By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY (Reuters) - A prominent Australian Muslim leader criticized the government's $1 billion program to deradicalize Muslim youths on Wednesday, saying it put too much emphasis on law enforcement and not enough on factors that drive young people to fight overseas.
About 100 Australians are fighting in Iraq and Syria but Samier Dandan, president of Australia's Lebanese Muslim Association, branded the conservative government's 9-month-old program to stop the flow of radicalized Muslims "a mess".
The problem is faced by many Western countries, especially members of U.S.-led coalitions that fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to unveil a five-year counter-extremism strategy he described as "struggle of our generation".
"Almost universally, research points to the enormous influence that wider social, economic and political issues have on the process of radicalization," Dandan said.
"Yet, the focus of the government's strategy seems to rest heavily on how best it can strip people of their rights in the name of 'security'," he wrote in an opinion piece shown to Reuters before it was published later on Wednesday.
Australia is on "high" alert for attacks by radicalized Muslims or by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East, and has carried out a series of high-profile raids in major cities.
Australian citizens now face up to a decade in prison for travel to overseas areas declared off-limits and Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this month introduced legislation to strip citizenship from dual nationals found to have engaged in militant acts.
Dandan said the government was missing an opportunity to address the root causes that drive radicalization - inequality.
At least half of Australia's Muslims live in Sydney's west, which was transformed in the mid-1970s from white working-class districts into majority-Muslim areas by a surge of immigration from Lebanon.
The most recent 2011 national census found that areas in Sydney most associated with Lebanese ancestry - Auburn, Lakemba, Punchbowl, Granville - lag far behind the rest of New South Wales state on indicators such as income and employment.
A spokesman for the Australian Attorney General's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dandan will publish the full text of the article on the website and Facebook pages of the Lakemba Mosque, Australia's largest, later on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Paul Tait and Jeremy Laurence)