|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
BRAHIM Siddiq-Conlon has a message for Australians, whether they want to hear it or not. "One day Australia will be ruled by sharia, no doubt," he declares. "That is why non-Muslims are worried, because they know one day they won't be able to drink their beer, they won't be able to eat their pork and they won't be able to do their homosexual acts, because one day they know they will be controlled."
Siddiq-Conlon sits on the steps of the NSW Parliament House, the location he has chosen to launch his rhetorical attack on democracy, which he describes as "an evil system of life".
"Right now in the Western world we're on the edge of a crisis, of extinction, because of democracy. OK, so don't tell me democracy has the answers and is peaceful. Democracy is the reason for the world's problems."
Siddiq-Conlon is the face and voice of Sharia4Australia, a group formed in Sydney's southwest to agitate for Islamic law, starting with the introduction of sharia courts and ending, in his ideal world, with Islamic rule.
While he claims to eschew violence, he unapologetically preaches hate. An online video posted by his group describes its members as "uncompromising [in] their disallegiance, disloyalty and hate for the disbelievers".
"I hate the parliament. I hate [democracy] with a pure hate," he says. Moreover, it is obligatory for all Muslims to reject democracy, because it is a challenge to God's law: "They must hate it, speak out against it, and if that doesn't work, take action against it."
Siddiq-Conlon formed Sharia4Australia last year, styling himself as the new champion for Islamic law in Australia.
An online video announcing its emergence stated: "For far too long now Aust has been ruled by a corrupt evil infedile [sic] group of people who are clear disbelievers in the sight of Allah. It is time for change. Time at least for the truth.
"Today Muslim youth and the oppressed and weak Muslims march forward with their flags behind brother Ibrahim Siddiq-Conlon. O Muslims stand tall, take the vow and pledge allegiance to none other than Allah and his Messengerorting and vowing allegiance w the Muslims while disloyalty to the disbelievers and their kufr [infidel] ways."
In person, Siddiq-Conlon initially seems harmless enough. He dresses in a white cotton tunic, trousers and sandals, with a neatly trimmed beard and a touch of black kohl eyeliner, in the style said to have been favored by the original companions of the Prophet Mohammed.
He is quietly spoken, polite and articulate; a master's graduate in architecture from the University of Technology, Sydney; Adelaide-born, and raised in a Godfearing "fundamentalist", he says, Christian family in rural NSW. He converted to Islam while a student, travelled to Indonesia, found a wife there, and returned to Australia with the full-blown zeal of so many converts. He formerly studied under the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama'ah Association, headed by Melbourne cleric Sheikh Mohammed Omran, but the association has recently moved to distance itself from his strident inflammatory message.
"I'm an Aussie, I'm a full-bred Aussie, you can't get more Aussie than me," he insists.
But his proclaimed love for Australia is followed quickly by a prediction that, ultimately, Muslims here will have to fight for Islamic law. He doubts the struggle will begin in the next 10 or 20 years, but hopes it will occur in his lifetime. "People don't give up [their land without a fight]. There's always been a fight. It is inevitable that one day there will be a struggle for Islam in Australia. We don't shy away from it. Whether it means we get put in jail, kicked out of the country. If it means harm to us, so be it."
Nor does his disavowal of violence extend to Australian troops in Afghanistan, who he describes as "evil".
"Obviously I don't support the killing of innocent people, but these American and Australian troops have gone there to kill Muslims. What do they expect? Yes, they deserve to die. Under sharia, yes they do. That is the judgment of sharia. They are eligible to be attacked."
Until this week, Siddiq-Conlon was barely known outside or even within the Muslim community. But that changed with his inflammatory verbal assault on democracy and his appearance in a debate in Sydney's Paramatta last night, albeit one that was attended by only a few dozen people.
He welcomes the publicity and dismisses concerns that he is damaging the wider Muslim community, saying "if it causes a backlash against the Muslims, I can't help that, this is a necessary debate".
The debate coincides with comments last week by Sydney cleric Sheikh Taj Din al-Hilali that Islamic extremism is on the rise in Australia. Hilali told The Australian: "I am worried for our community and our society. I am worried for that because this will encourage the youth to act against elections and act against dealing with others, which is dangerous." He warned of Rambo-style preachers whose aggressive sermons appealed to "the way of youth".
"The louder they speak, the more youth they gather around them," he said.
