As a Muslim woman, I have a hate-love relationship with the media. My disdain for Australian TV, radio and newspapers can be partly attributed to the fact that they are all largely dominated by white Anglo voices and by the unwritten rule that the Muslim narrative be excluded from the bigger picture.
Simply put, Australian media has a long-term commitment to misunderstanding and misrepresenting Islam and the Muslim community.
When the topic of Islamophobia is brought up for discussion it is often viewed as a unique phenomenon created by the events of 9/11. I resent this narrative because it implies that the rise of ‘Islamic terrorism’ is the reason for the negative and stereotyped portrayal of Muslims in Western countries, which is a form of justification.
It doesn’t take extensive research to discover that the media changed its attitudes towards Muslims and Islam some time during the late 1980s, leading to a shift in how the Muslim world was to be viewed and understood. There is an uncanny parallel between the United States’ relationships with Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq and the portrayal of said countries and their governments. By the time of the September 11 attacks, this negative sentiment was already sewn into the American and Australian public consciousness with regard not just to Muslims but from people from Central and Western Asia in general. This helped lay the grounds for the support of the Iraq invasion in 2003, in which Australia played a crucial role under John Howard, and contributes to the dumbing down of Afghani, Palestinian and Syrian politics to the easily digestible concept of ‘Islamic terrorism’, furthering our government’s investment in the Australia-US defence relationship. How this impacts international relations between Australia and much of Asia is clearly documented by the 24-hour news cycle. What is left unsaid, however, is how Islamophobic propaganda affects individuals and takes over other important conversations.
As is so often the case, women are the easy targets in this war against terrorism. This could be due in part to the fact that those who observe the Islamic practice of wearing Hijab are more easily identifiable as Muslim. However, I think the deeper reasons are tied into systematic misogyny and racism.
Take the supposed epidemic of ‘Jihadi Brides’. A great deal of anger, fear and hatred are levelled at women accused of forsaking Western society to join terrorist groups like ISIS and are therefore seen to have rejected Western morals and values for the sake of the ‘barbaric’ and ‘oriental’ values of the East. The presumption is that there is a strong anti-Western sentiment in Muslim communities causing Muslims to fail at successfully assimilating into Australian society. This idea has matured into a full-blown conspiracy theory, whereby Muslims would secretly harbour a desire to dismantle Western civilisation from the inside out and impose Sharia Law onto white-Anglo Australians. This is the theory espoused by the likes of Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie.
Witness the case of Shamima Begum, a British citizen who left for Syria in 2015 as a fifteen-year-old to marry Dutch-born accused terrorist Yago Riedijk. In February, Begum requested the UK government to approve her repatriation as a citizen by birth. The public overwhelmingly took the view that Begum had relinquished her UK citizenship the moment she left Syria to join Islamic State. Begum was then unceremoniously labelled a ‘Jihadi Bride’ by the UK media (as well as in Australia), and no mention was made in the one sensationalist headline after the other of the fact that she was merely fifteen when she left for Syria –a child indoctrinated into a cult who married a man who was eight years her senior a mere ten days after entering the country. Riedijk and Begum’s marriage would have considered illegal by both UK and Dutch law, nor had she reached the age of consent. At fifteen, Begum could not even legally travel alone on airplanes without parental consent. To say that Begum made a choice to join Islamic State and marry an accused terrorist is to grossly oversimplify her situation.
Begum was not in any capacity to make the decisions that she made. The blame and responsibility should fall onto the adults involved and the UK authorities who allowed Begum to leave the country in the first place. We must also note the major power imbalances within Begum and Riedijk’s relationship and that child grooming and statutory rape are defining features of their supposed marriage.
It is telling that these were not the first, overriding concerns of UK authorities and the general public. If Begum had been a white English child groomed into joining a cult, I believe there would have been a very different response and calls for her to be returned to the UK.
There is also a tendency for children of colour to be viewed and judged as adults as oppose to white children. This is evident through the high incarceration rates of black youth in Australia and the US as well as the inclination of police to profile them as dangerous and violent criminals. In Australia, Arab Muslim youth are experiencing the same treatment by authorities.
It is no surprise that Begum as a young Muslim girl would be stripped of her right to a childhood and instantly profiled as a terrorist. The lack of sympathy and compassion was also extended to her children. Begum had begged to be allowed to return home with her newborn son after experiencing the deaths of her other children in the Syrian camps. Her son at the time was a British citizen as Begum was yet to be revoked of her British citizenship. However, Begum’s plea was denied, and her newborn died shortly after. The British government had effectively punished the child for his mother’s crimes. They treated a newborn as though he was a terrorist.
Originally from Melbourne, twenty-four-year-old Zehra Duman has also been labelled a Jihadi Bride. She reportedly left for Syria at nineteen and married fellow Australian jihadist Mahmoud Abdullatif, who is confirmed to have died in combat. She is currently held at an Al Hawl refugee camp in north-east Syria with her two-year-old son and six-month daughter, with no money or food and starving children to feed.
Scott Morrison ‘has no sympathy’, and believes that women like Duman should accept the consequences of their actions. It is very concerning how willing the Australian prime minister is to leave vulnerable Australian women and children in dangerous war zones and as well to refuse to consider the possible nuances of their situations. I also wonder if the government of the UK and Australia had so readily stripped them of their citizenship had they been white Anglo women. I do not wish to suggest women like Zehra Duman bear no responsibility for their actions, nor that they should not face any legal consequences. But the Australian government and the Australian public have enough compassion and sense to properly investigate and question the situation they are in.
Muslims are not inherently evil and just as vulnerable as anybody else to systematic forms of violence, cult grooming and sex trafficking. It is our government’s duty to protect Muslim Australians like they would any other citizen, regardless of their circumstance. Rendering those accused of ‘Islamic terrorism’ stateless sends out the message that a Muslim’s citizenship is conditional, further ostracising parts of the Muslim community that may struggle with their Australian identity. It is also blatantly Islamophobic and racist.