Ten years since 9/11: What have progressives really learned about war & Islamophobia?

by · September 11, 2011


The tenth anniversary of 9/11 has seen TV outlets promo tribute after tribute, where the message is clear: the tragedy of the twin towers requires of us an uncritical outpouring of grief. 

The now ten years old footage, which has been replayed so very many times, is still raw and powerful: people jumping from burning buildings, the voicemails left by those trapped for their loved ones, and the sacrifice of the public servants, in particular fire fighters, who ran in to the buildings to assist and died. But it is of course the images of the collapsing towers that are at the centre, such commanding images that are as potent today as on the first.

But in the shadow of the twin towers are other legacies: those of endless war waged by the West and the dramatic rise of Islamophobia globally. It is these consequences that confront us today. And the Left’s inability, in particular in Australia and the US, to mount a serious ongoing challenge to them remains a serious failing.

Endless war

The direct and immediate consequence of the attacks was the military strikes and invasion by the US against Afghanistan and then, through the coalition of the willing, the later invasion of Iraq. Those two wars have seen thousands upon thousands die at the hands of Western militaries acting on the authority of those states. The official and unofficial figures beggar belief. While hotly disputed, academics involved in the Lancet studies, based on direct household interviews in Iraq, have reported that that military action alone an estimated 654,965 ‘excess deaths’ had occurred as a result of the war to end of June 2006. And of those ‘excess’ deaths, 601,027 were due to violence. The numbers of those injured and maimed is of course far greater.

While the Iraq war was always strongly opposed by the Australian people, over half in many polls, the invasion of Afghanistan under the operation name ‘Enduring Freedom’ was less so. The fear whipped up in the wake of 9/11, and the promise of a quick and just war to ensure global security, saw far less condemnation. Yet even in the hyperbole of of 2001, before the inevitable disastrous failure of that war was clear, about a quarter of Australians opposed or involvement. In the last few years the figure has risen to about half the population, despite the fact that many saying the troops should not be withdrawn must surely be on the basis that the Australian government should remain to attempt to clean up the mess they have created.

Far from making the world a safer place, these wars have, as expected by many in the Left, wrought horror on local populations and intractable situation. As the graph from icasualties shows, Afghanistan has been a less and less safe place for western troops as time has progressed:

This is to say nothing of the impact on Afghanis, and in a recent speech in Armidale NSW, Malalai Joya details the future the west has provided for her people.

Malalai Joya Armidale Town Hall 5/9/2011 from SVM on Vimeo.

There was no short war and there was no secure global future. Moreover, any veneer of justice has been belied by the fact that the US and it partners have seen the initial displacement of the Taliban with regional warlords, and most recently the inevitable advice that the (isolated, weak, and unrepresentative) Afghan government and the United States are negotiating with Taliban fighters to bring ‘peace’ to the country.

Islamophobia: the new (cultural) racism

The growing islamophobia in the West, including in Australia, reminds us that the victims of these wars are not always abroad or at the hands of the military. The increasing Islamophobia — racism — in every day Australian life is hard to ignore. As Dr Kate Riddell and Professor Samina Yasmeeen detail in their 2009 conference paper, many Australian Muslims report:

an environment where ‘Muslim’ had become political and social shorthand for ‘terrorist’ [and that] they are increasingly exposed to exclusionary non-Muslim attitudes — exhibited in negative political discourse, media reportage, and social interaction — and this has significantly contributed to their sense of alienation and exclusion from the wider community.

The Riddell and Yasmeen paper analyses Letters to the Editor in The West Australian newspaper, written by non-Muslims on the subjects of ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ between 2001 and 2007.  In the letters many of the usual refrains are heard, such as in this 2001 letter:

Don’t say that it won’t happen — it already has. There are already schools where Christmas carols are not sung for fear of offending some of the Muslim children.

This letter finds a more recent echo in a Facebook status, posted to urge Christians to ‘tick’ the Christian box in the census:



While biological racism is still frowned upon, the growing acceptability of cultural racism is increasingly widespread and disconcerting. Of course it is also to be condemned.

On February 9 2006 Miranda Devine opined in the Sydney Morning Herald that it is a semi-official policy by NSW state authorities ‘not [to antagonise] groups of young Arab-Australian men behaving criminally or antisocially’. She claimed public policy had made police feeble and emboldened ‘law-breakers to ever more audacious behaviour, such as the revenge attacks after the Cronulla riots’. It seemed to escape Devine that those attacks had a horrendous context, an organised racist protest at Cronulla (which included fascist elements) calling for the eradication of the Muslim religion in Australia and some members physically attacking anyone they thought to be Muslim.

However, what prompted this attack on young Australian men of the Muslim faith was not something they did directly, but the reaction by an unassociated group of young Muslims on the other side of the globe to the printing of two cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Many Muslims had been outraged and some young Muslim men had rioted. Some had called for the West to be attacked and for revenge to be enacted. However, most did not riot and most did not clamour for retribution. Most simply stated their view that the cartoons were part of a growing Islamophobia in Northern Europe and were racist.

