Australian Palestinian academic and young adult author Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah is a dab hand at distilling the complex issues swirling around the everyday experience of Muslim students in this country. Her best-selling YA novels, including Does My Head Look Big in This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me, make the political very personal.
Her extensive research on the generational impact of the post-9/11 conversation tackles the big picture. Randa is regularly invited to talk in schools by teachers grappling with the subject. “I can’t tell you how many times teachers have come up to me after and said, ‘It’s so good that you’re able to say this, because it’s not in the curriculum, and we wouldn’t know how to address it’,” she says.
The public discourse about Muslim teenagers is often framed around the assumption that they’re at risk of being radicalised. The effects of this rumble in the background, spiking when the issue hits the headlines. “So, it comes in waves, and that’s part of the problem; you start to become very used to it,” Randa says.
“It’s not as if they’re constantly thinking about Islamophobia, or if they are going to be suspected as potentially radicalised. It’s more insidious than that. It’s the fact that those sorts of assumptions can pop up and be thrown at the community at large at any time, and then you have to deal with the aftermath.”
Randa explores the ramifications in her compelling new non-fiction book Coming of Age in the War on Terror. In it, she speaks to around 80 teenagers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, layering in her research and personal experience.
“When my son was 10, he came back from an inter-school debating competition and just casually said to me, in the car, that one of the other kids was making a joke about terrorists while looking directly at him. He got annoyed, but also laughed. He said, ‘Oh that’s just normal mum. Those are the kind of jokes you make about Muslims’.”
She spoke to kids troubled by the appearance of neo-Nazis on Sky News. “We have seen the normalisation of white supremacy and hate speech, when governments have really turned a blind eye to the rise of the far right, which has always been there, but has now been galvanised and emboldened.”
The way we talk about race has to fundamentally change in classrooms, Randa argues, and that needs to come from the top, driven by the curriculum. “Education systems are always conservative, because fundamentally there is a patronising approach to young people. That ‘we’ know better than ‘you’. And it’s also a system that is founded on white knowledge, white ways of knowing, white history. It’s going to take a lot of effort to change that.”
It’s embedded deep. “I’ve learned the hard way that if you respond to Islamophobia in an activist sense, while not addressing the fundamental racial injustice upon which Australia was founded, then you can never properly address all other expressions of racism”
‘Relegating it to the echo chambers of social media risks a lot of students being exposed to counter-arguments that are extremely harmful.’
That means unpacking Australia’s violent colonial history. “It means building coalitions, understanding that justice for me can never occur unless there is justice for Indigenous people,” says Randa. “And I think that’s what we need to be addressing in classrooms in the way that we teach history, in the English books that our students are exposed to.”
She’s noticed a real change in the thoughtful questions asked by students in the past five years or so. “That has happened not because the curriculum has changed. Really, it’s because people of colour have demanded platforms and social media has become the town square where these conversations are happening now.”
Of course, that comes with its own challenges. “We shouldn’t expect students to have to do that legwork in order to be exposed to these urgent, important debates,” Randa says. “That should be happening in classrooms. Relegating it to the echo chambers of social media risks a lot of students being exposed to counter-arguments that are extremely harmful.”
Does the determination of these young folk give her hope?
“You know, it was actually a Palestinian filmmaker who once came to Australia that said something that has never left my mind. It was that people who are marginalised and oppressed don’t have the luxury of despair. And so, even if I felt despondent or pessimistic, I think that giving up is a luxury. I always have hope.”
Coming of Age in the War on Terror is published by NewSouth books.