Twenty years of September 11: the Arab-Australian experience

September 11 did not dramatically alter what it means to be a Muslim or an Arab in the Western world. The attacks did not transform how Muslims and Arabs experience life in the West beyond all recognition.

Dramatic changes have occurred in the realm of international relations, of course, as the attacks ignited the global war on terror that has played out chiefly in Afghanistan and Iraq; as well as in the domestic politics of many Western countries, with the introduction of America’s Patriot Act and Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Act, both targeting Muslims and Arabs. More subtle yet no less significant changes have also occurred at the level of society and social relations with the rise of Islamophobia.

There is, however, ample evidence illustrating that discrimination against Arabs and Muslims predate September 11. The stereotyping of these communities, as Edward Said taught us in Orientalism (1978), has a storied history in the Western literary canon. In popular film, as Jack Shaheen outlines in Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001), the evil Muslim/Arab terrorist and villain has been enshrined as a trope in American cinema. For Muslims and Arabs living in a range of Western countries, racism and discrimination have been abiding yet unwanted companions for much longer than two decades. In light of this, it is perhaps more accurate to say that September 11 heightened the intensity of the discrimination and the alienation Muslims in the West have long endured.   

In Australia, September 11 was used as part of a propaganda campaign by the Howard government to win re-election. Scarcely a month after the attacks, Howard repeated a claim by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock that a boat full of asylum-seekers had attempted to secure their entry into Australia by threatening to throw their children overboard as a ploy to initiate a rescue effort. A senate inquiry later found this to be untrue, ruling that the government had willingly misled the public and had exploited voters’ fears against the arrival of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum-seekers. The origins of many of these asylum-seekers were Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, all Muslim-majority countries.

Taking full advantage of the global insecurities and anxieties unleashed by September 11, the Australian government used the backgrounds of these so-called ‘boat people’ in order to portray them not only as potential terrorists, but also as people so callous and so different to us that they viewed the lives of their own children as expendable. This notion that Muslims and Arabs do not love their children the same way we do in the West is not new: it has precedence in media stories we have repeatedly heard of, for instance, Palestinians willingly sacrificing their children to the fight against Israel or Muslim fathers murdering their daughters to preserve family honour.

Howard won the election in November 2001 by escalating the rhetoric surrounding the ‘battle to protect Australia’s borders.’ He made no secret of this while campaigning, and even highlighted it in his election speech delivered on 28 October. The speech was brimming with the language of security, with references of need to defend, protect and fortify our borders. It included that infamous line ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ suggesting that a boat load of asylum-seeking refugees fleeing war and persecution on an ill-equipped vessel somehow represented a serious threat to Australian security and sovereignty. It was the cheapest of cheap shots, but one that apparently appealed to enough Australians to deliver Howard his victory.

Borders have long excited Australian leaders, but since Howard they seem to have become a national obsession. Bordering practices have impacted more than just the people entering Australia—migrant and Indigenous communities know only too well that borders exist in places other than the Australian shoreline.

The 2005 Cronulla riots are an extreme example of how borders can be asserted within a single city. For Anglo-Australians, the riots were about keeping Lebanese-Australians, a large part of Australia’s Arab and Muslim communities, off Cronulla beach. As such, the event was not just about geographically sealing off the space of Cronulla beach. Rather, it was also motivated by the desire to secure the beach-side suburb culturally from Lebanese-Australian presence. 

In 2018, the then immigration minister Peter Dutton echoed this desire to close not just one suburb but all of Australia to Lebanese-Muslims when he stated that allowing this migrant community to enter the country had been a ‘mistake’ made by the Fraser government in the 1970s. In this statement, Dutton explicitly delineated which minority community was not welcome here, and figuratively segregated them from wider Australia.

The border-logic that was amplified during the Howard years and has been increasingly felt by Arab-Australians since September 11 has impacted all of our lives during this pandemic, with Australia’s borders effectively closed to the world since March 2020, and state borders closing periodically. In Sydney, where I reside, several local government areas have been closed off to the rest of the city. Western Sydney, whose residents are predominately of migrant backgrounds and include among them many Muslims and Arabs, has been for an extended period under strict restrictions because of high rates of Covid transmission. We are almost two years into this pandemic, and yet Australians continue to face the consequences of a failed vaccine roll-out and insufficient vaccine supplies principally because our federal government relied disproportionately on only one method of virus control: border closures.


