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Islam in Australia

Address to Probus, 23 February 2010
By Des Moore

It is almost a year ago that I spoke to you on the issue of global warming and a lot has happened since to confirm the scepticism I expressed then about the claim that increasing human activity threatens a dangerous increase in temperatures requiring government intervention to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. This supposed threat was then widely presented as the greatest facing the world and, although some still say it is, they are probably now in a minority and one that is dwindling almost every day.

A year ago – and much earlier too – I also expressed publicly my view that by far the most important threat facing the world was from terrorism originated by Islamic extremists. In October 2006, for example, I stated that view when I was one of four speakers in a schools constitutional convention debate at Parliament House, Melbourne on the question of whether the then Government’s anti-terrorist legislation should be repealed. My co-debater and I lost our opposition to repeal. Shortly after, I expressed the same view at a Rotary function and two people walked out because they said I was being “racist”. My perspective is that, although terrorist acts have increased since then, there is still insufficient recognition of the seriousness of the threat.

You have asked me to talk about Islam in Australia, which is the title of a book written by Professor Abdullah Saeed who occupies at Melbourne University the Foundation Chair of the Sultan of Oman Endowed Chair in Arab and Islamic Studies. Professor Saeed started with a BA in Saudi Arabia, the country with probably the strictest interpretation of the Muslim religion.  By contrast, Dr Mark Durie is a Vicar at St Mary’s Church in Caulfield to whom I am indebted for drawing my attention to what seems to me to be an accurate and worrying assessment by him of Islamic views and practices. Dr Durie, who is the author of a just published book The Third Choice outlining reasons for being seriously concerned about the objectives of Islam, indicates in his review of Professor Saeed’s book that it contains many areas where Saeed downplays major differences between Islamic and Christian cultures and also falsely claims that Islamic terrorists have no foothold among Australian Muslims.

What is the basic source of the concern about the Muslim religion? As with the Bible there are differences in the interpretation of the Koran, and about the extent to which Sharia law should apply, with a good deal depending on the imans. However, a significant proportion of Muslims accept Islam as an ideology that should be established and spread in other countries, if possible by establishing a caliphate.  Indeed, as the Muslim religion is acclaimed as superior to all others it is legitimate to establish that superiority by violence in certain circumstances. In summary, the basic aim of Islamic extremists is to establish a theocratic state operating under Sharia law which would apply to a wide range of social behaviour, extinguish all religions, and subordinate the role of women.

The situation facing believers is that religious beliefs come first and the laws of the state come second, which means that those laws are treated as over-ruled when there is a conflict (by contrast, Jewish law accepts the authority of the state). While some argue sharia law should be available for Muslims in non-Muslim countries, that law does not treat people as equal before the law and does not meet minimal standards of justice and evidence. When Archbishop Williams gave his support to such an approach in the UK, he was effectively consigning Muslim women to oppression and abuse because Muslim women in conservative Islamic communities are not free to decide that another law is to apply. Under sharia law women are treated as second class citizens and under certain circumstances 'honor killings' are allowed.  If a woman flees an abusive marriage, she cannot remarry until a sharia court grants her a divorce.  Remarriage without that would be regarded as adultery (which incurs a death penalty). Despite all this, the US Government has written sharia law into the new constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

I propose today to elaborate on why we face a serious threat from some of the followers of the Muslim religion and whether Western societies and governments are responding in ways that are likely to deal with or at least minimise that threat. One might add in this context that there is also a question about the responses of the many Muslims who claim their religion is a peaceful and friendly one. This is an enormous subject and, partly because external foreign and military policies are better known, I will focus less on them than on internal or domestic policies. I need hardly add that such domestic policies are the subject of considerable differences of opinion both here and overseas as to what the response should be to terrorist threats in terms of legislative, preventative and immigration policies.

However, because the threat is world-wide and Australia is involved in military and intelligence activity overseas in combating Islamic extremism, I want to start by considering that threat from an international perspective. I do so because it is important for Australia that major Western societies defend and retain their Judeo-Christian culture and democratic systems of government. As of now, it is by no means clear that this is assured and a continued deterioration overseas of overt support for our culture would have adverse flow-through effects for Australia.

