Muslim groups alarmed by push to ban flag used by Islamic State

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Muslim groups alarmed by push to ban flag used by Islamic State

By Matthew Knott

Muslim groups, religious leaders and experts have voiced alarm at the federal government’s push to ban a flag associated with Islamic State, saying it risks criminalising legitimate displays of Islamic imagery and infringing Muslims’ right to practise their religion.

The government has introduced legislation that would ban the terrorist group’s flag as well as the display of Nazi symbols such as the swastika.

The Australian National Imams Council, led by Sheikh Shadi Alsuleiman, is urging the government not to ban the Islamic State flag.

The Australian National Imams Council, led by Sheikh Shadi Alsuleiman, is urging the government not to ban the Islamic State flag. Credit: Steven Siewart

The Australian National Imams Council said the push to ban the IS flag was analogous to banning the display of the Christian cross because it had been misappropriated by the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group.

“The bill places Australian Muslims in jeopardy of having their religious practices policed and even criminalised,” the imams said in a submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which is scrutinising the bill.

The religious leaders said the terrorist group had deliberately sought to hijack core elements of Islamic imagery to further its violent agenda.

“Accordingly, we urge against the banning of these symbols or them being considered as a hate symbol,” the imams said.

IS issued a death threat against the council’s president, Western Sydney sheikh Shadi Alsuleiman, in 2017 because he had discouraged violence in the name of Islam and encouraged people to follow the laws of the land.

The black flag used by IS includes the Shahada, an affirmation of faith that states “there is no god but Allah/Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. It is the first of five pillars of Islam and features prominently in Islamic architecture and artwork. As part of the Shahada, the flag includes a seal believed to have been used by the Prophet Muhammad.


The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils said the bill was worded so broadly that the Arabic text itself, not just the IS flag, would be prohibited – an outcome it described as extraordinary.

The bill states that “something that so nearly resembles the Islamic State flag that it is likely to be confused with, or mistaken for, the Islamic State flag” would be banned, as well as the flag itself.

Islamic State fighters pose with a Jihadist flag in northern Iraq.

Islamic State fighters pose with a Jihadist flag in northern Iraq.

“It in effect will mean that any representation of the Islamic testament of faith, the ‘Shahada’ or the Seal of the Prophet is potentially prohibited,” the federation said.

The peak body said the individual elements of the flag were “used and displayed by Muslims every day in a multitude of situations”.

The group included images of caps, backpacks and T-shirts containing the Shahada and the Seal of the Prophet that it said could easily be confused with the IS flag.


Noting that the public discourse about the bill had been entirely about Nazi symbols before its introduction, the group said the government appeared to have failed to properly consult the Muslim community about the proposal.

“There was no call for the banning of such symbols at the height of Islamic State’s existence,” the federation said in its submission.

“It is questionable as to why there is a need to conflate this with the rise of Nazi symbology at a time when Islamic State is in decline.”

IS’s influence has deteriorated dramatically since its peak in 2014, when it controlled an estimated 40 per cent of Syria and Iraq, but the group remains active. On Tuesday, IS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Pakistan that killed at least 54 people.

Germany and Austria banned the IS flag in 2014 and the Netherlands banned it from public demonstrations in the same year.

Raihan Ismail, an expert in political Islam at the Australian National University, said the bill’s wording was “dangerously broad” and, unless it was rewritten, “no Australian Muslim could feel free to display a black flag, or indeed any flag, containing Arabic script”.

“They will rightly fear that such a flag could be confused for the Islamic State flag and in turn be criminalised,” she said. “That outcome is catastrophic.”

“The ordinary Australian does not read or understand Arabic script, does not understand the meaning to Muslims of the Shahada, and does not understand that black flags in Islam are not exclusively the flags of the Islamic State.”

The Australian Muslim Advocacy Network said it did not support the ban, which it said would be harmful to everyday Muslims.

The group noted that recorded displays of the flag had plummeted in recent years, according to NSW Police.


A spokesman for federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said: “The attorney-general has previously stated that the government will closely consider any recommendations made by the inquiry to improve the legislation and ensure it does not have unintended consequences.”

When introducing the bill into parliament in June, Dreyfus said the government “recognises the important distinction between Islamic State, which is a terrorist organisation with a violent ideology, and the Islamic faith, which is deeply respected and valued as part of Australia’s multicultural society”.

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