Muslim community groups and leaders are divided on whether there is evidence to support Hilali's claim of rising extremism, and whether fringe zealots such as Siddiq-Conlon should be denounced or ignored.
Khaled Sukkarieh, chairman of the Islamic Council of NSW, says the council doesn't believe extremism is rising, although there is no firm evidence either way.
"These views have been around for ever and a day. It is damaging for the Muslim community because we don't believe that way. The majority of Muslims in Australia don't support that view. We have a total new generation now that is educated in this society and we are contributing to Australia positively, so I don't think these views will make any difference, other than that it will make people scared unnecessarily."
However, there is some evidence to support the notion that extremism is on the rise. As The Australian reported this week, ASIO last year noted an increase in the number of Australians travelling abroad for "terrorism related-purposes".
Muslim youth worker Kuranda Seyit, founder of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations, says he has seen no increase in violent extremism, but radical activism is on the rise: "The perception is that more youth are being attracted to these hardline groups and so are labelled extremist."
The reason that so many people are attracted to these groups varies. Some of the groups are very professional in their approach and offer a slick product.
They hold many events and activities for their constituents, they are spontaneous and use contemporary media and technology and speak the language of the youth, but more importantly they appeal to young people who are energised and motivated by their message which is confrontational and rebellious."
One such group is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which, like Sharia4Australia, stridently opposes democracy but, unlike it, explicitly rejects the use of force. In the past year, HT has become increasingly active and outspoken, and anecdotal evidence suggests its membership is rising.
Islamic groups and leaders have frequently been criticised for failing to take on these groups, and for not being sufficiently vocal in rejecting their message. It's a highly sensitive issue in the community. One Muslim activist, who asked not to be named, says there is a reluctance to get involved.
"Muslims I think are very afraid of any backlash or repercussions of speaking out against these people. You could get aggressive threats or criticism from all sectors of the community saying, 'You shouldn't be criticising, who are you to say that?'
"This tends to create a sense of apathy in the community and the perception that extremism is on the rise, because those [extreme] groups are much more active and outspoken.
"There are also divisions in the mainstream community [and] different degrees of support within moderate groups for the extremist groups, so they need to keep those people onside and don't want to go too far in distancing themselves from them."
Sukkarieh says fringe outfits pushing for sharia law in Australia are better off ignored.
"The majority of Muslims in Australia don't support that view. We have the freedom to practise what we want according to our religion. What we need is less pressure, less talk about that sort of stuff. It should be ignored [because] when you ignore them you're not giving them any air."
But the task for the security agencies is determining whether an individual such as Siddiq-Conlon and a group such as Sharia4Australia are simply fringe radicals who should be ignored represent a serious threat to security.
Siddiq-Conlon says he has never been approached by the security agencies and says they have nothing to fear. While he denounces democracy, he is quick to point out his democratic right to freedom of speech.
"I'm not inciting violence, it's just words," he says. "Obviously under freedom of expression, I can say words. I'm not jumping on a boat and going to join the jihad, I'm just the speaker."
But his affiliations could provoke concern. He volunteers he's an admirer of Indonesian militant leader Abu Bakar Bashir, founder of the militant group Jemaah Islamiah, which carried out the 2002 Bali bombings and a series of subsequent attacks including the 2004 bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
Bashir's conviction of inciting the Bali bombing was overturned. He is awaiting trial on new charges of training Islamic militants for terrorist attacks in Indonesia.
"I'm very proud of his work. To me he's not a terrorist, he's a freedom fighter," Siddiq-Conlon says.
Sharia4Australia is affiliated with the British group Islam for UK, a radical Islamist organisation which was proscribed by the British government under its counter-terrorism laws in January 2010. Under those laws a group can be banned if it "commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for, promotes or encourages terrorism or is otherwise concerned in terrorism" or if it "unlawfully glorifies the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism".
Islam for UK is led by cleric Anjem Choudary, whom Siddiq-Conlon names as a key spiritual mentor.
Choudary gained notoriety last January when the group announced plans for a protest march in the town of Wootton Basset where British soldiers killed on active service are traditionally mourned. The group planned to carry coffins to "represent the thousands of Muslims who have died" in conflicts such as Afghanistan.
Then prime minister Gordon Brown condemned the plan as disgusting and offensive.
The same adjectives have been used this week to describe Siddiq-Conlon's views. But he shrugs off the insults, along with the average of five death threats he receives every day.
"It is a peaceful message. I really am a peaceful person. I hate violence."