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Howard's racist ASIO raids — who's next?

Howard's racist ASIO raids — who's next?

By Sarah Stephen

Courtesy of Green Left Weekly.

Bahtisen Etlik told the November 1 Illawarra Mercury that she has stopped wearing her traditional hijab headscarf after suffering five years of taunts and abuse.

Etlik is not alone. Many Muslim and Arab Australians are bracing for an escalation of racist abuse and harassment following ASIO and Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the homes of Indonesian Australians at the end of October.

While Prime Minister John Howard has made repeated public assurances that the authorities are not targeting Muslims in general, but individuals, it will be no comfort to those who will experience hostility and abuse as a result of the government's hysterical campaign to “root out terrorists from within”.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph's November 1 editorial put it frankly: “It must be realised that these raids are not an attack on Muslims nor their civil liberties, as some groups have suggested — but it also must be accepted that it is in this innocent community that terrorists and their supporters will attempt to conceal themselves.”

The implicit message is that there is reason to be suspicious of all Muslims.

AFP officers and ASIO agents conducted up to a dozen raids in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne just days after the federal parliament officially designated the Malaysian-based group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) a terrorist organisation.

Clad in balaclavas, flak jackets, helmets and bullet-proof vests, police and ASIO agents used sledgehammers to break down doors and smash windows. Machine guns were shoved into children's faces. This was clearly an attempt to severely intimidate not only the families that were targeted, but the entire Muslim community. It was also designed to generate a false climate of fear and suspicion among the population of Australia.

Attended lectures

Australian Civil Liberties Council secretary Cameron Murphy told the November 1 Daily Telegraph: “If these people are terrorists, arrest them and take them away. If their only sin is attending a lecture given by someone who the government allowed into our country five years ago, then they deserve to have their names officially cleared.”

Samina Yasmeen, senior lecturer in political science at the University of WA, told GLW that if ASIO searched her house, they would find information on organisations considered by the Australian government to have links with terrorist activities, yet it was simply part of her academic research.

The raids are part of a continuing campaign to smear Muslim Australians. “Whether it is these raids or the [gang rape cases in NSW], the whole community gets targeted [in the aftermath]”, Randa Kattan from the Australian Arabic Communities Council in Sydney told GLW. “It makes me angry that the authorities call for `tolerance', yet at the same time they are harassing us. I never thought it would reach a situation like this.”

Sydney Acehnese activist Muhammad Dahlan told GLW that the raids by the secret police are “what Kopassus [Indonesian special forces] does in Aceh. They come through people's houses looking for weapons. They don't worry about evidence. They scare people, put guns in their faces… I think ASIO and the AFP have been learning from Kopassus”.

All those targeted in the raids were Muslim Indonesian Australians. The only thing they appear to have in common is that they attended religious lectures given by Abu Bakar Bashir during his visits to Australia in the 1990s. ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson denied that was the reason for the raids. He told the November 1 Melbourne Age that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe those raided were engaged in activities relevant to Australia's national security.

WA Ethnic Communities Council president Suresh Rajan told GLW that “it is imperative” that the Howard government release “compelling evidence” as to why the raids were necessary because they have “generated a considerable backlash against the Muslim community”.

Alex Kouttab, secretary of Melbourne's Australian Arabic Council, pointed out that the precedent set by the raids had serious consequences for civil liberties in Australia. “The central issue is accountability, and there is none at the moment. There is no due process, no explanation of ASIO's actions, because of the supposed need for secrecy”, Kouttab explained to GLW.

Civil liberties expendable

Newspaper editorials and opinion pieces in the days following the raids declared that Australians have no choice but to support such action if “terrorism” is to be fought.

The Australian's November 1 editorial, headlined “ASIO raids — the price of vigilance”, dismissed criticism of the raids: “Every day around Australia police interrogate people and raid their homes. [Terrorism] doesn't respect the niceties of civil liberties. Indeed, it preys on those preoccupied with rights at the expense of vigilance.”