While there are considerable differences about specific strategies, it is important that Western countries maintain attempts to counter mainly (but not only) by military force potential Islamic-driven threats from the Middle East and North Africa in particular. Some argue that such action serves only to provide further support for the extremist Islamic view that the West is out to destroy or take over Muslim countries. But if the force threatened, advocated and adopted by extremists is to be overcome part of the answer has to be counter-force. Most recently the response has extended in the Middle East to what has been described as a “third front” in Yemen following the near-success of a Nigerian trained there by an al-Quaeda group to blow up a US plane. Following subsequent discussions in London between NATO countries US Secretary of State Clinton commented that “increasingly, we are having to face – whether it’s the UK, the US or Yemen – threats coming from beyond our borders that cannot be pinned on any place”. The attempt to blow up the plane also led to a major change in the publicly stated position of US President Obama who, when he did eventually react, made a Bush-like statement that “we are at war with al-Qa’ida”. An increased recognition of the risks was also reflected on 4 February in the report (in The Age) that the US Director of Intelligence indicated publicly he is “highly certain” that al-Quaeda or one of its associates will attempt a large scale attack on American soil within the next six months.

An interesting development after the imprisonment of the Nigerian was the arrest on 28 January by Malaysia of 10 terrorism suspects reportedly linked to him and also to an international terrorist group that included persons from Yemen, Syria, Nigeria and Jordan. This arrest was reported to be under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial. 

Major developments occurred last year within Western countries too. I mention here only the UK and the US where, according to a report by Sally Neighbour in The Australian of 26 Dec, “it had the busiest year since 2001 with the number of arrests” and a comment by New York police intelligence division that “the home-grown phenomenon is substantially greater than we have seen in the past”. That comment is consistent with a suggestion by one analyst that the al-Qa’ida strategy is now to focus on using possible single local converts rather than groups and the shoot up last year by a Muslim soldier at a US military base last year is consistent with that perspective. It is sometimes said that the US has less of an Islamic extremist problem because its Muslim population is better integrated and does not have the problems with Pakistani extremists that the UK has. However, Dr Durie’s advice is that, as in the UK, there are regions in the US where Muslims are congregating and problems obviously exist in the acceptance of Muslims in the US military, police and even security.

Also of concern is the appointment on 13 January by President Obama of Rashad Hussain as Special Envoy to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Hussain is described as a Hafiz, who is someone who has memorized the whole text of the Koran in Arabic. Hussain contributed to the drafting of President Obama’s very worrying address to the Muslim world in June 2009 in Cairo entitled a “New Beginning”. Somalian-born-ex-Muslim Hirshi Ali commented (The Australian, 15 June 2009) that in that speech Obama “denounced Islamic extremism but without once associating Islam with extremism”. Her book Infidel vividly and courageously (particularly for a woman) illustrates the problem facing the US (and hence the Western world) and her article on the Cairo speech summed up the basic problem by pointing out “It is not America that is at war with Islam. It is Islam that is at war with America”. Yet Obama said “America and Islam are not exclusive –they do not need to be in competition” and “America is not and never will be at war with Islam”. There are other concerns about Obama’s attitude towards Islam, including his policy on Guatanamo Bay prisoners, but I cannot go into all those here. It is worth noting, though, that it was about mid 2009 that Obama’s polling moved sharply downwards.

His appointment of a special envoy to the OIC has been welcomed by some as an attempt to establish a partnership with the Muslim world that might help change its views. But the OIC, which is the official spokesman of the Muslim world, actively opposes the recognition by the United Nations of a range of human rights and seeks to promulgate Islamic Sharia as superior to any other declaration of rights as well as issuing fatwas requiring the application of sharia law. Hussain is on record as arguing that the US should recognize “the benefit of strengthening the authoritative voices of mainstream Islam”. One can only respond that it is one thing to be establishing closer contact with “mainstream” Islamic representatives and quite another to imply that they have views and objectives that are acceptable, let alone need strengthening.

