Spies, Lies and the Caring Professions: Countering Violent Extremism

During a February 2016 episode of ABC TV’s Q&A program, then minister for justice and counterterrorism Michael Keenan said that teachers were being trained to spot extremists because ‘ISIL is targeting people younger and younger… They will exhibit certain behaviours if they have made contact with someone in the Middle East’. On the same panel, Labor’s shadow minister for foreign affairs Tanya Plibersek said, ‘our best ally in keeping Australians safe is making sure we’ve got good relationships with the Muslim community’. These portrayals from the major political parties illustrate the notion of young Muslims’ susceptibility to terrorism and the idea of exploiting the participation of professionals to stem this. These dual forces underlie the premise of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a government-funded strategy predicated on a shift from crime detection and prosecution to prevention. 

We are social work academics concerned about the intrusion of sections of our profession, other ‘caring’ vocations and researchers into the domain of ‘Countering Violent Extremism’. Entities that purport to be ethical have not only disengaged from political critique but become active collaborators in dominant ideologies through working as Islamophobic partners-in-practice with government in normalising the oppression of Australian Muslims. We call out government-sponsored CVE programs that are masked in the half-truths and deception that produce Islamophobia, and we show how official propaganda and financial incentives have led to the embracing of programs that contravene professional values. In the process, professionals are bound to national-security canons constructed on lies, while academic participation in security-focused research further tightens the grip of CVE and its assumptions, and guides professional programs.  

CVE policies and practices are an innovation for responding to terrorism globally through a radicalisation/de-radicalisation lens. They operate to identify and prevent radicalisation through ‘soft’ activities outside the legal-prosecution sphere. The primary concern in this article is with the professions—particularly our own, social work—entering contested moral spaces, legitimised by the backing of government-funded research. 

Various arms of Australia’s national-security apparatus operationalise anti-Muslim sentiment, at both federal and state levels (though the federal government is the prime culprit). Tactics include political anti-Muslim statements, laws, policies and practices. Not only is this apparatus an enforcer of external borders but also it embraces border thinking within the nation state, pitting Muslim Australians against the predominantly Anglo-centric society, despite pronouncing religious and cultural pluralism. As government retreats from direct participation in program delivery, civil-society actors bridge the gap at the bidding of government, and in this context professional organisations and research bodies profit handsomely from institutionalising the surveillance of Muslims in Australia. How did we reach this state of affairs and why has it been so minimally challenged? To understand this phenomenon, we need look no further than the rise of Islamophobic beliefs and identify those most influential in manipulating anti-Muslim sentiment.  

The many guises of Islamophobia 

Popular ideas about Islamophobia are deficient and mistaken. At their heart lies the belief that Islam is incapable of peaceful coexistence with secular political systems, no matter how often Muslims proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace. Islamophobia creep, which began after the 9/11 attacks on New York, is now thoroughly normalised, striking fear into Muslims. Surveys reveal that a significant number of Australians have concerns about Muslims. Other surveys reveal that a substantial number of Muslims experience racism and discrimination. The topic of racism is never far from controversy, but in today’s world historically racist tropes related to ethnicity and religion focus specifically on Islam and Muslims, who are typically viewed as ‘evil, irrational, barbaric and lecherous’, as Tahir Abbas has noted. The 2019 slayings at a Christchurch mosque, though shocking, were not surprising given how widespread anti-Muslim sentiment has become. 

In Australia, institutional and other forms of Islamophobia are enabled not only by those on the political margins such as Pauline Hanson and Fraser Anning but within mainstream political parties, and animated by the media, particularly the Murdoch outlets. Murdoch star Andrew Bolt wrote after the Nice terrorist attack in which at least thirty of the eighty-four people murdered were Muslims aged between four and seventy: ‘If our politicians will not…protect us from Islam,watch out for a civil war. Afrightened public will not put up with this for much longer and will defend themselves… God knows how soon non-Muslim vigilantes will themselves take up arms. Who could blame them…’. 

