“The Media Is One‐Sided in Australia”: Views of Australian Muslim Youth

Nahid Afrose Kabir. Journal of Children and Media. Volume 2, Issue 3. 2008.

Studies of Australian media representations of Muslims/Islam have impacted on Australian Muslims, particularly the Lebanese‐Australian youths of south‐western Sydney (Kabir, 2006a, 2006b; Manning, 2004; Poynting, 2007; Poynting, Noble, Tabar, & Collins, 2004). Humphrey (2007a) observes that Muslim immigrants have been seen as a problem community since the Lebanese Muslim war refugees arrived in Australia in the 1970s. Arguably, it is the Lebanese Muslim settlement experience that has strongly shaped the early Australian public perception of Islam, despite the ethnic diversity of subsequent Muslim immigrant communities in Australia. The Lebanese Muslims suffered a high level of unemployment, and their second generation became identified with crime. But following 11 September 2001 the Australian media has reduced the status of all Australian Muslims to that of potential terrorists (Humphrey, 2007a; see also Poynting & Mason, 2006).

Collins, Noble, Poynting, and Tabar (2000) and Poynting et al. (2004) observe that the 1990s criminalising of second‐generation Lebanese Muslim youth served some politicians’ and the media’s interest. The moral panic against this group began with the stabbing to death of Edward Lee, a 14‐year‐old Korean boy in western Sydney in 1998. Before finding Moustapha Dib guilty of the crime in 2003 (Connolly, 2003, p. 7), the police and the media began racial profiling, depicting the perpetrators as being of “Middle Eastern appearance”, and “Lebanese gangs”, therefore marking the entire Middle Eastern community with criminality (Collins et al., 2000, pp. 37-40). Later, in 1998, there was a shooting incident at the Lakemba police station in south‐western Sydney for which the Middle Eastern youths and young adults of that region once again came under the media spotlight (Poynting et al., 2004). In my book, Muslims in Australia (Kabir, 2005, pp. 249-317), I note that after the 9/11 tragedy, the ethnic labelling was transformed into religious labelling: “Islam” or “Muslims”. Collins et al. (2000, pp. 4-6), Turner (2003, p. 411) and Poynting et al. (2004, pp. 153-178) contend that this labelling/fear‐mongering tactic against the “other” served the interest of state and federal politicians.

Noble’s (2007) longitudinal study of seven second‐generation Arab and Muslim boys in south‐western Sydney in the 1990s found that their formation as a “gang” could be attributed to their marginalisation by mainstream society. But by 2003 all of these young men had become educated, employed and “respectable Australian citizens”. However, a couple of them still recalled the anger and shame they felt from the media’s representation of their ethnic group as “criminals” (Noble, 2007).

In 2000 the Australian‐born Bilal Skaf, of Lebanese origin, led groups of up to fourteen Lebanese‐Australian men who committed three gang rape attacks against white women, some of whom were as young as 14. For the gang rape crimes, Bilal Skaf is serving a 31‐year prison sentence, and will be eligible for parole in 2033. Initially he received a 55‐year sentence, with a 40‐year nonparole period, but that was modified several times upon appeal. Skaf’s brother, Mohammed Skaf, has been sentenced to a maximum 15 years for the same pack rape of a 16‐year‐old girl (see The Advertiser, 29 July 2006 p. 44). The offenders were labelled as “Muslims” (Kabir, 2005, p. 293; Humphrey, 2007a, pp. 15-21).

In 2002, four Pakistani brothers, known as the “K brothers”, brutally raped four girls in Sydney. The “K brothers” were Muslims and their defence was based on the proposition that they were brought up in Pakistan and were not aware of mainstream Australian culture. Gang rape committed by people of any background is a heinous crime, but this crime had racialist overtones, with one media commentator describing the Pakistani brothers as “cultural suicide bombers”, presumably to highlight the threat of Muslim culture to Australians (Humphrey, 2007a, pp. 18-19).