In the UK, given the London bombings and the many aggressive public statements by imans, the problems with Islamist extremists have been more overt than in the US and well illustrate how serious the situation can become once the proportion of Muslims reaches even only 4-5 per cent. There now exists a de facto application of sharia law in some parts of the UK and an iman recently expressed his “right” to conduct a street protest against British troops returning from Afghanistan.  In 2009 there were also considerable arrests and the Minister for Counter-Terrorism (who would have thought ten years ago there would ever be such a Minister?) stated that there are now an estimated 2,000 suspected potential terrorists in the country. The UK also published a second paper on counter terrorism (Contest Two) that adopted what appears to be some toughening in policy in that it included in the counter-terrorism strategy an emphasis on Prevention. This is designed to stop the spread of Islamic ideology not by outlawing it but through education, counter-propaganda and disruption of funding of Islamic extremist organisations.

Before considering the Australian position on Islamic terrorism, I thought I should draw your attention to public remarks a year or so ago by a prominent US politician, Newt Gingrich, who is a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a possible Republican candidate in the next Presidential elections.  As the US is the country most closely involved in combating Islamic terrorism such views provide a perspective on what attitude a US leader adopts in considering that threat and how it might be compared with our own domestic leaders. The following are extracts from Gingrich’s remarks made on CNN in response a questioner who asked  “If you could just … tell us what we can really expect in the next few years in the war on terror and what we would really have to do to win it eventually?”

Newt Gingrich responded as follows:  “I am really deeply worried.  We have two grandchildren … and I believe they are in greater danger of dying from enemy activities than we were in the Cold War.  There are thousands of people across this planet who get up every morning actively seeking to destroy the United States.  They are spreading their poison by sermons, by the Internet, by a variety of recruiting devices.

Tony Blair said it very well:  the people who did the London subway bombings spoke English, were British citizens, lived in British housing and had jobs.  And had decided, because of their relationships, that they were engaged in a war against the very country which had given them prosperity and freedom and safety.

When you see the Taliban kidnap 22 Christian South Korean missionaries who are there to help the people of Afghanistan, and nobody gets up and says:  this is despicable.  Where in the Muslim world has there been any battle cry saying:  they should be released? Where has anybody gotten up to condemn? 

You see a 12 year old boy in Pakistan saw off a man's head on a video tape. Where is the condemnation when you know that the schools recruit suicide bombers, when you know that the Iranian government ran a cartoon last year of four children aimed at recruiting 10 year olds to be suicide bombers on public television?  At what point do you have to say "enough"?  When you're lectured by the Saudis about being respectful when they do not allow any Jew or any Christian to practice their religion in Saudi Arabia, and we tolerate it.  When do you draw a line?

Nobody in this society has yet given a speech to outline the scale of this problem in terms of senior leadership, and yet it's obvious.  We haven't won in Afghanistan and we are not currently winning.  If you're not winning a guerilla war you're gradually losing it. We have not won in Iraq.  The Israelis, despite 30 years of work, have not won in either Gaza or the West Bank.  And we're sleepwalking and we've now focussed on Bagdad as though somehow we can retreat from history and find an elegant way to get out of this and it won't have terrifying consequences.  I believe we are on the edge of a precipice.

The Iranians are desperately trying to build nuclear weapons, and they will use them.  This is a statement ‑ look, read what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says.  He writes poems about the joy of being a martyr nation.  He gets to wipe out Tel Aviv, maybe the Israelis use nuclear weapons and wipe out Tehran.  He would accept that in a minute because he believes everybody in Tehran goes to heaven and everybody in Tel Aviv doesn't.

It's very hard for secular elitists to understand this. Religiously driven people do things that don't calculate in nice academic faculty surroundings and they don't calculate at the State Department and … in most of our bureaucracies.  We are in trouble.  And somebody had better start talking about it in a blunt way.

… We are simply not prepared today to be a serious country… I wrote about terrorism and nuclear weapons in a book called Window of Opportunity in 1984, I gave speeches in the 90s on this … We warned in March of 2001 about terrorist attacks in American cities. 

I've been at this a long time.  I am genuinely afraid that this political system will not react until we lose a city, and nobody in this country has thought about the threat to our civil liberties the morning after we decide it's that dangerous and how rapidly we will impose ruthlessness on ourselves in that kind of a world.

I think those of you who care about civil liberties had better be thinking through how we win this war before the casualties get so great that the American people voluntarily give up a lot of those liberties”.

