Ten years since 9/11: What have progressives really learned about war & Islamophobia?


The tenth anniversary of 9/11 has seen TV outlets promo tribute after tribute, where the message is clear: the tragedy of the twin towers requires of us an uncritical outpouring of grief.

The now ten years old footage, which has been replayed so very many times, is still raw and powerful: people jumping from burning buildings, the voicemails left by those trapped for their loved ones, and the sacrifice of the public servants, in particular fire fighters, who ran in to the buildings to assist and died. But it is of course the images of the collapsing towers that are at the centre of the promos, such commanding footage that it is as potent today as it was a decade ago.

But in the shadow of the twin towers are other legacies: those of endless war waged by the West and the dramatic rise of Islamophobia globally. It is these consequences that confront us today. And the Left’s inability, in particular in Australia and the US, to mount a serious ongoing challenge to them remains a significant failing.

Endless war

The direct and immediate consequence of the attacks was the military strikes and invasion by the US against Afghanistan and then, through the coalition of the willing, the later invasion of Iraq. Those two wars have seen thousands upon thousands die at the hands of western militaries acting on the authority of those states. The official and unofficial figures beggar belief. While hotly disputed, academics involved in the Lancet studies, based on direct household interviews in Iraq, have reported that that military action alone an estimated 654 965 ‘excess deaths’ had occurred as a result of the war to end of June 2006. And of those ‘excess’ deaths, 601 027 were due to violence. The numbers of those injured and maimed is of course far greater.

While the Iraq war was always strongly opposed by the Australian people, over half in many polls, the invasion of Afghanistan under the operation name ‘Enduring Freedom’ was less so. The fear whipped up in the wake of 9/11, and the promise of a quick and just war to ensure global security, saw far less condemnation. Yet even in the hyperbole of 9/11, before the inevitable disastrous failure of that war was clear, about a quarter of Australians opposed our involvement. In the last few years the figure has risen to about half the population, with many others saying the troops should not be withdrawn because the Australian government should stay and attempt to clean up the mess they have created.

Far from making the world a safer place, these wars, as expected, have wrought horror on local populations and intractable situations. As the graph from icasualties shows, Afghanistan has been a less and less safe place for western troops as time has progressed:

Casualties: Afghanistan

This is to say nothing of the impact on Afghans, and in a recent speech in Armidale NSW, Malalai Joya details the future the west has provided for her people.

There was no short war and there was no secure global future. Further, any veneer of justice has been belied by the fact that the US and it partners have seen the initial displacement of the Taliban with regional warlords, and, most recently, the inevitable advice that the (isolated, weak, and unrepresentative) Afghan government and the United States are negotiating with Taliban fighters to bring ‘peace’ to the country.

Islamophobia: the new (cultural) racism

The growing Islamophobia in the west, including in Australia, reminds us that the victims of these wars are not always abroad or at the hands of the military. The increasing Islamophobia – racism – in every day Australian life is hard to ignore. As Dr Kate Riddell and Professor Samina Yasmeeen detail in their 2009 conference paper, many Australian Muslims report:

an environment where ‘Muslim’ had become political and social shorthand for ‘terrorist’ [and that] they are increasingly exposed to exclusionary non-Muslim attitudes – exhibited in negative political discourse, media reportage, and social interaction – and this has significantly contributed to their sense of alienation and exclusion from the wider community.

The Riddell and Yasmeen paper analyses Letters to the Editor in The West Australian newspaper, written by non-Muslims on the subjects of ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ between 2001 and 2007. In the letters many of the usual refrains are heard, such as in this 2001 letter:

Don’t say that it won’t happen – it already has. There are already schools where Christmas carols are not sung for fear of offending some of the Muslim children.

This letter finds a more recent echo in a Facebook status, posted to urge Christians to ‘tick’ the Christian box in the census:


While biological racism is still frowned upon, the growing acceptability of cultural racism is increasingly widespread and disconcerting.

