The Australian Government has just announced that more than $22 million will be spent on battling the radicalisation of young Muslims in Australia. But just how effective are these counter-terrorism programs?

Critics of the Federal Government's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy have highlighted problems that have emerged after nine years of CVE community engagement and intervention. One concern is that CVE policies have the potential to divide Muslim communities because they embrace questionable notions of what it means to be 'moderate' or a 'radical', preferencing and seeking to 'deputise' the former in order to keep the latter in check.


Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney. (Flickr/Asem.)

Community critics of the CVE strategy also emphasise that law enforcement leadership of CVE outreach programs is problematic, firstly because it indicates that the Government has 'securitised' the Muslim community, and secondly because such outreach strategies have the tendency to be experienced as an extra layer of unwanted scrutiny on a community of predominantly law-abiding citizens. These issues have the potential to erode trust between law enforcement and Muslim communities. Because positive relations between communities and law enforcement are so central public safety, the Government has an interest in carefully measuring the impact of its CVE activities on its target communities.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been at the forefront of proactive community engagement responses to CVE since establishing its Islamic Liaison Team in 2007. The team also assisted in contributing to national policy initiatives as part of the Federal Government's national CVE strategy. The philosophy behind the AFP's initiative reflected CVE trends emerging at that time. The terrorist threat, it was argued, could be reduced by building 'positive, trusting and cohesive relationships with the community, (which) over time will help increase (the community's) resilience to extremist behaviours by creating greater levels of social cohesion.' Within this strategy, 'at-risk' groups could be targeted with engagement programs to 'promote social inclusion.'

But some members of the community argue that this kind of policy has a tendency to reinforce the notion 'that the entire Muslim community is to blame for its few bad apples.' As a result, the current CVE model of engagement has begun to be viewed with suspicion by the community, with some leaders calling on the community to boycott participation in AFP initiatives such as the Iftar dinner and Eid festivals. But, in the words of one AFP officer, the AFP are 'damned if they do, and damned if they don't' continue such programs. The AFP executive is convinced that community engagement is central to CVE, and parts of the Muslim community also expect that the Government will help them to provide 'social support' to their young people to prevent them from radicalising, despite others in the community criticising such programs.

Beside the potential to alienate the Muslim community, the effectiveness of CVE community engagement measures as a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy has not been properly measured. As Prof Basia Spalek points out, 'there has been little empirical investigation of community-based approaches within a CT context...As a result, there is little empirical understanding of...whether (these types of policies) may clash and serve to undermine each other.'.

The perception from some in the Muslim community that the Government's counter-terrorism approach treats Muslim communities not as partners but as 'suspect' presents significant challenges, especially because of the potential this uninvited scrutiny has to create another level of alienation in young people. The latest policy announcement, which devotes $22 million to the Muslim community's presumed social disadvantage by helping new Muslim migrants find education and employment, also ignores the reality that the causal link between socio-economic troubles and radicalisation is tenuous.

There is much international literature detailing the importance of reducing risks of alienation and radicalisation through redressing policies seen as racially or religiously targeting one community. Studies have come from the US, UK as well as Australia. Yet the focus on the Muslim community by CVE strategies helps perpetuate 'essentialist stereotypes of terrorists as religious Muslims,' and leave the community feeling over-scrutinised.

The prime directive of CVE policy is 'first, to do no harm'. To date, there is little evidence that Australian CVE policy has been informed by this directive. Nor is there an indication our policy-makers have assessed the effectiveness of the CVE programs that have been in operation for the past nine years. The Australian Government needs to take on lessons from US and the UK which show that, in order to reduce the terrorist threat, we need counter-terrorism policies that don't alienate those most vulnerable to radicalisation.