These were not the remarks of someone who might be described as lacking in knowledge or an advocate of extreme policies. Then, in early January, following the Administration’s mishandling of the Nigerian episode, Gingrich wrote to Republican Party supporters arguing that “in the Obama administration the rights of terrorists have been more important than protecting the lives of Americans. That must now change decisively”. As I have already implied, under the existing President that does not seem likely.

Before moving to Australia I should say that it is desirable to proceed even within this distinguished group with a degree of caution. Australia is supposed to have freedom of speech but some of you may have seen an article in The Australian by Janet Albrechsten on 10 February that indicates our freedom is more constrained than many might think. The article started by referring to the legal action currently being taken in Holland against Dutch politician Geert Wilders for alleged incitement and discrimination against Muslims. This action has been taken despite Wilders’ political party winning the second highest number of votes in the last Dutch election but doubtless partly reflecting the fact that, in the four largest cities in Holland, “Mohammed” or a version of it has become the most popular name for baby boys. As noted by Albrechsten, laws in Western countries often provide protection against the expression of views that are perceived as anti-Islamic and these have been used, for example, in Canada by anti-discrimination tribunals against two commentators there who expressed critical opinions about Muslims.

Closer to home Albrechsten referred to a complaint lodged in Australia by an Omar Hassan with the Queensland’s Anti- Discrimination Commission, and accepted by it, against Radio 4BC commentator, Michael Smith, for making public statements that allegedly vilified, incited hatred and discriminated against Muslims. Hassan wrote a 15 page letter to 4 BC that described Australia as a racist country and criticised various forms of behaviour particularly by Aussie women. Smith could be required by the Commission to attend a three hour mediation session with Hassan.

This is not the first of such anti-discrimination measures taken in Australia: under laws passed by the Victorian Government two Christian pastors were punished for warning their flock about the Koran’s praise of jihad; and 2GB commentator Alan Jones was ordered last year by the NSW Administrative Tribunal to pay $10,000 in damages and deliver an on-air apology to Muslim leader Keysar Trad for vilifying Muslim youth.

I mention these difficulties facing public critics of Islam in Australia not because I intend to avoid criticism of extremist Islamic views and actions but because they constitute a problem that needs to be addressed. Under the new counter-terrorism policy in Britain the so-called Prevent strategy envisages a verbal confrontation with activists and community or religious leaders who advocate cultural separatism and intolerance. I am not aware of the extent this strategy has actually been applied, if at all, but it is one that should be adopted in Australia and that should be excluded from the application of any anti-discrimination legislation. 

At first glance the fact that public critics of Islam face constraints in Australia might be thought strange given that the proportion of our population that is Muslim is small. The religious affiliations recorded in the 2006 Census show about 2% of the population, or less than 400,000, are shown as Muslim and over 60% as Christian, with about 30% having no religion or not stated. However, most overseas polling of Muslims shows that a not insignificant proportion approve of violent action in support of Islam, including the 9/11 episode in the US, the London train bombings and fighting against military forces of the US and the West generally in the Middle East. If only 10 per cent of Australian Muslims come in that grouping, this would imply some 40,000 are activists of one kind or another.

It is difficult to assess the possible extent of how many would be prepared to commit terrorist acts, including by suicides. The judge in the most recent court decision on 16 February sentencing five (unnamed) men to maximum prison sentences ranging between 17 and 28 years stated that those convicted showed no remorse and would wear their prison terms as “a badge of honour”. These convictions were imposed even though no weapons could be found (the police say they are hidden) and no actual acts of terrorism had been committed.  It is encouraging that sentencing such as this has occurred based only on evidence of conspiring to take such action but it also confirms the highly dangerous potential within Australian society. However, while the protesting sister of one of those convicted featured on ABC TV and a forthcoming meeting at Lakemba Mosque organised by Sheik Hilali received advance publicity, as far as I am aware there has been no substantive comment on the convictions by any political leader.

