The sixth session of the National Imams Consultative Forum (NICF) was held over 24th – 25th June 2014 in Canberra. A total of 24 imams attended from around Australia.
The imams were welcomed to Old Parliament House by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, with special responsibility for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services. Senator Fierravanti-Wells addressed the imams and acknowledged the contribution of the Muslim community to Australian society. She thanked them for coming and wished them a blessed Ramadan ahead.
The workshop was formally opened by Senator the Hon. George Brandis, the Australian Attorney-General. The Attorney-General welcomed the imams and acknowledged the critical importance of their leadership, their efforts and their commitment to the safety and security of all Australians. He thanked them for their role in supporting and engaging with the Government on issues of national security and gave the imams his assurance that the Government would consult with community leaders in developing security measures dealing with Australians fighting overseas. The Attorney-General also acknowledged the significant humanitarian crisis in Syria and its impact on many Australians with ties to the region. He reiterated the Government’s support for the Muslim community’s efforts to help victims of the conflict, while stressing the importance of utilising reputable and bona fide channels, such as United Nations agencies.
Sheikh Abdul Azim al-Afifi, President of the Australian National Imams Council also welcomed the imams and gave a response to Senator Brandis’ address. In particular, Sheikh Abdul Azim made the point strongly that the imams who participate in the workshops do so sincerely and of their own accord, out of their responsibility as leaders of the Muslim community, and their religious duty to ensure the safety and security of all Australians, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Senator Brandis was joined by Mr Justin Bassi, National Security Adviser, Attorney-General’s Office, and Ms Jamie Lowe, First Assistant Secretary, National Security Law and Policy Division, Attorney-General’s Department, who engaged the imams in a dialogue on national security issues for the remainder of the session.
The NICF was next addressed by Mr David Irvine AO, Director-General of Security and head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Mr Irvine thanked the imams for inviting him to address them again, for their wisdom and leadership, and for their continuing engagement with the government on national security issues. He acknowledged the humanitarian situation in Syria is of significant concern, and said that the Government wants to make it easier for Australians to assist financially provided it is done through recognised and legitimate channels. He addressed the imams’ concerns regarding the Government’s power to cancel passports and stressed that it is not exercised lightly or arbitrarily; it can only be done once clear thresholds have been satisfied and the decision can be challenged in the courts. He thanked the imams for their efforts to make young Australians more aware of the dangers of traveling to conflict zones overseas. Finally, he stressed that ASIO’s role is to protect all Australians, and as part of this it takes threats to the Muslim community from anti-Muslim groups very seriously and works closely with police to ensure any violations of the law are prosecuted.
The imams visited Parliament House, where they were greeted during Question Time by the Prime Minister, the Hon. Tony Abbott, and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten. The Prime Minister welcomed the imams, saying that he welcomed and cherished their contribution to building a country which is a beacon of hope and optimism for people from around the world.
The final session of the two-day meeting took place at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The imams were welcomed by Ms Clare Birgin, Director, Counter-Terrorism Policy. Mr Miles Armitage, Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism and Assistant Secretary, Counter-Terrorism Branch, first addressed the imams, providing a snapshot of the current threat of terrorism from the Department’s perspective, divided into four areas: the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central and South Asia, and Africa. Each poses particular challenges and risks for Australia. Ambassador Armitage also referred to the work Australia does through the United Nations, especially the Security Council, of which Australia is currently a member.
Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, Secretary of the Australian National Imams Council, thanked the Department on behalf of the imams for hosting them, and made a number of points regarding the issue of counter-terrorism from a community perspective. In particular, he called on his fellow Imams not to shy away from topics such as jihad when speaking publicly, so that an authoritative mainstream community voice is heard. He called on the Government not to follow the media in portraying Muslims as extremists. He strongly rejected any claim that imams had failed to prevent Australians going overseas to fight in Syria; rather, that the opposite was true. Finally, he drew attention to the issue of Australian government intervention in Muslim countries, and cautioned that any intervention should be weighed carefully in order not to damage community perceptions of Australian involvement in the Middle East.
Ms Rachel Morris, Director, Levant and Iran Section, Middle East Branch gave an outline of Australia’s diplomatic engagement on the Syrian conflict. The Syrian crisis represents Australia’s largest current ongoing humanitarian contribution, and Australia is consistently among the top donors to the international relief effort. Australia has so far provided over $130 million for food, shelter, education, emergency services, and medical supplies to those both within Syria and refugees in neighbouring countries. Syria has been a diplomatic focus for Australia during our term on the UN Security Council, and we co-authored Resolution 2139 on the humanitarian situation. Australia has co-sponsored a number of resolutions in the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council expressing international concern about the situation in Syria. Australia has also provided $2 million for the destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. Finally, Australia implements autonomous sanctions in relation to Syria, which include targeted financial sanctions, travel bans, an arms embargo and restrictions on trade in certain sectors, and which make it an offence to fight for either side.
Finally, Mr Allaster Cox, First Assistant Secretary, South-East Asia Maritime Division, outlined Australia’s engagement in South-East Asia, highlighting a number of long-standing programs encouraging people-to-people links between Australia and a number of South-East Asian nations, in particular those with significant Muslim populations. Mr Cox also referred to Australia’s contribution to resolving conflicts involving Muslims in South-East Asia, including its commitment of $6 m to assist the peace process in Mindanao, and $9 million in humanitarian assistance to communities in Rakhine State in Burma and to help bring about a resolution to the ongoing tensions affecting the Muslim minority there.
During discussion the imams raised a number of important points, including the importance of using appropriate terminology in dealing with issues affecting the community. The imams stressed that the problem of radicalism cannot be dealt with only by security policy, but must also be tackled at an ideological and grassroots level. The imams made a case for greater recognition and support for the difficult work they do, often being attacked by the media as well as some parts of the community. They called on the government and politicians not to join in these attacks, and rejected recent comments made by police in New South Wales suggesting imams were not doing enough to counter extremism.
The imams also raised the issue of Western foreign policy, including economic policy, and its role in contributing to tensions, a sense of disenfranchisement, and conflict in parts of the world. Finally, the imams called for greater cooperation between the community and the government, and suggested that the government do more to support inter-civilisational dialogue, including appointing an Ambassador for Peace in addition to the Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism.