TV

No, An Audience Member DIDN’T Urge Australian Muslims To Join ISIS On ‘Q&A’

Hello context, my old friend.

The great flaming merry-go-round of garbage that is Australia’s “public debate” over national security and terrorism was given an almighty spin by Q&A this week, after a heated back-and-forth between government minister Steve Ciobo and Zaky Mallah, a young Muslim man in the audience, resulted in this:

You’ve no doubt seen news of that encounter by now, most likely in the form of screamy, breathless headlines like these, proclaiming that a guy “urged Australian Muslims to join ISIS” on live TV.

Get in the bin. All of you, right now, in the bin.

There’s only one problem: Zaky Mallah did not encourage anyone to join ISIS, or say that people were justified in doing so, and every article or person that says he did is wrong. All those headlines have since either been substantively rewritten or taken down altogether following complaints from readers (except Pedestrian’s, because  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

So, what happened?

The remarks came at the end of a longer discussion about the government’s proposed new laws to give the Immigration Minister the power to strip citizenship from people suspected of terrorism. Ciobo, unsurprisingly, argued that the government needs such powers to keep people safe, while almost everyone else — including Mallah — questioned why such a weighty decision couldn’t be made in a court of law with due legal process.

Originally accused of plotting a terror attack in Sydney (a charge on which he was later acquitted), Mallah was jailed in 2005 at the age of 21 for threatening to kill ASIO officials, and spent two years in Goulburn’s notorious Supermax prison before his trial. Mallah asked the panel how he may have been treated back then if a minister — rather than the courts — had decided the outcome of his detention. The hypothetical prompted a heated response from Ciobo: he told Mallah he’d “be pleased to be part of a government that would say you are out of the country.”

Mallah responded with the quote that has everyone so het up: “The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the Australian community, tonight, to leave and go to Syria and fight for ISIL because of ministers like him.” Taken in context, Mallah was accusing Ciobo and the government of further antagonising young Muslims who are already feeling alienated and estranged from Australian society, potentially making them more susceptible to the message of groups like ISIS. It was poorly articulated and inflammatory, but live TV can be like that — put a microphone in front of someone and get them angry, and chances are they’ll say something that could be easily misconstrued. In a column for the Guardian today, Mallah has clarified what he meant, saying that “Ciobo’s comments play into the justification many Muslims feel for joining Isis,” and “the so-called Islamic State would be extremely happy to hear what Steve Ciobo had to say on Q&A” as “it feeds into their recruitment propaganda.”

Since last night’s episode, the ABC has come under fire for allowing Mallah on TV at all, including from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull; in turn, the network quickly apologised for doing so. In a statement released this morning, ABC Director of Television Richard Finlayson said Q&A made “an error of judgement in allowing Zaky Mallah to join the audience and ask a question,” and promised that “the circumstances of Mr Mallah’s appearance will be reviewed by the ABC.” Letting a former terror suspect on live TV is a highly questionable decision, and one probably made to get this kind of headline-generating moment in the first place, but in fairness to the ABC, Mallah has made numerous media appearances to discuss these issues before. Earlier this year, he appeared on The Project, where he explicitly urged young Muslims not to join ISIS, and called those who did “idiots”. 

Which is not to say that Mallah’s opinions are worth listening to, let alone aired on Q&A — he was convicted of threatening to kill people, and based on his Twitter presence and YouTube channel, he’s something of a notorious troll. Whether he’s making horrific rape jokes about media commentators or putting up rambling videos, it’s clear this guy doesn’t deserve a platform in general. zaky jenkins

Worst of all, though, he’s done a great job playing right into the government’s hands by muddying the waters around the larger debate around civil rights versus “national security”. And it’s that larger debate that’s going unheard while this plays out.

We have legal processes for determining whether someone is guilty of a crime and what their punishment should be, even if that crime is something like murder or the threat of it — and the rule of law operates on the principle that our personal abhorrence of an illegal act and eagerness to see someone come to justice for it doesn’t justify throwing those processes out the window. The government is arguing that in these circumstances, the rule of law should come second to people’s safety, and many, many people disagree with them — on another Q&A episode earlier this year, journalist Peter Greste warned of “slipping into the trap of accepting terrorism as an excuse for all sorts of controls that we wouldn’t, under other circumstances.”

But predictably, that debate has been drowned out in the noise of people losing their minds after skimming a headline with the phrases “Q&A” and “join ISIS” in it; Liberal backbencher Alex Hawke has accused the ABC of “a form of sedition” in giving Mallah airtime, and the #qanda hashtag is now a cesspit of people accusing the ABC and government critics of supporting terrorism. Unbelievably, the Prime Minister has even openly asked the ABC, “Whose side are you on?”

The hysteria around this incident is just another example of how we’re incapable of pulling our collective thumbs out of our collective mouths and acting like grown-ups within ten miles of whatever the government has deemed a “national security” issue. Our government is seriously trying to suspend the rule of law, as well as a host of other rights we’ve taken for granted for generations, and all it takes to distract us is a debacle like this. When an idiot in a marijuana-leaf snapback mouthing off is invoked to justify taking away fundamental democratic freedoms, we’ve got far bigger problems than we realise.