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Is Our Fear Of The 'Brides Of ISIS' Justified?

I am the Australian son of Egyptian migrants.

As I've watched debate unfold over the 'Brides of ISIS' -- the Australian ex-patriot mothers and children trapped in Syria -- and Syrian refugees generally, my deep uncertainties about Australian identity have been unearthed.

A group of 66 Australians -- 20 women and 44 children -- are being held in a squalid camp of more than 70,000 family members of ISIS fighters, and many of them want to come back home. Our response serves as a litmus test, and what it reveals is not only a concern about national security but a deeper, underlying discourse of fear and resentment towards 'the other'.

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Australian women and children in Syrian ISIS camps "are all innocents", said the father of one woman who was the victim of "grooming or trickery" when she went to the wartorn region.

The challenge of capturing and re-integrating these Australians is reason enough not to rescue them, or so the argument goes. While yes, national security is important, I’m not convinced that the abandonment of these women and children is necessarily the best course for our nation.

‘They knew what they were getting into when they went there,' many argue -- even my own father.  It's a sentiment that was echoed by Peter Dutton in Canberra.

A group of 66 Australians, 20 women and 44 children are being held in a squalid camp of more than 70,000 family members of ISIS fighters, and many of them want to come back home. (Image: Getty)

“Parents, mothers and fathers, have made a decision to take children into a theatre of war,” the Home Affairs Minister said. “They’ve been fighting in the name of an evil organization, and there are consequences.”

It seems the country would agree. A recent Newspoll found 59 percent of Australians don't want the ISIS prisoners to return to our shores, with only 36 percent in favour.

*****

In 1967 my dad flew from Egypt to Australia, with my teta and gidoo, my two aunts and my uncle.

My father’s house in Egypt’s Port Said was bombed in the Arab-Israeli War of Attrition. When he came to Sydney for a fresh start, he was met with frequent work opportunities: mainly at small businesses and factories in the inner-city.

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Though it was a difficult transition, he was treated with a relative openness, encouraged by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s repeal of the racist White Australia Policy in 1973.

My father’s house in Egypt’s Port Said was bombed in the Arab-Israeli War of Attrition. (Image: In 1967, a truck full of captured Egyptian soldiers meets a convoy of Israeli troops near El Arish, Egypt. Credit: Getty)

Yet that spirit of openness is now being eroded. You can see it in our failure to act: Australia takes in disproportionately low numbers of refugees for a nation of its size and resources.  You can also see it in the tone of our conversations, underpinned by fear and resentment, about the return of ISIS defectors.

My family is Christian (Coptic) Egyptian, but we come from a diverse community of Muslim and Christian migrants, with whom we socialise and share cultural events. Our sense of national identity is not cut and dry. A recent Australia Talks National Survey found that while ‘Respecting Australia’s institutions and laws’ meant the most to respondents' sense of national identity, it was only slightly more important than much more subjective notions like ‘Feeling Australian’.

My parents were part of a wave that made Australia more multicultural and economically prosperous, and enhanced the richness and sophistication of our society.

Sydney welcomed my dad and his family in 1967 after their home in Egypt was bombed. (Image: Youtube)

“We had no housing commissions at all: people would buy their own homes,” said my father, an Arab of swarthy appearance and intense manner who speaks fondly of his time as a young man in Sydney.

“We arrived and worked straight away, there was no such thing as Centrelink or Government handouts!”

*****

In Australia, a series of immigration ministers, particularly Philip Ruddock, who served for five years in the role under the Howard administration, have spoken of migration in clear, binary terms: of the ‘right way’ and the ‘wrong way’ to enter a country, of ‘legitimate migrants’ and of ‘queue jumpers’.

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In previous years, Australia has opened itself up to refugees from Vietnam and southern Asia, migrants escaping the economic austerity of the 1950s from Italy, Greece, Poland, Serbia and other eastern European countries, migrants from South America fleeing dictatorships, and migrants from the Middle East. A report from the Migration Institute of Australia found that the intake of migrants increases the national GDP.

It is in this spirit that Syrian refugees escaping a heinous war should be brought to our country: a spirit of openness, courage and hope.

By following the courageous lead of countries like Germany and Canada, whose intake of Syrian refugees far exceeds our own, we could be a more diverse, more responsible and more inclusive nation.

Since emphatically opening its doors, Germany has become a success story.  Refugees welcomed in 2015 are already making great contributions to their new home -- last year, 35 percent of them had secured a job, up from 20 percent in 2017. Similarly, in Canada, refugees are beginning to find employment and to integrate into society.

Alan Ramadan, a refugee from Syria who came to Germany in 2012, attends a job training program as an industrial mechanic in Hanover. (Image: Getty)

As for the more contentious issue of the families of ISIS, there's a good argument for us to intervene. Apart from it being the compassionate thing to do, some theorists like Lydia Khalil, a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, think the risk of further radicalisation means Australia should rescue the women now instead of leaving them in Syria. The very presence of the women, Khalil says, facilitates the continued existence of ISIS.

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"The choice of whether to repatriate foreign fighter women, therefore, is a choice between bad and worse," she writes. "Despite the risks that female IS supporters pose upon their return to Australian soil, these are on balance outweighed by the risks of not repatriating them.

"They should be returned to their countries of origin to be tried, potentially convicted, monitored and possibly rehabilitated."

When it comes to Syrian refugees, Australia's spirit of openness is now being eroded. (Image: Getty)

Australia may also have a constitutional responsibility to do just that.

*****

My dad recently told me, “I don’t think of myself as completely Australian. I see myself as Australian with Egyptian roots.”

Even though I was born in Australia, I too don’t feel completely Australian. This country was built on migration, and there is no single, clear national narrative for me to identify with. We are all, to some extent, hybrids.

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It’s been going on since 2010.

I can’t help thinking that if we had more inclusive, holistic vision of ourselves as a nation --  one based on our being a nation of migrants, of many religions and many viewpoints -- we wouldn’t even have to ask the obvious question of whether it was a good thing to increase our refugee intake. We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about the outsider.

The unexpected thing is that by opening ourselves up a little, letting the outsider in and challenging ourselves to stay compassionate, we might all end up feeling a bit more Australian.