The pandemic, with its borders, boundaries, and restrictions on movement, has given all Australians a small sample of what Arab and Muslim Australians have been experiencing since before September 11. Arab-Australians have been documenting the suffocating effects of physical and metaphorical borders on the daily lives of Arabs and Muslims in essays, academic texts, films, documentaries and works of fiction. A recent surge in Arab-Australian fiction and memoir has been a welcome addition to the Australian literary scene, offering insights into how writers of Arab heritage dramatise and narrate the ‘Arab-Australian experience.’

This year alone, four texts have appeared by four exceptional Arab-Australian authors. Each text probes the question of how boundaries marginalise and alienate Arab subjects, with each author marking in their own unique way the two decades that have passed since September 11.

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Coming of Age in the War on Terror is a study of what can be called ‘generation September 11’—a segment of Australian society that has grown up against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror.’ Abdel-Fattah focuses on high-school students, and through interviews with them—plus the poetry they compose—she explores how Muslim and Arab youth have been adversely affected by a war that has exacerbated racism and discrimination against these communities. This climate was not made better by the various government-sponsored initiatives—like mentoring programs, discussion groups, and team sports programs—established with the aim of deterring Muslim youth from the allure of extremist views. These projects are part of a suite of anti-terror initiatives that supposedly inform the government’s ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE) strategy. Yet, as Abdel-Fattah points out, one of the most pressing problems with CVE programs is that they have the undesirable side effect of ‘entrenching in the public imagination the figure of at-risk Muslim youth.’

One of the ways the public imagines at-risk Muslims is through geography. Abdel-Fattah’s interviewees were based in Sydney schools, and this is the geographical space she comments on the most and maps for her readers. What we learn is ‘how wider discourses train and socialise people to be affected by Muslims [through] the language of suburbs.’ For non-Muslims, the suburbs of western Sydney are threatening, dangerous, riddled with crime and generally suspect. One interviewee, Michael, talks about the anxiety his mother feels in the suburb of Greenacre, a fear he links to its Muslim population. The media saturation of this suspect image of western Sydney is so acute that even a migrant student, albeit a non-Muslim, tells Abdel-Fattah that she avoids these Muslim-dense suburbs because, as she says, ‘I … just don’t feel as safe because you do have stories about people smashing car windows.’

From her Muslim informants, however, Abdel-Fattah heard the inverse. These Muslim students spoke of the comfort and protection they felt in western Sydney and the discomfort and fear they felt outside it. The burden to smile more, be nice, and speak softly was deeply felt by veiled young women when they left their home suburbs. While the boundaries that separate western Sydney from wider Sydney are not impenetrable, the work of Abdel-Fattah shows how racism and discrimination erect their own more insidious borders. As she states, ‘public space shrinks for young Muslims as they create mental maps of Islamophobia across Sydney.’

A similar experience of exclusion is explored by Sara El Sayed in her memoir Muddy People. Much of this book is the story of El Sayed’s family, her Mama, Baba, Nana, sister Aisha and brother Mohamed, as they move from Alexandria, Egypt to south-east Brisbane. Unlike Sydney, with its significant Arab population, Brisbane lacks a concentrated Arab community, and El Sayed found herself bereft of Arab companions who would understand her Arab and Muslim cultural customs. What is compelling about this memoir and a testament to El Sayed’s craft as a writer, is the way she subtly documents a sense of isolation, not just in relation to her personal experiences of it but also in her efforts to convey the broader feeling of alienation that is part of Australia’s history.

These layers of alienation are poignantly reflected in an early scene: when Mohamed and Sara arrive at school, Sara’s description focuses on the size of the campus – it is ‘flat’ with

multiple wooden-clad blocks on stilts, spread liberally across the land, as if the people who built it were trying to claim as much space as they could.

From the perspective of a child, the daunting size of the school is immediately obvious, but what is also hinted at here is the nation’s colonial history of violently claiming land from Indigenous Australians, under the false pretence of terra nullius. Perhaps El Sayed the author, reflecting on her first day at an Australian school, did not consciously intend this sort of reference, but for readers attuned to Australia’s colonial past and the violent boundaries created between settlers and natives in early settlement, the parallel is hard to overlook.

The alienation broached here manifests itself more personally when the siblings walk into the school reception office and are greeted by ‘a lady with long nails [sitting] behind an expansive counter.’ After she has asked Mohamed his name, the receptionist ‘typed slowly into the computer [and] stared at the screen for a long time.’ The children soon realise the receptionist is unable to spell Mohamed’s name, and so he volunteers it. El Sayed transcribes the sound of each letter – ‘M-O-H-A-M-E-D’ – in her text, each sound compounding Sara and Mohamed’s status as outsiders, as they stand behind the ‘expansive counter,’ a physical but also metaphorical boundary of exclusion.