On 9 February 2006, Miranda Devine opined in the Sydney Morning Herald that it is a semi-official policy by NSW state authorities ‘not [to antagonise] groups of young Arab-Australian men behaving criminally or antisocially.’ She claimed public policy had made police feeble and emboldened ‘law-breakers to ever more audacious behaviour, such as the revenge attacks after the Cronulla riots’. It seemed to escape Devine that those attacks had a horrendous context: an organised racist protest at Cronulla (which included fascist elements) calling for the eradication of the Muslim religion in Australia, with some members physically attacking anyone they deemed Muslim.

However, what prompted this attack on young Australian men of the Muslim faith was not something they did directly, but the reaction by an unassociated group of young Muslims on the other side of the globe to the printing of two cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Many Muslims had been outraged and some young Muslim men had rioted. Some had called for the West to be attacked and for revenge to be enacted. However, most did not riot and most did not clamour for retribution. Most simply stated their view that the cartoons were part of a growing Islamophobia in Northern Europe and were racist.

Devine continued. In her sights were not just the young Muslim men who reacted after Cronulla, but also those who dare highlight anti-Muslim sentiment in the community. She railed against the Victorian Teachers Union, who had argued in previous weeks for better education about Islam when a survey of 551 high school students found a majority had negative attitudes towards Muslims. Devine ridiculed the teachers as well as an associated editorial in The Age newspaper for stating: ‘Little wonder many Muslims see the “war on terror” as a war on them. Their community is besieged by hostility and suspicion, which helps explain why they want to make their hurt felt …’

Many of the core call to arms were there: Muslim women in veils who want to obscure their driver’s licence photos; a new generation of Islamic leaders who are antagonistic to their moderate elders; the elision of Muslim faith with terrorism; the doffing of Devine’s metaphorical hat to Daniel Pipes; and, most importantly, Devine’s argument that Muslims were seeking to change Western values through a ‘relentless demand for cultural change’ via a ‘non-violent but incremental encroachment on Western secular society [which] curtails freedoms and accords the Muslim minority special privileges’.

Whether it be found the individual acts of hate, such as spoken about by ClaireA on Left Flank previously, the campaign of ‘cultural’ racism against Muslims, or the hate prosecuted by the likes of Fred Nile and others (such as in their attempts to ban the burqa), there is an insidious legacy of 9/11 that has seen physical, verbal and ideological attacks on Muslims in Australia increase.

And even only a few days after a blond-haired Christian Norwegian bombed, shot and killed 77 people in Norway for their support of multiculturalism, we were being reminded that Breivik’s mass murder is, in the end, nothing more than a distraction from the real war against Islam and the necessary ‘counterjihad’. A counterjihad being led by the many of the same right-wing bloggers Breivik refers to in his Manifesto 2083 as his inspiration.

So much for the progressive Green voice?

It is for these reasons – the real human cost located in endless war and Islamophobia, wreaked in the memory of those killed on 9/11 – progressive voices must return to bolder times.

One of my proudest moments as a Greens member was seeing Kerry Nettle fight her way through security and parliamentary members in order to deliver a letter from Mamdouh Habib’s wife to US President George Bush on his visit to Parliament in Canberra. The response from those in the vicinity, to block and manhandle Nettle, belies the relatively conservative nature of her action. While clearly Nettle knew approaching Bush would not be seen as ‘appropriate’, who could have imagined that others would feel their political views gave them the right to physically restrain a Senator just because she disagreed with them.

But gone are the days when Nettle’s office was an organising centre of the campaign against the Iraq War in Sydney, or senators recruited their staff for the activist credentials rather than ability to impact political spin in the mainstream and on social media.

Increasingly Brown and the Greens have equivocated on political issues that are seen as too left-wing. A strategy of minimising criticism of the party in the mainstream media, in order to possibly increase the national Greens vote, is the order of the day. This is despite the personal commitment of most party members and elected Greens parliamentarians to various questions – such as the decriminalisation of drug use and its treatment as a health issue, decreasing the funding form the public pursue to the elite wealthy private schools, or most recently on the question of justice for Palestinians.

