Impact of the September 11 Attacks on Australian-Muslims

Image credit: Sailor Coruscant 2010 Im not even sure Flickr

This is the second post in a three-part series reviewing the media and research released in commemoration of the 10-year September 11 Anniversary. Without doubt, the ongoing trauma and health issues faced by the survivors of the September 11 attacks have high ongoing social costs for American society. This article focuses on the impact that the September 11 attacks had on the lives of Australian-Muslims. I was inspired by a SBS Radio vox pop with Muslim and Sikh Australians, which I will go on to analyse.[i] The people interviewed talked about how they managed the increased racism and stigma they have faced since 2001. Ten years after the attacks, studies show that a high proportion of Australians perceive Muslims as ‘outsiders’ who do not fit in with Australian society.[ii] My analysis shows that living with racism requires a lot of ‘emotion work’, particularly because Muslims mostly deal with racist encounters on a one-on-one basis.

Australian-Muslims as ‘Others’

A couple of days ago, on the 8th of September, SBS Radio conducted vox pop interviews with Muslim and Sikh Australians about the effects that the September 11 attacks had on their lives in Australia.[iii] The people interviewed talked about their horror over the terrorist attacks in the USA. They also said they had faced ongoing racism over the past 10 years due to their Muslim names and their appearance. The Muslim people interviewed say they face extra security monitoring when they walk through airports. One woman says although ‘things are becoming a bit better in some ways… But still you get picked up randomly at every airport. They check you to see if you have any explosives’.

Emotion work of racism

An interesting aspect of the SBS report was when the Muslim interviewees talk about having to control their anger when they encounter racism. They say they try not to show signs of anger. They try to view the situation from a different perspective: they consider that perhaps the other person might not actually mean to be racist. But these Muslims also say that they control their displays of anger when they are in public because they do not want to be seen to be playing into stereotypes of an angry, out-of-control or irrational Muslim person. One Pakistani-Muslim man says he feels pressure to always have a smile on his face, even if he feels angry: ‘I cannot afford the liberty of being angry or to be seen angry. Because there could be so many other consequences… This is one thing which I am feeling at the moment. Too much pressure to be… To be consistently proving yourself. That you are not what the other person is thinking. That you are a good person’.

The process that individuals go through in order to control their anger in the face of prejudice and racism might be usefully understood as ‘emotion work’.[iv] Everyone has to manage their emotions according to the socially acceptable norms (or ‘feeling rules’) that their society deems appropriate to a given situation.[v] Sublimating our true emotions to fit in with social decorum requires hard work. When people are interacting on more or less even ground, managing our emotions involves less conflict. In other cases, where one person has more power over another, emotion work can be damaging. The SBS report suggests that some Australian-Muslims are placed in a no-win situation. They follow the ‘feeling rules’ expected of them because they do not want to play into stereotypes. But the racist people Muslims encounter do not feel compelled to manage their emotions because they feel justified in expressing their anger, hatred and intolerance. During such racist encounters, the ‘feeling rules’ benefit non-Muslims and facilitate racism. On the one hand, Muslims should be commended for taking ‘the high road’ and not losing their temper. On the other hand, very little changes with this interpersonal approach to racism. Sociologists, including me, would advocate getting away from this individual framework of racism. Instead, I argue we should be identifying and addressing the routine behaviours that sustain racism at the everyday level.[vi]

What’s next?

The past 10 years have highlighted how racism maintains momentum when it is left to individuals to manage alone. Celebrating multicultural difference is important. ‘Othering’ and excluding groups from our national fabric because of their cultural or religious difference is counter-productive for national cohesion. The September 11 attacks, as well as other major upheavals since, demonstrate the need for nations to pull together. (This includes the Bali bombings in 2002, the London attacks in 2005, the global financial crisis that has been ongoing since 2008, the Queensland and Victorian floods of 2010, amongst other events.) Collectively addressing anti-Muslim prejudice along with other forms of social exclusion can only strengthen our national resilience, whether we are experiencing times of prosperity or disaster.

Read Part One of this series on the Health outcomes of September 11 survivors.

Read Part Three of this series: Media Coverage of the 10th Anniversary of the September 11 Attacks


[i] Payne, Yasmeen and Manpreet 2011.

[ii] Many Muslims experienced racist abuse following the first Gulf War (Poynting 2002: 43).  Yet studies show that racist attacks increased dramatically after September 11. See: Dunn, Klocker and Salabay 2007; Dunn and Nelson 2011; Poynting 2002; Poynting and Noble 2004.

[iii] Payne, Yasmeen and Manpreet 2011.

[iv] Hochschild 1979. Thanks to Meg Carter for tuning me into the possibilities of this concept many years a go.

[v] Hochschild 1979.

[vi] For more discussion on everyday racism, see Zevallos 2004.

Further References

Dunn, K.M., N. Klocker, and T. Salabay (2007) ‘Contemporary Racism and Islamaphobia in Australia: Racialising Religion’, Ethnicities 7(4), 564-589.

Hochschild, A. (1979) ‘Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure’, American Journal of Sociology 85(3): 551-575.

Poynting, S. (2002) ‘“Bin Laden in the Suburbs”: Attacks on Arab and Muslim Australians Before and After 11 September’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice 14(1):43-64.

Poynting, S. and V. Mason (2007) ‘The Resistible Rise of Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim Racism in the UK and Australia Before 11 September 2001’, Journal of Sociology 43(1): 61-86.

Poynting, S. and G. Noble (2004) Living with Racism: The Experience and Reporting by Arab and Muslim Australians of Discrimination, Abuse and Violence Since 11 September 2001. Sydney: HREOC. Online resource last accessed 11 Sep 11:

Payne, S., S. Yasmeen and S. Manpreet (2011) ‘The Impact of 9/11 on Multicultural Australia’, SBS World News, 8 Sep 11. Online resource last accessed 11 Sep 11:

Zevallos, Z. (2004) ‘Where Are “Wogs” From?  Exploring Subjective Understandings of Racism’, in K. Richmond (Ed.) Revisioning Institutions: Change in the 21st Century. The Annual Conference of The Australian Sociological Association 8-11 December 2004.  Beechworth: The Australian Sociological Association and La Trobe University.

Image credit: Sailor Coruscant (2008) ‘I’m Not Even Sure Whose Media Unit This Was’. Flickr. Online resource last accessed 12 Sep 11:  

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