Sowing the sociological seeds of discontent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am

Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef has flown home, leaving behind him a growing scandal in Australia in the wake of an astonishing legal and political soap opera that followed the attempted terror attacks in London and Glasgow in late June. The long-term legacy of his case for Australia is likely to prove significant: politically, legally and - most importantly - sociologically.

The comedy of errors began with the hospital registrar being arrested and charged on July 2 with 'reckless support' for terrorism, after his mobile phone's SIM card was found by the British police in the possession of two cousins accused in connection with the failed London/Glasgow terror attacks. On July 16, he was released on bail, only to be immediately taken into custody again after Australian Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews cancelled his work visa.

However, the case unravelled quickly, as it emerged prosecutors had wrongly alleged in court that the SIM card had been found in the Jeep that crashed into Glasgow Airport, and that Dr Haneef had lived with his terror suspect cousins Sabeel and Kafeel Ahmed in Britain.

Amid growing public pressure, Australia's director of public prosecutions reviewed the evidence last Friday and ordered Dr Haneef's immediate release. The Australian government is, however, refusing to reinstate his visa.

The government's continued determination to question Dr Haneef's character and activities, even after his release, has ensured the case remains highly controversial, and has raised profound questions about Australia's legal system and political interference - particularly in an election year. Whether this is true or not, the sociological consequences among the local Muslim population could, in time, prove very damaging.

Britain - a society with distinct parallels with Australia - has already seen the emergence of a set of 'homegrown' bombers. And it is clear that a lack of a sense of belonging to their country of birth has taken hold among a significant minority of British Muslims.

It is also clear that al-Qaeda, and other militant Islamists, aim to subdivide Muslims from wider society by trying to fashion a sociological reality that forces them to choose between Islam and their country of residence. Radicals are sure that, if forced to choose, Muslims will opt for Islam.

The Haneef case is a perfect tool for just such a purpose, and radical elements within Australia are already using it to sow discontent. The Australian government is well aware of the sociological backdrop to the British attacks and does not want a similar reality on its own soil. Canberra must ensure that such perceptions are quickly dispelled and that the case is not used as a recruiting factor for extremists.

It is a desire that moderate Muslims in Australia will share, and long-term co-operation between the government and the Muslim community will be the key to limiting extremists' ability to abuse such cases. The scandal is a salient warning to all.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle-East specialist, lectures at New York University in London