September 11

We post this article from Overland continuing our diaries-of-Afghanistan series. The article below includes a look at 4 new books by Arab Australian writers. – Ed.

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.

Jumana Bayeh


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