In December 2005 the already poor race relations between some Lebanese Muslims and members of the wider community reached a climax with the Cronulla riots in Sydney. On 4 December 2005, a fight between three surf lifesavers and a group of four Lebanese‐background young men occurred on Cronulla beach, a city beach in the southern suburbs of Sydney. The Australian lifesavers had reportedly insulted their assailants with public taunts such as “Lebs can’t swim”. On the other hand, it was claimed that Lebanese males in a pack had previously come to the beach and verbally abused the local women with phrases such as “you’re a slut”, “you should be raped”. Following the initial scuffle, the popular media, notably the tabloids and talkback radio, fanned the flames of this conflict. And on 11 December 2005, about 5,000 young Anglo‐Australians converged on Sydney’s Cronulla beach, many draped in Australian flags, and attacked people of Middle Eastern appearance. The next day a group of young Lebanese‐Australians launched a reprisal attack by smashing shops and cars and threatening people who got in their way, even physically attacking some. Some Australian media sources blamed the riots entirely on the Lebanese Muslims (Kabir, 2007a, 2007b; Poynting, 2007). In 2006 a comprehensive New South Wales Police report, Strike Force Neil, confirmed that the Alan Jones’ 2GB talkback radio talkback programme (between 5 and 9 December 2005) incited the Cronulla riots that occurred from 11 to 13 December 2005 through its sensational comments against Lebanese‐Australians (ABC Media Watch, 2006).

In September 2006 the former mufti (Muslim spiritual leader) Sheikh Taj el Din al‐Hilali delivered a sermon in Arabic, which depicted scantily dressed women as uncovered meat and blamed them for drawing men to rape. Though he offered an unreserved apology, claiming that he had intended his speech to protect women’s honour, his statement was regarded as offensive (The Australian, 27 October 2006, p. 4), and it sparked political and media debates that continued for 2 weeks. Supporters of al‐Hilali held that the statement was taken out of context, that he was discouraging sex outside marriage, and warning young women not to roam near the mosque after prayers, which might lead men to rape them. Some religious leaders, such as Perth’s Muslim Imam Abdul Jalil Ahmed, Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickley and Anglican Archbishop Roger Herft did not back al‐Hilali but acknowledged that women should dress more modestly (The West Australian, 31 October 2006, p. 1; The Sunday Times, 12 November 2006, p. 3; The Age, 3 November 2006, p. 4). Federal Police Chief Commissioner, Mick Keelty, warned that reporting Sheikh Hilali’s “offensive” comments could unnecessarily inflame hatred of Muslims (The Australian, 27 October 2006, p. 1).

The then Australian Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, condemned al‐Hilali’s sermon out of hand. Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Liberal Party candidate for the federal election in November 2007, Pru Goward, called for Sheikh Hilali to be deported (Roberts, 2006). Liberal Party Senator, Bronwyn Bishop, said that Australia is a free society where men and women are equal, and that Muslim men’s attitude to women is unacceptable because it does not respect women’s equality (Fanning, 2006). Also, the then Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, suggested that Hilali’s speeches against women, Jews and the West could have contributed to the Cronulla riots and crimes such as the gang rapes led by Bilal and Mohammad Skaf (The West Australian, 31 October 2006, p. 1). The accumulated impact of the reporting of these incidents and comments (the al‐Hilali debate, media bias, the Cronulla riots etc.) has proved disturbing to some Muslim students, as will be revealed in the analysis of interview responses below.

The Research Methodology

During February and March 2007 I interviewed twenty‐three Muslim youths in Sydney (ten males and thirteen female) and fourteen in Perth (seven male and seven female). Because of the age of the participants (15-18 years), and the sensitivity of the topics, I decided that the best way to elicit the views of these Australian Muslims was to interview them. The alternative survey approach was deemed inappropriate because of its likely difficulties in gaining access and sufficient trust (Gillespie, 2006, p. 911; Stauss & Corbin, 1990).

I conducted semi‐structured taped interviews with the students. All the twenty‐three students living in Sydney were Australian‐born; whereas only two of the Perth students were Australian‐born, the other twelve were born overseas and mostly from refugee backgrounds. Fortunately the school authorities assisted by selecting the voluntary participants and facilitating parental approval. In this paper the interviewees are given fictitious names.