Government and media positions are amplified by research that perhaps unintentionally serves to normalise narratives about Muslim extremism, which in turn provides justification for the notion of ‘countering violent extremism’. With academic research, elected parliamentary representatives and mainstream media articulating a problem, there is little opportunity for effectively challenging dangerous discourses and actions. Fear arises in society at times of perceived threat, and this assuages the racist hostility that is being meted out to vulnerable groups. 

After 9/11 the prototype of the War on Terror shrieked at us across the media. For many commentators, this day in 2001 is the most significant marker of the rise of Islam as generalised enemy. The US-led ‘war’ became globalised via the West’s disproportionate military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which included an eager coalition that was joined by Australia. Lost lives, crippling casualties and decimated communities spawned the growth of ‘enemies of the West’ and the subsequent formation of Islamic State, with its global reach. As a response to ‘Islamist’ dangers in Australia and elsewhere, counter-terrorism legislation was passed with barely a murmur, and in the almost two decades since 9/11 excessive legislation that targets Muslims continues apace, with Australia’s anti-terrorism laws far outstripping those of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. As recently as May 2020, a Bill was introduced in Australia’s federal parliament to give security officials the power to question fourteen-year-old children, interfere with the right to legal advice and enable tracking of individuals without a warrant. In the post-9/11 years the global and local hold of state-centric Islamophobic laws and practices can be observed, despite the fact that Australia has not experienced anything parallel to the 2004 Madrid bombings, the 2005 London bombings or the coordinated Paris attacks of 2015. 

Ideologies from the political and public-policy spheres are the key driving force behind acceptance of CVE. In a November 2016 address to parliament, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull stated, ‘We need to better support our frontline professionals, including health professionals, to respond to Australians who may be at risk of radicalising towards violent extremism…[M]y Government…is at the forefront of regional efforts to combat terrorism and counter the destructive narratives of violent Islamist extremism’. 

Weak attempts were made to pretend that the CVE agenda was not focused overwhelmingly on Muslims. Minister Keenan explained on a February 2016 episode of Q&A that the inclusion of environmental activist ‘Karen’ in a government publication on violent extremism distributed to teachers was ‘an effort to…use other examples besides someone who might be undergoing a process of radicalisation. Well, Islamic radicalisation essentially’. 

The Department of Home Affairs website material on CVE describes ‘community leaders’ as well placed to identify those ‘radicalising or thinking about travelling to participate in a foreign conflict’. From 2014 until five months after a right-wing Australian terrorist massacred fifty-one Muslims in New Zealand, the home page of the government’s Living Safe Together website featured prominent pictures of women in hijabs, and tabs asking ‘What can you do?’ and ‘What can your community do?’ It declared that ‘leaders from diverse backgrounds have a strong interest and responsibility in addressing violent extremism’ and linked to a statement from Australia’s Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, in Arabic and English. The Living Safe Together home page has now removed the questions about what ‘your community’ can do and replaced the hijab pictures with an image of cut-out paper dolls holding hands, declaring itself to be an ‘initiative to protect our communities against all forms of violent extremism’. 

Australian national-security agencies are clear that they see Muslims as the major threat. In 2015, when foreign minister Julie Bishop refused to condemn government MP George Christensen for speaking at a right-wing Reclaim Australia rally, she said, ‘I don’t know anything about the organisation. I certainly haven’t been briefed on it. I’ve been briefed intensively and extensively on Islamic extremism and other threats to national security, but I can certainly say that the security forces in Australia are keeping a very close eye on any form of extremism’. Of 400 extremists being watched by authorities, she said, none were anti-Islam right-wingers. In 2016–17, ASIO’s annual report assessed far-right threats as minimal; they were not even mentioned in its 2017–18 report.  

