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#################### Geoff Seidner
THE picture we ran on our front page yesterday showing a young Sydney boy struggling with both arms to hold up the decapitated head of a dead Syrian soldier was utterly chilling. Posted on Twitter by Islamic State fighter Khaled Sharrouf with the words “That’s my boy!”, the photograph was taken in the town square of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of the self-styled Islamic Caliphate. For Australians, it may prove to be the defining image of the savagery of the Islamic State and its depraved army of foreign fighters. In another photograph, Sharrouf, who fled Australia last year, poses with his three young sons; all four stand in front of the Islamic State flag, dressed in dull green fatigues and holding guns. Other recently posted photographs from the same location show the grinning former boxer Mohamed Elomar, Sharrouf’s friend and fellow Islamic State combatant, with a severed head in each hand. Tony Abbott said yesterday that the militant group, once known as ISIS, is more like a terrorist army seeking to establish a terrorist nation via “hideous atrocities”. “We see more and more evidence of just how barbaric this entity is,” the Prime Minister said of the disturbing images we published. Mr Abbott noted the Islamic State threat posed extraordinary problems not just for the people of the Middle East but for the wider world.
Not surprisingly, some people believed we went too far in showing these images, especially as they were likely to be seen by children. The Australian’s senior editors thought very carefully about whether we should run the pictures of Sharrouf’s children and how they should be presented. We decided to protect the identity of the children, who are innocent players in this terrible conflict, and to pixilate the most gruesome image of the slain man’s head. These are not easy decisions to make; editorially, a decision not to publish can say as much as publishing such a shocking image. As a newspaper, our first duty is to present the truth.
As Mr Abbott stated, this is the horrific reality of the brutal conflict in Iraq and Syria being waged by the Islamic State and there are clear consequences. To comprehend the Abbott government’s response to the conflict, including its proposed new counter-terrorism laws, requires a clear understanding of the atrocities being perpetrated overseas. Even more unsettling, it requires an appreciation of the involvement of Australians and the threats they have made against people here in Australia. On balance, we believe there is an overwhelming public interest in reporting the full story of this conflict. The participation of Australians is extremely vexing, hence the Abbott government’s far-reaching measures last week, including reversing the onus of proof, to clamp down on those citizens who have become radicalised and militarised in foreign conflicts. According to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, before the NATO-led action in 2001, 30 of our citizens were in Afghanistan fighting against the interests of the West; 25 returned to Australia and two-thirds were subsequently involved in terrorist activities. Ms Bishop says there are 150 persons of interest to our security and intelligence agencies. In recent years, authorities here have foiled terrorist plots targeting commuter services and major sporting events.
This high number of radicalised foreign fighters is deeply worrying. Labor’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, argues that Islamic leaders here are appalled by these barbarous actions. So let them be heard. Like our law enforcement bodies, we urge community leaders to strongly speak out against fanaticism among young people, many of whom have been drawn to action by the conflict in Gaza. Last week, a street protest in Sydney’s Lakemba drew angry participants who chanted, in part: “Palestine is Muslim land, the solution is jihad. You can never stop Islam, from Australia to al-Sham (Syria).” It’s true that Islamic hierarchies, particularly in Sunni communities, are not like those in established Christian denominations. Imams, often self-declared leaders, answer only to their followers. Still, the horrible crimes being perpetrated in the name of Islam must be denounced by community leaders. Instead of seeing the killing of Muslims through the prism of Hamas and Israel, some Islamic scholars are identifying the real problem: more Muslims are dying at the hands of other Muslims in the Middle East than in other conflicts.
A key challenge for Islamic societies to face is that the broader economic and security dynamic is turning against them. The pre-eminence of petro wealth and military might is in retreat, given the rise of other powers and alterative sources of energy, such as shale gas and nuclear. A polity built on such shaky foundations will come under enormous pressures; the push for a different system, too, will come. Rather than fighting for caliphates or proselytising violently to wipe out other strains of Islam, Muslims should pursue their self-interest and seek peace with non-believers, as most do in Australia. But we need the honest voices of calm and tolerance to be heard more often.