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Thursday, 21st August 2014

FIGHTING TERROR

Yesterday's horrific video of the apparent beheading of US journalist James Foley by what appears to be a British recruit to the Islamic State (formerly ISIL or ISIS) brings into sharp relief the domestic debate about new counter-terrorism laws. The Abbott government is set to introduce the bills when parliament resumes next week. Among other measures, the government proposes to criminalise the act of travelling "to a designated area where terrorist organisations are conducting hostile activities unless there is a legitimate purpose". Civil libertarians are particularly concerned that the government also wants to reverse the onus of proof, so that a person returning from such a "designated area" would be assumed to have participated in terrorist activities unless he or she can prove otherwise. The Labor opposition shares these concerns.

The Abbott government says its proposed laws are necessary to deal with the 150 Australians who are believed to have provided assistance to the Islamic State, which has captured large areas of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria in advance of its goal to establish a caliphate across the Middle East. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Foley's murder and threatens more if the United States doesn't cease its military action. David Cameron's government in Britain is also trying to prevent its citizens from travelling to fight in Iraq and Syria, but against Cameron's relative call for calm –  he warned against any "knee-jerk reaction" – Abbott's language is inflammatory. He has explicitly called on Muslims to join "team Australia" and declared that "you don't migrate to this country unless you want to join our team". As Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane points out, such language risks conflating the problem of Islamic extremism with Muslim immigration generally – a conflation that's been well and truly made by commentators on the extreme right, who are presenting Muslim leaders' criticism of the proposed legislation in terms of a culture war. The political art of balancing public safety with the protection of civil liberties is a difficult one, and is unlikely to be helped by framing the issue in such terms.

*Today's image, which shows the Islamic State's territory as of 16 August 2014, is a modified version of the graphic provided under Creative Commons license.

Russell Marks
Politicoz Editor

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