Facing the barbarians
After a series of anti- terrorism raids in Sydney in September, I was invited as a guest on breakfast television, where I was asked whether Tony Abbott was exaggerating the threat of Islamist terror to distract from his political difficulties.
The prospect of an attack seemed so remote that the prime minister was being compared to the fictional American president in the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, in which Hollywood is recruited to stage a fake war to distract attention from a brewing scandal. “You can see why some people are cynical,” the Weekend Sunrise presenter Andrew O’Keefe remarked. “You’ve got 800 cops swooping on houses around the country and one arrest.”
The siege of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe last week was the atrocity Australians had persuaded themselves would never happen on their easy-going continent. It occurred less than 100 yards from Channel Seven’s glass-fronted studio where September’s discussion took place.
On Monday, the winner of Australia’s X Factor, Marlisa Punzalan, was singing live on The Morning Show when co-presenters Larry Emdur and Kylie Gillies noticed the drama unfolding across the road in the cafe.
Police cars, motorbikes and officers in Kevlar body armour, guns drawn, were neatly framed in the window behind the presenters’ desk between two Christmas trees.
“We saw people standing in the windows in the Lindt — two people per window — each with their hands above their heads pressed firmly against the glass,” Emdur said.
“We do live crosses most days to our reporters around the world, covering disasters, war zones, school shootings, sieges, terrorist attacks, but now it was happening metres from us, unfolding in front of our eyes.”
Even when the pictures of the black Islamic Shahada flag, pressed behind a Merry Christmas sign, had been broadcast around the world, and Man Haron Monis’s anti-western rants had been retrieved from his Facebook page, voices on the politically correct left insisted that this was not an act of terrorism at all.
It was merely the act of a crazed individual, they claimed, a troubled man facing charges of sexual and indecent assault and being an accessory to the murder of his former wife, for which he was given bail, and who had been badly treated in prison.
In an editorial on Tuesday that avoided mention of the words “Islam”, “Muslim” or “Islamist”, The Sydney Morning Herald claimed: “The Martin Place siege may well be an isolated criminal action.”
The broader public, however, was not buying this mealy-mouthed explanation. In a nation not generally disposed to public displays of emotion, the thick carpet of flowers outside the Lindt cafe, growing by the hour, was evidence that the arrival of Islamist violence on Australian soil had deeply affected the country.
December 16 will go down as Australia’s 9/11 or 7/7 , though mercifully smaller in scale. It was the first violation of the Australian continent by a fatal Islamist attack, and for Australians it leaves wrenching pain in the gut.
Australian lives have been lost to Islamist terrorists before in Bali and London. Eleven Australians died in the World Trade Center attack in New York. More than a dozen would-be Islamist terrorists have been convicted and jailed in Australia. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has identified 60 Australian jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria. Jihadist Khaled Sharrouf’s seven-year-old son, who was pictured holding a soldier’s severed head in northern Iraq in August, was raised in Sydney.
Yet the carnage in the Lindt cafe destroyed the myth that terrorism was something that happened in other countries. It has touched a raw nerve; Monis, an Iranian granted refugee protection under Australia’s generous humanitarian programme, had turned on the people who gave him sanctuary, killing a mother of three children and the likeable manager of a city-centre coffee shop.
Last week’s events have caused Australians to reflect on the resilience of their multi-ethnic society, which remains by any measure one of the most successful in the world.
It is less than 50 years since the notorious White Australia policy restricting non-European immigration was abandoned, albeit with some misgivings. The then prime minister, John Gorton, warned in 1970 that while race-based immigration was morally indefensible, racial tension increased in countries with a population diversity. “I do not want to import those problems into this country,” he said.
Yet the abolition of discriminatory migration proceeded apace. In 1961 fewer than 1 in 100 Australians claimed non-European ancestry. Today 1 in 10 Australians has Asian, African or Middle Eastern heritage. There are four times as many Australians claiming Indian descent as Welsh.
Yet, in contrast to Europe, Australian migration remains tightly regulated. The system favours skilled, entrepreneurial, forward-looking migrants intent on building a better future. The former prime minister John Howard summed up the policy in 2001 with these words: “We decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come.”
As a result, the high rate of immigration — 244,000 people last year — causes little controversy. A recent survey of social cohesion by the Scanlon Foundation found the proportion of the population unhappy with the country’s immigration policy was less than half that of Spain (77%), Greece (75%), Britain (73%) and America (71%).
Yet illegal immigration is a matter of considerable public anxiety. The seemingly uncontrolled flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat was a key factor in the defeat of the Labor government 15 months ago. Of the 35,000 asylum-seeker applicants under the Labor government, 66% were from predominantly Muslim countries, principally Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. Overall the Muslim population has more than doubled since 2001 and is estimated to be well over 500,000 today.
Yet the experience of Muslim immigrants in Australia remains overwhelmingly positive. Racist incidents have been isolated and roundly condemned. Five hours into Monday’s siege, the outspoken commercial radio presenter Ray Hadley cut short an anti-Muslim tirade from a caller named Jake, saying: “If you’ve got a problem with Muslims, mate, you won’t get any traction here.”
As the carpet of flowers continued to expand on Friday in the summer heat, there was a shared sense of anxiety among conservative and progressive Australians that the natural tolerance that has allowed such a rapid and vibrant expansion of the multi-ethnic population in the past 40 years had been sorely tested by the events of last week.
The Lindt cafe siege may be a relatively small incursion of barbarism compared with the wholesale slaughter in a Peshawar school last week. For Sydney, however, a city largely unscarred by bullets or explosions for the first 226 years of its life, the attack represents a profound assault on the Australian way of life.
Islamist ideology, fed by a culture of grievance and hatred, is utterly at odds with the spirit of Sydney and Australia. As the city’s Catholic archbishop, Anthony Fisher, put it at a special mass on Tuesday: “A little bit of what is commonplace in the region of Christ’s birth has come to Martin Place.”
In Australia, a country built on pioneering grit, it remains deeply impolite to blame circumstances for personal failure or to hold others responsible for one’s own disappointments. Guilt is internalised; fortitude and resilience are admired above all.
The astounding sense of entitlement that justifies taking the life of a stranger in pursuit of warped utopian ambition is incomprehensible to normal Australians.