After the 2018 murder of Sisto Malaspino in the Bourke Street Mall by a Muslim, Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed anger that some Muslim leaders refused to meet with him because he had declared that ‘Muslim religious communities’ ‘stick their head in the sand’ over terror. He told the media, 

we need to focus on what happened here, that is a man grew up in this country, and was radicalised with these hateful views and beliefs, and he didn’t get it from the postman. He didn’t get it from the police. He got it from the community he was living in and the people he was speaking to.  

But after Christchurch, no meeting was called of right-wing ‘community leaders’, and certainly not those politicians of Morrison’s own political persuasion, or representatives of the Murdoch media, who have engaged with and encouraged anti-Muslim, right-wing thinking. This is despite the Christchurch murderer’s connection with Australia—including the United Patriots Front, led by right-wing extremist Blair Cottrell, a man who suggested that Adolf Hitler’s picture should be displayed in classrooms. 

Although the nomenclature of the War on Terror has largely been displaced, insidious vestiges remain. Western governments introduced CVE crime-prevention programs between 2003 (United Kingdom) and 2010 (Australia). In Australia grants afforded to community-based groups were to empower, educate and divert youth deemed by authorities to be ‘at risk’, although ‘a risk’ is arguably more accurate. While many of these programs were worthwhile in and of themselves, many Muslim groups refused to be involved because they were being delivered only or predominantly to Muslims and were based on the assumption that the beneficiaries were potential terrorists. 

The training of caring professionals in contact with young people is stealthy. It includes social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses and psychologists—in short, just about anyone young people should be able to trust and turn to when they face difficulty—in order to detect and report signs of radicalisation in ‘community members’, a term we argue is code for Muslims. Despite the origins of CVE programs, many now deny that they focus on Muslims and say that they are equally concerned with all forms of extremism. But this is a falsehood that necessitates close inspection.  

Operationalising the lie: who benefits? 

The reach of CVE into civil society is of serious magnitude and causes injury to Muslim communities. It is legitimised by reputable professional associations and by those conducting research on CVE, which, like these associations, receives funding from government to justify expansion of the state’s ability to monitor Muslims. The participation of universities assists in community and professional uptake of programs, as academic research is seen as credible and ‘evidence based’.  

Under the banner of Living Safe Together, the Australian government has produced leaflets addressed to health and human-services practitioners on the topic of ‘Radicalisation to Violent Extremism’. With minor variations, these leaflets are branded for social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and psychologists. Although the targeting of Muslims is not overt, the leaflets reference the promotion of ‘religious goals’ by the potentially radicalised and ‘overseas events that harm their community, family or friends’. They suggest diverting clients from radicalisation by ‘involving respected leaders to provide guidance and solid grounding in their particular religious, political or ideological tradition’. How many would read that as inspiration to approach Peter Dutton to mentor a young Blair Cottrell rather than as a call for an imam to help a misguided Muslim youth? The attributions at the end of each leaflet are telling: ‘This fact sheet was developed by the Health Expert Advisory Group (under the auspices of the Australia–New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee—Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee) in partnership with [name of relevant professional association]’. Each fact sheet also provides a link to CVE training by application. 

Five professional associations—the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses, the Australian Association of Social Workers, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian Psychological Society, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists—are members of the Mental Health Professionals Network. The network scheduled a professional-development webinar entitled, ‘Mental illness, terrorism and grievance-fuelled violence: understanding the nexus’ for three days after the Christchurch massacre. The webinar was ‘funded by the Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee under the auspices of the Australia–New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee’. The webinar case study is Emir, who lives with his parents, Leyla and Umit, who are originally from Turkey (the population of which is 98 per cent Muslim), and has a sister, Ayesha. Emir takes up with ‘new friends from a local church’, which he tells his GP while dressed in combat clothes, and he prays five times a day. He plans to visit Turkey and ‘some friends in neighbouring countries’ whom he has met online through his church friends. The case study, saved online under the file name HomeAffairs_case_FINALV2, says it is ‘supported by the Department of Home Affairs and produced by the Mental Health Professionals Network’. 

