The Touch and Feel of Australian Islamophobia. Notes on Randa Abdel-Fattah’s ‘Islamophobia and Everyday Multiculturalism in Australia’

Photo of the 'crudely islamified mannequin used as the cover of Randa Abdel-Fattah's book Islamophobia and Everyday Multiculturalism in Australia.

There is so much to recommend Randa Abdel-Fattah’s book, it is difficult to know where to begin.  I also fear that, without a forensic chapter by chapter analysis, I will do an injustice and leave important aspects of this landmark work out.  I start, instead of this, with the overarching response it left with me.  Abdel-Fattah’s work  meticulously explicates what Islamophobia feels like – in all its visceral and emotional sense – for those who express / internalise this bias.  The journey of the book is one of understanding how people are literally affected not simply in an abstract cognitive sense – where bias sits in some part of the (sub)conscious – but with the viscerality of Islamophobia that has the power to create self-fulfilling cycles of agitation, relief, anger and action in those interviewed.

Decrypting and disrupting Islamophobia as the oppressors’ narrative

Abdel-Fattah connects at the outset the role of the white gaze in its exoticising ‘Muslim sensory data – bodies, spaces and objects’ as non-normal, with the every-day function of Islamophobia amongst Anglos and non-Muslim non-Anglos.  A bottom-up understanding of Islamophobia is the missing piece, in her contention, of the understanding of Islamophobia usually discussed at the structural level (see Grosfoguel, Lentin et. al. cited p3).  This bottom-up understanding, is in effect, an understanding of the emotional framework of Islamophobia’s witting and unwitting foot soldiers, and is a necessity to disrupt the operation of Islamophobia from and at the grassroots.  This has importance for those of us who, as activists have worked hard – and rightly so – to have Islamophobia acknowledged and understood as a centuries old structural and structuring force of the modern world. I will discuss this further later. 

So in this analysis, the actions associated with everyday Islamophobia – discriminatory service in a shop at a holiday resort, or the articulation of opposition to Muslim women’s dress, the castigating of the behaviour of Lebanese families on holiday, hateful responses to Muslim participants in spaces of debate – are recounted as behaviours with equally profound affect on those perpetrating them as those victimised by them. 

Islamophobia as a tangible effect on the person with bias can often manifest in physical responses of repulsion e.g. moving away in small spaces (a literal rather than metaphorical signification of white flight) from those racialized, but also manifests as emotional with distress and anger, confusion and disorientation on the part of those racializing.  This reminds me of Ameli’s contention (2012) that, whilst not equal as victims, those holding Islamophobic sentiment, including those who act upon it with violence, are a type of victim of structural Islamophobia.  He posits blame for their bias on the fact that they have been socialised into this way of thinking and being by the overlapping and mutually supportive operation of media, political and legal and policy narratives that demonise and demand the expulsion of Muslims from social and political space.  This need to expel Muslims from the body politic, as Razack (2008) has recounted elsewhere, is also explored by Abdel-Fattah.

White governmentality, multi-culturalism, the Australian project and proximity to whiteness

Disorientation is of particular significance and works at the level of white governmentality – the understanding of Australia as a project that privileges Anglo national subjects above all others.  In this understanding, the act of larger families of Muslims pushing tables and chairs together in a fast-food restaurant can be a trigger for the outpouring of affectation.[1]

The premise that Australia is at peak white supremacy in terms of its national conversation but also structurally due to its foundations as an averred Anglo state, is an important starting point of this text.  The global Western experience of Islamophobia as an organising principle of national narratives of citizenry – from the elusive ‘good Muslim’ always tantalisingly out of the reach of the everyday Muslim and their purported civil society representatives, to the hysteria caused by the ‘crudely Islamified Lakemba mannequin’[2] – forms the explicit backdrop to Abdel-Fattah’s mapping of regional Islamophobia. 

She further grounds this by connecting the experiences and emotions she documents to the understanding of participants interviewed of governmental belonging.  She identifies the immanent white supremacy within the everyday understanding of what Australia as a form of governance means to those who identify or internalise whiteness as the essential trope of authority and institution.  This is found and often overflows in the responses of her subjects.  Thus everything from wearing a hijab to having halal food unsettle the idea of (white) Australia.  This unsettling operates in ways that even racialized others internalise and regurgitate in order to set themselves apart from those being expunged from the idea of Australianess and protecting / maintaining / attaining proximity to whiteness in the process.  The number of people of colour in anti-Muslim and anti-refugee movements is a testament to this type of racializing narrative that not only pits racialized groups against each other but reinforces, in so doing, a white hegemony over territory, psychology and ideology.

It is this backdrop that saw the driving out of a government (1991-96) that spoke of an open, multicultural Australia set to tackle its demons and brought in an era of Conservative government.  It also saw the election of Pauline Hanson and, thus, the (further) political legitimisation of the One Nation Party as well as the rhetoric she and her party espoused. 

Abdel-Fattah interviewed ‘political Islamophobes,’ ‘everyday participants’ and ‘non-Anglo participants,’ with the purpose of ‘explor[ing] the diverse spectrum of negative attitudes and feelings about Muslims and Islam.’   Having written and read much on the impact of these attitudes on Muslims themselves, reading about the emotional and mental landscape of those whose victimising views, politics and oftentimes actions – both deliberate and unconscious – was strange and surprising.  Yet, Abdel-Fattah’s work – without – claiming to do so, challenges those of us involved in such work to see this as an important and largely missing piece of the purview of anti-Muslim racism. By  locating the emotional space that Islamophobia occupies in its everyday perpetrators, she provides the potential for change in the very spaces in which the everyday experience of Islamophobia – in its varying and subtle violence, unfolds.  From the acknowledged moment of crisis that Australia finds itself in comes a detailed account of how the psychology of its willing and unwitting foot soldiers think. With this account,  several keys as to how and where to unsettle and disrupt those imaginaries of Islamophobia are presented to the reader at a time when transformative action rests largely within civil society, the grassroots and, where it exists, critical media and activist spaces.

Connecting to the transnational Islamophobia project

The work of projects such as the Counter-Islamophobia Kit (CIK) identified the failure of 8 EU member states to act.  This understanding was generated in conversation with various actors involved in combatting Islamophobia.  The state’s failure to accept that institutional and structural Islamophobia exists to the active propagation of Islamophobia through narrative, policy and law is the major factor in stymying efforts to tackle anti-Muslim racism even when, in some cases, anti-racist laws and institutional initiatives exist.  The State as the cause of, and the state in denial about Islamophobia creates the situation where the demands that are and should be made by the State, are either being met in civil society or not met at all.  This latter failing arises because these demands can only be delivered by the State, which will not be moved.  What CIK found was that there was an urgent need amongst those in civil society trying to tackle Islamophobia to understand this vacuum, where respondents’ aspirations and recommendations could not in their own imagining feasibly reach their needs, demands and expectations as a result of the crisis of the state. 

Abdel-Fattah’s site of proposed interruption of this works, instead, along the idea of bell hooks that the place of marginality can be the place of organisation, creativity and transformative power.  That marginality is the result of what Razack (2008) has termed the expulsion of the Muslim subject and what Abdel-Fattah sees as the almost corporeal vomiting out of the indigestible Muslim from the body politic of Australia.  To Abdel-Fattah this marginalisation can be disrupted at the point where inattention (where difference is unremarked and does not disrupt) becomes (negative) attention.  In her interviews, Abdel-Fattah finds ellipses and moments where those expressing the most negative of views pause and find flaw or fatal illogic in their observations.  Her insight that there is a process or, at least, the possibility for a subconscious decoding in the thinking of those holding Islamophobia views, consequently, sets the scene for constructing effective counter-narratives.

This includes the often somewhat naïve idea that the solution to Islamophobia is to educate the wider society, including the ‘masses,’ about Islam and Muslims. Often employed by civil society organisations and anti-racist – particularly anti-Islamophobia – projects, this idea is still held to scrutiny.  More importantly, this desire to educate has been conventionally expressed (either as an aspiration or in actual projects) in the form of either a public relations exercise that will somehow (i) replicate capitalist modalities of advertising/ packaging Muslims as ‘good’ and saleable – thus ignoring the fact that racialisation disrupts even the processes of consumption (again Abel-Fattah’s ‘indigestible Muslim’) – or (ii) a sombre and earnest exercise in education that posits the problem as a question of innocent ignorance neither fed nor besieged by structured forces of racialisation.  Abdel-Fattah’s recommendation to education starts in a completely different space.  Her conceptualisation of  Islamophobic behaviours as learned habits and socialisation that can equally be unlearned makes this education cognizant of the history of structural racism, and the impact this has on Muslims and Islam as ‘saleable goods’ in a PR imagination.  Abdel-Fattah asks those of us involved in anti-racism to think about the specifics of how to create affective and emotional short circuits in the media/politics/response loop.  How can we intervene so that reflexive pauses can be extended and scripts can be questioned? How can we untrain bodies from being affected by Muslimness?  Can the training be reversed and bodies, consequently, moved from ‘attention to inattention?’’

Abdel-Fattah does suggest PR – the use of ‘spin doctors.’  However, inadvertently answering the dilemma created in (i) above, rather than creating new narratives or tropes, in her opinion, the work of these ‘spin doctors’ should be the one of burying existing tropes.  Precisely, as she argues,  they should make Muslimness unremarkable in the emotional landscape of the majority.  This suggestion is underpinned by the understanding of 500 years of racial ‘logic’ as backdrop.  Thus the ‘failed multiculturalist’ project of Australia cannot be resolved by selling, as such, the virtues of multiculturalism, but perhaps – as the CIK has explored, making emotional connections in the ellipses encountered by Abdel-Fattah.  Thus, the Islamophobes who cite their friendships with Muslims who were are less ‘in your face’ Muslims, implicitly understand that, embedded in their unsolicited defence of their position, there is the need to accept people – even Muslims.  As she explicates, unpacking the need her interviewees feel for conditionality requires either disrupting their attachment to the idea of conditions or burying their emotional responses to different cultural expressions (one participant did not object to a friend wearing a sari at a sporting event because he was sure she did not wear it all the time, versus his objection to hijab on the basis of its perceived permanence).

The moment of crisis and the white supremacist behemoth

The idea that the ‘multiculturalist’ project has failed in Australia unquestionably plays a key role in the Islamophobic narrative of the right.  However, how Abdel-Fattah rightly points to, the liberal strain of anti-Muslim racism takes us no further in countering Islamophobia. Rather, it reinforces it as a mainstay of the cultural lexicon.  In particular, she refers to the Dangerous Ideas’ scandal, where a leading member of HizbutTahrir in Australia was invited to lead a debate titled ‘Honour killings are morally justifiable.’  The backlash that followed resulted in the cancellation of the session and an apology by the event organisers.  Abdel-Fattah devotes a whole chapter to unravelling the events and many double-standards that applied while posing the question: ‘Are Muslims allowed to have a dangerous idea?’ At the end of the chapter, she safely responds this question effectively arguing that it is in fact the Muslim who is considered the dangerous idea.

Uthman Badar, said leading member, was asked to present this topic by the festival organiser, who despite much consultation with him on the title and topic (which he resisted) effectively imposed this on him.  Badar’s view, he argued (perhaps naively), was to use it to segue into the discussion he wanted vis-à-vis Western hypocrisy on various issues, not least ideas of universality.  He thought he could even posit and advance questions like ‘the West needs Islam to save it,’ which is a title he had suggested to the festival organisers.  Badar found himself at the centre of a storm of attention and outrage, which Abdel-Fattah argues evidences the ‘indigestibility’ of Muslims. Despite the festival being accustomed to topics such as ‘it is morally justified to kill new born babies’ as part of its raison d’etre that free speech demands the ability to debate the most extreme and outrageous ideas, even the festival organisers eventually capitulated and publicly admitted that they should not have given platform to this debate.  Many messages could have been taken from this episode in the public and political realm to discuss Muslim subjectivity in terms of both social narrative and political experience.  These include: there are after all limits to free speech and these limits are applied differentially and in a discriminatory manner; and Muslims are not given equal access to the privileges of free speech and debate no matter what topic is.  However,  the message that passed on to the public was that Muslims are not worthy of access to these platforms because they are inherently dangerous/they are not of us.  The added insult to this injury – the alleged manipulation of the topic by the festival organisers – is another example of how whiteness manages even the parameters of political agency of Muslim subjects.  The tantalising promise that Muslim subjects would be accepted if only they play by the rules of the game is here shown up as an unachievable goal at the hands of the exact liberal promise that offers it. 

The non-Muslim person of colour as part of the nuanced homogeny of Islamophobia

Abdel-Fattah’s chapter ‘When the Other Otherises’ has been averred to above. In this chapter, she argues that a type of political subjectivity is sought by, and in part given to, otherised groups on condition of accepting the prevailing racist and racialising (il)logic of the state.  Abdel-Fattah emphasises that this internalisation of racism is another outcome of anti-Muslim racism, not a cause of it.  This has implications beyond the study vis-à-vis Muslim communities themselves and intra-Muslim issues, notably but not solely sectarianism.

Abdel-Fattah finds the seeds for that in the forthright response of one everyday non-white Islamophobe she interviewed. When recounting her own past experience of racism, she reported a specific event in which, in  response to someone who called her a ‘wog,’ she loudly and clearly stated: ‘You are wog, we are wog, we are all wog except Aborigine.’  This response is instructive and, arguably, the clearest narrative for the Australian context which, borrowing from the CIK’s recommendation to connect present racism to historical injustices, not least colonialism, requires efforts in messaging.  The interviewee’s displacing of the ‘wog’ racist trope is another possible way to disrupt, at the very least, Islamophobia by peoples of colour against Muslims but, in the Australian context, it is also part of the messaging that ultimately requires ‘unburying.’ As the responses of another respondent of Abdel-Fattah exemplifies, whilst demanding Muslims to dilute their ‘otherness’ in order to fit in, peoples of colour are able to see through what is happening to Muslims as part of the cycle of ‘Australians always having to beat up on the new group.’ (175)  In the case of this individual respondent, or any of the many (millions) espousing such views, the challenge is to find a way to engage these groups on a journey which takes this understanding to its logical conclusion: the challenge that faces us all.  Abdel-Fattah’s impressive work takes us substantially closer to understanding how to do this.  And I for one am grateful for it.



[1]  This is one example that recurs in the holiday resort setting where she spoke to mainly Anglo respondents regarding their feelings towards seasonal tourists and holidaymakers from particularly Lebanese Muslim backgrounds (111):

“Hegemonic discourses about the Muslim infiltrate everyday sociality and sensual experiences, colouring the visual, tuning the auditory and tempering the emotional (Haldrup et al. 2006: 177).  In other words, incompatible embodiment is experienced via the senses but made sense of via ideology… When a large, rowdy non-Lebanese Muslim family enters one of the cafes in Bayside and proceeds to move the tables around, the soundscape can be experienced as overwhelming because it violates normative standards for the acceptable ‘volume’ of customers.  When a Lebanese Muslim family does this, however, their haptic space is experienced as overwhelming and as threatening and deviant.”

[2] Crudely Islamified Mannequin adorns the cover of this book and begins the book as an example of how the media hysteria over a blonde mannequin given a Muslim makeover for a shop in Lakemba, Sydney – i.e. having a marker penned beard, and being adorned with both thobe and turban, whilst operating within the framing of the white gaze of exotic and orientalist tropes, was also felt as a deep unsettling of that gaze by virtue of the racialization of the mannequin as white / Anglo / Australian now ‘made’ Muslim.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK. She is one of the founders of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (www.ihrc.org.uk). Her publications include, Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK, co-authored with Saied R. Ameli, as well as various articles and reports for different publications.

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