Communities coping with crisis after Parramatta shooting
The brutal murder of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar outside Parramatta Police headquarters on 2 October sent emotional shockwaves throughout the community. A natural outpouring of grief and sympathy for the victim’s family and his police colleagues has been accompanied by a palpable sense of panic, as we scramble for answers in the hope of preventing such a tragedy from occurring again. So just how well are we coping in the wake of this latest terrorism crisis?
For some, this tragedy has been a wake-up call to the reality of violent extremism. For many Australian Muslim community leaders, this is simply the latest in a long and emotionally draining series of crises that dates as far back as 9/11. The stress has been ratcheted up over the past 12 months, beginning with Operation Appleby, Australia’s largest counter-terrorism raids, in September last year, then the Martin Place siege in December, and now Parramatta.
Australian Federal Police made four arrests in the days following the Parramatta shooting. The Appleby network resurfaced as prime suspect in facilitating the attack, bringing to full circle a year of heightened counter-terrorism activity. All of this has made for a taxing year for Muslim community advocates.
Some are coping better than others, but there are signs of fatigue.
Identified as being of Iraqi-Kurdish background, the schoolboy shooter Jabar had reportedly visited Parramatta mosque before the attack and may have been handed the gun there.
Thrust into the spotlight, Parramatta mosque chairman Neil El-Kadomi showed signs of stress during a heavy week of media pressure, verbally lashing out a reporter, and criticising an already fractured Muslim community leadership for failing to support him in his time of need.
A week after the shooting, he admonished any would-be ISIS sympathisers during Friday prayers at his Parramatta mosque. “If you don’t like Australia, leave!” he said, stealing the wind out of the sails of the hate groups that had been threatening him and his mosque in the week following the shooting.
Fears of a significant anti-Islamic backlash quickly dissipated when a pathetic turn out of far-right protesters rallied outside the mosque, far outnumbered by a wall of police protection.
But the fear of a backlash is still front of mind for Muslim community advocates.
“The Muslim community is feeling a kind of stress fatigue. Every time any incident occurs involving any person who happens to be Muslim internationally or locally, the whole of the Muslim community in Australia is held accountable. This brings with it feelings of helplessness, isolation, anxiety and anger.”
– Nasser Al Khateeb
Nasser Alkhateeb, an Iraqi Australian and branding manager at Islamophobia Watch Australia, told The Point Magazine: “The Muslim community is feeling a kind of stress fatigue. Every time any incident occurs involving any person who happens to be Muslim internationally or locally, the whole of the Muslim community in Australia is held accountable. This brings with it feelings of helplessness, isolation, anxiety and anger.”
Over 22% of Australians hold negative views towards Muslims, according to the latest national survey of social cohesion by Professor Andrew Marcus of Monash University. The rate is even higher in Sydney, home to over half of Australia’s Muslim population, with 27% surveyed holding negative or strongly negative views of Muslims, says the report released this month by the Scanlon Foundation.
But this has not led to increased personal experiences of racism or prejudice, according to the survey. Even in Sydney, those with positive views towards Muslims (33%) still outnumbered those with negative views, and an overwhelming 86% of Australians expressed their support for multiculturalism.
Muslim advocacy groups often claim a causal link between anti-Islamic sentiment and the radicalisation of young Australian Muslims. But then negative attitudes towards Muslims can just as easily be interpreted as a harmful bi-product of the heightened security situation created by the rise of ISIS-inspired extremism.
Professor Douglas Pratt, from the University of Waikato, who is speaking on the topic at an upcoming conference on radicalisation and Islamophobia in Sydney, has dubbed this chicken-and-egg problem “reactive co-radicalisation”. This is where far-right extremists feed off the rhetoric of ISIS-inspired extremism, and vice-versa, in a self-perpetuating cycle of hate.
This makes for a difficult balancing act for Muslim community advocates, who often suffer abuse from both sides of the extremist spectrum. Inherent differences among Muslim community leaders themselves only add to the problem.
Dina Elachi, a student of international relations and a community advocate, said this makes it increasingly difficult for Muslim communities to cope in situations of crisis.
“The community is struggling in keeping unified at the moment, and it’s obvious. These types of situations and our reactions to them are beginning to create a more solidified ‘them-versus-us’ scenario, something that we, as a multicultural country, should be breaking, not building,” she told The Point Magazine.
Community worker and advocate, Ahmad Kilani said there has been a lot of discussion about the need to improve the community’s response strategy.
“I have never seen as much contemplation and discussion from community leaders, police and government on all levels about the need to change the way the community has been dealing with the issue of disenfranchised youth. Hopefully this will bring about a positive response to help solve a complex issue that has been long neglected,” Kilani said.
School chaplain and community advocate Shaykh Wesam Charkawi told the Point Magazine, “It is difficult when a whole community suffers because of the actions of the few whose actions do not represent Islam. I think the question of whether the community is getting better or worse at responding to incidents of violence is an unfair question to ask.
“The community and leaders have genuinely been saddened by violence that has gripped the community. I believe that in times of difficulty where one cannot find the words, that we carry and shoulder each other even if that means going out of one's way for others,” said Charkawi.
Alkhateeb said the Australian Muslim community has a strong sense of resilience, and that has been demonstrated in the past. But the community’s long held divisions are preventing leaders from uniting in times of crisis.
“The community is maturing gradually as leaderships change and the community’s political awareness increases. However, we are still a long way from being a mature, externally united community. Divisions along sectarian lines and old-country geographical lines still play a role in the politics of the Muslim community. I hope that the community’s changing age demographic contributes to reducing those divisions,” he said.
Elachi said that young people play an important role in improving the community’s response in times of crisis.
“The youth are so important in these cases; our ability to speak out and be proactive when it comes to these types of issues is vital for the development of our community and its growth. Youth in general band together, they’re a little more open... and we often show Australia that we can be unified, especially on these issues,” she said.
Kilani said that young people need to feel reassured that they have a bright future in Australia and to give them a sense of belonging.
“We need to focus on giving young people something to belong to, a sense that they’ve got a future here as Australians. All of us as have to come together and not let the fringe elements... dictate to the rest of us how we’re going to live our lives by making vulnerable people feel disenfranchised,” he said.
“I believe with a pragmatic approach that goes beyond media statements and political box-ticking exercises that we can do it.”
The Parramatta shooting was a wake-up call to the reality of violent extremism. Community leaders are coping, but there are signs of stress fatigue.
*Statistics from 2015 Mapping Social Cohesion Report, Scanlon Foundation.