If Australia’s CVE efforts are overwhelmingly targeted at Muslims, why is the government saying otherwise? In our opinion, one reason is to make the role these professionals are taking on as, effectively, citizen spies, palatable to groups that have traditionally seen themselves as supportive of marginalised young people. 

In 2016 and 2017, approximately 140 Australian government-school leadership teams (school principals, psychologists and welfare workers) that were deemed to have a higher level of expertise than teachers in dealing with complex issues underwent CVE training. According to Shandon Harris-Hogan, Kate Barelle and Debra Smith, all the training was ‘based upon the same definitions, models and underpinning concepts’, and was also used for counter-terrorism police. As the school leadership teams were trained in how to train their peers, representatives from the federal departments (Education and Training, and Attorney-General’s) that funded it, ‘along with other relevant counter-terrorism practitioners who provided information related to that jurisdiction’s reporting and referral processes’, also participated. 

There is no reason to believe that health and human-services professionals and teachers are less likely than others in the Australian community to hold anti-Muslim sentiment. It is highly unlikely that most of the thousands of teacher reports of possible terrorist behaviour to the United Kingdom’s CVE program Prevent were made without the teacher first discussing it with senior school personnel. In the United States, Ahmed Mohammad, whose English teacher thought a clock he had assembled looked like a bomb, was reported to the school principal before being handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed and taken to a juvenile detention centre. In 2015, a Muslim student who wore Islamic clothing to a free-dress day at Runcorn High, a government school in Brisbane, was asked by his teacher if he was trying to look like the 9/11 attackers and sent home by the principal for being inappropriately dressed. As Asim Qureshi  argues of the UK CVE program (discussed later in this article), through which children as young as four have been referred to by caring professionals for using common Arabic words, for adopting a headscarf and for drawing a ‘cooker bomb’ (later found to be a cucumber), applying the same standards to right-wing ideology would completely overwhelm the system: ‘Those who read The Sun or The Daily Mail’s invective against people of colour and immigrants would be flagged as a “cause for concern” for reading “extremist” material. Those who adopt the worldview of Melanie Phillips, Niall Ferguson, Michael Gove or Rod Liddle would similarly be highlighted as being “at risk”’. 

The problem for social work 

Social work’s moral compass is enshrined in a codified ethical framework that speaks to human rights and social justice. Redressing systemic and structural injustices is a key component of its mission. In professing this, we do not venerate social work, which has always been seen as inherently contradictory in its dual functions of ‘care and control’, ‘rescue and empowerment’, ‘challenge and conformity’. Social work has often been criticised for working at the behest of the state rather than for those it purports to serve. But the question for us is: when did a state-centric role come to dominate? The neoliberal turn towards the marketplace has resulted in an increasing trajectory of services delivered under state directive. The power of the dollar has silenced those who might otherwise be averse to harmful and flawed programs. 

CVE flies in the face of social-work ethics, which uphold human dignity and worth and culturally competent, safe and sensitive practice education, as enshrined in the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) Code of Ethics. Under the auspices of CVE, tenets that call on social work to mitigate the impacts of oppressive conditions on individuals’ lives are diminished. The shift to CVE, cast as prevention and safeguarding rather than intervention, was so subtle that it was barely noticed. The first indication of this conjoining of state and professional interests was when the AASW put out a call for social workers to be trained to deliver CVE programs and then for others to attend workshops across Australia. In 2018 and 2019, the AASW dispensed ‘Building Resilience and Preventing Radicalisation to Violent Extremism’ training to more than 600 social workers in Australia.  

We each attended one session, in Sydney and in Melbourne, where the trainers (social work private practitioners) worked from a manual developed for this purpose. An earlier version of the manual, developed with Queensland Police, included the statements: ‘the violent extremist ideology which presents the major threat to Australia is that perpetrated or inspired by terrorist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al Qa’ida (AQ) and other similar groups’; ‘for those involved, “life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience”’; and ‘membership of far-right groups has never been particularly high’. Despite the obvious clues as to who trainees should be concentrating on, the manual earnestly declares, ‘the information contained in this resource is ideologically neutral’. 