ASIO’s annual report for 2009 provides a perspective on the potential extent of the problem, although it needs to be borne in mind that it is a report by officials who of necessity have to take some account of government views. ASIO indicated that 2009 had involved it in the most intense activity since 2005, with the identification of a new terrorist cell and the numbers convicted of terrorist offences rising to 21 (which will now be 26) since 2006. It stated its first priority as being to prevent a terrorist attack on Australia and warned that “terrorism continues to be a persistent threat to Australia and Australian interests... the possibility of an attack in Australia remains” and is “expected to be a destabilising force for the foreseeable future”. ASIO described the defeat of al-Quaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan as vital, noted that threats of attacks on Australia had been made by overseas terrorist groups, and pointed out that the Let group (which was responsible for the Mumbai deaths) included an Australian citizen (Lodhi) and a Frenchman (Brigitte) who had been sent to Australia to assist him, with both now convicted. It also noted that terrorism could involve chemical, bio and nuclear action.

The extent of the problem faced by ASIO is indicated by the increase in its staffing of 13 per cent to 1,700 in 2009 and the rise in spending of 19 per cent to $362 million. ASIO issued 2,738 reports or assessments for governments (including no less than 1,092 threat assessments) and undertook about 60,000 visa security and 65,000 counter-terrorism checks.

Despite this increase in terrorist activity, the Labor Government itself seems to have done little at the political level to address the domestic threat from Islamic terrorism. In his National Security Statement of December 2008 Prime Minister Rudd did say that Australia has been “explicitly and publicly mentioned as an ‘enemy’ by Islamist extremists” and that “terrorism is likely to endure as a serious ongoing threat”. But that was the only reference to Islamism in a 14 page address to Parliament and his undertaking then to release a Counter-Terrorism White Paper “next year” has not been met. One worrying media reference has suggested the draft circulated to experts was full of blancmange, perhaps so as to avoid offending Muslim countries!

Also relevant is that the Attorney-General released in August a Discussion Paper on National Security Legislation for public consultation and comment by September 2009. It appears from the Department’s web site that this paper remains open for comment. I have not examined the paper but it is of concern that the Attorney General stated that he seeks amendments to existing legislation “to achieve an appropriate balance” between protecting security and ensuring that the legislation “will be exercised in a just and accountable way”. Such an amendment would likely increase the difficulty, already considerable, to secure convictions from the many judges who are reluctant or feel unable to make decisions that impinge on what they perceive as human rights. Paul Sheehan’s book on Girls Like You provides a vivid and disturbing illustration.

In his statement McClelland made no reference to Islamic terrorism but he proposed one amendment that would create an offence of “inciting violence against an individual on the basis of race, religion, nationality, national origin or political opinion”. This is a two edged sword. It could allow action to be taken against radical Muslims but my concern is that it would have the potential to increase the difficulty of making critical comments about the Muslim religion or even, possibly, about Islamic extremists. It might be noted that the previous government implemented many counter-terrorism measures, including the passage of 25 pieces of legislation dealing with terrorist acts, principally designed to create offences and procedures before a terrorist act is committed.

It is pertinent here to refer to the Rudd Government’s immigration policy, which John Stone has rightly described in a Quadrant article (December 2009) as having now “developed into a major political crisis” but which development started under the previous government. I cannot here delve into the detail but the essence is that there has been an across the board liberalization in the various categories of entry that has made it much easier for foreigners to become permanent Australians, a prize that many seek. The official net migration figures tell some of the story. In 2008-09 net overseas migration amounted to 285,300 persons (which contributed over 60 per cent to the total increase in population of just over 2 per cent) and was one-third higher than the 214,000 in 2007-08 and approaching triple the 100,000 net migration in 2003-04. The ABS estimates of population growth for various countries, including the most populous, show Australia as having the second fastest rate of growth in 2009 (after Singapore) and almost double the world growth.

However, these migration figures are based only on those who stay in Australia for 12 months or more (or in the case of emigrants who stay out for that period). In 2008-09 there were no less than 4,338,427 visas issued, of which only the 510,600 recorded by the ABS as arrivals would be permanents. ASIO’s visa security assessments numbered only about 60,000, which suggest considerable potential exists for terrorists to avoid detection.

More generally, while it is appropriate to have net migration, there is no economic or general policy need to have such a large annual intake. For today’s purposes, however, the concern is less about the total than the possible adverse composition and security implications and how they might be changed.

