Why Karen, the 'radical extremist' case study in a new 'stopping extremism' booklet has everyone laughing

Karen, is that you? Photo: Getty Images.

The federal government released a new ‘Radicalisation Awareness Kit’ this week – the start of the school holidays – which will be sent to schools across the nation with the aim at combating extremism.

The kit includes a 32-page booklet titled ‘Preventing violent extremism and radicalisation in Australia’, which outlines the meanings, looks at the myths surrounding it and how to recognise and deal with the threat.

And while justice minister and minister assisting the PM on counter terrorism Michael Keenan said the kit is designed to help turn people away from radical Islam and groups like ISIS, one part of the booklet, a case study involving a uni student called ‘Karen’ has environmentalists miffed and many on Twitter mocking it with the #freeKaren hashtag.

Karen is likely real because one case study clearly is: Belal Khazaal, an Australian who produced an e-book on assassination whose conviction for engaging in terrorist activity went all the way to the High Court, features in the violent extremism and the internet section. That really happened.

The Karen case study from the booklet.

Then there’s ‘Erin’, a girl in a country town with self esteem and alcohol problems, who joins a nationalist group, and is arrested for hate crimes; and ‘Jay’ who was arrested and jailed at 20 for knowingly being a member of a terrorist organisation who “showed an eagerness to perform a big, public act of violence in Australia”, but now “regrets his involvement and his past decisions”.

And then, in the section about “violent extremism”, there’s Karen, who was waylaid at university after leaving her loving family who never protested by the “alternative music scene, student politics and left-wing activism”. Elvis Presley was once seen as a recruiter for the devil too.

“In hindsight she thinks this was just ‘typical teenage rebellion’ that went further than most,” it goes on.

Then Karen really turns radical, as the case study explains:

One afternoon Karen attended an environmental protest with some of her friends. It was exhilarating, fun and she felt like she was doing the ‘right thing’ for society. She enjoyed spending time with this crowd. Over the next six months Karen progressively dropped out of university in order to live full-time in a forest camp, where she remained for a year. Her family were confused and disappointed and stopped supporting her financially.

The goal of the forest camp was to disrupt logging activities by barricading areas that were being logged, spiking trees, and sabotaging machinery. There was no intent to harm people but inevitably fighting broke out between protesters and loggers.

Sometimes the locals and the police became involved in these incidents. Karen was arrested on numerous occasions for trespass, damaging property, assault and obstructing police. She said at the time she felt like she was a “soldier for the environment so breaking the law didn’t matter”. It became all consuming for Karen and she became totally cut off from her family and previous set of friends.

After so long on the dark side, Karen begins to see the error of her ways:

After years of participating in direct-action campaigns, Karen finally became disillusioned by persistent in-group fighting. She also began to question the effectiveness of the protesting methods used by the group. It seemed they might make short-term gains but that there was no sustainable change unless it was translated into wider community support and government policies.

She took a paid job with a mainstream environmentalist organisation and was subsequently rejected by her group who felt completely betrayed.

The story has a happy ending. She’s now a mainstream greenie:

This was the beginning of a painful transition out of radical activism, where Karen struggled to recover, define her identity and her role in society. Over the course of a number of years she began making new friends, trying out new interests and hobbies and eventually made contact with her family and nonactivist friends again. She completed her university studies and now works broadly in the environmental field.

Karen also explored her beliefs and adopted a more moderate eco-philosophy. She now thinks illegal or aggressive direct-action campaigns only produce short-term solutions, and she is much more interested in working towards developing a sustainable solution using the legal system.

The book has been produced Attorney-General’s Department, based on the expertise provided by the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, and there’s a touch of irony to the notion that Karen is now “working towards sustainable solution using the legal system”.

The minister, George Brandis, is currently pushing to change the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to stop environmentalists launching legal action against controversial projects, with the senator declaring the Act “provides a red carpet for radical activists” who engaged in “sabotage” and “vigilante litigation”.

The changes were announced after the Federal Court overturned approval Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland because federal environment minister Greg Hunt had failed to properly consider advice about two threatened species on the site.

The plan by Brandis even drew the ire of Alan Jones, who called it a threat to democracy.

But Karen’s life would be extremely familiar to the aging hippies around Nimbin in far northern New South Wales. In the 1970s, they were Karen, trying to stop logging in what is now the World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park.

It was the start of the modern conservation movement and the use of direct action. In 1979, it escalated into the three-year Rainforest War, until the late NSW premier Neville Wran intervened to protect the area. One part of it is called “Protesters Falls”.

It’s also the story of the farmers involved in the Lock the Gate protests against coal seam gas, a campaign supported by Alan Jones.

And last year Wallabies captain David Pocock was Karen at a protest over a coal mine in NSW. He was charged with entering enclosed land without lawful excuse and hindering the working of mining equipment.

He pleaded guilty to hindering, but the charges were withdrawn. The other charge was dismissed without conviction.

Karen is also Tasmania from the Franklin River protests which created another World Heritage area and became the start of the Australian Greens party under Bob Brown. It’s also the story of the island state’s fractious timber industry over the last 20 years, as Tasmanian senator Nick KcKim pointed out:

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Jonathan La Nauze said the “Karen” case study was dangerous to democracy and misleading.

“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,” La Nauze told ABC radio.

Meanwhile, #FreeKaren is trending on Twitter, with around 13,000 tweets.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.