In the version used in our training sessions these intimations had been removed. But other more obtuse statements remained, for example, ‘A handful of Australian teenagers have been killed actively fighting in conflicts overseas, while a significant number have also travelled, or attempted to travel to conflict zones’. But even removing all the telling pointers to Muslims does not fix the problem. As we discovered in the training sessions, naive declarations of ideological neutrality (by trainers and the manual itself) or the inclusion of token examples of other forms of extremism cannot counter two decades of Western propaganda in which Muslims and terrorists have become synonymous in the minds of so many. 

When trainers asked social work participants what they thought of when they heard the words ‘violent extremism’, these were some of their answers: faith and radicalisation are intertwined; migration; different cultures; not just terror, mental health and cultural issues cross over; now the focus is on religious aspects; every religion has extremist elements; martyrdom can be a factor. 

This kind of training arguably legitimises suspicion of Muslims in the considerable number of people who already have such sentiments. Even in those who are not bigoted, the training subtly encourages people to report potential (Muslim) terrorists to authorities using contact details provided in the manual. This is presented as risk management to avoid the possibility of being blamed for inaction if an incident were to occur. A university administrator at one session commented that staff needed to raise an alert, despite universities traditionally being places for debate, because people need to be able to justify themselves if asked: What did you know? What did you do? 

So alarmed was one Muslim social worker, Lobna Yassine, about the training that she circulated a statement condemning it shortly after the Christchurch massacre. The statement was signed by forty social-work academics and practitioners in less than twenty-four hours. Expressing deep disappointment that a profession that prides itself on the inclusion of marginalised voices did not consult with those affected by the CVE package, she asked the AASW to reconsider its participation in a government program that was Islamophobic, anti-Muslim and inherently racist. Neither Lobna’s statement nor a meeting with the AASW initiated by the two authors of this article persuaded the peak social-work body of the harms caused through participation in CVE programs. Although there is an imperative to speak out against injustice, it may be somewhat risky, as the UK experience shows. There, Muslim professionals who have publicly condemned the Prevent program have fallen under suspicion themselves and been reported by colleagues. Muslim psychiatrists and psychologists have reported feeling upset, angry and unsafe.  

The AASW told us that one of the reasons it accepted funding to deliver CVE training was to diversify its income stream. Social work is not alone, as the Living Safe Together fact sheets reveal. Nonetheless, the AASW is the only professional peak body to have contracted with government to deliver CVE training to its members. Prevention of harm is core business for social work, and thinly veiled preventative programs that are part of the state’s counterterrorism apparatus should have no part in it. CVE has the potential to cause harm to Muslims, reduce trust in the professions and contribute to stigmatisation. 

A further word on research 

Scholarly work on extremism has focused overwhelmingly on Muslims. A 2016 review of the literature and programs on social cohesion, community resilience and violent extremism noted that the term radicalisation ‘was rarely used in relation to violent extremism or terrorism prior to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington’. This echoes a 2011 review that found that academic literature ‘on violent extremism, radicalisation, terrorism, countering violent extremism and social cohesion largely focuses on Muslim communities’. 

After Christchurch, some academics working in the CVE field admitted that government had been concentrating predominantly on Islamist rather than right-wing extremism and welcomed what they expected would be a major change of focus. However, ASIO boss Duncan Lewis soon put that notion to rest, telling a Senate hearing, ‘The events of Christchurch…don’t really change the calculus…There’s no early evidence to me that there will be some dramatic reset around this’. 

Universities were accepted as potential suppliers of CVE services to the federal government, alongside myriad public-relations, advertising, training and risk-management firms. Some individuals who studied or worked at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, where Australia’s CVE training model was developed, have set up private businesses and won hefty amounts of government funding. 

In the United Kingdom, Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills and David Miller argue that academics have responsibilities both to the broader community and to ensure the integrity of research. These can be impacted by the ability of governments to ‘control and influence the production of social scientific knowledge in its interests…by funding, directing and influencing research, and by restricting access to…information’. The case of the CVE schools booklet that included ‘Karen’ the environmental activist is a case in point. Two academics who worked on the federal-government report on which the booklet was based told the Guardian that it was not meant for use in schools. Professor Peter Lentini said, ‘This was geared towards civil servants and general law enforcement… But you produce a report and the client does whatever they want with it’.  

The academic work on which Australian CVE programs training caring professionals are based is the so-called Behavioural Indicators Model, which was developed at Monash University by its Global Terrorism Research Centre in partnership with Victoria Police, Corrections Victoria, the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, and the Australian Federal Police. Its work concentrated ‘primarily on ‘jihadist terrorism’, and most of its peer-reviewed publications, media coverage and conference presentations were on Islamic terrorism. The CVE training based on this research and delivered to social workers, teachers, psychologists and other members of the caring professions contains numerous thinly disguised pointers to its intended targets. 

Caution ahead: be alert and alarmed 

Through a process of devolution away from but steered by government, the intent—targeting Muslim men and youth and seeing them as deviant and value-divergent—is whitewashed via spurious narratives that are fulfilled by allotting large sums of money to researchers and service providers. These monetary rewards reinforce the idea of Muslims as extremist and a threat both to lives within the nation and to Western values generally. National-security measures are dispensed through impenetrable doors. 

When governments redirect their attention away from the COVID-19 pandemic, we anticipate the extension of CVE programs, especially by governments adapting overseas programs, where the involvement of the human services is even more entrenched. The one to watch is the UK Prevent program, in which,  unlike in Australia, professions, including social work, are mandated to undertake training and report suspicion. 

A major component of Prevent is the training of teachers to spot terrorists, which has resulted in a focus on Muslims and a fracture in the trust relationship between teachers and students. Indeed, in 2017–18, 62 per cent of the 841 formal referrals of Muslim students aged under fifteen to the Prevent program—93 per cent of which were later deemed inappropriate—came from their teachers. This referral data is retained even if the referral was inappropriate. At a Melbourne seminar on CVE, UK professor Paul Thomas said that many more informal referrals are made. The high proportion of inappropriate formal referrals reflects prejudice, risk aversion, a lack of expertise or a combination of these factors. While a lack of expertise and risk aversion are easy to acknowledge, a wilful blindness seems to affect the consideration of prejudice in school staff (leaders or not) and other professionals. 

Although nearly all reports to Prevent were found not to warrant intervention, the program has moved ahead in leaps and bounds since its introduction in 2006. Although Australia has spent an extraordinary $53 million on CVE between 2018 and 2019, this fades into insignificance when compared to Prevent’s £186.760 million in expenditure between 2008 and 2011. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Islamic extremism has barely featured in the political, media or community domains. But some right-wing extremists and politicians globally have used the pandemic to promote the demonisation of Muslims and other minorities. Given that the high unemployment and decreased living standards caused by COVID-19 will provide fertile ground for scapegoating, it may become even harder for professionals and researchers to view CVE programs through a critical lens, particularly when their funding remains perilous. 

Image: Fiona Hall from Afraid Cascade


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Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW 2010), Code of Ethics, Australian Association of Social Workers, Canberra. 

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About the authors

Linda Briskman

Linda Briskman holds the Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work at Western Sydney University. Her research and activism focuses on Indigenous rights, asylum-seeker rights and challenging Islamophobia. She publishes extensively in each area.

More articles by Linda Briskman

Susie Latham

Susie Latham is a Melbourne writer and an adjunct fellow with the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University. She co-authored Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia and has been published in New Matilda, Crikey and The Age.

More articles by Susie Latham

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