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Australia must not lose the war within over religion, ideology and politics

Autor: Chip Le Grand

Early on Tuesday morning, Mottel Gestetner awoke to distressing news. Sometime during the night, a mural at a prominent Melbourne intersection carrying a “Bring Them Home Now” message for Israelis held hostage by Hamas had been crudely painted over.

Gestetner wasn’t offended by the fresh “Free Palestine” message daubed in black, white and red paint. As the Jewish business manager explains, he supports a free Palestine, especially one free from the tyranny of Hamas.

The freshly painted sign conceals a tribute to Israeli hostages that was created in the heart of Melbourne’s Jewish community.

The freshly painted sign conceals a tribute to Israeli hostages that was created in the heart of Melbourne’s Jewish community.

Yet he is dismayed that whoever painted the sign had no apparent compunction erasing the faces of women and children who are either dead or, at best, living through a horrific ordeal. The location of the late-night patch-over, the corner of St Kilda Road and Carlisle Street, is in the heart of Melbourne’s bagel belt.

“It is not the message, it is the place,” Gestetner says. “It was pasted over a community effort to come together.”

In the western Sydney suburb of Wakeley, an Assyrian Orthodox bishop was ambushed on Monday night at his pulpit and stabbed multiple times, allegedly by a Muslim youth, in what NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb has designated a terror attack. She said she believed there were elements of religiously motivated extremism.

The attack triggered a riot, with parishioners of the Christ Good Shepherd Church turning violently on police. At one point the mob threatened to march on Lakemba, the centre of Sydney’s Muslim community.

The imam of the Lakemba Mosque, Jamal-Ud–Din El-Kiki, spoke of the growing unease. “We’re very tense. We’re concerned about how this will pan out.”

Parishioners confront police after the stabbing of Assyrian Orthodox bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel.

Parishioners confront police after the stabbing of Assyrian Orthodox bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel.Credit: Wolter Peeters

Assyrian Christians, like Jews and many Australian Muslims, are a people displaced by war, hatreds and persecution. In 2015, when Islamic State was rampaging through Syria and Iraq, the Australian government offered more than 4000 Assyrians sanctuary here through a special refugee intake.

Those who came here assumed their adopted country would be a safe place of worship. Reverend Sargon Abraham, an Assyrian Christian minister in Melbourne’s north, told ABC Radio’s Raf Epstein: “We are so, so sorry to see these things happening in Australia.”

The Wakeley attack, coming so soon after the murders at Bondi Junction, invites the conclusion that Sydney is a city, quite literally, on a knife’s edge. There are deeper ructions that connect what we witnessed in Sydney on Monday night and what we awoke to in Melbourne.

While there is an enormous difference between spilling blood and paint, both episodes reflect a radical intolerance for political, ideological and religious differences.

Businessman Mottel Gestetner (right) and deputy Victorian Liberal leader David Southwick unveiled the tribute to Israeli hostages on Sunday.

Businessman Mottel Gestetner (right) and deputy Victorian Liberal leader David Southwick unveiled the tribute to Israeli hostages on Sunday.

Deakin University professor Greg Barton, an expert on terrorism and extremism, likens this rising intolerance to climate change and what happened in Wakeley to a major storm. He says it is difficult to show causation between one and the other but notes that since October 7, “there is a lot of energy going into the system”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declared on Tuesday that there is no place for violence in our community. Although well intended, it is a trite statement that denies the corrosive forces unleashed through Australia’s largest cities.

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess warned this year of the risk of lone-wolf terror attacks.

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess warned this year of the risk of lone-wolf terror attacks.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

As ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have both observed in recent speeches, there is indeed a place where violence dwells in our community. Since October 7, that place has been growing.

Burgess noted in his agency’s annual threat assessment that the war in Gaza, a conflict threatening to escalate into direct military confrontation between two unofficial nuclear powers in Israel and Iran, is resonating here with troubling implications.

“We have seen heightened community tensions that have translated into some incidents of violence connected to protest activity,” he said. “We have also observed an increase in rhetoric encouraging violence in response to the conflict. Hateful rhetoric has targeted Israel and the Jewish community, as well as Muslim and Palestinian communities.”

Burgess said ASIO was particularly concerned about the risk of lone actors, with easy access to weapons – such as a kitchen knife – and inspired by religious or ideological motivations, carrying out terrorist attacks without having been detected by police or national security agencies.

He concluded with disturbing prescience: “All this means there is the realistic possibility of a terrorist attack or attack planning in the next 12 months.”

Wong’s recent address to the ANU National Security College was heavily scrutinised for an idea she floated about recognising Palestinian statehood as a first step towards peace between the occupied territories and Israel. Less remarked upon was what Wong had to say about us.

“It is disheartening to witness the number of Australians that increasingly struggle to discuss this conflict without condemning their fellow citizens,” she said. “This imperils our democracy.

“We have to keep listening to each other; respecting each other. But I have heard language demonstrating that people are losing respect for each other’s humanity. Blatant antisemitism and Islamophobia.

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“We gain nothing by reproducing the conflict here, by talking past each other, by shouting each other down and by insisting on respective absolutes.”

Barton observes that behind every lone attacker you normally find a circle of malignant friends, family members or influencers who have put them up to it. They are the present focus of counter-terrorism investigators.

It is harder to know what prompts someone, armed with a paint brush and a tin in the middle of the night, to black out the image of a child held captive in an age-old conflict. This is the war we are losing: the war within.

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