The hidden history of Islamophobia

by Vashti Kenway • Published 12 January 2015

Just after 4am on Thursday, 18 September 2014, Maywand Osman’s door was kicked in. Police wearing armour, helmets and balaclavas invaded his home, surrounded him and ripped him from his bed. He put his hands in the air to signal compliance. “Four officers then jumped at me and one punched me in the face… They threw me to the ground and started hitting me in the head and pulling my hair.”[1] He was handcuffed and made to lie face to floor. He feared for his life.

Another young man, who refused to be named for fear of police reprisal, described a similar scene on the same morning:

I woke up to my mother screaming. This pig, this man he tried to take the blanket off my mother when she was dressed like any woman would dress for her husband. Two officers came into my room…they come and grabbed me and pushed me onto the floor and they handcuffed me. The dog puts his foot on the back of my neck, he puts his boots, his big foot, on the back of my foot and then he chucked me on to the wall.[2]

Thus began Operation Hammerhead, the Australian government’s latest piece of Islamophobic theatre: a new scene in the “hundred year war against terror”,[3] written exclusively for Abbott’s post-budget Australia. The script is familiar: a war in the Middle East, a shadowy Muslim enemy and a home-grown jihadist threat. This time, however, a larger cast has been employed. These September raids, involving more than 800 police and ASIO agents, were the largest in Australia’s history and involved a coordinated blitz on the homes of 25 Muslim families in NSW and two in Queensland. Fifteen men were arrested, of whom only one was charged with “terror-related” offences and another with firearms violations. A compliant media were alerted, cameras were at the ready and journalists were crouched to pounce. In the space of a few hours, all the morning newspaper headlines screamed of plots foiled. The Melbourne Herald Sun declared “Evil within” and “Beheading plot smashed”. The Age was just as lurid, with “Terror Australis” and “Beheading plot foiled” on its front page.

All hitherto accepted legal assumptions about people being innocent until proven guilty were thrown out the window, most mainstream press unquestioningly accepting the state prosecutor’s allegations as proven.

This maelstrom of media hysteria prompted waves of anti-Muslim racism across the country. From the top to the bottom of society, Muslims were vilified and targeted. As the government escalated the terror alert from medium to high, public buildings and sporting events were crawling with security personnel. Muslims deemed to be “lurking” in these venues were now fair game. Indeed, at a rugby league match four days after the raids, three young Muslim men were targeted. Lawyer Adam Houda described what happened.

In a packed stadium they were approached by police officers dressed up in riot squad gear and they pointed them out, asked them to come to them, they took them behind the stadium and started interrogating them as to why they were using their phones.[4]

Muslims and Arabs at airports were being treated with suspicion. In a high profile case, a senior Muslim cleric was detained at Sydney airport while he was on his way to Mecca to perform the hajj. He was taken from a line of people going through security, locked in a small room and interrogated. Security officials refused to say what he was suspected of and didn’t apologise even though he was released without any charge.[5] This was not an isolated incident.[6]

A subsequent incident reveals the tragic consequences of such profiling. On 2 October, a young Afghan man, Abdul Numan Haider, was killed by police in Melbourne after he was called in for questioning. Haider had been involved in a local mosque accused of “radicalism”. The police had, in the weeks leading to his death, come to his house, searched his room and pursued him for questioning. The government then revoked his passport, claiming he was planning to join foreign fighters. When asked to meet police, Haider took knives with him. What exactly followed we may never know, as the police are refusing to release CCTV footage of the encounter. What we do know is that a confrontation ensued and the 18-year-old was killed. The media’s response was not to question the right of police to shoot young people, but rather to engage in endless discussions about Muslim “radicalisation”. Haider’s family and friends were vilified almost daily in the press. The front page of the Herald Sun, having sent its finest paparazzi to intrusively photograph Haider’s funeral, splashed an image of a young male mourner looking angrily at the camera. The caption was “Death Stare”.

Racist politicians and religious leaders have been dutifully stirring up a potent brew in which Islam, the burqa, terrorism, violence, sexism, migrants and brutality are all mixed.

The Anglican dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, traced a direct line between the politics of the Islamic State and all Muslims. In a provocative blog post titled “The truth behind ISIL”, he says it is “time to face the truth that Islam itself is in part to blame, and to help our fellow Australians, especially those from Islamic background, to understand that Islam is false”.[7]

Arch-conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi sprang to attention the afternoon of the raids and used the opportunity to call yet again for the banning of the hijab and burqa. In a tweet, he exclaimed: “Note burqa wearers in some of the houses raided this morning? This shroud of oppression and flag of fundamentalism is not right in Aust.”[8] Senator Jacqui Lambie, in a lengthy speech in parliament supporting the Liberal government’s new anti-terror legislation, said “[T]he 9/11s, the Bali bombings, Boston marathon bombings, recent beheadings and massacres have all been carried out by supporters of Sharia law,” and that sharia “supporters should leave the country”.[9]

The dog whistles were out and the racist hounds unleashed. On 15 September a mosque in Logan, Brisbane, was vandalised and had anti-Muslim leaflets dumped on its lawns. The leaflets featured racist taunts such as “Terrorists born in Australia are not Australians – they are Muslims” and “Muslims are not welcome in Australia, go back to where you came from.” A photo of Mecca with a pig superimposed on top was also left at the mosque. An Australian ex-soldier, Ralph Cerminara (associated with the Australian Defence League),[10] released a YouTube video that went viral, declaring “another Cronulla is coming, and I can’t wait until it does, because this time, we’re going to show you who’s boss”. In his video rant, Cerminara also says prayer rooms and mosques are going to “burn”.[11]

Muslims across the country reported a sharp spike in racist abuse on the streets. Women wearing hijabs, in particular, reported being targeted. Many had their head scarves ripped off, one had boiling coffee thrown at her, and another had someone attempt to set her hijab on fire.

This kind of aggressive street level racism doesn’t fall from the sky. It is a sentiment that has been carefully fostered. Islamophobia has a long history in Australia and an even longer history in European culture. It has played a key role in the history of Western empire building: from Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt in the early nineteenth century through to the latest US venture in Iraq. In Australia, Islamophobia developed as one of the central ideological tools used to justify Australia’s participation in the first Gulf War in 1991, its part in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq in 2003 and its ongoing support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Islamophobia has also played an important role in domestic politics. The demonisation of Muslims has served as a “weapon of mass distraction”, displacing anger and concern over working class issues onto fear and hysteria about the Muslim enemy within. Anti-Muslim demagogy has also served to shape a broader climate of hostility to migrants, refugees and other non-Anglo sections of Australian society: a classic ruling class tactic of divide and rule. This article will explore the various historical uses of Islamophobia throughout the twentieth century. It will also argue that Islamophobia is not just the prerogative of the far right – it is a mainstream, bipartisan affair. Indeed, there is a symbiotic relationship between the political mainstream, Labor and Liberal, and the fascist and extreme nationalist groupings. I will also draw strongly on Deepa Kumar’s work and her identification of “liberal Islamophobia” as a softer but no less dangerous form of bigotry.[12]

A Marxist theory of racism and Islamophobia

Marx wrote that capitalism came into being “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.[13] From birth, it moved to the rhythm of the slaver’s whip in the US south and the chugging of the cotton looms in Manchester and Lancashire. British industrial development necessitated the use of slavery in the Americas and colonial expansion across India, the Middle East and Asia. In Capital, Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.[14]

The nascent capitalist class required an ideological justification for the barbarism of slavery and the enforced servitude of the indigenous populations of the colonised territories. They also required a weapon with which to beat back any kind of united challenge from below to their rapidly consolidating rule. In their battle against the rigid, hierarchical and superstitious feudal order, the rising bourgeoisie developed a set of radical ideas based on rationality and science. After they came to power, such ideas began to serve another purpose. Scientific categories were developed to provide the deeply unequal society over which they were presiding with a veneer of scientific rationality and an unchallengeable authority. Various institutions were tasked with the role of explaining social difference in biological and scientific terms. Skulls were measured supposedly to determine intelligence, and tables of human development, supposedly based on a Darwinian theory of evolution, dominated explanations of the social rule of the Western European capitalist class. Black Africans sat at the bottom of the evolutionary table and white Europeans the top. The brutality meted out to slaves and colonised peoples could therefore become acceptable. After all “liberty, equality and fraternity” only applied to men, and many of the finest scientific minds agreed that blacks were not men. Human beings began to be fitted into one category or another, and all their social characteristics stemmed from their “race”. This became the dominant form of racism in the early part of the twentieth century. The colonised peoples of the Middle East were fitted into this hierarchy.

