Reviewed: Randa Abdel-Fattah, Coming of Age in the War on Terror, NewSouth Publishing
It has always been post-9/11 for me. I was born on a Thursday in 2005.
I called Western Sydney my first home. I have navigated this nation, albeit for a short time, in a body with identities that are already politicised. Emerging into young adulthood as a brown, Muslim girl has required me to understand and analyse how I am perceived by individuals and larger societal institutions.
Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Coming of Age in the War on Terror is a rich and sincere portrait of young people in Australia and their interactions with institutionalised Islamophobia. Structured in three parts, the book is an act of understanding, written in accessible language that doesn’t diminish the comprehensiveness of the author’s post-doctoral research.
In the introduction to the book, Abdel-Fattah makes it clear that any discussion of the impact of the war on terror must also interrogate foundational racial issues, acknowledging that Islamophobia and racism did not begin with 9/11. On Australia, Abdel-Fattah writes:
Whiteness has always hidden in plain sight, rendered invisible because it’s everywhere, a taken-for-granted universal. Whiteness is what stole, cleared, prepared and secured the land over which Australia was then built.
A history of systemic oppression serves as infrastructure for post-9/11 Islamophobia, which, in turn, provides a framework for how young people perceive each other and themselves. After all, Australia is a nation built on the oppression of Indigenous peoples, which was then weaponised to enable the fluid political identity of Whiteness as an exclusionary system. Coming of Age in the War on Terror takes up well-deserved space in a publishing landscape where marginalised voices are severely underrepresented, expanding across geography, religion, race, gender and class to examine the long-lasting impacts of the war on terror; aiming to understand the ‘causes and structures’ rather than the ‘symptoms’ of oppression.
While the young people interviewed in the book are either consistently reflecting political rhetoric (‘Middle Eastern is synonymised with radical Islam and terrorism’, Tahminah), or experiencing the effects of political changes and tensions themselves (‘During airport security, I was the only person pulled aside. […] I went through security as a kind of accused not a passenger’, Mesut), the vast majority of students didn’t consider themselves political. This stems from a dissonance in what many people consider activism, as protesting methods usually accessible to young people tend to be ‘informal’ or ‘modest and mundane’ (i.e. online or on social media), as a project by research professor Anita Harris points out. But it must be noted that it is always you, me and the systems in place that nevertheless determine our lives. No-one lives in a vacuum; the structures of the state inform our world view(s) and the politics of how we govern ourselves and each other—what Abdel-Fattah observes as ‘the idea of Muslim youth as vulnerable to extremism endur[ing] as “common sense” knowledge’. Already under classification as a ‘suspect community’, Muslimness as an identity is scrutinised:
To be, look, act, perform and practise Muslimness is never one fixed, stable identity or way of being. It’s constantly in flux, dynamic, in practise, in context. This is why, in 2003, Western governments around the world reached back into their colonial toolboxes and did what has been tried and tested for hundreds of years: divide and conquer, classify and categorise: ‘fix the context’ of a colonial label. And that’s how the war on terror created the latest version of ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’: ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’.
Muslims today often experience a form of Islamophobia that is structural and systemic. When the Muslim identity is both feared and hated, and race operates as ‘an accusation rather than an identity’, Muslims are simultaneously cast as both victim and perpetrator. We are depicted as needing a White saviour to be freed from the religion, while also being regarded as too much of an ‘Other’ for White society. This is exemplified in a subheading in Chapter 12: ‘Fear Of and Fear For the Muslim Student’—a characterisation that justifies many of the policies that Coming of Age in the War on Terror critiques: ‘so-called neutral policies and political practices’ that ‘normalise a hypersensitivity and policing of young Muslims’ bodies’.
Young Muslims, especially those growing up in spaces where their identity is challenged, want to prove themselves to be ‘one of the good ones’: at least in proximity to Whiteness and attendant notions related to ‘normalcy’ and ‘Australian-ness’. So of course we play into wider political narratives and incorporate assimilation into the performance of our identity. But, as Abdel-Fattah recounts about Salim, a Year 12 student in the section ‘Eating Bacon to Fit In’, ‘it had taken him a few years to realise the goalposts for “being Aussie” would always change, so there was no point in trying’.