As success has come in the polls, and the number of representatives has increased in Parliament, the activist and progressive voice of the Greens has diminished. So in recent weeks we have seen growing argument that the Greens should condemn the protests at Max Brenner chocolate shops, actions conducted by one part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Australia.

Some inside the party have claimed that the demonstrations were ‘violent’ (even though the footage on YouTube show police attacking protesters rather than the other way around) and that the large number of arrests at the first demonstration might reflect badly on the Greens. Yet the Greens have always been centrally involved in environmental campaigns such as those against the logging of old growth forests and the damming of the Franklin, which have by their nature resulted in very many arrests of activists. By this logic, it is fine – even a badge of honour – to be associated with Bob Brown as he was arrested in Tasmania’s wilderness, but we should condemn those campaigning around the BDS and attempting to end the brutal occupation and repression of 2.3 million Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank or the 1.6 million living in Gaza.

This has reached near-farcical proportions with the decision by recently elected NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham to go to the Fairfax media to run a public campaign against the state party’s pro-BDS position. In an attempt to appear even-handed on the Israel-Palestine conflict – as if the balance of forces in the Middle East was ever even – he has joined the ‘Parliamentary Friends of Israel’ group, as well as a pro-Palestinian caucus. This is akin to joining a ‘Parliamentary Friends of South Africa’ group at the height of Apartheid.

Increasingly for some Greens the priority is a squeaky clean image that plays well in the conservative mainstream media, rather than prosecuting established party policy or making the less popular argument on crucial questions of human dignity. It is not enough to bleat words about human rights if in the next breath you condemn those who are actively seeking an end to the Palestinian occupation. It may not be that the Greens as a whole want to be involved in organising the Max Brenner protests, although some members and MPs will, but to seek to alter the NSW party policy of supporting the BDS for ends related solely to political image is unconscionable.

More importantly, such political manoeuvres do not exist in a social vacuum. They have real impact on real people. Not only are the horrific conditions endured by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories being trivialised by those conservatives in the Greens unwilling to take a principled stand against Israel’s actions, the Australian debate over the BDS has unleashed a disturbing strain of hard Right and racist sentiment. Among all the confected slanders of ‘anti-semitism’ against BDS campaigners from the mainstream, there has been no similar condemnation of the far Right and Islamophobic organisations that have joined the defence of the chocolate shops. Groups like the Australian Defence League and the Australian Protectionist Party have linked their hatred of Muslims and Arabs with Israel’s role as regional spearhead in the West’s war against Islamism. Despite the horrific consequences of the far Right’s ideology being expressed in the Norwegian massacre in late July, there is growing activity among like-minded Islamophobes here. One would’ve thought that Greens like Brown and Buckingham would be more concerned about these developments. Instead, their quest for mainstream acceptance seems to be blinding them to the malign state of pro-Israel politics in this country.

Ten years on from 9/11 one wonders if the Greens are developing selective amnesia about the realities of the War on Terror and its Islamophobic ideological veneer.

Cross-posted from Left Flank.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

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  1. There is a section of NSW Greens that is virulently anti-Israel. They do not represent the majority of the party and that is the reason Bob Brown and others distance themselves from them.

    The article raises some very important points but mixes too many things that are un-related in particular using the day in which people remember 9/11 to attack the Greens for “not being progressive” enough seems astonishingly inappropiate.

    1. Given that the politics of the Middle East (whether directly through opposition to the War on Terror or indirectly due to the influx of asylum seekers from the region) have been central to the Greens’ electoral success in a period when the ALP has essentially gone along with the Right on these matters, it’s hard to buy your attempt to parcel out the question of Israel here.

      It’s no wonder people are hostile to Israel: It is a key player in oppressing Arab and Muslim people in the Middle East and has been an enthusiastic ally of the US and Australia in the War on Terror. That the conservatives in the Greens want to attack any serious campaign for Palestinian rights means that they will increasingly be unable to articulate clear opposition to the kind of Western foreign policy that has wrought havoc and destruction for the last 10 years.

      In fact there are clear signs this is already happening, with the party’s lukewarm response to the Egyptian revolution and enthusiastic advocacy of NATO military intervention in Libya indicating that the Greens are very keen indeed to enter the pro-imperial mainstream.

