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Have the ‘terrorists’ got what they want?

By Melati Lum - posted Thursday, 4 March 2010

As Kevin Rudd recently launched his new white paper on counter-terrorism, the Australian Muslim community once again braces itself for a renewed onslaught in “random” security checks and measures against us.

With all of Rudd’s talk of increasing “jihadist” and home-grown terror, I got to thinking about what it was that the “terrorists” really want? Let’s ignore for a moment the problematic nature of the term “terrorist”. The term did not always conjure up an image of a bearded man with a turban. In fact, the world has a long history of politically or ideologically motivated violence that did not originate from those calling themselves Muslims, believe it or not. So, what does this new breed of “terrorists” hope to achieve? Have they in fact already achieved it?

Terrorism experts such as Jessica Stern teach us that terrorists intend to spread fear and insecurity by deliberately targeting innocent bystanders. The act of terrorism is in fact a symbolic communication to cause fear in a much wider audience than the immediate victims. Osama bin Laden and his ilk have a few general goals, one of which is to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations. Former US president George Bush interpreted al-Qaeda style terrorism as a threat to “our way of life”. He cites their hatred of “our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other”. All these freedoms are associated with the international human rights of all people.


In Australia, we have been proud of our international promotion of, and commitment to, human rights. Our strong democratic tradition, independent judiciary, free press, and a fair criminal justice process are often cited as examples of this commitment. While these are all laudable achievements, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent War on Terror, human rights in Australia have taken a severe beating.

The Australian government has introduced a significant number of counter-terrorism laws since 2001. These laws have established new criminal offences, new detention and questioning powers for police, new powers for the Attorney-General to ban terrorist organisations, and new methods to control the movement and activities of people without criminal convictions.

Counter-terrorism laws can have a serious impact on fundamental human rights and freedoms including: the right to a fair trial; the right to freedom from arbitrary detention and arrest; the right not to be subject to torture; the right to privacy; the right to freedom of association and expression; and the right to non-discrimination. Even though these rights are protected under international human rights treaties, in Australia the absence of a Charter of Human Rights has the effect of limiting the protection of these rights under Australian law.

All Australians are potentially affected by counter-terrorism legislation. All of our above fundamental freedoms have been affected by global “terrorist” action. However as a Muslim, the tenuous level of human rights protection offered under the current legal system is the cause of acute concern. The case of Dr Mohammed Haneef illustrates how innocent people can be subject to unwarranted stress due to questionable internal security policies coupled with inefficient protection of human rights.

It is obvious that Osama bin Laden and his followers do not care whether their victims, or those negatively affected by their actions are Muslims or not. Since the 2001 attacks, the majority of victims of so called “Muslim terrorists” have in fact been Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In the West, Muslims have born the brunt of revenge attacks, back lash in society, and discrimination in the legal system.

Having worn a head scarf, I have experienced first hand the heightened level of distrust at security checkpoints in airports. I know what it feels like to be singled out on every occasion for a “random” explosive test. While all passengers are affected by heightened security measures, the treatment that I receive when not wearing a head scarf, alerts me to the fact that as a “visible” Muslim, I am more of a threat than when I am not “visible”.


The fear and mistrust generated by the language of terrorism is palpable. We have seen its impact in the degeneration of human rights in Australia, in counter-terrorism measures that threaten our fundamental freedoms. When launching new measures to counteract terrorism it is important for the Australian government not to play into the hands of the “terrorists”. We must keep in mind the “terrorists’” fundamental aim of changing the status quo - of creating fear and insecurity among a wide group of people.

Have the “terrorists” achieved what they’ve set out to do? Given our downplay of human rights in Australia, and the paranoia surrounding Muslims - perhaps so. However, one thing they have achieved hands down is that they have made it harder to freely be a Muslim in today’s world.

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About the Author

Melati Lum is a lawyer specialising in international humanitarian and human rights law. She has recently completed a Master of Laws (Public International Law) from the University of London.

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