Asked by ABC radio's Jo Mazzocchi on October 31 what he would say to innocent Muslims caught up in the raids, NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr replied indignantly: “Look, there has been a terrible terrorist incident [in Bali]. It has taken Australian lives… We want to minimise the chance of this happening on Australian soil. That's what this is about… There is the prospect of a terrorist strike on Australian soil that might take 10 or 100 times more lives than this appalling tragedy in Bali.”

Carr continued: “It's a threat that must take account of the possibility of sleeper cells having been set up in Australia, even a decade ago, ready to be activated when required.”

Fuelling the climate of fear, the NSW government announced on November 2 that it had ordered the removal of rubbish bins from all underground train stations in Sydney because they might be used in a terrorist attack.

The implication is that opponents of the raids and the violation of civil liberties support a terrorist attack taking place in Australia. It is a variant of US President George Bush's “either your with us or you're with the terrorists”.

Did the police really need to smash down doors and point guns in people's faces? Of course not. There were less violent and dramatic ways that ASIO could have conducted their investigations, but that's not the point. There was an overriding motive: to sow fear and uncertainty among the population about enemies lurking in our midst.

In the week before the raids, the corporate media carried sensationalist reports that the shadowy JI has plans to annex northern Australia as part of an Asian Islamic state, that JI “operatives” are among us and that Bashir allegedly operated a terrorist “training camp” at an Islamic school in Bunbury, south of Perth.

Sowing fear

Pip Hinman, from Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (ASAP), explained that the raids are part of a concerted effort by the Howard government to shift Australian public opinion in favour of Australian involvement in Washington's “war on terror”. “In the weeks after the Bali bombing, the Australian people's shock at the tragedy did not weaken their opposition to Australia joining a US/UN attack on Iraq. If anything, it made people more wary about involvement in a war”, Hinman pointed out.

Polls conducted by Newspoll on October 18-20 (available at the Newspoll web site) confirm this. Fifty-three per cent expressed opposition to a war on Iraq, a level similar to before the Bali tragedy. While 66% of Australians were more concerned about terrorist attacks within Australia after the Bali bombings, a significant 30% felt it had made no difference.

“The Howard government had hoped to make Bali Australia's September 11”, Hinman explained. “It hoped it would generate a greater willingness to go to war. That didn't happen. These raids indicate that the government is on the back foot. It's a defensive reaction, an attempt to cajole and drag an unwilling population to war with it.”

The targeting of Indonesian Australians by ASIO is based on unproven assumptions. It is still by no means clear who was responsible for the Bali bombings. There is no credible evidence that it was JI or al Qaeda.

But the Howard government is not concerned about evidence. It serves its interests to argue that JI and al Qaeda were behind the bombing. For some time, defence minister Robert Hill and attorney-general Darryl Williams have been alluding to the existence of a “terrorist threat” within Australia's borders.

It is only by sowing fear among the population that the Howard government has been able to justify the curbing of civil liberties that were already planned as part of its anti-terrorism legislation.

In an address to the Australian Defence Studies Centre on October 31, ASIO head Dennis Richardson said more terrorist attacks were “inevitable” and Australia would be on a heightened security alert for at least three to five years.

Williams emphasised on October 30 that “everything that is being done is being done in order to ensure that the Australian community is properly protected”.

“Using the issues of refugees, so-called ethnic gangs, the events of September 11 and the Bali bombings, Howard has generated a role for himself as a protector of the nation”, Kouttab argued.

“Having done that, he has been able to oversee the introduction of draconian legislation and carry out these raids. Yet the fundamental things which the government is supposed to protect — civil rights, freedom of speech and expression — are the things which are under threat. The greatest threat to our civil liberties is not terrorists, it is the government.”

Dick Nichols, national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance agreed. “Who will be the next victims of the secret police? Will it be protesters against the November World Trade Organisation trade ministers meeting? Federal trade minister Mark Vaile has branded Socialist Alliance and other groups planning protests as `fringe elements'. Will opponents of the threatened new US war on Iraq also be raided?”, Nichols asked.

From Green Left Weekly.

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