MELBOURNE, Australia — Shamaila Saeed sat in a circle with a dozen women and teenage girls, discussing passages from the Quran. It was a typical afternoon in the women’s section of the IEWAD mosque and community center in Narre Warren, a southeastern suburb of Melbourne.
The tranquil setting seemed a world apart from the police station parking lot in nearby Endeavor Hills, where five days earlier Abdul Numan Haider, an 18-year-old Muslim from Narre Warren, had stabbed two counter-terrorism officers with a knife before they shot and killed him.
The attack was the latest in a series of events that has left many Australians in fear of Islamic State-sanctioned violence within their own communities. Earlier in September, the government said massive police raids in Sydney and Brisbane thwarted IS-backed plans of a public beheading.
“Regrettably for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott cautioned parliament after the police raids.
A battle is now being waged between the Australian government’s desire to ramp up national security measures and a counter effort to safeguard civil liberties. While government officials say the new legislation is necessary to protect citizens, critics accuse parliament of playing into public fears in order to scoop up broader powers it never intends to relinquish.
“This not only unfairly targets the Muslim community, it also reverses the onus of proof in a society where, like the United States, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre.
The United States government has received criticism amid revelations of widespread surveillance of citizens under the post-9/11 Patriot Act and PRISM program in the United States. But it appears unlikely that Australia will deviate from the path forged by its North American ally: Parliament already passed the first of three proposed reforms with nearly unanimous support, and Abbott gives no indication of seeking middle ground.
Human rights groups, religious organizations, Internet rights groups and press freedom advocates have raised serious concerns about the potential for abuses of power as well as for infringement of the rights to privacy and free speech and protections for whistleblowers under the new law, passed Oct. 1.
The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014 makes four main changes to current law. It grants the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) officers wide-ranging immunity if they break the law during the course of a “Special Intelligence Operation,” as long as their actions don’t cause death, serious injury or a sexual offense.
It allows authorities to access a computer without a warrant, defining “computer” in such a way that it could mean the whole Internet.
It increases the penalty that ASIO officers and journalists face to up to 10 years in jail if they disclose information about or report on secret operations.
And it gives the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australia’s equivalent to the CIA, greater powers to spy on its own citizens.
Andrew Wilkie, an Independent MP with a background in intelligence, was one of the few elected officials to criticize the reforms. In a taped response to the bill, he said, “I can only assume the government is wanting to exploit the current security environment. And I can only assume the security services are delighted.”
More is yet to come. The second set of reforms, the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014, is currently under inquiry and is due to be put before Parliament in the week of Oct. 20. It seeks to prevent Australians from joining IS forces in Syria and Iraq and then returning home.
Between 120 and 150 Australians have traveled to Syria to join extremist groups in the last three years, according to the Lowy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. ICSR, an independent research organization, places Australia behind the Middle East, Western Europe, the Balkans and the countries of the former Soviet Union in terms of its importance for foreign fighter recruitment.
If passed, the law would empower the government to declare known terrorist areas “no-go” zones, making it an offense to travel there without a legitimate purpose. At the moment, visiting family and going on a religious pilgrimage are not considered legitimate purposes.
Muslims make up 2.2 percent of the Australian population, numbering less than 500,000 people, according to the latest census data from 2011. That’s a 69 percent jump in Australian Muslims since the 2001 census.
De Kretser acknowledged the need to protect the rights of all Australian citizens against terrorist attacks.
“That’s also a human rights aim,” he said. “But the means through which those aims are being pursued are too broad. There’s a way to draft legislation that doesn’t risk abuse or sacrifice civil rights.”
He is wary of provisions in the foreign fighters bill that would extend ASIO’s power to detain and interrogate people with no charge, if they are suspected of being a terrorist. In these situations, law enforcement would be under no obligation to provide access to an attorney or other outside communication for several days.
“It may be that in practice these powers are exercised carefully, but when you draft laws in this way, you create risks of abuse. What we’ve seen over time is that those powers do get abused,” de Kretser said.
In response to allegations that the reforms infringe on citizens’ civil liberties, a spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department responded with this emailed statement: “The Australian Government undertakes a rigorous process of scrutiny of all legislation before it is introduced to Parliament, and is confident that the Bill is consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations.”
In fact, international human rights obligations require Australia to enact certain provisions in the second set of security reforms, according to Tobias Feakin, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and director of the International Cyber Policy Centre.
Three weeks ago, Australia signed a binding UN resolution that requires member states — including the US — to make it a crime for their citizens to “travel for terrorism or related training.”
“There’s been a tremendous amount of international pressure across the board to be seen to be stemming the flow of money and the number of foreign fighters that are joining this conflict,” Feakin said.
That pressure, as well as the increasing visibility of IS recruitment successes on social media, contributed to parliament’s seemingly swift action. Though in truth, the proposed reforms have been open to parliamentary debate since 2012 and could have been voted on at any time.
But where Feakin sees a convergence of events that finally made it politically possible to bring counter-terrorism laws technologically up to date, others see a calculated effort to weaken civil liberties.
“It’s widely recognized that Australia has some of the most draconian laws with the least protections for civil rights. Just look at our national attitude towards refugees,” Robert Stary, principal lawyer at Robert Stary Lawyers, a Melbourne-based law firm that specializes in cases of terrorism, said. (The Haider family recently retained his firm.)
Unlike in the US, UK and Canada, civil liberties are not actually written into Australia’s constitution. So they are especially vulnerable to erosion at times when a threat — such as terrorism — is determined to be greater than the right to free speech or religion.
“There’s been a sustained attack against civil liberties in this country, but it’s been cloaked in a rhetoric of fear,” said Lydia Shelley, a member of the Muslim Legal Network.
For example a ban on wearing the niqab in Parliament House was implemented as an interim measure on Oct. 2.
Muslim women wearing a face covering must now remain behind a glass barrier when observing the chambers.
“It’s an attempt by the government to politicize Muslim women. It’s a way of saying, ‘those women are dangerous; they’re a symbol of terror,’” Shelley said.
As a spokesperson for Islamophobia Register Australia, Shelley has witnessed the repercussions of the new security measures firsthand: “We have seen a rapid increase of verbal abuse and harassment in light of these new laws coming in, especially against women because they are so visible.”
Both critics and supporters of the national security reforms acknowledge that the new laws could prove counter-productive to the goals of counter-terrorism. By marginalizing the Muslim community, Australia risks contributing to radicalization at home.
That’s what people close to Abdul Numan Haider think happened. They say Haider had no ties to IS and that he felt the police were harassing him. (The investigation is still ongoing.)
But back at the mosque in Narre Warren, Saeed downplayed the idea that she faces discrimination as a Muslim. “When I first arrived in Australia, I worried that people wouldn’t accept me because of my headscarf,” she said. “But that wasn’t the case. People welcomed me.”
Even now in the age of IS, she couldn’t imagine that people’s attitudes towards her would change much: “If I could wish for a heaven on earth it would be Australia.”
Later, though, Saeed’s husband told a slightly different story.
“If I said there was no racism in Australia, I would be lying,” said Muhammed. He paused and added, “But it’s not to the extent that I feel like a second-class citizen.”