Australia finds itself in a complex and constantly changing environment of internal security. In 2020, Australia’s Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) deputy director-general Heather Cook warned the Australian Parliament’s Joint Intelligence and Security Committee that Covid-19 had seen the rise in radicalization as far-right groups used lockdowns to recruit members . Heather Cook went so far as to say that 40 percent of the organization’s counter-terrorism was related to right-wing extremism. With right-wing extremism being such a big part of the organization’s work in 2020, some confusion could be forgiven when ASIO Director General Mike Burges released his second annual threat assessment on March 17th, 2021, revealing that the organization would change the way it relates to extremism. ASIO refrains from using the terms “right-wing” or “Islamic” and instead refers to the main motivation of the individual or group: “ideological” or “religiously” motivated violent extremism.
The reasons given for switching to the use of these new terms are: “The current labels are no longer appropriate. They no longer adequately describe the phenomena we see. “And ASIO is aware of how issues are ‘framed’ and how they are discussed by policy makers, the media and the public. Ultimately, ASIO adds to the complexity of the current extremist threats and the motivations of the people who carry them out: “When you think about the proliferation of violent groups joining different political ideologies, it does not help to classify such groups as simple. ‘Extreme left wing’ and ‘extreme right wing’. “
The stated reason is not that the terms “right” and “Islamic” are completely withdrawn and replaced by this new terminology. Instead, they stay in the ASIO lexicon and are used when a particular threat needs to be described. As described by ASIO, there is the creation and provision of umbrella terms that target the complexities of contemporary extremist threats and specific terms that stand below them and should be used when needed. There is a problem here.
This turning away from the use of “right-wing” or “Islamic” extremism in favor of overarching terms is generally positive for the national security discourse. What can happen is destigmatization of minority groups and legitimate conversation that does not lead to defamation. This departure from specific terminology is also less gender specific, or at least it may not lead to debates over definitions that ultimately revolve around the gender and age of those who are radicalized and engage in extremist acts.
Ensure that discussions on extremism and radicalization are particularly important as research on the intersection of gender and populist movements continues to focus on the “role of men and masculinity”. This is particularly problematic, for example, when looking at the Q-Anon conspiracy, which has proven dangerous and can radicalize a variety of people, with a large number of supporters being female. Similarly, women have proven to be effective online recruiters for the Islamic State Group (IS / ISIS / ISIL / DAESH). The ASIO’s move away from specific extremist terms would make it possible to discuss the roles of women, youth and specific issues, thus enabling ever more diverse and tailored political approaches to be formulated. However, the preference for over-the-counter terms has its disadvantages: They disguise and politicize extremists and their actions.
An umbrella term is inherently broad. Mike Burges also mentions this when speaking about the complexities of extremism ASIO faces. Left and right-wing extremism sees a growing number of members who “fear a collapse of society or a particular social or economic complaint or conspiracy” or are associated with an “incel” ideology. These are not necessarily politically left, right or even properly categorizable, but they are ideologically motivated. The umbrella of “ideologically motivated violent extremism” thus encompasses a wide and varied range of ideologies that, while helpful for constructive discourse, can lead to a particular extremist threat being masked.
If and when certain terms are used in national security discourse, their use will carry more political and media weight. Since ASIO has found it necessary to be specific and draw attention to groups, it means that the media spotlight can be focused while the changes in terminology previously have spread that spotlight. While both situations have their advantages and disadvantages, the creation and provision of umbrella terms changes the internal calculation for ASIO and creates a “threshold for use” of certain extremist terms.
Here, too, a political element plays a role. ASIO was previously criticized by Liberal Party Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells for using the term “far-right”, claiming he was “offended”. Similarly, Interior Secretary Peter Dutton, whose portfolio of ministers oversees the ASIO, was previously criticized for lack of semantic nuances in discussing Islamic, left and right extremism, having previously linked Islamic extremism to left extremism. He has also shown a more general trend of downplaying the threat of right-wing extremism while increasing the threat threat of left-wing extremism.
The shift to generic terms as preferred terms plays a role in a political trend that sees the downplaying of right-wing extremism and the decision not to reject a certain nuance within the national security discourse. This situation can mean a shift in political calculation within ASIO when national security threats are discussed without using a specific term for one type of extremism where it would for another, for fear of political frowns. Such hesitation has been seen throughout the Trump administration. President Trump often dismissed the threat of right-wing extremism, which resulted in his Department of Justice persecuting right-wing extremists differently, often less harshly than they could have been than other types of extremism.
There is no doubt that ASIO’s move to change terminology to address complexity and turn the discourses away from defamation of certain groups is a positive move. Creating space in a discourse enables conversation and constructive action. Nonetheless, this change can mask certain types of violent extremism while highlighting certain violent extremist groups that defamation can be politically beneficial.
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