effective boycott of the program…But one source says the paltry funding for this latest initiative and lack of ongoing financial commitment from Canberra were key factors.

The Arab Council Australia…is assessing this latest proposal with some scepticism. “There needs to be a level of sustainability, not just piecemeal projects that begin and end within 12 months,” chief executive Randa Kattan says. “We are madly researching this to see what might work …but we are really hoping that the government will have more of a holistic approach in delivering wrap-around services that would make a difference to the community, rather than piecemeal services in silos.”

Snow points to the drawback of funding short-run initiatives, citing the fate of a program run by the (non-government) Victorian Arab Social Services three years ago. It used a one-year federal grant to produce a program called the Curbing Radicalisation Through Youth Resilience and Community Partnerships Project which included workshops, media productions, soccer leadership camps and resume writing to reach out to young Muslims. But when it lost funding, according to Snow, ‘much of the work ground to a halt’.

Next Wednesday (18 February), Australia will be represented at a White House Summit examining ways to counter violent extremism in order to try to stop people from joining terrorist groups in the first place. But Snow’s report suggests the government’s not got that much to put on the table when it comes to putting out credible messages to our Muslim communities, nor the best way to focus on those who’ve demonstrated a strong interest in terrorist propaganda (but haven’t yet broken Australian law).

We need an integrated communications campaign that develops a counter-narrative to prevent home-grown terrorism through a coalition of voices using the web, social media, and community outreach. We might, with appropriate resourcing, take a leading global position on a best-practice campaign.

And we also need to get on with a local version of Britain’s Channel program, that’s more tightly targeted. As mentioned by Tobias Feakin in his blog post, Channel triages those who’ve demonstrated a sustained interest in extremism. It considers 22 risk factors, with those individuals at risk regularly checked to see whether they pose a threat anymore. In many ways, a pilot program here along those lines would be a more effective use of counter-terrorism funding than our current ‘Harmony Day’ approach to counter-radicalisation that targets whole communities.

A positive step has just been taken with the government launch of its Report Online Extremism campaign, that allows people to alert law enforcement and intelligence agencies about illegal or offensive online material, and which could lead to sites being shut down if hosted in Australia or prosecuting people if crimes have been committed.

Attorney-General George Brandis has just returned from a ‘Five Eyes’ meeting in London. The five countries agreed to share approaches in developing a strategy to address extremist use of the internet and social media platforms. That’s a sensible approach. But any digital and social media counter-radicalisation program needs to be done collaboratively with our Muslim communities to develop the messages that will resonate with the target audience.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Shlabotnik.