Australian Spy Agency’s Decision to Drop ‘Left-Right,’ ‘Islamic’ Label, Highlights the Divisive Power of Words

'Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue.'
March 23, 2021 Updated: March 24, 2021

Australia’s domestic spy agency’s decision to drop sensitive labels such as “left-right” and “Islamic extremism” has received a mixed reaction, with one religious expert saying the shift to broader terminology could inadvertently mislead public perception of extremist behaviour.

Last week, Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), delivered the Annual Threat Assessment and outlined how the agency has been combatting the twin threats of espionage and extremist activity in Australia.

He revealed that ideology-based extremism now accounted for 40 percent of the agency’s caseload, and due to the evolving nature of threats, ASIO would drop the classifications “left-right” and “Islamic” when describing extremist activity.

Instead, the broader categories of “religiously motivated violent extremism” and “ideologically motivated violent extremism” would be used going forward.

“Why are we making a change? Put simply, it’s because the current labels are no longer fit for purpose. They no longer adequately describe the phenomena we’re seeing,” Burgess told attendees of the speech.

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Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess preparing for his annual speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

“As an example, when thinking about the proliferation of violent groups that subscribe to various political ideologies, it’s unhelpful to categorise such groups as simply ‘extreme left wing’ and ‘extreme right-wing,’” he added.

The spy chief said the agency was seeing a growing number of individuals or groups outside of the conventional left-right spectrum. Instead, newer movements were emerging motivated by a “fear of societal collapse” or a specific social or economic “grievance or conspiracy.”

“At ASIO, we’re conscious that the names and labels we use are important. Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issues.”

Burgess went on the say that the agency’s focus was on the “threat of violence” and not on policing the views of different groups.

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A protester performs a Nazi salute at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne on September 5, 2020, during an anti-lockdown rally (William West/AFP via Getty Images)
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Representatives of the Muslim community lay flowers at a floral memorial at the scene of a dramatic siege by Islamic extremist Man Haron Monis which left two hostages dead (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Michael Shoebridge, defence director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said this was a sensible approach.

“ASIO’s recognition that ideological violent extremism isn’t well-described by ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ extremism is a sensible step to making sure the agency is thinking broadly enough to reduce the risk of emerging forms of ideological extremism tending to violence,” he told The Epoch Times.

Mark Durie, senior research fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam, said that while switching the word “Islamic” for a broader term was done to avoid unfairly maligning the Muslim faith. The category “religiously motivated violent extremism” would, in fact, malign all religions.

“This will add ‘fuel to the fire’ of the widespread, but false idea that all religions are violent and tend to ‘extremism.’ It unfairly stigmatises people with faith,” he told The Epoch Times.

Division Driven by Labels

Labor’s Federal Member for Chifley Ed Husic backed ASIO’s decision and said dropping the left-right and Islamic labels was “smart.”

He pointed to the challenges the Muslim community faced with the terminology in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch massacre when 51 Muslims were killed by lone gunman Brenton Tarrant.

“I can’t help but shake what I and other Muslims have had to live through. We abhorred what was being done by terrorists—the murderous acts,” he told Parliament last week.

“When we did call it out, we were told by conservatives that we had to do it louder, stronger, and more regularly,” he added.

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Federal Member for Chifley Ed Husic at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, December 10, 2020. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

“But now, when conservatives are being asked to confront an errant, ugly streak within conservatism, this is now likened to being tarred by the same brush,” he said.

Husic was partly responding to Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ comments last year when she told Director-General Burgess at a Senate Estimates hearing to be careful with how he used the term right-wing.

The senator has also been critical of the deliberate misuse of the label following the Christchurch massacre.

“As we look back at the abhorrence of the Christchurch massacre, we should remind ourselves of how the narrative emerged,” Fierravanti-Wells told the Senate.

“He (Brenton Tarrant) was immediately branded ‘right-wing,’ notwithstanding the fact his manifesto clearly stated that he was a communist, then an anarchist, then a libertarian and then an ecofascist, before his European travels convinced him that violent revolutionary solutions were the only answer to achieving his objectives,” she added.

Brenton Tarrant
Brenton Tarrant, the man charged in the Christchurch mosque shootings, appears in the Christchurch District Court, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019. (Mark Mitchell/AP Photos)

“So, my advice to those opposite … and those who join the chorus is: ‘Do not be divisive. Choose your words carefully before you unfairly label decent, law-abiding conservative Australians.”

Epoch Times’ contributor William Brooks has highlighted the continuing ambiguity surrounding the left-right terminology, pointing out that even extreme opposites on the political spectrum–communism and anarchism–had similar historic roots.

Brooks argued that a person could not understand society through such a lens. Instead, it was better for individuals to develop their own independent thoughts and values free from specific classes.

Durie meanwhile said using the left-right label was inaccurate.

“I believe that talk of left and right is often simplistic and a poor way of categorising political movements,” he said.

He also argued that the word “extremism” was too vague, saying it did not acknowledge the “substantive religious motivations” for violent behaviour.

“The problem is not ‘extremism’ (i.e. ideas taken to the extremes), but a group’s core ideas, sincerely held. It is not extremism that is the problem, but harmful beliefs and ideological commitments,” he said.

“I believe that wherever possible, labels should be precise, not general, and specific,” he said. “A group that claims Islam as its motivation for violence should be called ‘Islamic.’ But it would be even better to call these Islamic groups ‘jihadist.’”