Australia: How governments and the capitalist media marginalise the Muslim community

Image removed.
Photo by Margarita Windisch.

By Helen Patterson

December 15, 2009 -- The antipathy of mainstream Australian society toward Muslims is not a new development. As early as 1912, Australians were being cautioned about the danger of Australia falling under Islamic control. The adoption of camel transport had brought Muslim men from Afghanistan to Australia in increasing numbers from 1860 until they controlled the camel transport business. Despite their valuable contribution to the expeditions carried out by the European “explorers” and their vital role in establishing a transport system in the harsh outback conditions, the early Muslim immigrants were considered inferior to the dominant, white, Christian Europeans and marginalised in a similar way to the detribalised Aboriginal community.[1]

Because Asian invasion was perceived as the dominant threat at the time, the “Moslem Menace” was hard to present as a convincing risk to Australia. Nevertheless, the belief that Islam was incompatible with the values of progressive Western civilisation became well established in the Australian pysche.[2]

The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act was the response to ruling class concerns that Australia’s sparsely populated continents might not withstand immigrating “hordes” from Asia and also to the desire to maintain racial purity and cultural homogeneity in Australia. Indeed, Australia’s history is marked by anxiety about invasion and the destruction of Anglo/Australian culture. While modifications to the Immigration Restriction Act in the 1950s allowed for small numbers of non-European immigrants, it was not until 1973 that the federal Labor government discarded racial criteria for migration to Australia.[3] There are calls now for its reinstatement by restricting Muslim immigration.

[4] Contrary to the common misconception that Muslims are a monolithic community, Australia’s Muslims are a diverse people coming from more than 70 different countries. They speak many different languages.[5] Their presence in Australia is marked by cultural diversity and variation in terms of religious identities and the degree of commitment to Islam.[6] However, in spite of the various theological interpretations of their religion, mainstream politicians and the capitalist mass media associate Muslims as a whole with violence, fanaticism and fundamentalism. By the late 1970s the image of the “Arab terrorist” emerged as the dominant representation of the Middle East and Muslims in Australia. The 1991 report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia noted that:

Anti-Arab and Muslim feelings are largely based on stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims: a generalised identification of Arabs and Muslims with violence (such as terrorism and the taking taking of hostages), stereotyped identification of Arabs and Muslims with ‘un-Australian values’ (for example, religious fundamentalism, conservative views about women and moral issues, dietary restrictions, conservative and conspicuous clothing…).[7]

For many reasons, including the marked increase in the flow of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran in recent years, the distinction between Arabs, Muslims, asylum seekers and people of Middle Eastern origin in Australia has become blurred, and a homogenised “Muslim” enemy within Australian society has been identified as a threat to Australia’s security, its culture and Anglo-Celtic tradition and “values”.[8] When the federal Labor government enacted the policy of “multiculturalism” in 1973 it appeared that Australia had entered an new age of enlightenment which would endow all Australians with the right to equality of treatment and opportunity, removing barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender and place of birth.[9] Nevertheless, at the same time, racism and xenophobia, much of it directed at Arabs/Muslims, has been increasing in direct proportion to the rise of multiculturalism. Certain world events have contributed to the negative public discourse about Islam.[10]

The terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics marked the beginning of concern over the emergence of Arab terrorism as an ongoing threat. The 1979 Iranian Revolution, which toppled the Shah’s repressive US-backed regime, the Iranian hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushie and other events expanded the focus to Islamic fundamentalism. Throughout the 1980s the images inspired by Iran became interchangeable with Muslims as fanatics who were determined to crush Western liberal democracy and “Islamise” the world. Australia’s involvement in the 1991 Gulf War ignited a debate in the mainstream media on whether Australian Muslims should be repatriated to their countries of origin.[11] The media coverage in Australia, which largely ignored the massive loss of Iraqi lives and destruction of civilian infrastructure by US-led coalition forces, provoked a wave of virulent anti-Arab sentiment which soon culminated in violent physical attacks against Muslims and vandalism against homes, schools, offices and businesses.[12]