      1. The key players of the oppression of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East are other Arabs and Muslims. Israels crimes pale to insignificance when you compare.

        Take for example the oppression of women in many Arab and Muslim countries, conveniently ignored by many that call themselves “progressive”and claim to be Left wing, who is to blame? surely not Israel.

        1. I do not see the need to diminish the ongoing repression, killings and injuring of Palestinians at the hands of Israel in order to also condemn the dictatorships and repression of other regimes in the Middle East. When you say ‘Israel’s crimes pale to insignificance when you compare’, is to diminish the Palestinians yet again. Each Palestinian should be able to live without fear and in dignity, something they have been denied by Israel and its supporters in the West (including Australia and the US). I feel as progressive people in Australia we have been in the past too yielding, too pliable, too unwilling to name Israel as a tremendously significant problem to peace and justice in the Middle East – and the clear oppressor of the Palestinians. George Bush said ‘you are either with us [meaning the US and Israel] or with the terrorists’. Well he and Howard, and those that have continued the war on terror, do not set the terms. I am with neither and against murder and oppression by both.

          1. I agree that all people should be able to live without fear and in dignity. Israel’s actions are only part of the problem, Arab government are very much to blame as well.

            After the 48 war there were many refugees from both sides. Israel gave citizenship to the many Jews that were kicked out from Arab countries. The Arab nations refused to give citizenship to the Palestinian refugees instead settling them in refugee camps, many of those camps exist today more than 60 years after the event!.

            Notice that after 1948 both the West Bank and Gaza were in Arab hands, Jordan and Egypt could have established a Palestinian state, but it did not even cross their minds.

            The treatment of Palestinians by Arab nations has often been worse than anything Israel has ever done see Black September in Jordan as an example.

            I am not even getting into the way the dictatorships in the area treat their own citizens, or the discrimination against the 50% of the population that is female.

            Nor am I going into the many bad decisions by the Palestinians themselves (like electing Hamas in Gaza) contributed to their situation.

            I am not trying to minimize Israel’s role I am simply pointing out the claim above that “Israel is a key player in the oppression of Arab and Muslim people in the Middle East” is very inaccurate. It would be more accurate to say that Israel is a key player in the oppression of Palestinians, but even that is an oversimplification of sorts.

            The insistence of certain sections of the Left to justify the unjustifiable by linking 9/11 to Israel (like the original article does) is disappointing.

            It is disappointing but sadly not new, during WW2 sections of the French Left insisted in trying to find “rational” justifications for German fascism. Now people trying to justify the actions of Islamofascists,we have learned nothing.

      2. It seems to me (as someone who has very little to with the Greens or their ‘activist wing’, so perhaps I’m wrong) that it’s not only the party’s conservative wing preventing the Greens stating ‘clear opposition to the kind of Western foreign policy that has wrought havoc and destruction for the last 10 years.’

        Were there many among the ‘progressives’ who opposed the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya when Adam Bandt came out loudly to support one? Is there any opposition among members or parliamentarians to the party leadership’s support for Australia and NZ’s stability-and-governance operation in the Solomon Islands? These are sincere questions, btw.

        The ‘progressives’ within the Greens (schematically, those in NSW and Vic), rather than the right-wing pragmatists (Tasmania and QLD), seem captivated by a vision of the Australian state as a potential force for moral good in the wider world. This leaves them poorly equipped, AFAIK, to oppose humanitarian interventions when they arise as pretexts for overseas aggression.

        1. I think the divisions don’t run so neatly along state lines. I’m aware that the Victorian party was usually considered as on the “Left” of the Greens nationally, but I never saw much evidence internally that this was accurate. It depended on the particular issues.

          There has been internal dissent on all the issues you raise, but the Left in the party tends to want to be true to its principles of keeping internal debates internal when the Right is usually happy going on the front foot publicly. I fear that for all the talk of not repeating the trajectory of the ALP, the Left-Right relationship in the Greens is similar to that in the ALP historically, with the Left an all-too-loyal opposition, too scared to divide the party. There are exceptions, of course, when the internal debates have sharpened, but the outcome is the same.