The changing role of Western Islamophobia

These racialised understandings of society were bolstered with a “civilisational” view of history that viewed Western European and then US society as more rational, advanced, progressive and capable of change. By contrast, other civilisations and cultures, particularly those of the “Orient”, were mired in religiosity and superstition and were often uncontrollably carnal. During this period, the Orient was conflated with the “Muslim world”. Maxime Rodinson, in his seminal work Europe and the Mystique of Islam, describes a Western romantic, civilisational dreamscape of the Orient as

characterised by fierce and lavish scenes in a wild array of colours; harems and seraglios; decapitated bodies, women hurled into the Bosporus in sacks; feluccas and brigantines displaying the Crescent flag; round turquoise domes and white minarets soaring to the heavens; viziers, eunuchs, and odalisques, refreshing springs under palm trees; giaours with their throats slit; captive women forced into submission by their lustful captors.[15]

In the nineteenth century, visions of an undifferentiated, colourful Muslim Orient were fuelled by the mass publication of stories like A Thousand and One Arabian Nights and the growth in the number of scholars dedicated to the field. As Western European (particularly the French and British) empires began to expand into North Africa and the Middle East, academic investigation into Oriental culture grew apace.

These cultural studies were racialised. Rodinson describes this as homo islamicus.[16] Oriental scholars talked about the Muslim, Arab or Oriental “mind” as though the population of these regions had uniform attitudes, desires, politics and histories, as if some heady mix of biology and civilisation formed the special category of the “Oriental Muslim”. One of the key proponents of this kind of attitude was the early twentieth century American Orientalist scholar Albert Howe Lybyer, who argued in The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent that what mattered most in understanding the region was the “spirit” of the race in power.[17] Zachary Lockman describes his argument:

Lybyer suggested that the rise and expansion of the Ottoman empire, and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, were due largely to what he claimed was the fact that its civil and military elites were almost entirely composed of people who had been born Christian and Aryan. In contrast, Lybyer depicted the Moslem Institution as “Semitic” in spirit and therefore conservative and inflexible in character.[18]

Deepa Kumar offers another example from an American journalist who expressed similar assumptions more starkly in 1921:

Out of the prehistoric shadows the white races pressed to the front and proved in a myriad of ways their fitness for the hegemony of mankind. Gradually they forged a common civilisation; then, when vouchsafed their unique opportunity of oceanic mastery four centuries ago, they spread over the earth, filling its empty spaces with their superior breeds and assuring to themselves an unparalleled paramountcy [sic] of numbers and dominion… At last the planet was integrated under the hegemony of a single race with a common civilisation.[19]

In the twentieth century, sweeping racial and civilisational generalisations about the populations of the Middle East and North Africa served as weapons in the modern colonising project. Although the Middle East was always important to world capitalism for its trade routes, the discovery of plentiful oil deposits in the early part of the twentieth century made the region more central to the West. First Britain, then the US, established economic dominance through direct mandate rule, pliant puppet regimes or colonial settler populations. Islamophobia became a key form of racism for Western governments. The exact contours of Western Islamophobia have shifted and changed according to the dynamics in the Middle East. It is worth tracing this outline since the end of World War II. In particular, it is important to look at US imperialism in the Middle East (and the Muslim majority countries in the region), as Australia’s foreign policy is closely intertwined with it. What is more, many of the tropes, policing strategies, rhetoric and legal devices of twentieth century Islamophobia were conceived in the US and brought to life in Australia.

After World War II, the strength of the old European powers declined relative to that of the US and the USSR. The Middle East was a crucial battleground in the Cold War. Accordingly, more and more political and scholarly attention was turned towards the region. One historian put it this way:

With the possible exception of those physicists engaged in the Manhattan Project [to develop the atom bomb], no academics were so dramatically affected by the national mobilisation following Pearl Harbour as were those in international studies.[20]

It was necessary to understand in order to rule. Here academia walked hand in hand with state, military and government forces. Oriental studies during this period drew on earlier, mainly European, work. Figures like Lybyer were called on to propagate academic Islamophobic attitudes. The most dominant of these academic treatises argued that there was a direct line from the period of Mohammad to the present day – with only the influence of the West altering the fundamental dynamics of “Islamic civilisation”. Muslim culture, according to these works, was static, unchanging and in need of outside intervention to promote modernisation.[21]

Such analyses were put into books that were disseminated amongst government officials, policy makers and politicians responsible for Western intervention into the Middle East. They were also popularised and helped shape mass attitudes towards Arab and Muslim culture for decades.

As the Cold War heated up, the main threats to the US were the secular nationalist movements and those forces deemed to be under Russian influence. Islamophobic rhetoric during this period therefore focused mainly on the Arab rather than the Muslim threat. Indeed, to focus on all Muslims during this period wouldn’t have fitted with the US’s strategic emphasis. It was busily sponsoring a range of deeply reactionary religious regimes and non-governmental Islamist forces. These included most prominently the Al Saud family in Saudi Arabia. The reactionary state practices of the Saudi ruling family, which used beheadings, hostility to trade unions and the visible and extreme repression of women, were no obstacle to the development of the US-Saudi friendship. In fact, despite their religious despotism, the US paraded the Al Saud family around the world as progressive supporters of freedom. Similarly, the precursors to Al Qaeda, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, were supported by the US as freedom fighters, bravely resisting the evil Russian empire. In an ironic turn of events, the US helped coalesce what Kumar calls the first truly global jihad of the twentieth century, led by none other than Osama Bin Laden.[22]

The other major factor that impinged on how the West engaged in Middle Eastern politics was its developing relationship with Israel. The 1967 war demonstrated that Israel was capable of defending the US’s economic and strategic interests and so it became its closest ally in the Middle East. Australia’s relationship with Israel, always strong, became stronger. Palestinian resistance grew from 1968 under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and increasingly threatened to destabilise Israeli power. A number of high profile plane hijackings and the dramatic murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinian resistance organisations all thrust Palestinian politics onto the world stage. A renewed ideological attack on Arabs by the US and Australian ruling classes began. In popular culture, Arabs became synonymous with terrorists. In his exhaustive study of Hollywood depictions of Arabs, Jack Shaheen discovered that between 1983 and 1998, 28 films were made in Hollywood depicting Palestinians.

Of these, seven, including True Lies (1994) and Wanted Dead or Alive (1987) project the Palestinian as a nerve-gassing terrorist and eleven more depicted Palestinian evil doers that injure and physically threaten Western women and children.[23]

It was during the 1970s that domestic institutional and legal Islamophobic policies were developed in the US. Many of these state policies became templates for other Western countries in later decades. The Nixon administration launched “Operation Boulder”, which gave law enforcement agencies “carte blanche authorisation to investigate individuals of Arabic speaking origin, whether citizen or not, allegedly to determine their possible relationship with ‘terrorist’ activities related to the Arab Israeli conflict”.[24] This was to begin a pattern that continues until today. Muslims in the “homeland” are targeted by state agencies as “sleeper terrorists”.

