Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull on Thursday convened another high-level meeting with senior intelligence, police and education officials on countering the homegrown extremist threat.
In his opening remarks, Turnbull said that recent attacks – in Parramatta and elsewhere – prove that radicalisation is spreading among the very young. He also stressed that sharing information between security agencies and frontline workers – such as teachers – will be important to address the problem.
Many Australians are probably comforted by Turnbull’s determination to tackle violent extremism head-on. Another reassessment of security and police arrangements certainly appears crucial.
Nevertheless, Australian governments have done such reviews regularly since 9/11 – yet the threat of violent extremism continues to increase. Therefore, rather than another security summit, we should ask: what has changed within society that fosters such hatred among young people? Where are we failing children, and how can we adjust direction to care for them rather than incarcerate them?
These questions are becoming more urgent. We must refrain from making matters worse by placing vulnerable children closer to the criminal justice system without truly understanding the future consequences of such action.
Mending bridges with the Muslim community
Since becoming prime minister in September, Turnbull has made considerable positive ground in mending some of the fractured relationships created by the previous Abbott government. He recently said, for example, that:
We must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals.
To date, Turnbull’s comments have been inclusive. He has focused on mutual respect, rather than the Abbott government’s sometimes divisive posture. This so-called “new direction” could not have come soon enough.
Relationships between some Muslim community groups and various government agencies were at a significant low point. These were severely damaged, and in some cases severed, following the Abbott government’s clumsy and divisive rhetoric, its potentially counter-productive terrorism legislation and an overly securitised posture on terrorism and national security more broadly.
Rightly or wrongly, much of the government’s direction has placed unnecessary attention on Muslim community leaders, who are already under pressure and struggling for solutions to the many other issues causing young people to become alienated.
Surprisingly (to some), many of the social issues that make some Muslim youth vulnerable to radicalisation are common to many other young people from all religions and ethnicities. But we do not call on those community leaders to solve equally concerning problems such as homicide, domestic violence and drug addiction.
Relying on Muslim community leaders to assist or solve the radicalisation problem is also partly where Australia’s strategies to counter violent extremism may be faltering.
In many cases, Muslim community leaders do not have the expertise to develop intervention initiatives to counter radicalisation. Nor are they necessarily connected to the Muslim youth searching for identity or who are feeling isolated or marginalised from friends, families and communities.
Another important problem with the government’s strategy is that it may be targeting the wrong constituents. The focus has been too much on highly educated and socially connected youth, rather than on the most vulnerable – the poorly educated and those who “only have contact with the small socioreligious groups to which they’ve withdrawn”.
This has limited the government’s capacity to target and assist communities working with those most at risk.
Reaching and protecting those at risk
Children as young as 12 – and even younger in cases overseas – are now on the “radar” of security agencies.
Terrorist groups exploiting children is not new. But groups like Islamic State are increasingly using children to carry out their activities. This has allowed them to attract the more vulnerable and groom them as loyal followers.
Because of their vulnerability, children are easier to indoctrinate; they are less likely to question or resist. They do not yet fully understand their own mortality or the consequences of the acts they are asked to perform.
Identifying the root causes of children wanting to carry out violence is difficult, and the causes can be multifaceted. Today’s young people are readily exposed to violence in the home, at school, in the community and online. Children who are exposed to violence undergo lasting physical, mental and emotional harm and are more likely to engage in violence themselves.
In many cases, children are being shaped and moulded by adults in the world around them. Most would not have developed a genuine belief in any ideology.
The criminalisation of children within the criminal justice system in Australia may therefore have dangerous consequences. In failing to distinguish between the actions of a child and those of an adult, we fail to appreciate the peculiar dynamics at play in young people’s lives. Worse, it shows that adult society is now less willing to take responsibility for young people and their mistakes.
Violent extremism, particularly when it involves young children, cannot be tackled in isolation from other social issues. While police and security agencies are important for community protection and national security, they will not have the solutions or the capacity to fix societal ills.