Devine continued. In her sights were not just the young Muslim men who reacted after Cronulla, but also those who dare highlight anti-Muslim sentiment in the community. She railed against the Victorian Teachers Union, who had argued in previous weeks for better education about Islam when a survey of 551 high school students found a majority had negative attitudes towards Muslims. Devine ridiculed the teachers as well as an associated editorial in The Age newspaper for stating: ‘Little wonder many Muslims see the ‘war on terror’ as a war on them. Their community is besieged by hostility and suspicion, which helps explain why they want to make their hurt felt …’

Many of the core calls to arms were there: Muslim women in veils who want to obscure their driver’s licence photos; a new generation of Islamic leaders who are antagonistic to their moderate elders; the elision of Muslim faith with terrorism; the doffing of Devine’s metaphorical hat to Daniel Pipes; and, most importantly, Devine’s argument that Muslims were seeking to change Western values through a ‘relentless demand for cultural change’ via a ‘non-violent but incremental encroachment on Western secular society [which] curtails freedoms and accords the Muslim minority special privileges’.

Whether it be found the individual acts of hate, such as spoken about by ClaireA on Left Flank previously, the campaign of ‘cultural’ racism against Muslims, or the hate prosecuted by the likes of Fred Nile and others (such as in their attempts to ban the burqa), there is an insidious legacy of 9/11 that has seen physical, verbal and ideological attacks on Muslims in Australia increase.

And even only a few days after a blonde haired Christian Norwegian bombed, shot and killed 77 people in Norway for their support for multiculturalism, we were being reminded that Breivik’s mass murder is, in the end, nothing more than a distraction from the real war against Islam and the necessary ‘counterjihad’. A counterjihad being led by the many of the same Right wing bloggers Breivik refers to in his Manifesto 2083 as his inspiration.

So much for the progressive Green voice?

It is for these reasons — the real human cost located in endless war and islamophobia, wreaked in the memory of those killed on 9/11 — progressive voices must return to bolder times.

One of my proudest moments as a Greens member was seeing Kerry Nettle fight her way through security and parliamentary members in order to deliver a letter from Mamdouh Habib’s wife to US President George Bush on his visit to Parliament in Canberra. The response from those in the vicinity, to block and manhandle Nettle, belies the relatively conservative nature of her action. While clearly Nettle knew approaching Bush would not be seen as ‘appropriate’, who could have imagined that others would feel their political views gave them the right to physically restrain a Senator just because she disagreed with them.

But gone are the days when Nettle’s office was an organising centre of the campaign against the Iraq War in Sydney, or senators recruited their staff for the activist credentials rather than ability to impact political spin in the mainstream and on social media.

Increasingly Brown and the Greens have equivocated on political issues that are seen as too Left wing. A strategy of minimising criticism of the party in the mainstream media, in order to possibly increase the national Greens vote, is the order of the day. This is despite the personal commitment of most party members and elected Greens parliamentarians to various questions — such as the decriminalisation of drug use and its treatment as a health issue, decreasing the funding form the public pursue to the elite wealthy private schools, or most recently on the question of justice for Palestinians. 

As success has come in the polls, and the number of representatives has increased in Parliament, the activist and progressive voice of the Greens has been diminished. So in recent weeks we have seen growing argument that the Greens should condemn the protests at Max Brenner chocolate shops, actions conducted by one part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Australia. 

Some inside the party have claimed that the demonstrations were ‘violent’ (even though the footage on Youtube show police attacking protesters rather than the other way around) and that the large number of arrests at the first demonstration might reflect badly on the Greens. Yet the Greens have always been centrally involved in environmental campaigns such as those against the logging of old growth forests and the damming of the Franklin, which have by their nature resulted in very many arrests of activists. By this logic, it is fine — even a badge of honour — to be associated with Bob Brown as he was arrested in Tasmania’s wilderness, but we should condemn those campaigning around the BDS and attempting to end the brutal occupation and repression of 2.3 million Palestinian Arabs living the West Bank or the 1.6 million living in Gaza.

This has reached near-farcical proportions with the decision by recently elected NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham to go to the Fairfax media to run a public campaign against the state party’s pro-BDS position. In an attempt to appear even-handed on the Israel-Palestine conflict (as if the balance of forces in the Middle East was ever even) he has joined the ‘Parliamentary Friends of Israel’ group, as well as a pro-Palestinian caucus. This is akin to joining a ‘Parliamentary Friends of South Africa’ group at the height of Apartheid.

Increasingly for some Greens, the priority is a squeaky clean image that plays well in the conservative mainstream media, rather than prosecuting established party policy or making the less popular argument on a crucial questions of human dignity. It is not enough to bleat words about human rights, if in the next breath you condemn those who are actively seeking and end to the Palestinian occupation. It may not be that the Greens as a whole want to be involved in organising the Max Brenner protests, although some members and MPs will, but to seek to alter the NSW party policy of supporting the BDS for ends related solely to political image is unconscionable.

More importantly, such political manoeuvres do not exist in a social vacuum. They have real impact on real people. Not only are the horrific conditions endured by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories being trivialised by those conservatives in the Greens unwilling to take a principled stand against Israel’s actions, the Australian debate over the BDS has unleashed a disturbing strain of hard Right and racist sentiment. Among all the confected slanders of ‘anti-semitism’ against BDS campaigners from the mainstream, there has been no similar condemnation of the far Right, Islamophobic organisations that have joined the defence of the chocolate shops. Groups like the Australian Defence League and the Australian Protectionist Party have linked their hatred of Muslims and Arabs with Israel’s role as regional spearhead in the West’s war against Islamism. Despite the horrific consequences of the far Right’s ideology being expressed in the Norwegian massacre in late July, there is growing activity among like-minded Islamophobes here. One would’ve thought that Greens like Brown and Buckingham would be more concerned about these developments. Instead their quest for mainstream acceptance seems to be blinding them to the malign state of pro-Israel politics in this country.

Ten years on from 9/11 one wonders if the Greens are developing selective amnesia about the realities of the War on Terror and its Islamophobic ideological veneer.