Australian Muslims Wary of Antiterror Initiatives

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Australia—After Australian police last week said that they foiled an imminent Islamic State-linked plot to behead members of the public in central Sydney, Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised the country would emerge stronger from the terrorism scare.

However, a push for new antiterror laws and calls from a handful of his party’s lawmakers for a ban on women wearing the head-to-toe-covering burqa have spurred some Australian Muslim leaders to question Mr. Abbott’s motives.

They say that the conservative government may be exploiting the nation’s increased edginess to justify greater police powers, boost support for Australia’s deepening military engagement in the Middle East, and bolster Mr. Abbott’s own flagging popularity.

“It’s as simple as the government exploiting people’s fears and emotions in order to appear tough on terrorism,” said Randa Abdel-Fattah, a prominent Muslim-community spokeswoman, in a phone interview from Sydney. “I see the government is acting irresponsibly in failing to recognize we are facing a powder keg.”

Like others in the country’s large Muslim community, Ms. Abdel-Fattah accuses the prime minister and police of using last week’s raids—in which hundreds of police swooped on neighborhoods in Sydney and Brisbane—to help rally support for new counterterrorism legislation, as well as for Mr. Abbott’s decision to send warplanes and special forces to take part in airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq.

The government rejects such allegations. “The authorities knew there was a very high likelihood that these men were going to be taking action that would be random acts of violence on the streets of Sydney, including performing a demonstration execution,” said Justice Minister Michael Keenan, referring the plot police say was meant to demonstrate the reach of Islamic State. “The Australian people would fully expect the authorities would respond in force.”

Since the raids were carried out, mosques in several cities have been defaced and a number of threats of violence against Muslims have been reported in the local news media. “There has been a huge surge in Islamophobic incidents since the media spectacle surrounding the terror raids,” Ms. Abdel-Fattah said.

Tensions escalated this week after police in Victoria state shot dead an 18-year-old Muslim youth who allegedly stabbed two counterterrorism officers after being called in for questioning.

The new antiterror laws introduced in Parliament this week will, if passed, allow the foreign minister to designate certain regions of the world as “no-go zones,” from which returning citizens would need to prove they hadn’t been engaged in terrorist activity.

Since unveiling the counterterror laws, support for Mr. Abbott’s government has jumped to within two points of the Labor opposition, leaving it trailing by 51% to 49% according to one recent opinion poll.

In further planned legislation, the government will seek Parliament’s endorsement for new data-retention powers, where communications companies would be forced to keep a record of the email and Internet usage of Australians for two years to help investigate criminal and security threats. The plans have already drawn criticism from a range of privacy advocates.

The proposed legislation—accompanied by a 630 million Australian dollars (US$553.6 million) boost for the nation’s spy agencies—would also make it simpler for authorities, including police, to detain terror suspects and search their homes.

Australia’s domestic spy agency estimates that around 60 Australians are fighting in Syria and Iraq, while 20 others have already returned home after doing so. Around 100 are thought to be actively supporting Islamic State and other overseas radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra through funding or travel assistance for would-be fighters.

The President of the Australian Imams Council, Sheik Abdul Azim, on Friday called for calm and urged Muslim youths to work with police and the government on combating the allure of Islamic State and similar groups in Syria and Iraq.

For his part, Mr. Abbott has urged Australians to show unity, while warning voters that for some time the balance between freedom and security may have to shift. Even within the Labor opposition, there is a belief that the threat of radicalization and a terrorist attack in Australia is real and growing since the start of the Syria conflict three years ago.

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