A series of attacks by Islamic extremists including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombing of the US consulate in Somalia, the 2000 USS Cole attack, the September 11, 2001, attacks, the 2002 Bali tragedy, the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta and the 2005 London tube and bus bombings have all been depicted by the Australian mainstream media and governments as part of the “big picture” of strikes against the West. Without evidence, they are assumed to be related, part of a wider Islamic conspiracy. The overall picture presented to the Australian general public, largely ignorant of Islam and of legitimate Muslim grievances against the West, is that they represent an assault on “us” by “them”.[13]

Howard exploits racism

The rise of Islamophobia fuelled by politicians and the media, in particular talk-back radio, provided an opportunity for Pauline Hanson and the federal Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister John Howard to exploit nationalist and racist sentiment against immigration, which increasingly became directed at Arabs/Muslims. Anti-Arab sentiment was aimed in particular at the disaffected Lebanese community. Refugees fleeing Lebanon’s long-running civil war had joined Turkish, Iraqi, African and Indonesian Muslims in Sydney’s Canterbury/Bankstown area.

Young Lebanese men struggling to deal with an unfamiliar culture in their new country responded hostilely to police harassment and were characterised by the corporate media as “Lebanese gangs”. Despite studies by criminologists that found no link could be proven between ethnicity and crime, and that the crime rate for Arabs/Muslims is no higher than the national average, “men of Middle Eastern appearance” emerged as a racial marker in a systematic campaign by the corporate media and politicians to convince the public that crimes committed among the Muslim community were unique and specific to them alone, representing an “epidemic”.[14] Furthermore, while the media branded Sydney’s south-west as the home of “Lebanese-Muslim” crime, it selectively failed to link other crimes committed by gangs in the wider community with their race and religion.[15]

The gang rape of young, white Anglo-Saxon women in the Bankstown area in 2001 was depicted by the media as indicative of the anti-Western values of the Muslim religion itself. Disregarding denials from the local police commander and the state’s statistician that multiple sexual assault had any connection with Bankstown, race or religion, Sydney’s tabloid newspapers deliberately falsified information to represent the gang rapes as crimes motivated by allegiance to Islam. The media campaign inferred that all Australian women of Anglo-Celtic heritage were potential targets of predatory Muslim men.

The campaign by the federal Howard government to demonise asylum seekers for political gain was[16] given further impetus by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Howard government resorted to deliberate lies and misrepresentations by portraying all refugees, irrespective of country of origin as “Middle Eastern”, affluent, devious terrorists who threw their children into the sea. Government rhetoric and mass media reports portrayed desperate refugees in dehumanising language as a “fresh crop”, a “wave” or a “flood”. The rhetoric was carefully designed to instil the electorate with fears of Australia being overwhelmed by “illegals” and “aliens” who would contaminate the very fabric of Australian life.

At the same time, the Siev X tragedy in October 2001 when 350 asylum seekers (mostly Muslims), including 150 children, drowned received minimal media coverage.[17]

Fears of a refugee onslaught were promoted and exploited by the Howard government and a complicit media. During the Tampa incident in 2001, the Howard government instructed the media that they were not to take any humanising photographs of the asylum seekers.[18] In December 2001 PM John Howard deliberately promoted the lie that asylum seekers intercepted on their way to Australia had thrown their children overboard in an effort to gain sympathy for their plight. The Sydney Morning Herald’s letters editor said she had never received more letters on any issue. Letters spoke of refugees as “Muslim invaders”, “criminals and parasites”, “scum” and “demonic”.[19] The September 11 attacks provided the Howard with the opportunity to promote the notion that Australia was under threat from terrorist attacks by Muslims and that only his government could be trusted to keep Australians safe. Senior lecturer in journalism at Sydney’s University of Technology Peter Manning argues “the federal election that year saw Howard swept back into government on a wave of fear”.[20]

Howard exploits `war on terrorism’

The climate of fear generated by the “war on terrorism” divided the world into “them” and “us”. It allowed the Howard government to enhance its punitive policies against asylum seekers and abandon multiculturalism in favour of a doctrine of “cultural diversity” which asserts a dominant Anglo-Celtic identity as its core[21] (a policy adopted by the present federal Labor government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd)[22]. The restriction of rights to asylum through remote detention and the creation of a territorial migration exclusion zone were policy changes mainly directed at restricting the arrival of Muslim refugees, primarily from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.[23] In the domestic media coverage of Arabs and Muslims, asylum seekers became one of the primary definers of the Muslim identity within the Australian context.[24]