The 1979 revolution in Iran upset the balance of forces in the region. The Shah had been a staunch US ally, and his ousting by a revolutionary upsurge was a game-changer. The revolution, eventually derailed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic leadership, was hostile to the US. The 1979-80 hostage crisis, when hundreds of US citizens were held for three months in the US embassy in Tehran, further exacerbated the situation for Arabs as well as Iranians living in the US. President Jimmy Carter made no distinction between Iranians, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Muslims. All Middle Eastern and Muslim US residents were subject to increased surveillance and police harassment.

In 1991 the US went to war with Iraq over control of the Kuwaiti oil fields. This first Gulf War intensified the domestic crackdown on Arabs and Muslims in the US, Britain and Australia more seriously than anything since the 1970s. In the US, the Department of Justice “required Arab residents and immigrants to submit to fingerprinting and the Federal Aviation Administration devised a system of racial profiling.”[25] Then, on 11 September 2001 the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked. Minutes after the planes crashed into the buildings, with sirens wailing and flames burning, media pundits were declaring Muslim culpability. A global “war on terror” was declared. The preceding decades had set the scene for this war on terror also to be a war on Muslims and Arabs.

The war on terror gave the neo-conservatives who sat in the White House under George W. Bush the perfect pretext for both an internal and an external war without end. It was the new McCarthyism. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were both designed to be sorties in a war to reshape the Middle East (and then the world) in the interests of the United States. They were wars for oil, intended to re-establish US hegemony and send a signal to rising powers such as China that the US was still boss. This became known as the Bush doctrine. In order to prosecute these wars effectively, and to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”, the ideological war machine went into overdrive. Emergency convocations of academics, writers, journalists, policy makers and other “experts” took place at the White House. Among those invited to these strategy sessions was Bernard Lewis, one of the most strident Islamophobes of the 1990s and the author of the article “The Roots of Muslim Rage,”[26] in which he used the phrase “clash of civilisations”, a term later taken up by Samuel Huntington in his pivotal work The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the New World Order. Both Lewis and Huntington had been loyal servants of the US ruling class since the 1960s. Huntington had chaired the Council on Vietnamese Studies of the US Agency for International Development’s South East Asia Advisory Group from 1966 to 1969. In a classified report produced for the State Department, Huntington gave a theoretical justification for the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam.[27]

Bush and Co. laid the anti-terror rhetoric on thick. Drawing on Huntington, they argued that there were two civilisations at war on the world stage: the US empire, which stood for freedom, democracy, plurality, innovation, change and modernity, and the “enemy”, who hid in caves in Afghanistan, in the suburbs of Baghdad and in mosques in the United States, and who hated everything the US stood for. On 5 September 2002 Bush addressed these themes directly in a speech in Louisville, Kentucky:

You know, one of my concerns was the farther we got away from September the 11th, the more likely it would be that some in our country might not think the enemy still existed. But they do. And they’re nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers. That’s all they are. People in our country wonder why, why would somebody hate America. It’s because we love freedom, that’s why. We love the idea that free people can worship any almighty God any way they so choose in America. We value the freedom for people to speak their mind in this country. We value a free press. We value freedom. And the more we value freedom, the more they hate us. That’s why. That’s why the enemy still exists.[28]

This kind of rhetoric was used to justify the most appalling abuses of human rights outside the US. In Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the US military and CIA tortured Iraqi prisoners. Thousands were rounded up in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and, without any trial, tortured in US “rendition” centres, then sent to Guantanamo Bay where they were kept in degrading, soul-destroying conditions for years. Australia’s complicity in these atrocities ensured that Islamophobia would remain an important aspect of government policies.[29]

Domestically the noose tightened around Muslim and Arab necks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, about 1,200 Muslim citizens and non-citizens were summarily arrested and questioned by the FBI and various other law enforcement and immigration services. Many were questioned for hours; some were kept in solitary confinement, terrified and without legal counsel. Not one of these people was charged with any terror-related crime. This was to begin a wave of intensified repression of Arab and Muslim communities. Over the next decade, regular round-ups occurred. Such mainstream endorsement of racial profiling encouraged the radical right and a series of Islamophobic activist campaign groups developed.

The Bush administration was thoroughly discredited by its failed military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama became the preferred candidate of liberal imperialists; he promised a more palatable face for the US empire. Despite the hopes of millions who were persuaded by Obama’s promises that he would provide a cleaner, kinder US imperialism, the US empire remained fundamentally the same. In 2010 Obama launched a “surge” of troops in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay remained open, and domestically there was a rash of further arrests and “terror scares”. Obama’s terms in office demonstrate that Islamophobia is truly a bipartisan affair. It is the racism of choice for the ruling class as a whole.

The Arab Spring offered a major challenge to the rule of tyrants and imperialists in the region. It also unsettled many of the dominant tropes of Islamophobia. Young people, workers and activists, from the Indignados movement in Spain to Occupy in the US to the Squares movement in Greece, all saw in the struggles of Egyptians and Tunisians a reflection of their own. Global solidarity momentarily triumphed over Islamophobia.

Is it racism?

Pedants and professional atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, maintain that Muslims do not constitute a race and therefore racism is not an appropriate term to use in discussions of Islam in Western society.[30] However, the term “racism” can and should be used to describe the oppression of Muslims in Western countries. Pedantic arguments that deny it at best provide a cover for bigotry and racism, at worst are simply an attempt to excuse the demonisation of Muslims.

“Race” as it has come to be understood is a socially constructed category. What is understood to be a “race” has changed over time. So, for instance, the Irish, Greeks and Italians were all, at a particular point in Australian history, the subject of racism. The Irish were understood to be a lesser “race” despite their white skin. The structural oppression of the Irish in Australia, in employment, housing and schooling, needed ideological cover. So a stereotype of the Irish as a backward, unruly race was constructed, which combined supposed physical and personality traits. As Phil Griffiths notes:

[A]rticles in highbrow literary journals asserted that in Ireland, Catholics and Protestants looked different, the former were “low of stature, uncouth of feature, and intensely black of hair and eye…servile in manner, voluble of tongue…”.[31]

Similarly, early twentieth century ruling class ideologues categorised Muslims as a “race” with particular physical and social characteristics. This was no accident. It corresponded to a tried and true method of social categorisation that excused oppression.

As the struggles of oppressed people against racism developed in the twentieth century, the biological underpinnings of racist ideology were challenged. No longer was it acceptable to draw on pseudo-science to understand race. Modern forms of Islamophobia adapted to these challenges, with the “civilisational” rhetoric overtaking the biologically racialised aspects of the ideology. The overwhelming rhetoric about Muslims today, especially in countries like Australia, relates to their cultural backwardness, their adherence to primitive religious practices and so on. Moreover, there remains a popular conflation between Muslims and Arabs. In some instances such a conflation has spilled over into many non-Anglo people being mistaken for Muslims and attacked on the street. In the recent round of hysteria, a Sikh temple in Perth was attacked and the words “go home”, “Arab fucks” and “Aussie pride” were graffitied on the side of the building.[32]

To say that Muslims aren’t a race misses the point. Racism is an ideology that corresponds to structural oppression. Muslims in Western countries like Australia are structurally oppressed, materially (as we will see below), politically and socially. Islamophobia is the attendant ideology and is a form of racism.

