When migrants choose to become Australian citizens, they are asked to pledge a commitment to Australia’s democratic beliefs.Fundamental to those beliefs are parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, living peacefully, respecting all individuals regardless of background and demonstrating compassion for those in need.
It appears, however, that these essential tenets of democracy are now in question as a result of the Australian Government’s policies on terrorism.
Earlier this week, a mother of four was charged with supporting terrorism after she was arrested at Sydney Airport whilst boarding a flight with her young children.
The Brisbane mother claimed she was travelling overseas to be reunited with her husband over a family holiday. Her lawyer was quoted as saying that she and the children intended to travel to Malaysia before her arrest on Saturday night.
Police, however, alleged that the woman was attempting to deliver cash and equipment, including camouflage gear, to a family member (believed to be her husband) fighting in Syria.
When reflecting on this woman’s case, I cannot help but compare Australian Government policy to that of police states. The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility and on their freedom of expression. Their communication of political or other views are subject to police monitoring and enforcement.
While it would be dishonest to categorise Australia as a police state in its entirety, certain government policies that affect Arab Australians – and particularly the Muslim community – reflect a similar approach. Muslims who do not agree with what is happening in Syria and express political dissent on this matter are experiencing restrictions on their mobility and on their freedom to express and communicate their political views.
Citizens who choose to travel to fight in Syria or are seen to support rebels fighting in Syria are subjected to criminal prosecution. Indeed, the situation is so escalated that members of Sydney’s Muslim community met with federal and state law enforcement officials earlier this year to discuss concerns about the domestic impact of the Syrian conflict.
This year alone, Australia cancelled 30 of its citizens’ passports, many of them due to concerns that they would be lured into joining the battle against Bashar al-Assad. One of those passports belonged to 19-year-old Abu Bakr, who was labelled a risk to national security after posting a series of videos on YouTube. According to ASIO, this young man ”holds an extreme ideology and is planning to travel in order to engage in militant extremism”. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in December last year he said he had never planned to travel to Syria.
”If you refuse to be silent on something, on the injustice, on the evil, on the raping and killing and bombing in Syria, then they label you a jihadist or a fanatic or an extremist,” Abu Bakr said.
“I should be treated as a citizen that has rights. I should be treated as a human being – not like an animal, not like a criminal – because I’m not a criminal.”
In December 2013, he lost his appeal against the decision to confiscate his passport because it was deemed he was “likely to engage in activities prejudicial to security”. When did it become acceptable to strip an individual of their passport on the grounds of suspicion or because of the political views they espouse?
Apparently a citizen’s right to hold an Australian passport can be taken away if ASIO considers the individual to be a threat. And yet, how does ASIO define a threat? What evidence does it use to make that judgement?
Due to the secretive nature of an intelligence-gathering organisation, it is unlikely we will ever know how ASIO categorises individuals as a threat to national security.
The Government has already criminalised the act of going to fight in Syria on “terrorism” grounds. However, there is a hypocritical double standard when the current Australian Government does not make any issue of Jewish Australian citizens travelling abroad to serve in the Israeli Defence Force.
Israel is renowned for its human rights abuses and persecution of Palestinians. Israel consistently breaches international law when it comes to building new “settlements” in Palestinian territory and has placed the Gaza Strip under siege in its land, air, and sea blockade since 2007. But Israel is considered an ally of Australia and our politicians have repeatedly expressed one-sided views of the political and humanitarian struggle of Palestinians.
Syria, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.
Earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop was critical of the WikiLeaks Party’s visit to Syria and its meeting with officials from Bashar Al-Assad’s Government, saying he has been accused of war crimes. According to Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, this response from the government is problematic.
Saul believes Australia’s response to the uprising in Syria is incoherent, unprincipled, and even helps the brutal Assad regime to stay in power.
In an opinion article written for the Sydney Morning Herald , the Professor said that, on the one hand, our government rightly condemns Syria’s brutal repression of its own people, including allegations that it used chemical weapons. But on the other hand, our federal terrorism laws criminalise anyone who uses political violence against a foreign government. This includes violence that is limited to military attacks on military targets and attacks that do not target innocent civilians, but instead aim to stop government attacks on civilians.
To be clear, I do not support or oppose any particular group fighting for control in Syria. I do, however, support a safe, just and equitable Syria and, as such, I do support the uprising against an oppressive ruler. I also support the right of fellow citizens to speak out against the war crimes in Syria without fear of arrest or passport cancellation on spurious grounds.
I fear for the future of Australia and its citizens whose passports are confiscated for their decision to express political dissent or to provide financial support for a people crippled by war. I fear that the current Australian Government is exhibiting police-state-like policies and is slowly encroaching on our right to express solidarity with people fighting for a just and equitable future.
The Syrian people are dying to change their political situation because they can no longer accept to be ruled through oppression and dictatorship. As Australian citizens, we should not risk losing our passports or citizenship if we express support, frustration and empathy for their struggle.
After all, fundamental to Australia’s democratic beliefs is demonstrating compassion to those in need.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Sajjeling.
(Note: This article was amended on May 8, 2014)