How the 9/11 attacks affected the lives of Australian Muslims

By Erwin Renaldi
These Australian Muslims have spent the last 20 years staving off stereotypes and stigma from the 9/11 attacks. (ABC News Graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)

It was already late evening in Sydney on September 11, 2001, when Randa Abdel-Fattah heard her father in the next room say something about two planes crashing in New York.

"I came out of my bedroom … we were glued to the television and watching it all unfold," she told the ABC.

Ms Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim born in Australia to Palestinian and Egyptian parents, had no idea how the shocking event on the other side of the world would change her life. 

She first got an inkling the next morning when she arrived at the law firm where she worked part-time while studying at university. 

"A few of my colleagues and my secretary stormed down the hallway to meet me, as I got out of the lifts, and said to me: 'Why did they do it'?" she said.

Randa Abdel-Fattah says the war on terror stripped her of an identity outside of Islam. (ABC RN: Jennifer Wong)

Suddenly, Ms Abdel-Fattah had lost her individuality and became seen as part of a "racialised collective of Muslims".

Her experience was shared by many Muslims in Australia. Even 20 years on, they are still trying to heal in their own ways from the damage done in the fallout of the September 11 attacks.   

'Nothing to do with Muslims'

After George W Bush declared the war on terror, Australia enacted 82 anti-terror laws — more than any other Western country.

A study published last week by the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation found the proliferation of anti-terror legislation led to the "over-surveillance of Muslims", making them "feel untrusted and viewed as potential terror suspects", or criticised for "not doing enough" to condemn acts of terror.

As recently as 2018, young Muslim man Mohamed Kamer Nizamdeen was accused of being a terrorist and held in solitary confinement for a month, because his notebook contained plans for attacks at iconic Sydney locations.

Mr Nizamdeen was later released after police admitted he had been framed by a work colleague.

Sara Mansour helps individuals from minority groups to embrace their diversity. (Supplied)

Sydney lawyer Sara Mansour, who was eight years old in 2001, said it was infuriating to her how the words "Muslim" and "terrorist" became synonymous. 

Ms Mansour said that at the time she felt the need to prove to everyone that she was a "good Muslim and not planning to do anything nasty or thinking horrible things".

"It is a sad thing for any young person to have to go through," she said.

Ellen Osman uses YouTube as a platform to deconstruct misconceptions about Islam.

Meanwhile, Ellen Osman, who was raised Christian but became a Muslim in 2020, remembers when terrorism and Islamophobia hit the headlines in 2001. 

Ms Osman said she didn't want to have anything to do with Islam back then, as she thought the Quran told its followers to kill people.

"Over time, you realise what actually happened has nothing to do with Muslims," she said.

Ms Osman said she only ever heard about Islam in reference to terrorism, and didn't question the media narrative that the September 11 attack was largely about Muslims hating "the West".

"There are so many negative things [said] about Islam — we don't really see a lot of positive things about Islam."

From kebab shop to mayor

Ahmad Karanouh was accused of "celebrating" the September 11 attacks. (Supplied)

Ahmad Karanouh, who was born in Lebanon, owned a kebab shop in the regional NSW town of Coonamble and was the only Arab Muslim in town when the World Trade Center buildings were hit.

Mr Karanouh remembers a customer saying someone claimed to have seen him "celebrating" the tragedy by dancing in the street.

He never found out who had made the accusation, but was told his accuser admitted to making the story up.

Mr Karanouh went on to run for council and is now Coonamble's mayor.

"I said to myself, 'I should get involved more in this community just to show my appreciation for [them] opening their arms to have me in this town when I first came,'" he said.

He wanted to show that anyone, whether they were an immigrant, a Muslim or from any other background, could become part of the community and make a contribution.

Ahmad Karanouh says he decided to work hard instead of trying to "prove he was a good Muslim". (Supplied)

Whittling away the stigma from 9/11

Sara Mansour says one her proudest moments was when her poetry slam became part of the Sydney Festival attended by thousands. (Supplied)

Ms Mansour started the Bankstown Poetry Slam in February 2013 to provide young Muslims, particularly from Western Sydney, an opportunity to be themselves and change the narrative around Islam.

"It opened up a platform for thousands of young people from Western Sydney and broader Sydney to have a safe space to express themselves on the topics that they want to engage with," she said.

The poetry slam became a part of the Sydney Festival in 2020, giving a much wider audience an opportunity to hear what the performers had to say.

Ms Mansour hoped young people, not just those from the Muslim community, don't limit themselves just because they have a different religion or identity.

"Aim for the stars. Try and be limitless in your ambitions."

Ms Osman started a YouTube channel last year in order to answer some of the questions she was being asked after converting to Islam.

She said the biggest misconception about Islam was that it was very strict, with Muslims praying five times a day, avoiding consuming alcohol, or women covering their hair. 

"I wanted an opportunity to be able to talk about Islam and peace, the similarities in Islam and Christianity, in particular here in Australia," she said.

"People don't know that as Muslims, we also follow the Ten Commandments and the values here in Australia are all exactly the same as Islam."

Ms Abdel-Fattah, now a multi-award-winning author, runs writing workshops for students, including young Muslims.

A lifelong book lover, Ms Abdel-Fattah wrote the draft for her first book when she was in Year 9. (ABC RN: Jennifer Wong)

"There were students who felt that they were under pressure to assimilate and to perform a certain kind of Australian Muslim image in order to be accepted."

She compiled the stories from the workshops into a book, Coming of Age in The War on Terror, which was published earlier this year. 

She said it was a platform for young people to "speak freely" about their experiences and to "creatively resist certain narratives and stereotypes".

"I hope that I am able to really encourage young people to develop a sense of critical thinking, to question the assumptions that they make about others, the assumptions they make about the country they live in," she said.

"[And] not to take everything that they read and hear for granted."


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