El Sayed’s memoir, however, is more than just a story of the instances of exclusion and alienation. It also contains examples of how to negotiate being a stranger in a new country, and its characters navigate the boundaries of acceptability inside a sometimes-conservative Muslim and Arab culture. As the memoir progresses, readers witness Sara exercise her agency, carrying the strong personality of her mother and grandmother. At the same time, her father, drawn as a strict and uncompromising parent, is transformed from a disciplinarian into a vulnerable figure through his cancer battle. Boundaries are blurred and, as the memoir’s title tells us, lines are rarely clear but often muddy. Importantly, on a broader level, El Sayed shows readers how she exercises power as a diaspora Arab dedicated to the plight of Palestinians.

Publishing her debut work with an arm of Schwartz Media, a publisher accused of wilfully shutting out Palestinian voices, El Sayed writes in her acknowledgments that she will donate profits to support the Palestinian struggle. Such integrity from a new young writer is to be celebrated, because it demonstrates one way to reclaim some power by breaking through a barrier of silence, giving the Palestine struggle a voice precisely where it has been denied one.

In Amani Haydar’s devastating and arresting memoir The Mother Wound, readers also witness a similar need for a writer to give voice to the oppressed, in this case her mother, Salwa Haydar, and maternal grandmother, referred to as Teta. Haydar’s memoir covers two acts of murder: her mother’s death at the hands of her father in March 2015, and Teta’s killing during an Israeli attack on Lebanon in July 2006. The timing of these events is important to Haydar, particularly in relation to how her Teta’s death is registered by those around her. As she states, from the time of Teta’s death,

[n]ot even five years had passed since 9/11 and only eight months since the Cronulla Riots. To … the world, my relatives and I were indistinguishable from the terrorists who had provoked the war [with Israel] to start with. The troublesome Lebs who were trying to take the beach for themselves.

When Amani attempts to discuss the trauma of Teta’s murder with a school friend, the response she receives is unforgivably callous: ‘I’m sorry, but isn’t that just what happens in war?’ While her friend’s dismissive words and lack of sympathy wound and alienate Haydar personally, Lebanese-Australian readers no doubt recall the collective sense of alienation we all felt when the then Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer claimed that Israeli attacks on Red Cross ambulances in south Lebanon were a ‘hoax,’ nothing more than photoshopped images produced as propaganda by Hezbollah. Downer’s claim was false, rebuked by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch.

The alienation from wider Australia that Haydar reveals as part of the Arab-Australian experience finds an uncomfortable parallel with the death of her mother. Salwa Haydar was brutally murdered by her husband, stabbed thirty times in the presence of their daughter Ola Haydar. Despite these brutal facts, Haydar’s father and his lawyers manipulate the legal system, stating that a jury trial would be unfairly prejudiced against a ‘traditional Lebanese Muslim’ man. Haydar explains that her father, well-read, fluent in English and not an extremist, was not the embodiment of that stereotype, but that his defence became an exercise in ‘wielding harmful stereotypes as a shield against the law.’ Questioning not just the legal process but the cultural attitudes within it, Haydar writes that a

jury might be prejudiced against Arab and Muslim men, but that doesn’t mean they’ll care about a dead Muslim woman. We [women] are seen to have subscribed to our own oppression; not entitled to victimhood because we aren’t allowed to claim innocence in the first place.

This denial of victimhood and innocence in the case of Haydar’s mother has precedence in the death of her grandmother. Haydar’s encounter with her school friend is replicated in the wider Australian reception of the July 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. At a commemorative event in October of that year, Haydar’s mother reflects on this denial in an interview that her daughter listens to over a decade later:

My mum didn’t deserve to die this way. I would never [have] imagined that she would die this way, and we’re still in shock until now. And we have to live with the memory for the rest of our lives.

Hearing these words after her own mother’s death, Haydar is struck by their uncanny familiarity and their empowering message:

I meet my mother in the words she speaks as the interview ends. In this liminal space she passes me the baton. Her words have become my words and I understand … that our fight is timeless.