Due to the false dichotomy that has been constructed between ‘Muslim’ and ‘Australian’, it is difficult to satisfy the system without total conformity—one either commits to one identity or loses all sense of belonging. However, this notion—that no matter how ‘good’ I am, the Muslim identity can always be used to exclude me—is not definitive. Abdel-Fattah’s observation of assimilation, as an ultimately futile form
of social capital, offers the Muslim audience freedom from the constant performance of ‘Australian-ness’. It is a call to action: let them accept you as you are.
Reading this book felt like I was seeing myself in the third person. As someone so familiar with the lived experiences these young people were recounting, the sociopolitical weight of their excerpts often didn’t become apparent to me until I re-read them alongside Abdel-Fattah’s interpretations.
In the third part of the book, ‘An Inventory of Fear’, Farhaana (17, Muslim-Indian background) expresses how her lack of hijab makes her religion unclear to an onlooker and, despite having an Indian heritage, offers her some security: ‘I’ve got one less racist thing to deal with.’ It further reinforces the point that so much of being a young Muslim in the West is performance and controlled visibility. Many of the young people interviewed in Coming of Age in the War on Terror instinctively understand intersectionality, not for any theoretical or academic purpose but because their lives have always existed at the intersection of identities. As Abdel-Fattah puts it, they had learned to ‘strategise with multiple identity performances, making use of privileged aspects of identity as a form of resistance or protection’.
The act of performance ties in readily with the myth of the model minority: a racial wedge that forms false, overgeneralised hierarchies of achievement based on race, furthering another myth: meritocracy. It creates an expectation for Muslims and other minoritised people to exceed prejudiced assumptions—many make their intelligence and success the first things that are presented to White society, in the hope of making the nature of one’s identity more palatable. Not only does this force people of colour to compete with one another for acceptance in mainstream White society, it reinforces capitalist metrics of success that don’t take into account generational disparities.
For me as a Bangladeshi Australian, Farhaana’s story stuck out—before I am seen as a Muslim, I am often racialised as South Asian, which is viewed as ‘favourable’ in the White Australia imaginary. However, as explored in the book’s introduction, race and racial hierarchies in this context are purposely vague and fluid—goalposts are constantly shifting as different groups of minoritised people are offered proximity to Whiteness over time: ‘The terms on which you, as a minority in a settler-colonial multicultural society, are judged, included, excluded and negotiated keep changing.’ This means that so-called ‘favourable’ racial conditions can always change. Acknowledging this fact necessitates reform and liberation for us all.
Coming of age is a difficult time for everyone; it is a universal experience shaped by the struggle that comes with seeking individuality and authenticity in one’s life. The added burden of qualifying our identity as unobtrusive, however, is nearly ubiquitous for young Muslims. Conversely, in ‘An Inventory of Trust’, Abdel-Fattah explores how White students experience ‘critical reflection on [their] own privilege … as a threat to [their] sense of self and place in the world’. This highlights a dissonance between those who are oppressed and those who are privileged: the former struggle with the impacts of systems that marginalise them, whereas the latter grapple with how their privilege reflects poorly on them. What Abdel-Fattah refers to is observed most clearly with Australia’s youth, which results in the silencing of conversations around privilege.
In the book’s conclusion, Abdel-Fattah explores the impacts of the war on terror as ‘referred pain’—an injury that results in pain felt in another part of the body—illustrating how marginalised young people are negatively impacted when they watch the oppression and silencing of people similar to them, people they relate to. Abdel-Fattah notes:
The traces of the organising grammar of the ‘war on terror’—security, insurgency, safety, borders, nationalism, social cohesion, values, identity politics and so on—are visible in the inventory of all the wars unleashed with such ferocity since 9/11.
The war on terror shapes the cultural narratives that we buy into: it informs our allegiances and our enemies, our competition and our proximity, our pasts and our futures. This generation is still quietly emerging, and Randa Abdel-Fattah proves that she is listening with Coming of Age in the War on Terror.
It is 5.30 am. I have just finished praying. This is Australia as I have always seen it. •
Munira Tabassum Ahmed is a 16-year-old writer. She has produced work for Australian Poetry, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Runway Journal, The Lifted Brow, Cordite, and elsewhere. She edits Hyades Magazine.