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Australian Muslims: the new 'others'

By Arthur Saniotis - posted Monday, 18 November 2002

A new culture of surveillance has emerged in Australia since September 11, and Australian Muslims are being subjected to it in a way that seems to reaffirm their sense of otherness. While stereotyping of non-westerners has been a historical legacy of this country, we are presently experiencing a new phase of this cultural dilemma which some commentators have coined "Islamophobia".

Australia’s long history with constructing people as ‘other’ begins with white colonisation of this country. Employing the medieval notion of the hierarchy of being, white colonists classified Aboriginal Australians as being sub-human. By the late 1800s the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism further attempted to legitimate why and how Aboriginal Australians were inferior to their Caucasian masters. In short, these ideologies emasculated Aboriginal Australians of their humanity and reduced them to the status of objects. This is why prominent Australians such as Edward Ramsey, curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney (1874-1894) could declare Aboriginal Australians as "Australian animals."

The coming of Chinese migrants during the 1850s to the Victorian gold fields allowed white Australians to further justify their supremicist views. Like Aboriginal Australians, Chinese were seen as inferior, alien and exotic. However, the similarities ended there. As numbers of Chinese workers entering Australia increased white Australians took notice. Chinese were now considered as a serious threat to Anglo-Australia, prompting the white fantasy of invasion from Asian hordes or the ‘yellow peril’. A striking example of this national paranoia is illustrated in newspaper cartoons of the period, which depicted Chinese as locusts and tidal waves. Fortress Australia was born.


After the 1991 Gulf War Australia entered a new phase of discrimination. Australian Muslims became the new ‘other’. It was easy for them to fit the bill. As followers of an other faith, which requires them to pray five times a day and for women to cover their heads, Australian Muslims present all the hallmarks of otherness.

There is no doubt that after September 11, Australian Muslims as well as other Muslims living in the West have taken on pariah status. But what has also emerged in this period is a new preoccupation with controlling the Muslim other. The apparent stealth and ease with which the terrorists gained access to the planes which destroyed the World Trade Centre has endowed Muslims in general with a kind of invisibility. Nowhere is this more apparent than media descriptions of Al-Qaeda as an invisible enemy that must be terminated.

But where is the enemy? This is the question that governments and intelligence agencies alike have been pondering over. Consequently, a unilateral counter-terrorist force has been deployed to vanquish the invisible enemy, and is the first part of a global attack strategy. However, governments realise that such measures are not enough. Perceptions of terrorists living among us have prompted another response – the ritual of allegiance. Here, the public’s attention is strategically directed to measure whether the level of a person’s otherness is a threat to Australia. Not surprisingly, it is Australian Muslims who have had to endure this form of public scrutiny.

On September 12th 2001, I was watching the Channel Nine "Today" show. A young Australian Muslim religious leader was attempting to explain that the terrorist’s actions had no mandate in Islam. The show’s presenter then asked the Muslim leader where his loyalty lay. The Muslim leader replied that he was loyal to his creator. For many incensed Australians, the Muslim leader’s failure to give an 'appropriate' response was indefensible.


Australian’s columnist Angela Shanahan took a new spin on the ‘invisible’, lurking Muslim by declaring that the waning of Christian values would lead to a moral vacuum for Islam to fill. Similarly, Franklin Graham’s ascription of "Islam as an evil religion" falls into the populist sentiment of Islam as a pre-modern force that needs reforming.

As it happens, I have been closely monitoring this kind of ‘Islam bashing’. It seems there is no lack of social events to castigate Australian Muslims: September 11, the ‘stoning’ trials in Nigeria, the Lebanese gang rapes in Sydney, and now the Bali bombing. Perhaps it also comes from the perception that many Australian Muslims are easy targets for a wily and manipulative media. Why is it, I ask, that the Australian Muslims often interviewed by the TV media are either given to hyberbole or are untrained in the art of media talk. Is it mere coincidence?


Noteworthy here was the Channel Nine program "A Current Affair" from late September this year in which a young Muslim male was interviewed. During the interview he was asked whether he would fight against Australia in a holy war. He said that he would as it was part of his religion to exercise this right. In this context, the Muslim as ‘potential menace’ was selectively presented to the TV audience. It is exactly this level of what seems to be a growing national anxiety that feeds into the logic of Fortress Australia. As Paul Sheehan from the Sydney Morning Herald reminds us, Australians are unhappy that this country is again being targeted by ‘foreign hordes’, this time Muslims "with barely a shred of consultation or consent". The rhetoric is all too familiar.

At present, the western world is engaged in a new kind of war that is paradoxical and Orwellian in its dimensions. The swiftness of the United States’ response to destroy Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network was vital for restoring some sense of existential control which had been usurped from the American psyche. The Bali bombing has similarly traumatised Australians. Many of us now realise that we are in the enemy’s sights. The terrorists have landed.

While terrorism must be resisted it is also essential to measure our responses so that we do not disempower the blameless. The war against terror must not become a war of expediency – for vilifying Australian Muslims. The American poet Wendell Berry asserts that it is misleading to think that national security justifies any abridgement of constitutional rights. Unfortunately, the downward spiral of events has become a crucible for religious bigotry and intolerance. In the end humanity will be the ultimate loser.

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About the Author

Dr Arthur Saniotis is a staff member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide.

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