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Sydney siege: Why self-censorship, xenophobia, outrage, fear, and politics are dominating the response

Reuters/David Gray
Members of the public stand behind a note that can be seen amongst floral tributes .
By Paul Smalera
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The world watched the coverage of the Sydney siege and saw a murderous Islamist gunman terrorizing hostages at a bustling city café in deliberate view of live TV. Some Australians saw only a deranged individual, who cannot rightly be called an Islamist, a terrorist or even a Muslim.

As the horrifying photos and videos flashed around the world, self-styled Sheikh Man Haron Monis forced victims at gunpoint to hold up a Shehada flag saying “There is no god but Allah. And Muhammad is his messenger.”

The radical Iranian-born cleric demanded an Islamic State (ISIS) flag, and made the petrified hostages circulate his orders via videos and posts on social media. He repeatedly contacted local media outlets to draw attention to his siege, threatened to kill his 17 captives during the more than 16-hour ordeal  at the Lindt Chocolate café in Martin Place, and finally caused the shooting deaths of a young man and woman.

Café manager Tori Johnson, 34 was killed by Monis and police reportedly believe 38 year-old lawyer and mother-of-three Katrina Dawson also died as a result of his shots in a dramatic gunfight with police in the center of normally peaceful Sydney.

This strange ”spiritual healer” was facing more than 50 sexual assault charges, and shockingly free to go on a terror spree because he was on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. He had waged a long legal battle over his conviction for hate letters he wrote to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

After the lifting of the media blackout imposed during the siege, a picture is now emerging of another unhinged lone wolf terrorist, or “madman…infatuated with extremism“ as Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. Known to police for years, Monis undeniably drew succor and inspiration from Islamic State and various death cult currents in radical Islamist circles.

Monis, who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1996, recently posted online about his conversion from Shia Islam to being Sunni and pro-ISIS, and made good on his avowal. However sections of the Australia media and academia see something entirely different.

Commentaries headlined ‘Don’t call Man Haron Monis a  ‘terrorist’ – it only helps ISIS‘  , ‘Lone madman or a holy networked warrior?‘  and ‘Sydney gunman Haron Monis a real Sheikh only to himself‘ are proliferating.

Australians have a tendency to see even important global events purely through their domestic prism, something the world saw when we hosted the G20 in Brisbane last month.

Yet engagement in the global war on terrorism alongside George W. Bush, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and now alongside the US against ISIS makes them more of a target including from ‘crazies’ at home and there is no point ignoring the facts.

Many opinion leaders and experts nonetheless insist this is a domestic tragedy that should not attract international attention. They want to convince themselves that Australia is immune from the smaller scale deadly ‘lone wolf’ attackers, up to 40 percent of whom are likely mentally ill, and who have spread terror in attacks this year in North America and Europe, and already threatened to do so in Sydney.

ABC radio broadcaster Rebecca Huntley summed it up on Facebook: “Our pollies talking about terrorism and Australian values … Shouldn’t we be talking about crazy people with access to guns out on bail?”

At the other end of the spectrum lie columnists like Newscorp’s Andrew Bolt, who is blaming Islam in general for the killing of innocents at the Lindt café and says “Mass immigration from the Middle East has left us in greater danger than before.”

Bolt’s incendiary words were already anticipated by the uplifting Twitter hashtag #Illridewithyou. This became a global phenomenon after a commuter promised to accompany a veiled Muslim woman on a Sydney train when passengers tried to exploit the tensions of the siege.

#Illridewithyou is an encouraging sign of the generosity of spirit of many Australians, but it is also important to recognize that the killer Monis was nourished by imported Islamist ideologies of hate that fed his own sense of personal grievance.

The binary, very Australian debate over the Sydney siege reveals much more about the nasty divide in the local media and political culture over multiculturalism and immigration policy – and domestic media rivalries – than the specifics of this crime, and its troubled perpetrator.

The media has split along typical partisan lines, between the hawkish centre-right Murdoch-owned press, and the rival Fairfax media group whose Sydney Morning Herald flagship editorialized that “we as a community will not be cowed by a lone madman with mental problems on a vengeful mission against society.”

“Nor will we be divided by those who would seek to capitalise on this by demonizing anyone who shared the gunman’s background or what he claimed to be his faith.”

Unfortunately, all these polarized commentators are essentially preaching to their converted flocks, failing to recognise reality and frankly playing into the hands of bigots and xenophobes keen to exploit these murders at the expense of refugees, and ordinary Muslims.

Just as with global warming, Australia, which has lined up behind the US in the global fight against terrorism, is evidently not protected from the kind of horror scenarios dreamed up by men like the Boston bombers, or Frenchmen like Mohamed Merah, who massacred Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse and soldiers in the region, or Mehdi Nemmouche who went to the Jewish Museum in Brussels this May to do his murderous work.

Sydneysiders and Australians are shocked because we are not accustomed to either these kinds of hostage-taking sieges – having such strict gun laws since the late 90s – or terrorism-style acts on our shores. “We are used to a peaceful society where people can enter a cafe and order without fear…We have been subjected to pictures and sounds we tend to associate with far away lands,” said Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher.

Domestic reaction, to this Australian journalist who has been abroad for more than a decade, appears to me like a re-run of London in May 2013. Sections of the British media and political establishment went out of their way to declare that assailants invoking Allah who hacked soldier Lee Rigby to death in broad daylight on a central London street had nothing to do with Islam.

Commentators in Australia have been quick to quote Monis’ professionally self-interested former lawyer Manny Conditsis claiming his deceased client was “a one-off random individual. It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act.”

Evidently the gunman was unstable, had a persecution complex, was desperate for publicity and violent towards women. Surely this is a description that can be applied to nearly every wannabe terrorist?

Too many, including the Australian police, the courts and journalists dismissed Monis as a raving nutter over recent years, despite the warning signs.

One Australian reporter, Anne Davies, admitted she interviewed Homis at a gathering of hundreds of Sydney Muslims angry over last September’s anti-terror raids, but decided not to publish his comments decrying the “war against Muslims.”

“My impression was he was a little unstable. He also seemed a little creepy. Ominously, he also told me he did not think giving speeches would be enough.

‘I believe a speech is not enough. We have to do something,’ he said in my interview with him.

“I decided to drop his quotes from my story because I concluded he was a man on a campaign, who didn’t represent the broader sentiments of the Muslim community.”

Perhaps Davies should have thought again before self-censoring.

The French left and right in politics and media is uncompromising when it comes to terrorism at home, and the unflinching approach shows in reporting that rarely downplays the role of Islamist extremism as a motivating factor in violence. Le Monde’s Sydney correspondent Caroline Taïx  said it best:

“Whatever his profile, this ‘deranged’ man, or devout follower of the Islamic State, seems to have best served the cause of this organization, that called in September for the killing of Americans, French, Australians or Canadians – the people of countries engaged in Iraq.

“Ask the advice of no one, don’t seek the agreement of anyone. Kill the infidels, whether they be civilian or military,” said Islamic State, demanding its faithful draw the most attention possible to their acts.

“This taking of hostages has made front pages across the world.”

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