True blue Aussie racism

Australian capitalism is deeply racist, built as it is on the genocide of the Indigenous population, and the invasion of the country by European colonists. Heading a settler state, the British and then the Australian ruling class used racism as a key tool in its arsenal of social control.[33] Australia was built on unfree convict labour and then on migrant labour, and it was vital that the ruling classes find some method of ideologically binding the working population to them and their colonising project. British nationalism and “whiteness” proved to be a sturdy and enduring mechanism. Federation in 1901 introduced what came to be known as White Australia, a series of immigration restriction acts that favoured migration from mandated “white” European countries, particularly Britain.[34] These policies became central to the definition of Australia as a European country, with a special cultural affinity to the “motherland”, Great Britain. Despite often hysterical claims of Britishness, Australia was never a purely “white” country. The genocidal attempts to wipe out the Indigenous population were never totally completed. There was substantial travel between Indonesia and northern Australia, and small pre-1901 communities of migrants remained. Muslims have always been part of this picture.

There has been a Muslim presence in Australia longer than a British presence. Prior to the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, there was contact between Muslim Macassan fishermen from southern Sulawesi (now Indonesia) and Indigenous people in northern Australia. From the 1860s onwards, the largest Muslim population in the country were the so-called Afghan cameleers.[35] Between 1870 and 1900, around 3,000 Muslim cameleers arrived in Australia and participated in the exploration of the central desert.[36] Although designated as Afghan, many were from Baluchistan and the north-west of British India (today’s Pakistan). The cameleers belonged to four main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Baluchi, Punjabi and Sindhi. Camel trains were familiar sights in frontier towns like Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie, Bourke and Marree.[37]

Australia’s outback was a Babel, ringing with bells, camel groans, and the shouts of Pashto, Dari, Baluchi, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu drivers. Camel trains serviced the construction of the Adelaide to Darwin telegraph line, and transported goods between Adelaide to Alice Springs before the opening of the railway in 1929. “Ghan towns” and tin mosques, along with Aboriginal humpies, sat as slums at the fringes of towns.[38]

In Broome, the burgeoning pearling industry employed more than 1,000 Muslim Malay divers, and there was a scattering of Muslims and Arabs in urban centres. Prior to 1901, there was a steady stream of migrants from the Middle East. Many came from Turkey and Lebanon (then a semi-autonomous district in the Ottoman province of Syria) in the late 1880s. While many of the migrants during this period were Christian, they were popularly understood as being Muslim. This was a pattern that was to last generations. After the introduction of White Australia in 1901 Muslim and Arab migration fell dramatically, but European-born and some Albanian Muslims passed the colour bar.[39]

The post-war boom between 1945 and 1973 expanded Australian capitalism, which necessitated a relaxing of White Australia. To keep the economy growing, mass migration was required. There was a significant increase in non-European arrivals, including many from the Middle East (although, again, these were largely Christians). There was another wave of mainly Muslim migration from Lebanon after 1976 and the beginning of the Lebanese civil war.[40] The overwhelming bulk of these migrants were funnelled into expanding blue collar industries.

Despite this influx, the overall proportion of the population that is either Arab or Muslim is relatively small. According to the 2011 census, only 0.8 percent of Australia’s population were born in one of the 22 Arab League nations. Another 120,000 have at least one parent born in an Arab country. The largest national groupings are Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian. Fifty-five percent of Lebanese-born Australians are Christian, while 41 percent are Muslim. The 2011 census revealed that there are about 476,300 Muslims in Australia. This constitutes about 2.2 percent of the population. Of these Muslims, 61.5 percent were born overseas. Compared to some European countries, the proportion of Muslims in Australia is tiny. In the UK, 3.1 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, and in France it is 10 percent. Born in more than 60 countries and from many ethnic backgrounds, Australian Muslims speak a vast array of languages and dialects, from Central Asian Turkmeni to the Banyumasan language of Central Java. While the overall percentage of Muslims is small, the trend is upward. The population almost doubled between 1991 and 2001. Despite the conflation of Muslims with Arabs, it is interesting to note that fewer than 20 percent of all Australian Muslims were born in Middle Eastern or Arab countries.[41]

The Arab and Muslim population is overwhelmingly urban, which reflects general migration patterns. Muslims are mainly concentrated in two states; 50 percent live in NSW and 33 percent in Victoria. Almost half live in Sydney, while 31 percent live in Melbourne. Muslims and Arabs are disproportionately disadvantaged. The 2006 census showed that 40 percent of Muslim households had a weekly income of $650 or less, compared to 19 percent of non-Muslim households (weekly household income of $650 or less being the benchmark for poverty at the time.)[42] Muslim Australians are more likely than other Australians to work in blue collar occupations such as production and transport, and as labourers rather than managers, administrators or professionals, even though they have a very similar educational profile. There is a similar pattern among Australians of Middle Eastern descent. In 2009 Dr Riaz Hassan, in a paper based on the 2006 census, found:

Educationally they [Muslims] are high-achievers. Twenty-one per cent of adult Muslim men have a university degree compared with 15 per cent of non-Muslim Australians, yet their age-specific unemployment rates are two to four times higher than those of non-Muslim Australians. On other indicators of socioeconomic well-being they fall into a very disadvantaged category. For example their rate of home ownership is half the national average; 40 per cent of Muslim children are living in poverty, which is twice the Australian average; only 25 per cent of Muslim households have above average household income while the corresponding figure for non-Muslim households is 34 per cent. These indicators suggest that a significant proportion of Muslim Australians occupy, both socially and economically, a relatively marginal position in Australian society.[43]

These statistics suggest that Muslims and Arabs are structurally and economically oppressed. A variety of other factors contribute to this; for example, Muslim and Arab communities are under disproportionate police surveillance, and health care, welfare services and schools in these communities are often chronically underfunded.

This structural oppression is the material underpinning of Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim racism is not just a set of ideas that operate in a free-floating manner; they are both a reflection of and a justification for the material oppression of a particular community.

Just as Muslims and Arabs have a long history in Australia, so too does Islamophobia. By looking at the history, it is possible to trace three overriding agendas that fuel this racism. Firstly, Islamophobia has helped justify Australia’s participation in imperial ventures internationally. Secondly, it serves as a distraction from working class issues and mobilisations. Thirdly, it serves as a method of dividing the working class and shifting society to the right. Often these dynamics intersect.

Australia as imperialist power

Australia is a middle level imperialist power. It is a regional player in the Asia-Pacific and aspires to greater influence on the world stage. As a colonial settler state, Australia was a regular participant in Britain’s imperial ventures. Australia went into the First World War fighting staunchly alongside the British. Justificatory racism invariably followed. Despite the tiny number of Arabs and Muslims in Australia, anti-Ottoman sentiment was fostered. Anti-Turkish tracts were published in newspapers and the now familiar stereotypes of Muslim Turkish people as barbarous and uncivilised were peddled.