Being a Bangladeshi‐born Australian Muslim woman who has lived in Pakistan (then West Pakistan) and the Middle East for many years, it was easy for me to relate to and communicate with these Muslim students of diverse backgrounds. The students seemed relaxed, and willing to express their views. They were comfortable with my non‐Caucasian appearance, and my familiarity with their cultural, social and religious issues.

I conducted the interviews for 30-40 minutes, asking the participants about their lives: early childhood memories, family life, parents’ work status, students’ part‐time work, sporting activities, music, entertainment and cultural interests, views on Australian media, together with their hopes, ambitions and dreams. On the discussion of Australian media, the al‐Hilali issue arose frequently because it had been in the limelight recently.

Since the methodological direction of my research was open‐ended discussion, I wanted the interviewees’ responses to be as naturally occurring as possible. I have also employed a form of narrative analysis (Charmaz, 2003, 2006), whereby interview responses were regarded as a story about each interviewee’s life. Of course the interpretation of a life story is somewhat problematic because each narrative contains unique elements. In this study I observed how participants constructed their meanings, with a focus on how they regarded the Australian media generally and the al‐Hilali controversy in particular. I believe there can be respective subjectivities in the constructivist methodology but by drawing themes or views that are self‐critical such subjectivity can be reduced.

For the print media analysis I have relied on the social constructionist theory (Charmaz, 2006, pp. 125, 129-132; Ogle, Eckman & Leslie, 2006). Social constructivists’ analyses depend on their observation of conversation or discourse in the news media, and accordingly they construct actions and meanings from this material. In my analysis of the print media, I have observed how the newspaper coverage reconstructed Muslim news, as al‐Hilali’s news. The headlines were associated with rape, Islamic chauvinism etc. A constructivist approach is viable when the data is rich. For example, the Columbine shooting analysis was carried out through observation of 1,051 articles and 211 editorials published in two Denver newspapers between 20 April 1999 and 16 May 2000 (Ogle et al., 2006, p. 228), but in this paper my observation of the print media is very small (based on the reports in The Australian, 31 October – 6 November 2006). Therefore, it could risk being disconnected from both social context and situation. I realise that my interpretation can import preconceived ideas if it is just based on assumptions. On the other hand, constructivism fosters researchers’ reflexivity about their own interpretations as well as those of their research participants. Charmaz argues (2006, p. 132):

What we define as data and how we look at them matters because these acts shape what we can see and learn. Without engaging in reflexivity, researchers may elevate their own tacit assumptions and interpretations to “objective” status. Our assumptions, interactions—and interpretations—affect the social processes constituting each stage of inquiry. … The constructivist view assumes an obdurate, yet ever‐changing world but recognizes local worlds and multiple realities, and addresses how people’s actions affect their local and larger worlds. Thus, those who take a constructivist approach aim to show the complexities of particular worlds, views, and actions.

Though in this study my print media data is small, with my previous observation of print media representation of Muslims (Kabir, 2006a, 2006b; Green & Kabir, 2007; Kabir, 2007a; Kabir & Green, 2008), I found in times of crisis, some media expressed conventional opinions against the minorities. However, as Charmaz (2006) said, a constructivist view recognises multiple realities and in this paper I have analysed why the media is apprehensive of certain minorities (discussed in the “Fear of Small Numbers” section). In the remainder of this paper I will first analyse the students’ comments on the media and secondly, discuss the extent to which Australian Muslims or their leaders have contributed to negative media constructions. Third, I will address the extent to which the media is conventional, and whether these sources have any valid reasons to be conservative.

Youths’ Opinions on the Media

Sydney Muslim youths were well aware of the gang rape incident, the Cronulla riots and the al‐Hilali controversy because these issues had involved people from their region—south‐western Sydney. Though the Perth students live a long way from Sydney (a 4-5 hour flight), some of them were also well aware of these incidents through the media, especially the al‐Hilali controversy.

When I raised the topic of media with the interviewees, I asked them whether they had heard of the al‐Hilali debate, and what they thought of it. Out of twenty‐three interviewees in Sydney, thirteen (nine female and four male) believed al‐Hilali was a good spiritual leader, that his comment on “scantily dressed women and meat” was justified—mostly on the grounds that he aimed to protect his people—and that the media had misrepresented him. Four of the students were critical of al‐Hilali, two emphasised the need for diversity, two gave examples of media bias concerning Muslims in general, and two said that the media discourses have had a direct impact on their workplace.

In Perth, out of fourteen, all but one of the students said that the media was biased. They gave examples of media bias: two of them cited the Cronulla riot as an example of this bias; however, only one female student said al‐Hilali was justified, two (female and male) were critical of al‐Hilali, and one male student suggested that the media is biased against any minority, noting that the Aboriginal youths in the Redfern riots were also poorly represented.

In the UK context, Gillespie (2006, p. 910), and in the Australian context, Humphrey (2007b), contend that the media and communication play a vital role in creating a “diasporic Islam” and a “virtual ummah”. Ummah refers to the Muslim identity and unity across national boundaries. In Australia, it could be said that the al‐Hilali debate managed to create a “virtual ummah” among some Sydney and Perth students. As mentioned above, over half of the Sydney students (second and third generation) believed al‐Hilali was a good Sheikh (spiritual leader) and that the media had misrepresented him. Some of these students had listened to al‐Hilali’s sermons in the Lakemba mosque. One student, Sharmeen (third‐generation Lebanese‐Australian female), said:

Yeah, I think that he’s a good Sheikh, but obviously some people say some things they don’t actually mean and everyone who’s a human makes mistakes. Well, the media just outline the bad things that someone says, but they don’t see the good stuff. Sheikh Taj supports peace and he helps the community and the women in the community as well as the men.

Muzna (second‐generation Lebanese‐Australian female in Sydney) was also sympathetic to al‐Hilali. She thought he was mistranslated, pointing out that there are words such as, “Oh, it’s raining cats and dogs”, that would have a different meaning in Arabic. In Perth, out of thirteen students, only five recalled the al‐Hilali “scantily dressed women and meat” debate. And of the five, only Ayesha, a Somalian‐Australian second‐generation female, thought that al‐Hilali was justified:

I thought that the media twisted it around. He didn’t mean to offend them, it’s true. If I go around wearing non‐covering clothes, like showing my arms and my legs, people are going to make rude comments, and maybe if I go out at night they could do a lot of things you know? They could rape—that’s what he meant, that if you go out uncovered you’re going to get raped.

But not all students supported al‐Hilali’s comment. As noted above, four Sydney students (of Lebanese, Turkish and Fijian backgrounds) were critical of al‐Hilali’s communication skills. Perhaps these four were shifting the frame from their “virtual ummah” to their Australian identity. As Hall (1994, p. 122) said, identity “always remains incomplete, is always ‘in process’, always ‘being formed’”. These students have demonstrated an ability to look critically at events, which, arguably, reflects their incipient Australian‐ness (Kabir, 2007b). The third‐generation Lebanese female student, Selina, said:

I believe in what he’s saying, but because we live in Australia and you’ve got to see the society around you and the people around you, maybe he shouldn’t have come out in that way, so it doesn’t explode like it has in the media. Because already Muslim society has been talked about and degraded and insulted; everyone feels like “Oh my God, that’s a Muslim! Get away”. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that comment in public because we’re a different generation now and we live in Australia, and in Australia there’s no religion that tells you not to do that. So maybe he shouldn’t have said it out in public.

In Perth, Arifa, a second‐generation Malaysian‐Australian female, said about al‐Hilali, “I don’t really think much of him because he’s not really giving a good impression of Islam”. Firoz, a second‐generation Afghanistan‐born male student in Perth had the same opinion. In Sydney, two students spoke of diversity. A Fijian third‐generation female student, Yasmeen, emphasised, “Muslims are diverse so the media shouldn’t just listen to one person [al‐Hilali].” Another third‐generation Australian‐Lebanese, Sarah, was prepared to give the Sheikh the benefit of the doubt:

I have a lot of respect for that Sheikh and it was hard to see the media, like they were attacking him. I don’t know what he said. I don’t understand why he kept on saying things that would put him in that situation again. We’re Muslims and we share the same religion, but that doesn’t mean we share the same thoughts and stuff that they do. We don’t want to blow up stuff and …

In Sydney, Nargis (third‐generation Lebanese female) and in Perth, Nazneen (second‐generation Iraqi‐Australian female) observed that the media was keen to sensationalise al‐Hilali’s comments, but did not do so with the non‐Muslim religious leaders. As Nargis (third‐generation Lebanese female) said:

Al‐Hilali said women are like meat to a man if she’s not wearing enough clothes. A Catholic person said the same thing but he didn’t get as much trouble as when the Sheikh did it, because al‐Hilali’s a Muslim and he’s different.

And Nazneen (second‐generation Iraqi‐Australian female) commented: “Once one Muslim person does something wrong it (media) gets, it’s like it’s bad for all Muslims. It’s like a rotten apple makes all the apples rotten.” These two students’ observations would appear warranted. As discussed earlier, when the Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickley and Anglican Archbishop Roger Herft placed a similar emphasis on modesty in dress, the media did not dramatise their comments. On another occasion, when Cardinal George Pell criticised the Muslims’ Holy Book, the Qu’ran, the media let this pass without comment (Kabir, 2006a). Later, in 2007, when Dr Pell was critical of Australian Muslims, the media faithfully reported his words, with the headline: “Muslims are too sensitive, says Pell” (The Australian, 5 March 2007, p. 15). In March 2007, Fred Nile, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, called for an immediate moratorium on Islamic immigration. But there was no uproar about this in the Australian media (Debien, 2007).

As mentioned above, two Sydney students gave other examples of media bias. The Sydney student Omar (third‐generation Lebanese‐Australian male) said, “Media overdramatised the al‐Hilali event but it also overdramatised Mel Gibson with his Jew comments.” However, Omar was upset with the movie, Borat, stating:

Like I was watching the Borat movie; he was being very racist against Muslims. He goes “you may look like a young boy wearing a bomb—young Muslim boy wearing a bomb”, but we don’t want to look like that. He kept on mentioning bombs and Muslims in the same sentences.

As discussed earlier, the Australian Muslim community has been under a lot of media pressure in the past. For example, during the Cronulla riot in December 2005, some Australian media blamed the Lebanese Muslims entirely for the conflict between the mainstream Australians and Australians of Lebanese heritage. And, at a time when statesmanship was needed, the former Prime Minister, John Howard, declared, “We (mainstream Australians) are not a bunch of racists” (Kabir, 2007a). The conflict was surely generated from both sides but when the Prime Minister of a country takes the side of the mainstream Australian rioters, it definitely marginalises the minority as the “Other”. Similarly, when the print media juxtaposes a positive news item about a visible Muslim woman (who wore a hijab, headscarf) with news of Islamic terrorism it signals to readers that no Muslim could be a good Muslim (Kabir, 2006b). Under such an alienating environment it was upsetting for Omar when he saw Borat, making Muslims and bombs synonymous.

Noori (third‐generation Fijian‐Australian female) connects herself with the ummah identity when she sympathises with an Arab mother:

Recently, I read in the papers [Friday or Saturday’s Daily Telegraph] how this mother’s son [Saleh Jamal, convicted of gang shooting] was just charged for a crime, and the media actually went up to her, she was really upset at the time, so she didn’t talk to the media, as she was angry at the verdict. She wore the hijab and the abaya (long gown), so she was really vividly detailed in the paper. If it was an angry Anglo‐Saxon mum, you would never hear that in the papers, especially not half a page report you know.

Following my interview of Noori, which was on 19 February 2007, I checked recent editions of the Daily Telegraph (Lisa Davies, “Jailed terrorist’s mum lashes out”, 16 February 2007. p. 11). As Noori said, Saleh Jamal’s mother (Aminah Jamal) was described in detail including her dress and her mood. I also saw on the TV news how Amina Jamal was upset at the reporter’s questions and threw her bag at him. The Fijian‐Australian, Noori, may have been sympathetic to the Arab‐Muslim woman because of her ummah identity, but Matar (2006, p. 1028) notes that the frequent public images of grieving Muslim women are a way of reinforcing the perception of uncontrolled hysteria that many Westerners have come to accept as typical Muslim behaviour. In other words, readers and viewers are being fed stereotypical images to reinforce their impression that violence and chaos are familiar in Muslim environments.

In the UK context, Matar (2006, p. 1028) observed that the dominant news discourses establish essentialist and polarised accounts relying on “us” and “them”, the “West” and the “rest”, rather than exploring the complex realities for racialised minority ethnic groups that cause feelings of hurt and humiliation. Similarly in the Australian context two Sydney students believed that they were victims of “othering” in their workplace because of the media’s targeting of Muslims. Muzna (second‐generation Lebanese‐Australian female), who wears the hijab (headscarf), said:

Yeah, I had one person, like that was really different to everyone else because the way he [the customer] asked me. I was swiping his shopping through [at the checkout], and he says, “Oh it’s pork. If you don’t want to touch it you don’t have to, just give it to me free”. I said, “No sir, I will swipe it”, and he says, “But how come you guys don’t have this pork in your diet”. I said “Well, we prefer not to eat pork because of nutritional value, it’s not really good”. And he says, “Are you sure it’s part of your, you know Bible [Qu’ran]”. I said, “Yeah it is part of our Qu’ran and whatever’s forbidden is forbidden”. Then he says, “Is there any rule?” I said, “Of course there is”. He starts saying, “So aren’t you the guys who bombed …”.

However, Osman (third‐generation Turkish‐Australian male) said:

I used to think most Anglos would think very negatively of us, until I started work at the shop. My bosses are Australian, and I’m Turk, I’m Muslim and there’s also another Lebanese Muslim boy works with me. Our employers see us working, that basically we’re honest, that we’re hard working and you know we’re just as Australian as they are. On a regular basis we do talk about it when things are in the news. My employers understand that the Muslims have been given a bad name. They hate their own system for sort of singling us out.

There were other comments by interviewees that Muslim leaders are being singled out by the media. In Sydney, Suraiya (third‐generation Lebanese‐Australian female) said:

I don’t think we actually need a leader because whenever we have a leader he’ll be in the spotlight all the time and the government will be constantly attacking him. Like Sheikh Taj, they say he’s the Mufti of Australia, but he’s usually just like the main target. The government sees him as the person to attack when something goes wrong, that’s it.

I found some corroboration for Suraiya’s claim. In June 2007 al‐Hilali stepped aside and made way for the next mufti: Lebanese‐born Sheikh Fehmi, of Melbourne. The Australian (12 June 2007, pp. 1, 11) expressed approval of this appointment because he was considered “moderate”, but the newspaper reminded readers that in the past Fehmi had supported (and later regretted doing so) Abdul Nacer Benbrika—the Algerian‐born, self‐styled cleric now in jail awaiting trial on terror charges. Readers were also reminded that Sheikh Fehmi had called the terrorist organisation Hezbollah “freedom fighters”, and had asked the Australian government to remove Hezbollah’s militant arm from Australia’s proscribed list of terrorist organisations (The Australian, 12 June 2007, pp. 1, 11). In this context, I argue that some Muslim leaders have been controversial; for example, al‐Hilali has been critical of Jews (to be discussed later). Similarly, Hezbollah has been inflicting terrorism in Israel. So if the Muslim leaders support anti‐Semite groups or organisations whose ideology is terrorism, it would pose a threat not only to Israel but also to Australia which is an ally of Israel (discussed later in “Fear of Small Numbers”).

In Sydney, Mushtaq (second‐generation Singaporean male) said, “Media is one‐sided in Australia. I think it’s just one person or two people who own everything, so the picture given by the media is really skewed towards one side.” In Perth an Iraqi‐Australian second‐generation male student, Mashroof had this to say:

See, media is a powerful tool. They say, “Oh you guys are not integrating, not spreading”, it’s … obviously we can’t. The media has made us look like this and planted a thought in people’s minds that us Muslims are terrorists, we kill—that’s completely wrong. And of course we’re not going to integrate. Of course we’re going to be isolating ourselves. My hope is that the media will stop doing what it’s doing now. My dream is for everyone just to welcome each other.

A third‐generation Jordanian Muslim male in Perth, Sohaib concluded, “We should try to become smarter and more educated so that we can take higher profile positions and then later on become more media savvy.”

As discussed, almost all participants for this study spoke of the media bias and also provided some anecdotes. In a study conducted in Sydney by Ang, Brand, Noble, and Sternberg (2006), the researchers found that many Australians from non‐English speaking backgrounds believed that the media did not “represent their way of life”, and the indicators were strongest in the Lebanese sample.

As a way of checking these assertions, I looked into the coverage of The Australian from 31 October to 6 November 2006—the period when al‐Hilali’s “uncovered meat” incident was in the news. I found this newspaper to be highly critical of the Muslim spiritual leader; and, I believe, it constructed its news and headlines as if Muslims and the Islamic religion were social and political problems. However, it must be said that The Australian gave space to people who spoke on behalf of Muslims (for example, Mike Keelty) and to the columnists who were critical of al‐Hilali. But it selectively failed to mention any of al‐Hilali’s considerable contributions to the Australian Muslim and wider community (for example, al‐Hilali’s trip to Iraq to rescue the Australian‐American hostage Douglas Wood; see Kabir, 2006a).

Australian Muslim Leadership

Sheikh al‐Hilali’s controversy did not start with his sermon on “women and uncovered meat”. He first came under the media spotlight in 1988 when, in a speech to Muslim students at Sydney University, he accused Jews of trying to control the world through “sex, sexual perversion, and the promotion of espionage, treason and economic hoarding”. Later, in 2004, he made comments that could be read as if he supported suicide bombings, but this time he was excused on the ground that it was wrongly translated or “lost in translation” (see Kabir, 2006a). The “women and meat” sermon was also inappropriate but he made an apology for his comments. In January 2007, Sheikh al‐Hilali once again came under the media spotlight when he ridiculed Australia, his adopted country, on Egyptian television. He stated:

Anglo‐Saxons came to Australia in chains, while we (Muslims) paid our way and came in freedom. We are more Australian than them. Australia is not an Anglo‐Saxon country—Islam has deep roots in the Australian soil that were there before the English arrived. There is no freedom and no democracy (for Muslims)—the most dishonest and unjust people are Western people and the English in particular. (The Age, 12 January 2007, p. 1)

He added that Australian law allowed freedoms that at times were “close to madness”, that Australia had a third gender of “in‐between people who are not male or female”, and that Christian churches allowed people of the same sex to marry (Age, January 12, 2007, p. 1). When I asked the participants if they had heard of al‐Hilali’s comments in Egypt, most of them said “No”. A couple of them said, “It was stupid (what he said).”

Notwithstanding my disdain for some of Sheikh al‐Hilali’s public pronouncements, when I interviewed him in his office in Lakemba in 2005, I was impressed with the community service he was doing, particularly his involvement with vulnerable Muslim women. In this interview, Sheikh al‐Hilali said that he was against any kind of violence and that he was critical of Australia’s involvement in Iraq. I believe that as an Australian citizen the Sheikh has every right to be critical of government policies, but because of his position of leadership his criticism should be constructive. Like Sheikh al‐Hilali, Cardinal Pell was critical of the Iraqi war (Dateline, 2005), and thereby exerted his right of citizenship. But as a member of the Muslim community and an Australian citizen, I am critical of al‐Hilali’s comments against Jews and his comments in Egypt because they were derogatory and unreasonable.

Since 9/11, some Muslim Australians have been marginalised by the media, by federal politicians, and by the antiterrorism laws (Dreher, 2004; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2004; Poynting, 2007; Poynting et al., 2004). Muslim leaders, such as al‐Hilali, should have provided good leadership rather than retaliating and ridiculing their host country, which is “home” for about 350,000 Muslims.

“Fear of Small Numbers”

Most participants for this study, Muslim youths, have reported media bias in Australia, which corresponds with the findings of researchers (Ang et al., 2006; Kabir, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a; Manning, 2004; Noble, 2007; Poynting et al., 2004). A similar phenomenon has been reported in the UK, France and Germany (Green & Kabir, 2007; Harb & Bessaiso, 2006; Mousavi, 2006; Poole, 2002; Richardson, 2006).