First, although there is no data on the religion of immigrants - the only guide to that is the dominant religion of the country from which the immigrant comes - when I researched this in 2007, it showed that about 30 per cent of net arrivals came from countries where the main religion is Islam, up from 18 per cent in 1995-96. It could reduce the risk of terrorist migrants to require that would-be migrants from those and other countries sign a formal statement of acceptance of the separation of Church and State, the equality of treatment of men and women and the rejection of certain cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation. (For more detailed suggestions, see John Stone’s article in Quadrant, September 2006). Such a statement could include specific acceptance of deportation in the event the undertakings were not fulfilled.

Second, the greatly increased staffing of overseas posts with locals has opened the way for discrimination in Middle East and Central Asian countries in particular based on religion and there is evidence that an anti-Christian attitude exists (see recent Stone article). There is an obvious alternative policy here and the provision of additional overseas ASIO staffing could help too.

Third, the main responsibility for selecting the Refugee component has been almost entirely delegated to the UNHCR, from whose camps of millions the individuals are selected. This has almost certainly resulted in a deterioration in the quality of these immigrants, particularly regarding English speaking capacities. Again, there is an obvious alternative policy.

Fourth, a reduction in the annual immigration program to, say, 0.5 per cent of the existing population (about 105,000) would make that program more manageable from a security perspective without significantly reducing its acceptability internationally.

Fifth, it could be made harder to become an Australian citizen, which presently requires the ability to do no more than answer 75% of 20 questions drawn at random out of a pool of questions listed on the Immigration Department’s web.


I hope I have said enough to justify my view that extremist Islamism, or what John Howard described at a recent function I attended as “Islamic fascism”, is our greatest threat. We are living on a precipice and could quickly slide over the edge without notice. Let me highlight that by referring to comments made at a defence conference held by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2007. Those comments were by  a US expert on nuclear proliferation, Mr Robert L. Gallucci, who pointed out that there is an increasing risk of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon without being detected, not necessarily one with the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb but one sufficient to kill 250,000 people. It is worth quoting a relevant extract:

We have no defence against a nuclear weapon delivered by a terrorist group, because we could be sure that it will be delivered in an unconventional way. After we get finished worrying about all the containers, we can then start worrying about all the trucks, and then we can worry about the marinas and then we will rapidly conclude that we really cannot defend, as a strategist would say, by denial, or by preventing a nuclear weapon from being introduced into the United States, which leaves us only with deterrence. Deterrence, of course, creates the problem of knowing exactly who your attacker is, having an attacker who had some level of unacceptable damage, and anybody who presents to you the proposition that they value your death more than their life is not a really good candidate for deterrence”.

It is becoming less and less likely that actions of this type can be prevented. Probably the best we can do is to reduce the risk to Australia by making ourselves a tougher target for extremists, by doing our best to convince Muslims who are already here that they will be caught and will face tough penalties, and by tightening our immigration policy. There is a need for governments, both federal and state, to effect a major upgrade in the priority given to counter-terrorist policy and, one would hope, to make this a bipartisan effort.

Apart from changing immigration policy in the ways I have suggested, measures might include the creation of Minister for Counter Terrorism, whose tasks would include promoting the virtues of our culture and (constructively) criticizing Islamic culture and the publicizing of polling of attitudes adopted by Muslims, exempting criticisms of religious texts from anti-discrimination legislation, and generally making it easier for police and intelligence services to track, detain and prosecute possible terrorists. If, for example, Malaysia has provision for indefinite detention without trial for terrorists, Australia should surely be able to apply it in certain circumstances.  

 Some will argue that we should also do more to persuade Muslims who are here to integrate and to make them feel part of the community. But my perception is that this is unlikely to produce any significant results. When in 2007 he was spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria, Waleed Aly, indicated that Muslims should not be pressured to assimilate: “life will make you integrate”, he claimed (“Pressure to assimilate won’t work, leader warns”, Richard Kerbaj, The Australian, 5 March 2007). A similar outcome is likely for moves to persuade Muslim leaders to speak openly against Islamists within their communities.

We Australians who are first and foremost Australians must do things for ourselves.  For we have good reasons not to be able to expect sufficient of the Muslims who are here not only to integrate but also to persuade their religious compatriots to accept that they too should become true Australians rather than striving to force Australians to become like them.

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