The unfair scrutiny imposed on Muslim adolescence


Ahmed Yussuf

Muslim women protest outside the French embassy in London over France's banning of full face veils in public spaces.

Muslim women protest outside the French embassy in London over France's banning of full face veils in public spaces. Photo: Reuters

There's a prolonged, fundamental issue with how we see Muslims represented in the media. We are either the 'good,' polite, will-you-come-over-for-dinner types in the face of bigotry (literally seen recently on QandA) – or the 'bad,' radical "Islamist" who threatens the Western world and everything it stands for.

We are stuck in this perpetual paradigm of the good/bad Muslim, when in reality – like any religion or group of people – there's a bit more to us. It's the same narrative that drives the Sonia Krugers of this world to talk about their fear of scary Muslims coming through Australia's borders, while in the same breath claiming that 'some of their best friends' are Muslim.

We shouldn't be looking for Muslim exceptionalism (the 'perfect' Muslims) to solve Islamophobia. Nor can we accept the now normal suggestions that a country simply reject an entire faith group because not all Muslims are exceptional. We aren't – and that's ok. We don't have to be. Muslims shouldn't feel like they need to be exceptional to simply be allowed to exist. The more we accept the idea that the only acceptable Muslims are the nice ones invited to Kirribilli House for a Prime Ministerial iftar, the more we marginalise the everyday Muslim whose only crime is being ordinary.

"Malcolm Turnbull proposes 'indefinite detention' that could apply for people as young as 14-years-old. What does it say ...

"Malcolm Turnbull proposes 'indefinite detention' that could apply for people as young as 14-years-old. What does it say to young Muslims or those already affected by presumption of guilt?" Photo: Justin McManus

It doesn't help when one of those exceptional Muslims – Waleed Aly – suggests that we #sendforgivenessviral instead of questioning vitriolic Islamophobia. It pushes reactions that don't fit this message, and the people who have them, to the fringe.  Excluded from this elite narrative of the comfortable, acceptable Muslim, they become 'bad Muslims' simply by default. This isn't a fault of Aly himself, but a result of how Muslims have been media managed by successive governments and the wider media.


All this does is take agency from Muslims. We are not allowed to express anything other than forgiveness and niceties when met with bigotry. We are told to be nice, upstanding citizens at all times – and if we step a millimetre out of line we are deemed a  threat.

Over a week ago, as the country and social media frothed over whether a Muslim had plotted a terror attack at Merrylands police station, earlier that day, Channel 9 ran a story earlier the same day about "angry Cessnock residents threatening to bomb the local council" because plans to build a mosque in the area were finalised. They weren't described as terrorists or potential enemies of the state. Naturally it turned out that the incident at Merrylands police station had nothing to do with Islam or terror, but no apology was issued by the media or police for making that initial mistake in their reports.

I'm not even going to ask what would be said if the roles were reversed, because we already know. I'd much rather ask why these outbursts of fear and anger are able to exist when far milder, imperfect Muslim reactions aren't.

Muslim life is intensely scrutinised even from early adolescence. When I was in school, young Muslim boys no older than 15 were being hounded by ASIO purely on the basis they came from "religious families." It got so bad that a teacher dedicated an entire class to talking to the students about their rights and how to approach the authorities. These were people I had known since primary school. They were rowdy, mouthy and not perfect – but they didn't deserve to be treated like criminals when they were children.

When we live in a culture that presumes guilt before innocence, it won't be too long until people reflect that reality. And usually the guilt surrounds Muslimness, and how Muslim you are. The New Republic published Nathan Lean who explored the idea of the "Moderate Muslim" and found "the idea of a "moderate Islam" or "moderate Muslim" as intellectually lazy because it carves the world up into two camps: the "good" Muslims and the "bad" Muslims." He added that Muslims "until proven good, or in this case "moderate," all Muslims are perceived as "bad," or potentially extreme."

This is already happening. The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's proposed "indefinite detention" that could apply for people as young as 14-years-old. What does it say to young Muslims or those already affected by presumption of guilt?

Harun Causevic was no older than 18-years-old when he was put in a maximum security prison for allegedly plotting a terror attack on Anzac Day. After months he was released on a good behaviour bond for weapon offences. Causevic's lawyer suggested an apology was owed to his client and their family: "I'd hope that they would offer the family and Mr Causevic a proper apology because he's been accused of something that he simply never did," he told The Age.

An apology never came, but just under a month ago Causevic got a second win, getting his agency back as the court ruled against keeping a tracking device on his ankle.  

Young Muslims like Causevic are not allowed to go through a regular phase of disobedience or be seen as "troubled" lest they be branded as radicalised. This has been made clear by measures like the "how to spot a Jihadi" package that was proposed for schools last year.

One of the clear indicators of spotting a plucky Jihadi was explained in the piece:

"Under the 'jihadi-watch' scheme, teachers and students would be taught to watch for shifts in behaviour such as students drifting away from their friends, running into minor trouble with the law and arguing with those who have different ideological views to their own."

When I was in school I drifted from my friends, had different ideological views and had shifts of behaviour in the classroom. I thought that was called "growing up".

But now we have a situation where any sign of Muslim behaviour that doesn't fit an imaginary, arbitrary standard is deemed unlawful.

The same logic of acceptability came to bear on a Muslim man who questioned Pauline Hanson on Q&A a few weeks ago. Khaled Elomar's biggest sins were being vocal on Facebook as an anti-capitalist who was against the state of Israel and posting dank memes of Pauline Hanson in a hijab.

The same program gave a platform to Hanson, who had previously compared Muslims to violent, untrained dogs and claimed they should be banned en masse. Again, I wonder whose hostility is acceptable and why. This isn't to say Elomar is a perfect person, but should he have to be, to simply ask a question? Especially one that involves his experience being impacted by the normalising of Islamophobia from the likes of Hanson?

The problem isn't specifically Hanson, nor Kruger. They can exist and rant about their distrust and fear of Muslims, as is their right. The problem is when we see Muslims through only two prisms – be it absolutely positive or absolutely negative –  and thus fail them. We fail to see the complexities of their humanity, we fail to understand who they are and how they came to be that way, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

I'm not one thing or another. I, like many Muslims and people more broadly, am a cluster of different things, thoughts, situations, influences, cultures and experiences. But now it would appear that this no longer matters. Now we also need to qualify our love and allegiance to X country AND you need to first help us deal with arbitrary terror, or our stay is conditional as former US President Bill Clinton recently articulated in a speech.

And when that happens we take away from people the right to simply be complex. We suffer a serious loss as a society.

This article originally appeared on Fairfax Media website The Vocal