However, on the basis of these studies it cannot be claimed that the media has initiated acts of discrimination, racism or violence. For example, Alan Jones’ remarks on Radio 2GB about the Cronulla beach incident may have perpetuated and reinforced existing racism between Lebanese‐Australians and other Australians, but he did not initiate it. The conflict between these two groups existed long before the Cronulla riots (Kabir, 2007a).

Appadurai (2006) observes that since the 9/11 and 7/7 tragedies the majorities have become apprehensive of the minorities. Appadurai calls the minority militant Muslim group identity as “predatory identities” (p. 83). The underlying dynamic here is between the categories of majority and minority. Presumably it is natural for the majority to think that they are in danger of becoming a minority (culturally or numerically) and to fear that minorities, conversely, can become the majority (through brute accelerated reproduction or subtler legal or political means). Similarly, Sen (2006, p. 89) argues that when a “colonized mind” is incensed with anti‐West sentiment it may give support to the growth of religious fundamentalism and international terrorism. By “colonized mind” Sen (pp. 144-145) means the people who are resentful of their colonial past. So when Muslim religious leaders indoctrinate disenchanted young Muslims with the sense that the world is divided between the “haves” and “have‐nots”, and remind them of global injustice, western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their colonial history, these leaders may help recruit foot soldiers for terrorist camps.

Understandably, when Egyptian‐born Sheikh al‐Hilali spoke against Jews in the late 1980s, and supported suicide bombings in 2004 (though he claimed that it was lost in translation), he became a concern for the wider Australian society. And when al‐Hilali was critical of Western culture (scantily dressed women, and later his anti‐Australian comments on the Egyptian radio), the media became critical of the Sheikh because he was perceived to be provoking the “colonised minds”.

Arguably, in some context, The Australian (31 October – 6 November 2006) was conventional when it ran the headline “Eyes opened by Islamic Chauvinism” (31 October 2006, p. 4), because it labelled a religion for an isolated incident but generally speaking The Australian could have been apprehensive of the “small numbers”. That is, if the leader of the small numbers (Muslims) provokes anti‐West sentiment through his speeches and sermons it would be counterproductive to Australian national security.


The general perception of Australian Muslims that the media is biased against them is not healthy in the current global environment. But as important as this perception is, it should not be blown out of proportion. Although one must be cautious about drawing inferences from social research, it is comforting to note that the students in this study did not have an exclusive Islamic identity. At times in their interviews they appeared to be framing themselves in the Muslim’s “virtual ummah”, but for the most part they adopted a bicultural stance.

The seventeen Arab students of Lebanese background in Sydney said that they listen to both Arabic and Western music, and also Nasheeds (Islamic devotional songs), watch Arabic programmes through the satellite and enjoy Australian sports. They also observe their traditional dance dabke and music derbekeh in their weddings, and have defined their identity as Australian‐Lebanese. The remaining twenty non‐Arab background participants in this study also expressed bicultural identities in the way they listen to western music (and Nasheeds), watch movies and TV programmes, and speak both English and their parents’ languages. The Perth students, being relatively new immigrants, were not active in Australian sports, but they indicated connections to both countries. For example, the Somalian‐born student in Perth, Ayesha, said, “Yeah I feel like I belong to Australia because I haven’t been to Somalia, like I wasn’t born there. I was born in Saudi Arabia, so it’s a bit strange.”

I argue that by voicing their opinions about the media, the thirty‐seven participants for this study have displayed a propensity for active citizenship. Their comments were also constructive. It is hard to imagine that these youths, with their bicultural identities, pose a threat to Australian national security. However, the western fear of “small numbers” is real; the 9/11 and 7/7 tragedies have proven that “small numbers” can inflict damage on the majority.

It is imperative that the media, politicians and Muslim leaders play their part in promoting a more open and inclusive Australian society, which values and supports the bicultural aspirations of its citizens, and reduces the nurturing of “colonised minds”.