          I think you’re exactly right about the state, however, and this is something we’ve tried to take up on Left Flank. TBH, this is a problem for the Left more widely.

        2. These are precisely the questions that occupy my mind Nick, in particular the question of how the Greens see the state (that is the subject of my PhD actually – the neoliberal state in Australia).

          Making arguments – such as about Libya – has been harder of late in the NSW Greens, as I think many people who are critical of the Greens’ stance also feel caught in not wanting to publicly criticise the party as members. Clearly, as a member, I’ve thrown caution to the wind, but I’m concerned that to not speak out as a member is to do the Left generally no favours.

          For members like myself, who joined the Greens in order to rebuild a vibrant Left the current approach to politics and general predicament of the Greens troubles me.

  2. Thanks for this very thoughtful post, Elizabeth.

    I agree the images of S11 are still devastating, though so would be the images of the hundreds of thousands who have died since in the war raged against Iraq and as a result of the invasion of Afghanistan, if they were ever to be broadcast (unlikely, when those losses barely rate a mention).

    That we have learned so little is evident in the massive media coverage of the anniversary of S11. Most of the commentary ignores the background to the attack 10 years ago and why the war on terror, so-called, is the worst possible solution.

    And closer to home, I was deeply disappointed when The Greens supported the military intervention in Libya, and although I have strained to hear The Greens speak out in support of Palestine, have been disappointed again.

    Or does support of Palestine translate into being “virulently anti-Israel”?

  3. I also found it hard to see the connection with the Greens dude joining Parliamentary Friends of Israel and Palestine (the latter is completely meaningless – none of them ever say anything, and at best they attend functions).

    I don’t see that supporting BDS is the only or the best way of supporting Palestinian rights. I also think it’s a bit much to complain that the Greens care about their popular image. That’s kind of a big deal. NSW Greens support for BDS has been marked by incompetence, ineptness, and being astonishingly ill-informed. There was Jamie Parker expressing surprise at the campaign against him and that left-wing Jews didn’t rally to support the Greens position. There was Lee Rhiannon on Q&A, who deferred to Austen Tayshus’s superior insight into why Israel attacked Gaza (!!). In my opinion, the Greens have joined the furthest extreme activist position, whilst remaining largely ignorant of the issues, beyond a small activist core. I think they should go back to the drawing board, learn about the issues, and put forward an issue broadly in line with the international consensus and human rights organisations, which would still be a long long way left of either of the major parties. If they wound up supporting boycott of the settlements (which you find among unions, the national council of churches and others), at least they would have some support within civil society sectors in Australia.

  4. Ode to lives lost at Mirabad
    Julian Assange took on the US
    Wikileak’d ten years war in Afghanistan

    Protesters in Tahrir Square had no time
    The leaks did not rhyme
    Put out Mubarak for freedom sake
    To have their say
    Across Africa and Arabia

    Other side of the world
    Julian roams downstairs in Woolwich Court
    Thinking what would Pilger and Ellsberg do now?
    Waiting to be taken through tunnel to Belmarsh Prison
    Where ghosts of IRA meet Ronnie Biggs in special secure unit
    No Wikileaks today about Sapper Jamie Larcombe
    No mention of his Afghan mate

    They lost their lives at Mirabad last night
    Jamie died, despite first aid, unable to be saved
    Gunshot wounds killed Sapper Larcombe
    Air Vice Marshall Houston sighed
    Only 21 years old and his interpreter
    Buried according to local custom

    US fuelled ideas on Economy and State
    Some succeed, others must fail
    Australia, a one party state
    With Labor and Liberal both the same
    To poor people whose only hope is revolt
    So sad for Sapper Larcombe and his Afghan mate
    In Mirabad lies their fate

    Three journos approaching, Julian, John and Dan
    Winds of knowledge howl
    US Generals standing on the watchtower
    Cry our country always does the right thing
    Meanwhile Grand Jury in Virginia has sent
    Poor Bradley Manning on the last train to Mirabad
    Americans do the right thing
    Only after exhausting every other option first

    Strike up the banner, cry war no more
    Rid us of this insane curse
    Those warmongers are the worse
    Our job is not to lead
    Nor is it to be led

    Ian Curr

  5. Watt Tyler,

    You write, “I am not trying to minimize Israel’s role.” I’m sorry, but what else are you trying to do? You simply deflect all criticism of Israel in your comments, even saying that its (totally obvious) central role in the oppression of the Palestinians is “an oversimplification of sorts” (!)