An incident on New Year’s Day 1915 at Broken Hill involving two Muslim men, one an Afghan Afridi and the other from west Pakistan, provided an excellent justification for the ruling class’s drive to war, and to clamp down on “enemy aliens” at home. Both then and after ,the two men were widely referred to as “Turks” because they flew a Turkish flag. Motivated by grievances about the racist treatment they and other Muslim cameleers endured, they opened fire on a train taking families to a picnic. They killed four people, including one woman, and injured seven more before being killed by police and irate citizens. National newspapers hysterically proclaimed the proliferation of enemy aliens across the country. Thousands of Germans, Turks and even Lebanese were rounded up, profiled as enemy aliens and interned or paroled under the 1914 Commonwealth War Precautions Act.[44] As always during times of war, internal vigilance and racism increased. The state operated with almost complete impunity. For instance, one man whose nickname was the Turkish Tom Thumb was arrested and interned after a tip-off by a disgruntled business associate. He remained imprisoned despite his declarations that he was in fact Greek and Jewish. In letters to newspapers, Muslims were described as dirty, treacherous and lascivious, tropes that were to reappear over the subsequent decades.[45]

While the 1940s and 1950s brought a relative lull in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric from the government, Islamophobia reared its head again during the late 1960s as the relationship between Australia and Israel tightened. Extreme and hostile rhetoric towards Arabs was a bipartisan affair. Bob Hawke, then head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and president of the Labor Party, declared he would nuke Palestinians if it were up to him. The following account of a conversation between Hawke and ALP historian Ross McMullin illustrates the extent of Hawke’s disregard for Palestinian life:

If I were the Israeli Prime Minister I would use the bomb on the Arabs. Mr McMullin…told him: “You cannot justify the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.” Mr Hawke replied heatedly: “Why? Because of world morality – the world has stood by for 25 years and watched attempts to push Israelis into the sea without lifting a finger. If I were the Israeli prime minister I wouldn’t give a damn about world morality – I would use the atomic bomb to protect my own.”[46]

The next major upsurge in Islamophobia occurred during the first Gulf War of 1991, when Australia served in Iraq alongside the US. To justify this, the Hawke government ramped up the rhetoric against Muslims. Iraqis were declared an internal threat as Australian media overflowed with lurid stories of Iraqi barbarism. This kind of rhetoric had a street-level effect. Racists of all stripes were given permission to hate. Scott Poynting describes the relationship between structural racism and street-level violence:

State racism in the form of ethnically targeted covert surveillance, ongoing harassment, secret police, dawn raids carried out by heavily armed officers, arrest and detention without proper trial and the like seems to be interpreted by outraged self-appointed guardians of white Christian “Australianness” as some sort of moral licence for their own violent racial attacks.[47]

The Committee on Discrimination against Arab Australians in Sydney and Melbourne calculated that the spate of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice led to between 35 and 50 incidents a day.[48] A 1991 Enquiry into Racist Violence heard evidence that during the Gulf War, Arabs and Muslims were afraid to leave their homes or allow their children to leave their homes. There were also widespread reports of Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off in the street and incidents of vandalism and arson against mosques, schools, offices and restaurants belonging to Arabs or Muslims.[49] Comparative reports suggest that the level of street racism in Australia was higher than in the US.[50]

September 11 had a major impact in Australia. News media covered the events 24 hours a day, and the subsequent declaration of a “war on terror” by the US ruling class was taken up with gusto by all the major Australian political parties. The “clash of civilisations” thesis found a direct echo in John Howard’s speeches of the period.

[T]hat attack of eleventh of September was as much an attack on Australia as it was on America. It not only killed Australians in the World Trade Centre, but it also assaulted the very values on which this nation is built.[51]

Kim Beazley, then leader of the Labor opposition, asserted:

September the 11th has changed the way we nations now think about security and what we have to do to defend ourselves. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder with George Bush and Tony Blair to root out and destroy national terrorism.[52]

Despite significant opposition, Australia went to war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Islamophobia was the key ideological plank, and Muslims and Arabs, both at home and abroad, were the victims. The Howard government launched a widespread and expensive campaign of fear. In 2003 it spent $15 million on fridge magnets that were sent to every house in Australia, urging people to be vigilant and to report any “suspicious” activities to a hotline specially created for this purpose. A study on anti-Muslim racism conducted in 2004 found that there was an almost one to one correlation between such ruling class campaigns and increased street violence.

Consultation participants reported how the incidence of discrimination and vilification has peaked and waned since 2001 following various local, regional, national and international crises.[53]

Clearly Islamophobia, driven from the top of society, plays a significant role in providing rationales for Australia’s military ventures internationally. We haven’t seen the end of this dynamic. On 9 August 2014 Professor Leahy – a former lieutenant general who ran the army from 2002 to 2008 – said in an article published on the front page of The Australian:

Australia is involved in the early stages of a war which is likely to last for the rest of the century. We must be ready to protect ourselves and, where necessary, act pre-emptively to neutralise the evident threat. Get ready for a long war.[54]

Here I want to explore two concrete instances of Australian Islamophobia to discuss how racism has been used to distract the population from class issues, “divide and rule”, to intimidate an oppressed community and to shift society to the right.

The Barwon 13

In 2005 the Howard government began a slash and burn campaign against unions and workers’ rights through the WorkChoices legislation. This was met with one of the largest working class movements in Australian history. Hundreds of thousands of organised workers took to the streets against the legislation. In response, the government played the terrorism card. The very day that the WorkChoices legislation was introduced into parliament, the government announced that it had “un-nested” two Muslim terror plots: the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) bombing and the Sydney barracks plot. Nine Muslim men were arrested in Melbourne and seven in Sydney.

The so-called plot to bomb the MCG was nothing of the sort, and the case around it is one of the least discussed miscarriages of justice in Australian history. Some more detail of this particular case reveals much about the state’s modus operandi when it comes to persecuting Muslims.

For two years the Australian Federal Police and ASIO monitored the activities of a group of young working class Muslim men in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. They recorded over 30,000 hours of conversations, gathered by telephone intercepts and hidden listening devices. They went to the men’s homes, lingered outside their mosques, and attempted to find individuals willing to act as informants. Eventually they recorded a series of conversations deemed incriminating enough to mount a case against 12 young men who were under the tutelage of a local cleric, Abdul Nacer Benbrika. The so-called MCG plot was based on a conversation Benbrika had with 19-year-old Abdullah Merhi, in which they discussed the morality of killing the same number of Australians as had been killed in Iraq, the same “numbers as go to the football”.[55] The Barwon 13, as they became known, were eventually charged with being members of a terrorist organisation (an organisation being a grouping of more than three people who discuss terrorism) and possessing a “thing” associated with terrorism. They were not charged with actually committing any crime – but rather with discussing the possibility of committing a terrorist act.

Rob Stary, a prominent civil liberties lawyer, made the point that Muslim teenagers are targeted merely for talking. “They can’t say the bolshy things Anglo-Australians can. They talk the talk, and it’s dangerous talk. But I can say whatever I like about who the real Iraq or Palestinian war criminals are, and how they should be brought to justice, and I won’t be imprisoned for it”, said Stary. “Not unless I convert to Islam.”[56]

A police agent was placed among the group, and this agent, the only person who had a bomb – which was provided by the police – gave evidence for the prosecution. (Australia has no laws against entrapment.) Twelve of the charged men were held in the maximum security Barwon prison for over two years on remand before their trial even started. Abdullah Merhi’s brother Omar described how the young men were kept in the most shocking conditions. They were shackled hand and foot on their way to and from court appearances. All their conversations with family, friends and lawyers during visits were recorded, and for over a year they were kept in solitary confinement. “They were made to sit in one bare room, with blue walls, for 23 hours a day.” [57] One of Merhi’s cousins described it as “being buried alive.”

In 2008 seven of the men were found guilty. But guilty of what? The anti-terror laws introduced by the Howard government had defined “a terrorist act” so broadly as to be applicable to almost anyone who was critical of the government and its international policies. The hysteria about this case – when hundreds of thousands of workers of all creeds, colours and religions were out on the streets protesting against the government – was a classic attempt at divide and rule tactics. While not diminishing the widespread hostility to WorkChoices, the narrative of the Muslim terror threat nonetheless operated as a distraction from the government’s anti-union offensive.