However, a study of media bias undertaken by Peter Manning and funded by the University of Technology in Sydney, with Sydney’s two main daily newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph as its subjects, reveals that Muslims in Australia are defined largely through the coverage of the struggle of Palestinians for their land against the Zionist occupiers.[25] Regardless of the fact that the world’s largest Muslim population belongs to Australia’s nearest neighbour, Indonesia, his study found that:

Arabs and Muslims are seen as violent to the point of terrorism – especially Palestinians. Israel,the United States and Australia – “us” are seen to be under attack from such people, and they areseen as both an internal and an external threat.[26]

Binoy Kampmark argues that the Zionist lobby in Australia shapes politics and stifles debate, presenting the Palestinians as irrational forces of terror.[27] In his study of Australia’s pro-Israel lobby, author, Antony Loewenstein maintains that the Holocaust remains the primary justification around which supporters of Israel stand. He argues that the lobby uses the Holocaust to legitimise Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land by silencing critics with accusations of anti-Semitism.[28] Australian governments and the mainstream media have been unequivocal in their support for the Zionist state of Israel. Suicide bombings in response to Israel’s killing of protesters during the second Intifada of 2000 were presented to the Australian public by the media with little or no analysis of the Israel’s historical oppression of the Palestinian people.[29] The 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center gave rise to the belief that Israel’s struggle against terrorism was also the West’s. A single image of Palestinians rejoicing allegedly at the tragedy of September 11, and shown repeatedly on every Australian television channel, encouraged readers and viewers to assume that all Muslims approved of the terrorists’ actions.[30]

Anti-`terror’ laws, racial profiling and the mass media

In a global environment in which Muslims are the primary focus of the “war on terror”, Labor and Liberal governments have shifted from a discourse of full participation under multiculturalism to one about “risk”. The “risk” model that informs the war on terrorism and the undeclared state of emergency in Australia offers no social future for Muslims. It is widely accepted in Australia that Muslims must be kept under surveillance and controlled.[31] The implementation of anti-terror laws at both state and federal levels are being used specifically against Muslims. The various Acts which relate to anti-terrorism include wide-ranging coercive powers for both the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Muslim men have been arrested and prosecuted under laws which have been criticised by civil liberties organisations as draconian and making little or no impact on national security.[32]
Amnesty International has campaigned for reform of the anti-terrorism legislation since 2003 stating that they do not accord with international human rights standards and international law. Amnesty is concerned that the laws undermine the presumption of innocence and that vaguely defined offences are leading to wrongful arrests such as the 2007 incident involving Dr Mohammed Haneef.[33] John Dowd, president of the International Court of Justice (Australian Section), has said: “Much of this legislation abandons the most fundamental principles one would expect to be inviolable in a liberal democratic society.” He argues that the laws create potential for abuse leading to the victimisation of innocent people.[34]

Victimisation of Muslims would be impossible without a sustained, media culture of misrepresentation and abuse. In December 2005 anti-Muslim sentiment erupted into the Cronulla race riots in southern Sydney. Media “shock jock” Alan Jones, a supporter of then Prime Minister John Howard’s racist “divide and rule” political agenda, played a critical role in inciting a pogrom against Lebanese and people of “Middle Eastern appearance”. Jones in his top-rating radio program described Lebanese as “rats” and “grubs”, terms reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s attacks against Jews. [35] It is unlikely that any other ethnic or religious group in Australia could be vilified in such incendiary terms without widespread condemnation from government and civil society. Nonetheless, in January 2006, New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma, with the support of the NSW Liberal Party opposition, established a Middle Eastern organised crime squad.[36] Profiling of Arabs/Muslims is becoming a permanent feature of citizenship in Australia.

As the arbiter of public opinion, the media plays a decisive role in constructing stereotypes that portray Muslims as “savage” and justify the anti-terrorism laws. Portrayals of Muslims as the “Other” in headlines and media images were common even before September 11, 2001, but since then they have become persistent. The media often uses unconnected images to confuse readers and suggest that all Muslim people approve of terrorist activities. The manipulation of images and relentless stereotyping reinforces a thesis that Islam has replaced communism as the “new enemy of the West”. The fear generated in the community helps to maintain support for government policies of mandatory detention or asylum seekers, surveillance and the ongoing military aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan.[37] Governments are well aware that by focusing on the “Muslim other” as the biggest danger a society faces, the electorate is less likely to examine the economic and environmental policies that negatively impact on their lives.Furthermore, the corporate media, for profit-making purposes, needs to focus on certain issues that resonate with the audience and manipulate current concerns.[38] In the pursuit of profit, the truth often becomes the first casualty.

