From siege to reaction

December 17, 2014

Three people were left dead December 15 after police stormed a café in Sydney, Australia, in an attempt to free hostages held by Man Horon Monis, who had taken over the café that morning and engaged in an hours-long standoff with police.

Despite having no evidence about Monis' motivations, the media immediately focused on the fact that the gunman was a cleric in Iran before emigrating to Australia--and speculated that the attack was politically motivated terrorism. Afterward, with Monis and two hostages dead, a spate of anti-Muslim hate crimes was reported in Sydney, including several assaults on Muslim women wearing hijabs. In response, people opposed to bigotry organized a social media campaign dubbed "I'll ride with you"--with people offering to accompany Muslims in public places to protect them from physical harm.

In an article for the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag, Ben Hillier describes the media and political establishment's response to the tragedy--and argues why it is so important for Australians to stand against the wave of Islamophobia.

THE SITUATION that unfolded in Sydney's Martin Place is a tragedy. Three people are dead, including gunman Man Haron Monis.

The motives for the attack are unclear. We may never know them. Monis has not been formally linked to a terrorist organization. His history, personality and grievances would be impossible to untangle. Manny Conditsis, a Sydney lawyer who previously represented him, told Sydney Morning Herald reporter Lisa Visentin: "It's not a concerted terrorism event or act. It's a damaged-goods individual who's done something outrageous."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been widely praised for his "careful" avoidance of language that might inflame the situation. Yet from very early on, while calling for calm, he repeatedly stated that the event was "politically motivated." That may well be true. As we have written previously in Red Flag, "Australia may well be a target of Islamic militants--successive governments' backing, both political and military, of U.S. barbarity in the Middle East, participation in the War on Terror and demonization of the Muslim population has created deep resentment. It would be absurd to think otherwise."

Sydney police deployed outside the Lindt Café
Sydney police deployed outside the Lindt Café

Yet despite the fact that no one truly knows, the dominant narrative had been constructed by the media, with the help of the politicians, within hours of the hostages being taken: this was a terrorist act.

Muslim representatives were lined up to perform loyalty oaths for the press. The spectacle was a standard maneuver to place the entire population somewhere near the scene of the crime and demand that it prove itself witness, rather than accomplice. One after another, community leaders distanced their religion from the horror. No doubt each testimony was genuine and heartfelt, but such events are a no-win: To be asked for comment in the first place is to be guilty by association.

All the effort didn't give right-wing pugilist Andrew Bolt, the most widely read columnist in Australia, pause for thought. He wrote that terrorism is "what verses of this faith suggest and what followers of this faith instruct. [Monis is] not quite so unrepresentative after all."

FOLLOWING THE siege, there is blanket media coverage. The Sydney Morning Herald has a headline: "Sydney siege is Australia's September 11 moment." The Daily Telegraph editorial reads: "New ugly reality forces Australia to face the truth." The truth is that we have "slipped into dull acceptance or complacency" and are now "in the front line of a terror conflict."

The intent is in part to sell a product. But it also allows the government and security forces to exploit the tragedy. Panic, fear and uncertainty give the political right--those whose project involves undermining the living standards of workers--precious narrative advantage; a podium to call for unity in the face of an invisible and unpredictable enemy. This is a gift for a government that was becoming dogged by the appearance of disunity, and whose political fortunes until this point have rested on a budget that exposed clearly the gaping national divide between the haves and the have nots.

Yet how effective the media has been, and whether or not the government can make hay, is also unclear. "We're told repeatedly that any whiff of terrorism should paralyze the nation entirely," wrote Jeff Sparrow today at Overland. "Yet, as Peter Hartcher points out, the persistent efforts by politicians to talk up the level of fear that they (and, by extension, we) were feeling clashed with the images of the crowd gathered at the siege parameter: 'The police evidently had the situation in hand. The crowd was curious, but might as well have been watching a busker for all the tension in the air. Some onlookers snapped photos. Some left as others arrived. The scene was perfectly calm. It was only when I turned on the TV an hour or so later that I realized the magnitude of our dimwittedness. We were supposed to be terrified.'"

Shifting the focus from "rich vs. poor" to "Muslim extremist vs. upstanding citizen" nevertheless has clear advantages for Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey. The more anti-Muslim suspicion can be stoked the more the systemic abuses of government can be buried beneath the noise – even if the noise is limited to chatter. Figures obtained by the Herald Sun in January this year show that more than 16 people per week died in 2013 while waiting for surgery in Victoria alone. Yet while Tony Abbott's government is cutting hospital funding to the states, the newspapers imply that terrorism is a greater threat to human life. Fear may not be gripping Australia, but the fact that today everyone is talking about terrorism indicates that the government's narrative about where the true threat lies undoubtedly has been strengthened.

Where there are pockets of panic, fear and outrage, the far right is taking the opportunity to organize. The Australian Defence League Facebook page gained almost 5,000 likes in the last 36 hours. It has called for anti-Muslim actions in Sydney. This may not come to much, but the precedent set in the wake of the last round of hysteria in September--when more than 800 police and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation agents in a coordinated blitz raided the homes of 25 Muslim families in New South Wales and two in Queensland – doesn't bode well.

Media hysteria promoted a wave of bigotry across the country. From the top to the bottom of society Muslims were vilified and targeted. In the fortnight following the raid, daily incidents were recorded of verbal abuse, physical assaults, intimidation, property damage and threats of violence.

Right now Muslims are bracing for an offensive tide that will likely wash over them in the coming days and weeks. The task of left wing people is to stand in solidarity against any reaction.

First published at Red Flag.

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