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Terrorism: In Conversation

22 August 2017

Australians are more concerned than ever about the threat of terrorism, as we witness attacks that seem, through the lens of our media at least, to be sweeping Western cities.

You may have noticed the swarms of concrete bollards that have sprouted across the Melbourne CBD recently. While local artists have quickly attempted to beautify them, their presence remains a stark indicator of the times in which we live. Although detractors argue their presence only plays into the public’s fear of terror attacks, Tariq Ramadan, a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the Oxford University, believes they could have the opposite effect, and reassure the community that the city is more secure. Ramadan argues that these small changes to the environment in the interest of public safety are preferable to changes in legislation that impact on our freedoms. Still, while these mounds of cement may reassure some worried Melbournians, Ramadan acknowledges that unfortunately, “any of these security measures might not be enough, such is the nature of modern terrorist attacks”.

Though the connectedness of our modern world may make us think there is more terrorism today than there has ever been before, Ramadan notes, “There isn’t more terrorism as such, however, we are seeing more unpredictable, lone-wolf style attacks.” While it is true that we are experiencing a spike in deaths caused by attacks in comparison to the figures from 2000, the current number of deaths attributable to terrorism is not historically unique. Comparatively, Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, indicates that the death rate from terrorism in the ‘80s was significantly higher in comparison to 2000.

According to the Centre for International Development and Conflict Management, the locations of terrorism have also changed dramatically. While countries such as Northern Ireland and Spain were amongst the most attacked nations between 1970 and 2001, since 2000, only 4.4 per cent of attacks, and 2.6 per cent of deaths have occurred in Western countries. Ramadan argues that “though our media focuses mostly on the Western victims of terrorism, it is vital to remember that the vast majority of terrorism’s effect is felt outside the West, in countries like Syria and Iraq and Nigeria to name a few.”

In the West, there is a focus on Islamist terrorism, and in a global context Ramadan agrees that as far as violent extremism is concerned, Islamist terror at this moment in history is the most common type. Despite this, he points to the ease with which the media labels some of these extremists as Muslims, when their faith is either irrelevant, or they have converted extremely recently and their connection is more to violent ideologies of ‘jihadists’ than to Islam.

“Muslims need to be seen as part of the solution,” Ramadan adds, referencing the work Muslim communities have done to work with authorities, assisting those who are vulnerable to violent ideologies and assisting victims of terrorism around the world.

Of the Islamist terrorist threat in Australia, it is “principally lone actors or small groups who use simple attack methodologies that enable them to act independently and with a high degree of agility”. However, the Government also warns of the threat posed by lone actors influenced by differing ideological agendas, such as a right-wing individual who was arrested and charged with terrorism-related offences in 2016. “It really is case by case, country by country, as far as the biggest threat,” Ramadan summarises.

In The European Union’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report of 2017, of the 142 failed, foiled and completed attacks occurring in 2016, only 13 were labelled jihadist. This highlights the problematic characterisation of terrorism as uniquely Islamist. Seeing terrorism as solely an Islamic issue is false. Recent acid attacks against Muslim Brits and the murder of Nabra Hassanen in Virginia are recent examples of violence stemming from the false presentation of terror perpetuated in the community against those who are assumed to be Muslim. It also blinds people to the fact that, given the enormous amount of attacks in Muslim majority countries, the majority of the victims of terrorism, according to the US Government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center and the Global Terrorism Database, are Muslim.

So how do we go forward given this situation of mass panic? Ramadan says the best way forward is to live as normal a life as possible. He clarifies that this does not mean a life of ignorance. “Fundamentally, not just having empathy for victims, but dealing with the reasons behind terrorism, never to justify atrocities, but to understand what is going on beyond a superficial reaction.” While bollards may help reassure us of our safety, Ramadan argues that the key to stopping these attacks is understanding the logic extremists use to validate their actions, never justifying what these terrorists do, but addressing the causes of terror.

“Educate yourself about your fellow citizens, don’t nurture a sense of insecurity in your society through stereotypes. Australia is not a fragile society, but what can weaken any society is intellectual laziness, interacting only with a close circle of people. A crucial way forward is to not accept the hierarchy between victims.”

That line stuck with me. There is a significant disparity between the sympathy we in the West show for civilians in varying corners of the globe. We all saw French flags temporarily adorn our friends’ Facebook profile pictures, but how many Syrian flags have you seen? We need to realise it’s not just our families who worry about terrorist attacks and not just Australians who install ugly concrete bollards to protect their communities. We need to notice the victims of terrorism wherever they reside, to notice the terrible global impact terrorism has on lives of all religions and ethnicities, whether that be in London and Paris, or Raqqa and Aleppo.