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The Australian government released a 'radicalization awareness kit' for teachers this week, leading to criticism from many spheres. (Photo: marco antonio torres/flickr/cc)

#FreeKaren: The Hysterical Campaign to Free Australia's Hypothetical Eco-Terrorist

So-called 'radicalization awareness kits' for Australian educators linking climate Activism with terrorism prompt outrage—and a great hashtag

Nadia Prupis

The Australian government's controversial new "radicalization awareness kit" for schools, which links climate activism and alternative music with terrorism, has prompted a growing outcry by teachers and environmentalists—as well as a fitting social media response—since the booklet's publication earlier this week.

"This is very disappointing," Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Jonathan La Nauze told ABC Australia on Thursday. "To link standing up for the places that we love, standing up for the future of our children, to violence and extremism and terrorism, does nothing to combat a real threat to the safety of people or to respect the very peaceful and very meaningful protests that people engage in from all walks of life to ensure that we have a safe future in this country."

Among the case studies in the kit, which was distributed to teachers by the county's Ministry for Counter-Terrorism, is a hypothetical which sees a girl named Karen become involved in the "alternative music scene, student politics and left-wing activism," which leads to her becoming cut off from her family, arrested on multiple occasions, and "sabotaging logging machinery."

"It sounds like something that's been dreamt up in the cigar room of the Institute of Public Affairs," La Nauze said, referring to the right-wing think tank based in Melbourne. "There's no resemblance to the way that people in Australia feel about their environment and the need to stand up to protect it."

Counter-Terrorism Minister Michael Keenan said the booklet was intended to combat the indoctrination of youth by extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and help teachers understand the "radicalization process"—but just as the environmental example spurred outrage among climate activists, Keenan's other argument didn't sit well with educators.

"I think it's a fairly cynical move by the Federal Government not to make anyone feel safer but to engender fear and intolerance," Maurie Mulheron, president of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation, told ABC Australia. The federal government has "a track record now of trying to engender division within the community on these issues and I don't think that what they're proposing will make one iota of difference."

Similar criticisms were lobbied at the UK government in July, when reports revealed that London police were conflating environmental groups with al Qaeda and observing liberal activists as possible domestic extremist threats.

Moreover, as other experts point out, the guidelines included in the kit—which list supposed 'warning signs' of radicalization among students—are not necessarily best entrusted to teachers.

"Really, when you’re making an assessment of someone it needs to be done by a proper healthcare professional," Clarke Jones, the co-director of an anti-radicalization center at the Australian National University, told the Guardian on Tuesday.

And Anne Aly, a violent extremism expert, warned that simplifying something as complex as radicalization into "a checklist of behaviors for general consumption" could result in "targeting of Muslim students and cases like that of Ahmed Mohamed," referring to the 14-year-old Texan high school student who was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school as a science project, when a teacher accused him of bringing in a bomb.

Along with blowback from teachers and activists, the kit's outlandish scenarios also prompted a social media campaign on behalf of the hypothetical girl whose environmentalism, the government says, led her to a life of crime, with Twitter users posting humorous messages under the hashtag #FreeKaren.

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