    But then, the final jibe about fascism and “Islamofascism” outs you as someone not interested in concretely debating the issues but slurring your interlocutors with the charge of anti-semitism.

    That kind of Zionist debating trick is tiresome and all too obvious. Good night.

    1. This little tempest in a teapot is kind of interesting, and suggestive of how much things have changed. A remarkable number of people have chimed in on Krugman’s side — and he doesn’t seem in the least intimidated.

      Glenn Greenwald also has some remarkable statistics.

      43 percent of Americans think that US wrongdoing might have motivated the attacks 9/11. Once upon a time, arguing that position made you a self-hating leftist. Now it’s completely mainstream.

    2. I did not charge anyone with anti-semitism. I don’t know you but I read some of the stuff you wrote and I have no reason to think you are ant-semitic in any way.

      The section of the Left in France that tried to find justifications for the actions of the Nazis were often nice rational peace loving people. They simply assume that the other side as rational reasons for their actions.

      I think the process by say an educated peace loving feminist Left wing person adopts a position that for all practical purposes results in them helping the likes of Hamas or Hizbolla or any other religious fundamentalist of any type must be similar.

      Know your enemies! after using the help of the Left the Fundamentalists will cut your throats without even blinking, like they did in Iran.

  6. I just want to reply to Watt’s comments, because people on the Left don’t know the facts about some of these claims.

    “After the 48 war there were many refugees from both sides. Israel gave citizenship to the many Jews that were kicked out from Arab countries. The Arab nations refused to give citizenship to the Palestinian refugees instead settling them in refugee camps, many of those camps exist today more than 60 years after the event!.”

    Note how “Arabs” become interchangeable, and Palestinians are supposedly to blame because Arab countries haven’t treated them well enough (as opposed to Israel’s sterling record on refugees). This also grossly oversimplifies the Jewish exodus, which was more complicated, and also involved Mossad/Zionist prompting.

    “Notice that after 1948 both the West Bank and Gaza were in Arab hands, Jordan and Egypt could have established a Palestinian state, but it did not even cross their minds.”

    This ignores that Israel agreed with Jordan to occupy the West Bank.

    “The treatment of Palestinians by Arab nations has often been worse than anything Israel has ever done see Black September in Jordan as an example.”

    I think no more than 3000 killed by Jordan (it should be noted, Syria threatened to intervene, but backed down after Israeli mobilisation). Anyway, Lebanon 1982 20 000 killed.

    “I am not even getting into the way the dictatorships in the area treat their own citizens, or the discrimination against the 50% of the population that is female.”

    Fine, but these are American client states, many of which quietly collaborate with Israel, like the recently deposed Israeli favourite Mubarak.

    “Nor am I going into the many bad decisions by the Palestinians themselves (like electing Hamas in Gaza) contributed to their situation.”

    You mean, when they elected the wrong party, and were punished by Israel and its supporting govs.

  7. “This ignores that Israel agreed with Jordan to occupy the West Bank.”

    Can you explain that statement please? When did such agreement occur?

    As for the “Jewish Exodus” (are you claiming they weren’t kicked out?), I am oversimplifying? How about you give us some details.

    I am not blaming the Palestinians because Arabs treated them appalingly.

    Hamas elected a party that was on declared war with Israel. Of course it was a terrible choce for which they got punished.

    1. The Palestinians voted for the party they thought best able to resist the almost daily airstrikes, assasinations and incursions by the IDF. That the only viable choice they had was Hamas is in many respects the result of Israel and the West persecution and compromising of the traditional and largely secular Palestinian leadership of the PLO.

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