Like the biblical diviner Balaam, when Donald Horne wrote half a century ago that “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck” he was trying to criticize his country, not to sing its praise. But Horne’s critique of the unbearably effortless ways in which his compatriots gained their wealth and wellbeing has long been forgotten, while the title of his 1964 book “The Lucky Country” has stuck with Australia ever since.
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After the tragic hostage incident at the Lindt café in downtown Sydney, however, some Australians may be worried that their luck may now be changing.
Beautiful and bustling Sydney, after all, is the epitome of the good life that Australia offers its citizens, both old and new; and Martin Place, where the attack took place, is its beating heart, with its big banks, television stations, transportation centers, shopping malls and the thousands of smartly-dressed Sydneysiders who crowd its pedestrian-only streets every day. “Martin Place is Sydney's civic heart, arguably Australia's most iconic public space,” the Sydney Morning Herald noted a few years ago. “It is where we gather: solemnly to commemorate the sacrifices made in war, or joyously to celebrate Christmas around an enormous tree."
So whether by design or by chance – the latter seeming more likely the more we know of his background – the venue chosen by the Iranian-born Islamic State sympathizer Man Haron Monis yielded saturation coverage in the international media while also dealing a blow to Australia’s sense of safety and security. He brought about the death and wounding of innocent civilians whose only sin was a love of chocolate; in the Australian context, he was also a terrorist who had infiltrated paradise, ruptured its tranquility and desecrated its innocence.
It’s not that Australians have been immune to terror, of course: 88 of them were murdered in Bali in 2002 by the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group, and others have been targeted in subsequent attacks. Sydney itself has suffered several terrorist attacks, albeit sporadic, including the casualty-free double bombing in 1982 of the Israeli consulate and the local Hakoach club, whose perpetrators have never been found. After the Twin Towers and Bali attacks, Australia became a full partner in the War on Terror and hence its target as well. Over the past decade, Australian governments have invested significant resources in counterterrorism efforts on Australian soil, especially among Muslim immigrants who came to the country since the 1975 civil war in Lebanon. But as in other places, including Israel, even an efficient body such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) finds it difficult to thwart a lone terrorist from carrying out an attack.
Around half a million Muslims live in Australia – compared to a little over 100,000 Jews – many of them convinced of discrimination by the authorities and hostility by many “white” Australians. While most are law-abiding citizens who work hard to make it in their new homeland, there is a relatively large hard core of immigrants who refuse to adapt and prefer to isolate themselves in poverty and crime in Muslim-only enclaves in both Sydney and Melbourne. These have served as breeding grounds for fundamentalist movements, inciting preachers and in recent months, according to the authorities, clandestine cells that seek to import ISIS extremism and to export fighters for the cause.
Many Australians joined an admirable public campaign on Monday under the hashtag #Illridewithyou in an effort to allay Muslim concerns that they may have to conceal their religious appearance in order to escape harassment by other Australians. Their fear is not unfounded: many Australians view the Muslims with a suspicion that boiled over to open inter-ethnic riots and confrontations in 2005 in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla. Successive governments have engaged since then in dialogue and reconciliation with the Muslim leadership, often with the active involvement of Jewish organizations.
But the success of the campaign was due, among other things, to the simple fact that there were no acts of terror carried out by Muslims on Australian soil. And even though this specific perpetrator may have been an unbalanced outlier with no connection to other Muslim terrorists, there is no denying that those years of tranquility came to an abrupt end at the Lindt store in Martin’s place this week. And Australians may be turning the page to a new and potentially darker chapter in their history.