Attacks on Muslims

Media vilification and stereotyping together with government policies and rhetoric have effectively marginalised Muslims into a minority which is starkly distinguished from the rest of Australia society. Muslims in Australia comprise only 1.5 per cent of the population. However, the unemployment rate for Muslims at 28 per cent (2006) is many times higher than the national average and the ratio of Muslims in an underprivileged position in the labour market is three times higher than the wider population.[39]

Although Muslims and people of “Middle Eastern appearance” were the victims of the Cronulla riots they have been exploited by church leaders and prominent politicians to call for an end to Muslim immigration and a strengthening of Australia’s “Christian heritage”.[40] Far-right NSW Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile and NSW Liberal MLC David Clarke are currently planning an anti-Islam conference citing the conflict between Islam and Christianity as the reason why Christianity should be protected “as the core value of the nation”.[41] Indeed, four Christian churches have joined in an unprecedented attack on the Islamic faith, opposing the building of an Islamic school in Camden, on the outskirts of Sydney. They claim that the proposed school was the planned “beachhead” of an Islamic takeover of the Australian “way of life”.[42]

While attacks against Muslims are increasing, they are not reported as major news. Attacks include name calling and slurs, abuse, spitting, the refusal of housing and accommodation, telephone and mail threats, graffiti on houses and pulling of scarves from women’s heads.

Fethi Mansouri argues that individuals who attack women in Islamic dress believe that they are defending the nation or even European culture.[43] Women and girls are the most frequent targets.[44] Indeed, women’s Islamic clothing has become inextricably linked to the cultural threat attributed to Islam, which has been expanded to posit a threat to Australia’s security. There are calls for a ban on headscarves in schools. Fred Nile, who has a significant base of support for his views, has called for a ban on Islamic dress because a woman could “hide a bomb in her chador”. Because of her conspicuous religious identification, the veiled Muslim woman has supposedly become a symbol for the purported rejection of Australian society and the marker of a backward ideology, incompatible with Western liberalism, democracy and opposed to modernity.[45]

Muslim leaders are warning that repeated opposition by local councils and residents to the building of Muslim schools and places of worship is pushing Muslim citizens into ghettoes. Indeed, research indicates that Muslims are Australia’s most marginalised religious and ethnic group, perceived by the wider community to be unable to fit into Australia.[46] Government and vested-interest groups are well aware that defining the “Other” as inherently violent, barbaric and fanatical facilitates a process of self-identification. It enables “us” to rest complacently in the belief that “our” values are diametrically opposed to the values held by “them”, justifying military aggression against “them” abroad and divisive policies for political expediency at home.

As a consequence, the civil liberties that are essential to a free and democratic society are being eroded with the potential to deprive all Australians, irrespective or religion or ethnicity, of their right to dissent from government policies.

Professor Abe Ata believes that Australia’s Muslims have much of value to contribute to their country and that there is no contradiction between being Muslim and Australian. He argues that Muslims and their children can remain committed to Islam and function harmoniously within the broader Australian society.[47] Australia’s Muslims, at various points in their history, have demonstrated allegiance and loyalty to the national community. Appropriate government policies can promote the emergence of a solid Australian Muslim identity. Conversely, hysterical rejection and racist reactions will foster the alienation of Australian Muslims to the detriment of the whole population.[48]

[Helen Patterson is an anti-war activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Sydney.]


[1] Saeed, Abdullah, Islam in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2003, pp. 4-7.

[2] Aly, Anne and Walker, David, “Veiled Threats: Islamophobia and Ethnicisation of Muslim Identities in Europe and Australia”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 28:1, August, 2007 p. 206.

[3] Ibid, p. 204.

[4] Mansouri, Fethi, “Citizenship, Identity and Belonging in Contemporary Australia”, Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia, UNSW Press, 2005, pp. 149-153.

[5] Saeed, Abdullah, Islam in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2003, p. 4.

[6] Ibid,p. 64.