The Lebanese in Sydney

The Cronulla riot of 2005 was one of the most dramatic examples of mass racist violence in recent Australian history. Mobs gathered on a Sydney beach, and bashed anyone thought to look Lebanese or Middle Eastern.

The riot is best understood in the context of a long-running campaign since the 1990s against the Lebanese population of Sydney. This campaign was led by the NSW Labor government and was part of a general law and order push in which fear-mongering about gang violence was designed to harness support for increased police powers. It was also driven by a desire of the government to deflect attention from its responsibility for the crumbling public transport system and other infrastructure in Sydney. Bob Carr in particular, as premier from 1995 to 2005, whipped up anti-immigrant racism (which at times was explicitly anti-Lebanese), blaming “overpopulation” for the increasing strains on an ageing system starved of government funds. His arguments intersected neatly with those environmentalists who also raised scare campaigns about “overpopulation”.

In 2001 the NSW media went into overdrive.[58] A number of young Lebanese men were accused of rape. Headlines immediately racialised these attacks. “70 Girls Attacked by Rape Gangs: Police warning on new race crime” and “Caucasian women the targets” appeared on the front page of the Sun Herald on 29 July. An ABC Lateline report on 22 August stated:

Reports of Lebanese men preying on young Caucasian women, gang-raping them in planned, horrific attacks, has caused an outcry, leading all the way to the highest levels.[59]

Despite the fact that the victims of these crimes were not actually all Caucasian, politicians and the media immediately shifted gears and settled into a well-worn groove: white females are under threat of sexual assault by non-white men. This is a familiar narrative across the world, including Australia, where intervention in Aboriginal communities has been justified by charging black men with violating white women, thereby threatening the inviolability and strength of the dominant white culture.[60] In this instance the whole Lebanese Muslim community was considered culpable for the rapes, while Muslim culture as a whole was condemned for its inveterate sexism and its refusal to accept the “Aussie way of life”.

In the words of Miranda Devine, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald:

Yes, it is unfair that the vast bulk of law-abiding Lebanese Muslim boys and men should be smeared by association. But their temporary discomfort may be necessary so that the powerful social tool of shame is applied to the families and communities that nurtured rapists, gave them succour and brought them up with such a hatred of Australia’s dominant culture and contempt for its women.[61]

The attendant moral panic helped isolate the Lebanese community and strengthened the racist myth that Islam is peculiarly sexist and violent towards women. Deepa Kumar describes this myth as one of the main planks of Islamophobia.[62] Indeed, it came to be utilised a few months later as part of the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan. The well-known misogynist George W. Bush declared that the US forces would offer Afghan women liberation from the tyrannical sexism of the Taliban. Unfortunately, such claims were accepted as good coin by many commentators, including some feminists.

The campaigns against Muslims and Lebanese by state and federal governments found full and brutish expression in Cronulla on 4 December 2005, when more than 5,000 racists responded to a call to “take back Australia’s beaches”. The week before the Cronulla “demonstration” there had been a fist fight between surf lifesavers and men who it was later claimed were Lebanese. Text messages calling for a rally spread like wildfire, their impact further amplified by publication in mainstream dailies. The Daily Telegraph printed the following message:

This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day… Bring your mates and let’s show them that this is our beach and they are never welcome… let’s kill these boys.[63]

Radio shock-jocks leapt on the call, spreading the word far and wide. Early in the morning a mob descended on the beach, wrapped in Australian flags and wearing T-shirts with slogans like “ethnic cleansing unit”. Again, the “protection of Anglo women” was a major mobilising factor. One man interviewed at Cronulla on the day of the riots said: “They come down here and they start with their mouth. They just bullshit to everybody. They harass our women. It’s their religion.”[64]

Tens of people, not just Lebanese, were punched, beaten, kicked and screamed at. In the aftermath, young Lebanese men responded by driving around knocking off letterboxes and attacking buildings and shops. In one instance, a man of Middle Eastern descent burnt an Australian flag, while another stole one from the flagpole at a local RSL club. The response to the initial racist riot was mildly censorious. The anti-Muslim mob violence was understood as over-exuberant, drunkenly mistaken silliness. The Lebanese reprisal attacks were, however, hysterically condemned. The full force of the law came down on the Muslim men. One of the young men who burnt the Australian flag was sentenced to three months’ jail, and others were forced to go on a patriotic journey to the Kokoda Track as penance and to learn how to be a real “Aussie”.[65] A white man who participated in the original riot was discovered with a boot full of white supremacist material, riot helmets and knives. He was let off with a warning.[66]

What this sorry series of incidents reveals is the manner in which racist mob violence is fuelled by the ruling class and their institutions, government and media. These incidents occurred in a period of heightened class antagonisms under the Howard government, when the whipping up of racism in general was part of Howard’s effort to shift Australia to the right. But they were the result of a perfect storm created by the long-running anti-immigrant/anti-Lebanese campaign by NSW Labor and the anti-Muslim/anti-Arab racism used to justify military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Liberal Islamophobia

Islamophobia is one of the key planks of modern imperialism and domestic social control. It comes from the top of society and takes the form of wars, domestic anti-terror laws, right wing media campaigns, police harassment and structural inequality. While the far right clearly plays a role in justifying this oppression, there are large swathes of the liberal left who are also complicit in propagating and circulating ideas that help normalise and popularise Islamophobia. Deepa Kumar calls this “liberal Islamophobia”. This variant sits alongside a “liberal imperialism” that uses progressive rhetoric to mobilise support for war and empire. Thus wars for oil and empire are justified under the banner of women’s liberation, or to defend democracy and freedom. When it comes to Islamophobia, Kumar traces some key differences between the right wing and the liberal variants. She argues:

the key characteristics of liberal Islamophobia are the rejection of the “clash of civilisations” thesis, the recognition that there are “good Muslims” with whom diplomatic relations can be forged and a concomitant willingness to work with moderate Islamists. Liberal Islamophobia may be rhetorically gentler than conservative Islamophobia and the language of the “Islamophobic warriors”, but it is nonetheless racist and imperialist in that it takes for granted the “white man’s burden”.[67]

Kumar argues that Obama’s Cairo speech was a seminal moment in recent liberal Islamophobia. Obama acknowledged a history of mistrust between Muslims and the US, but continued to draw on the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomy:

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.[68]

He concluded with a call for increased cooperation and trust, as though this were merely a matter of overcoming a long-standing grudge rather than the result of ongoing systematic policies. Tellingly, Obama made this speech while simultaneously planning a major troop surge in Afghanistan and an increase in the use of deadly drones in Pakistan.

In Australia liberal Islamophobia abounds. The narrative of “good” and “bad” Muslims is dominant and spews from the mouths of individuals at all parts of the spectrum. In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 terror scare, both Tony Abbott and NSW Police commissioner Andrew Scipione made statements arguing that not all Muslims were to blame. Amanda Vanstone, former immigration minister in the Howard government, wrote a classic piece in this vein. In it she claims that Muslims can be good fighters for empire too. Just look, she says, at the Indians who fought in both world wars. These good Muslims should be celebrated, and we shouldn’t tar these good ones with the brush of Islamic fanaticism.

Non-Muslim Australians would do well to ensure that any criticism is focused not on Muslims generally but on fanatical Muslims. Equally, Muslim Australians need to be loud, strong and clear in their condemnation of the fanatics. The important thing to remember is that Muslims are not our enemy – Australians have fought with them in several wars. Fanatics are our enemy. Australian Muslims and all other Australians should stand together – they with us and we with them – against these crazy people.[69]

While seemingly less reactionary, the “not all Muslims are bad” logic works in insidiously racist ways. Rather than suggesting that war, colonialism and structural class inequalities are the greatest enemy facing humankind, liberal Islamophobia agrees with the foundational premise of the conservatives: terrorism and religious (read Islamic) fanaticism are the main problem in society. Even those who condemn Islamophobia fall into this trap. Mariam Veiszadeh, in an otherwise important piece on the Islamophobic attacks on Muslim women in 2014, nonetheless feels the need to agree that the government probably has society’s best interests at heart in its opposition to “radical Islam”.