Part of that fight is to dismantle the boundaries that deem women like Teta, Salwa and Amani as so different and ‘other’ that they are unworthy of full care and compassion from fellow Australians and our legal system. By shining a light on this lack of care, on her alienation and intergenerational trauma, Haydar reminds readers of the dehumanising nature of the borders we use to separate a fictional ‘us’ from an equally fictional ‘other.’  

Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You also broaches the issue of cultural borders and the segregation encouraged by stereotypes, exploring these issues through Sydney’s urban landscape. The novel is a story of both the paternal love of Bani Adam for his son, Kahlil, to whom the book is addressed, and the romantic love he feels for Oli, the woman who becomes his wife. But it is also the story of Bani’s relationship with Sydney, not just south-west Sydney where he lives but also other districts, such as the trendy inner-west and the white suburbia of the north. Notably, Bani also travels to the infamous Cronulla beach two years after the riots, and visits Bondi beach in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, an area that is, much like Cronulla, devoid of Arab or Muslim residents.

Ahmad’s book has been described as overly dramatic, with one reviewer stating that it’s a form of ‘hysterical realism’ and that Bani’s ‘hyper-inflated world isn’t quite real.’ But what is unreal is the way this same reviewer reduces the world of Bani to Ahmad’s desire ‘to plant [an] Alawite flag and carve out a space for a culture that’s under-explored in Australian literature.’ Planting this flag is achieved by ‘Bani show[ing] us his cultural cabinet of wonders, serving up McNuggets and telling of the sheiks and dead relatives framed on his walls.’ While Bani is part of this community, the novel is hardly a guide book to Alawite theology or culture. Nor is it, as the reviewer also implies, locked in a world of Alawite south-western Sydney, replete with stories of cheap fast food and sheikhs. Bani’s world is much vaster than this, and the reviewer’s failure to see this reflects the kind of bordered thinking we are sadly accustomed to in our mental maps of Sydney.

This sort of border-logic assumes that minority communities, like the Arab and Muslim, live in supposedly ghettoised spaces, like western Sydney, and are unfamiliar with the city’s more ‘urbane’ quarters. Bani constantly traverses the Sydney landscape, challenging this sort of logic and exposing the false assumptions mainstream Australia harbours, particularly that ghettoised communities, especially Muslims communities in Australia, are insular and static. On the contrary, Bani’s Sydney landscape is wide, rich and diverse. As an Arab-Australian, rather than being trapped in an enclave, he illustrates his intimate knowledge of and familiarity with his home city, across its western, eastern, southern and northern coordinates. As such Ahmad’s novel confounds readers’ expectations about both an Arab-Australian Muslim community and the city of Sydney. The narrative suggests a different mental map of Sydney is possible, one that is less bordered and less segregating of its minority communities. 

There can be no doubt, as revealed in Abdel-Fattah’s study and in the memoirs and novel discussed above, that the twenty years since September 11 have been challenging for Arabs and Muslims in Australia. Two decades are a long time in the world of the publishing industry. If in 2001 Arab literary voices in Australia were less audible or, perhaps more accurately, silenced by the marketing preferences of book publishers, in 2021 things have significantly changed. We are seeing a surge of texts by Arab-Australian authors, telling us not just stories of the enhanced bordering-practices they have endured as a result of September 11 but also narrating alternate ways to envision a world and an Australia beyond those exclusionary boundaries. We need to read their texts not just as documents of hardship but as sites that imagine inclusive realities. These four books from Abdel-Fattah, El Sayed, Haydar and Ahmad are the best place to start.  

Jumana Bayeh

Jumana Bayeh is Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University. She is the author of The Literature of the Lebanese Diaspora: Representations of Place and Transnational Identity (I.B. Tauris, 2015), several articles on the Arab diaspora fiction and co-editor of a special issue on ‘Arabs in Australia.’ She is currently working on two ARC projects, one that examines the representation of the nation-state in Arab diaspora literature from writers based in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom, and another, with Professors Groth (UNSW) and Murphet (Adelaide), looking at the global resurgence of riots. 

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  1. A powerful piece. The more I study the Middle East the more I come to realise that Orientalism is alive and well and isn’t going away anytime soon.

  2. People in positions of authority and influence have been using divide and rule as a weapon for thousands of years.
    Howard and his ilk have continued the tradition and the result has been horrific.
    Australia could have been a beacon to the world, instead we have added to the wretchedness on this planet.

  3. great piece. the author’s piecing analysis tells us how racism could penetrate our very “innocent” perceptions of the people.

  4. Thank you, you have analyzed very well how the most important event of this century has impacted our daily life. Congratulations.

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