[7] Akbarzadel, Shahram and Samina, Yasmeen, Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia, UNSW Press, 2005, p. 158.

[8] Ibid pp. 149-161.

[9] Australian Government, National Agenda for a multicultural Australia: What is Multiculturalism? Department of Immigration and Citizenship,, 2 October 2009.

[10] Mansouri, Fethi, “Citizenship, Identity and Belonging in Contemporary Australia”, Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia, UNNSW Press, 2005, p. 161.

[11] Aly, Anne and Walker, David, “Veiled Threats: Recurrent Cultural Anxieties in Australia”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 2, August 2007, p. 207.

[12] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, p. 22.

[13] Kabir, Nahid, “Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 3, December 2006 pp. 322-323.

[14] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, pp. 26-29.

[15] Kabir, Nahid, “Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media”,p. 320.

[16] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, pp. 26-29.

[17] Ibid, p. 325.

[18] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, p. 32.

[19] Allard, Tom, “Fresh Holes in P.M.’s Account of Children Overboard”, Sydney Morning Herald, August 17, 2004.

[20] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, pp. 26-29.

[21]Humphrey, Michael, “Australian Islam, The New Global Terrorism and the Limits of Citizenship”, Islam and the West: Relfections from Australia, UNSW Press, 2005, p. 133.

[22] Matthews, Graham, “Kevin Rudd ‘The Very Model of a Future Labor PM”, Green Left Weekly, February 9, 2007.

[23] Humphrey, Michael, “Australian Islam, The New Global Terrorism and the Limits of Citizenship”, Islam and the West: Relfections from Australia, UNSW Press, 2005, p. 133.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, p. 30.

[26] Manning, Peter, “Australians Imagining Islam”, in E. Poole and J. Richardson (eds), Muslims and the News Media, London, IB Tauris, 2006, p. 131.

[27] Kampmark, Binoy, “Hanan Ashwari and the Prize Protest: The Value and Limits of Debating Peace in the Australian Diaspora”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 3, December 2005, pp. 355-358.

[28] Loewenstein, Antony, My Israel Question, MelbourneUniversity Press, 2006, p. 225.

[29] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, pp. 25-26.

[30] Kabir, Nadir, “Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media”,p. 315.

[31] Spalek, Basia and Imtoual, Alia, “Muslim Communities and Counter-Terror Responses: ‘Hard’ Approaches to Community Engagement in the UK and Australia”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 2, August 2007, pp. 191-192.

[32] Ibid, p.191.

[33] Amnesty International, “Amnesty International welcomes call for review of anti-terrorism laws”,

23 December 2008.

[34]International Court of Justice, Australia, “ICJ Australia denounces new counter-terrorism laws”, media release, October 17, 2005,

[35] Manning, Peter, Us and Them: A Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle Easts, pp. 259-260.

[36] Sydney Morning Herald, “Middle Eastern Crime Squad Move”,, January 20, 2006

[37] Kabir, Nahid, “Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media,2001-2005”, p. 314

[38] Ibid, p. 323

[39] Ata, Abe W., Us and Them, Muslim-Christian Relations and Cultural Harmony in Australia, Australian Academic Press, 2009, pp. 14-15.

[40] Marr, David, “The Power of One”, Sydney Morning Herald, January 5, 2008.

[41] Tobey, Josephine, “Evangelical Christians Plan Anti-Islam Conference in Australia”, Sydney Morning Herald, August 10, 2009.

[42] Murray, Elicia, “Churches Oppose Islamic School”, Sydney Morning Herald, April 22, 2009.

[43] Mansouri, Fethi, “Citizenship, Identity and Belonging in Contemporary Australia”, Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia, UNSW Press, 2005, p. 152.

[44] Ata, Abe W., Us and Them, Muslim-Christian Relations and Cultural Harmony in Australia, p. 83.

[45] Aly, Anne and Walker, David, “Veiled Threats: Recurrent cultural Anxieties in Australia”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 2, August 2007, pp. 211-212.

[46] Ata, Abe, Us and Them, Muslim-Christian Relations and Cultural Harmony in Australia, pp. 1-4.

[47] Ata, Abe, Us and Them, Muslim-Christian Relations and Cultural Harmony in Australia, p. 14.

[48] Bloul, Rachel, A.D., “Being Muslim in the West: The case of Australian Muslims”,, March 15, 2002.