Let me make it very clear that I am as concerned as any other sound-minded citizen about an alleged plot to behead a member of the Australian public. After all, I could just as easily fall victim to a group who appear to be attacking anyone who does not pledge allegiance to their twisted ideology. It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure that we live in a safe and harmonious society, but the approach and the political rhetoric must be proportionate.[70]

This logic then accepts that “something” has to be done about Muslims, especially young “radicalising” Muslims. And thus the misdirection continues, and Muslims sit sweating in the spotlight. Their culture, their schools, their religion, their social practices are all investigated in the search for the original sin of violent jihad.

The so-called “left” mainstream parties like the Greens take up this argument. Greens leader Christine Milne accepts that “terrorism” and “radicalism” are major problems, but argues that the solution is to find better ways of integrating Muslims into mainstream society. “Prevention is much better than cure when it comes to keeping us all safe from risks associated with terrorism”, she said, arguing that maintaining a “cohesive, tolerant and inclusive community in Australia should be the government’s top priority to protect Australia’s much-loved multiculturalism”.[71]

This emphasis on multiculturalism is deeply problematic – it positions the West and its civilisation as superior to other global cultures. Given the long history of brutal and genocidal racism by Britain in Australia, I would agree with the (possibly apocryphal) reply by Mahatma Gandhi to a journalist. When asked “What do you think of Western civilization?” he said, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The assumption that Australian culture is gracious and multicultural, welcoming and accepting is pure fantasy. In fact, arms are open only to those who are prepared to operate within the dominant Anglo framework. New migrants and their religions are tolerated so long as they keep their difference to opening up an “ethnic” restaurant, or playing their “world music” at multicultural fairs. The rest are required to keep their head down, work for a pittance and remain quiet in the face of atrocities towards refugees and Indigenous people. Multiculturalism is an ideology of the liberal West where the mainstream Anglo Protestant culture tolerates others. Mohamad Tabbaa criticises this kind of “tolerance”:

One tolerates their neighbour’s barking dog. One tolerates long lines at the bank or the cashier. In short, one tolerates the inconvenient and annoying. One does not tolerate a peer or equal; tolerance is by no means equality. In this bind, Muslims are always positioned as outsiders, not equal counterparts.[72]

Good Muslims are polite and don’t criticise the state, let alone demonstrate against it. Furthermore, good Muslims are the ones who root out terrorists and fanaticism in their own ranks. The logic of liberal Islamophobia insists that Muslims self-police. It says that the best way to deal with the “scourge” of Muslim radicalism is to promote organisations that bring together Muslim leaders, the police, academics and other individuals in “civil society” to challenge radicals. The headline of the Greens’ 2014 policy on this issue reads “Countering violent extremism. Prevention better than cure: The Greens’ plan to build social cohesion and prevent extremism”.[73]

These kinds of policies have existed before – they seek to find and coopt a section of the Muslim community. Muslim organisations like the Islamic Council of Victoria are funded to develop programs that train a layer of young Muslims to be respectable citizens. For example, the ICV in cooperation with the La Trobe University Centre for Dialogue has instituted a seven-week leadership training program funded by both state and federal governments that seeks to “empower young Muslim men and women to reach their full potential as citizens and future leaders” and to “develop the skills that young Muslims need to engage confidently and creatively with all levels of government, business, academia, the professional world, the media and religious and community organisations”.[74]

The problem with this whole picture is that it accepts the terrain of the debate set out by the conservatives in society; it continues to pathologise Muslim communities; it interrogates them; it watches them. What is more, it assumes the problem comes from inside the Muslim communities and the way they respond to external factors. If only young Muslims could be trained to be slick and media-savvy, then perhaps Islamophobia wouldn’t exist. Yassir Morsi argues against what he calls the “confessional” logic of modern Islamophobia, which requires Muslims to distance themselves from “radical currents” and “confess” loyalty.

The demand conceals what resides in its belly: “hidden” in the invitation for Muslims to demonstrate their bona fides as Australians is the Islamophobic caricature of Muslims as a threat. The act of requiring us to confess our loyalty, in the midst of current fear, only reaffirms the anatomy of the racial Other who is imagined much like, well, a Trojan horse: the benign multicultural ethnic who is concealing a violent streak. If we do not turn ourselves inside-out, the logic goes, we ought to remain citizens only provisionally – only ever in quotation marks, as “Australians”.[75]

A significant element of liberal Islamophobia is the practice of “studying” Muslims – “their culture”, “their religion” – in order to understand their supposed latent tendencies towards terrorism. Since 2001 the field has developed rapidly, with most universities now offering intelligence and counter-terrorism courses or units. In 2005 one of the key recommendations of a government-sponsored Muslim reference group was to bolster Islamic studies.[76] These fields work hand in glove. The Research Network for a Secure Australia and the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre sponsor the counter-terrorism units.[77] Each of these receives significant amounts of federal funding. One of the important theories drawn on in this field, and one that has practical implications, is that of “radicalisation” among the Muslim community. A New York Police Department report from 2007 titled “Radicalisation in the West: The Home-grown Threat” argues that there is a first phase of radicalisation and that all young Muslim males are in this category. This report is used widely in counter-terrorism courses in Australia.[78] In this way academia works closely with liberal ideology to cement the notions propagated by more explicit Islamophobia. Many Muslim organisations accept this logic. Just after attorney general George Brandis announced the new round of anti-terror laws, Sheikh Mohamadu Nawaz from the Australian National Imams Council welcomed the proposals, and assured Brandis that “of course we have discussed various ways of de-radicalising our youth.”[79] Many Muslim community organisations rely on funding from the government – and much of this funding is tied to commitments to challenge “radicalisation”. In 2010 the Labor government announced a $9.7 million, four-year program called “Countering Violent Extremism”. This pool of funding was available to community organisations that would deal with “disaffected” Muslim youth and their presumed tendencies towards violent jihad. Rather than challenge the racism, police intimidation, anti-terror laws, wars in the Middle East and class inequality that are the actual causes of Muslim “disaffection”, the CVE money went towards football ovals and an online social marketing campaign.[80]


Islamophobia is today one of the central intellectual planks of Western capitalism. It is the modern equivalent of the Cold War’s “reds under the beds”, a flexible ideological tool that can be wielded in times of crisis, war and looming class antagonisms. Islamophobia comes in many guises, from the most obviously right wing to the more subtle liberal Islamophobia. What all of these forms accept is that Muslims are the target: for abuse or for academic enquiry. For those of us who want to create a society in which racism, oppression, war and colonial plunder are a distant memory, it is vital to challenge the ideological covering that the ruling class dresses these phenomena in. To be able to combat all forms of Islamophobia, we have to understand them.

Akbarzadeh, Shahram 2014, “Investing in Mentoring and Educational Initiatives: The Limits of De-radicalisation Programmes in Australia”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 2014.

Grewal, Kieran 2007, “The ‘Young Muslim Man’ in Australian Public Discourse”, Transforming Cultures eJournal, 2 (1), November,

Griffiths, Phil 2005, “Racism: whitewashing the class divide” in Rick Kuhn (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson Education Australia.

Habib, Mamdouh 2009, My Story: The Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t, Scribe.

Hassan, Riaz 2009, “Social and Economic Conditions of Australian Muslims: Implications for Social Inclusion”, National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, NCEIS Research Papers, 2 (4).

Hicks, David 2010, Guantanamo: My Journey, Random House Australia.

Ho, Christina 2007, “Muslim women’s new defenders: Women’s rights, nationalism and Islamophobia in contemporary Australia”, Women’s Studies International Forum, 30 (4).

Holland, Jack 2010, “Howard’s War on Terror: A Conceivable, Communicable and Coercive Foreign Policy Discourse”, Australian Journal of Political Science, 45 (4).

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1991, “The National Enquiry into Racist Violence”.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2004, “National Consultations on Eliminating Prejudice against Muslims and Arabs”.

Kabir, Nahid 2005, Muslims in Australia, Routledge.

Koschade, Stuart 2006, “An Assessment of Terrorism Studies in Australia: Recommendations and Future Directions”, Proceedings Research Network for a Secure Australia – Closed Counter-Terrorism Workshop, Melbourne University,

Kumar, Deepa 2012, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Haymarket Books.

Lee Ack, Tess 2010, “Who is to blame for racism in Australia?”, Marxist Left Review, 4, Winter.

Lockman, Zachary 2010, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The history and politics of Orientalism, Cambridge University Press.

Lybyer, Albert 1913, The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman, Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl 1976, Capital Volume One, Vintage Books.

Poynting, Scott 2006, “What caused the Cronulla riot?”, Race and Class, 48 (1).

Rodinson, Maxime 1988, Europe and the Mystique of Islam, IB Tauris.

Shaheen, Jack 2003, “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, July, 588 (1).

Wilson, Katherine 2007, “Thought-crime and punishment: [Terror suspects imprisoned at Barwon Prison. Would ordinary Australians approve of conditions faced by the Barwon 13?]” Overland, 186, Autumn.

[1] Tom Allard, “Muslim community apprehension after raids leads to snap protest”, The Age, 18 September 2014.

[2] Allard, “Muslim community apprehension”.

[3] Brendan Nicholson, “We’ll fight radical Islam for 100 years”, The Australian, 9 August 2014.

[4] “Lawyer Adam Houda says Muslim Australians are feeling under siege and being treated as the enemy”, AM, ABC radio, 24 July 2014.

[5] Nine News, “Muslim leaders angry at airport detention of senior cleric”, 19 September 2014.

[6] “Lawyer Adam Houda says Muslim Australians are feeling under siege”.

[7] Phillip Jensen, “The Truth Behind ISIL”,, 12 September 2014.

[8] Latika Bourke, “‘Stupid and ignorant’: Cory Bernardi’s comments linking terrorism raids with a push to ban burqa slammed”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September 2014.

[9] Greg Jennett, “Jacqui Lambie says sharia supporters are ‘maniacs’ who will rape and murder ‘until every woman in Australia wears a burka’”, ABC News online,18 September 2014.

[10] 7.30, ABC TV, 21 April 2014.

[11], 9 September 2014.

[12] Kumar 2012.

[13] Marx 1976, p926.

[14] Quoted in Lance Selfa, “The Roots of Racism”, Socialist Worker, 21 October 2010.

[15] Rodinson 1988, p59.

[16] Rodinson 1988, p60.

[17] Lybyer 1913.

[18] Lockman 2010, p45.

[19] Kumar 2012, p35.

[20] Quoted in Lockman 2010, p122.

[21] Lockman 2010, p143.

[22] Kumar 2012, p73.

[23] Shaheen 2003, p181.

[24] Quoted in Kumar 2012, p141.

[25] Quoted in Kumar 2012, p141.

[26] Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, The Atlantic, 1 September 1990.

[27] Lockman 2010, p143.

[28] George W. Bush, “Remarks to the Community in Louisville, Kentucky”,

[29] See Habib 2009 and Hicks 2010 for accounts by Australian citizens caught up in this nightmare. The December 2014 revelations indicate that the CIA’s system of “extraordinary rendition” involved 54 countries allowing these human rights abuses to be carried out on their soil.


[31] Griffiths 2005, p166.

[32] Grace Millimaci, “Confused Vandals Vandalise Sikh Temple”, The West Australian, 29 October 2014.

[33] Lee Ack 2010.

[34] Griffiths 2005.

[35] “Origins and arrivals of cameleers”,

[36] “Ships of the Desert: Camels in Australia”, Hindsight, ABC radio, 21 November 2010.

[37] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2004, p23.

[38] Gordon Weiss, “The Unhysterical History of Muslims in Australia”, feature/the-unhysterical-history-of-islam-in-australia/24/, 6 February 2012.

[39] Australian Lebanese Historical Society of Victoria, “A History of Lebanese in Australia”,

[40] “A History of Lebanese in Australia”.

[41] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2004, p26.

[42] Hassan 2009, p8.

[43] Hassan 2009, p1.

[44] “A history of Lebanese migration to Australia”, Hindsight, ABC radio, 3 February 2008.

[45] Weiss, “The Unhysterical History of Muslims in Australia”.

[46] Chris Forsyth, “Hawke: I’d A-Bomb Arabs”, The Daily Telegraph, 16 February 1974.

[47] Poynting 2006, p88.

[48] Kabir 2005, p245.

[49] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1991, p145.

[50] Kabir 2005, p245.

[51] John Howard, National Press Club Address, 8 November 2001,

[52] Quoted in Holland 2010, p8.

[53] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2004, p26.

[54] Brendan Nicholson, “We’ll fight radical Islam for 100 years”, The Australian, 9 August 2014.

[55] Wilson 2007, p.5.

[56] Wilson 2007, p5.

[57] Omar Merhi, “Racism is Union Business”, address to the Socialist Alternative Union Conference, 18 October 2014.

[58] Grewal 2007.

[59] Quoted in Grewal 2007.

[60] Ho 2007.

[61] Quoted in Grewal 2007.

[62] Kumar 2012, p44.

[63] L. McIlveen and S. Downie, “Second beach brawl – police call for calm as locals plot revenge”, The Daily Telegraph, 8 December 2005.

[64] Quoted in Ho 2007.

[65] “Cronulla to Kokoda”, Compass, ABC TV, 8 July 2007.

[66] Poynting 2006, p90.

[67] Kumar 2012, p133.

[68] Barack Obama, “Cairo Speech”, 4 June 2009,

[69] Amanda Vanstone, “Fanatics, not Muslims, are our enemy”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 2014.

[70] Mariam Veiszadeh, “Muslim women scared to go outdoors in this climate”, The Age, 11 October 2014.

[71] Mark Kenny, “Greens moves to head off jihad”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 2014.

[72] Mohamad Tabbaa, “Tolerance is bigotry’s counterpart in keeping Muslims divided”, The Guardian, 25 August 2014.

[73] Greens policy document, centre_for_social_cohesion.pdf.

[74] La Trobe University Centre for Dialogue in Association with Islamic Council of Victoria, Brochure: “Leadership Training Program for Young Muslims”, June-July 2009.

[75] Yassir Morsi, “Coercing Confessions: Islamophobia and the Demand for Muslim Loyalty”, ABC Religion and Ethics, 1 October 2014, articles/2014/10/01/4098178.htm.

[76] Akbarzadeh 2014.

[77] Koschade 2006.

[78] NYPD, “Radicalisation in the West: The Home-grown Threat”,

[79] Tabbaa, “Tolerance is bigotry’s counterpart in keeping Muslims divided”.

[80] Gabrielle Chan, “Countering violent extremism program funding not renewed in budget”, The Guardian, 20 August, 2014.

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