Depiction of Muslims in Selected Australian Media

Free Speech or Taking Sides

How to Cite

Kabir, N. (2021). Depiction of Muslims in Selected Australian Media: Free Speech or Taking Sides. M/C Journal, 9(4). (Original work published September 1, 2006)
Vol. 9 No. 4 (2006): 'free'
Published 2006-09-01 — Updated on 2021-11-22

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. —John Milton (1608-1674)


The publication of 12 cartoons depicting images of Prophet Mohammed [Peace Be Upon Him] first in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, and later reprinted in European media and two New Zealand newspapers, sparked protests around the Muslim world. The Australian newspapers – with the exception of The Courier-Mail, which published one cartoon – refrained from reprinting the cartoons, acknowledging that depictions of the Prophet are regarded as “blasphemous by Muslims”. How is this apparent act of restraint to be assessed? Edward Said, in his book Covering Islam has acknowledged that there have been many Muslim provocations and troubling incidents by Islamic countries such as Iran, Libya, Sudan, and others in the 1980s. However, he contends that the use of the label “Islam” by non-Muslim commentators, either to explain or indiscriminately condemn “Islam”, ends up becoming a form of attack, which in turn provokes more hostility (xv-xvi). This article examines how two Australian newspapers – The Australian and The West Australian – handled the debate on the Prophet Muhammad cartoons and considers whether in the name of “free speech” it ended in “a form of attack” on Australian Muslims. It also considers the media’s treatment of Muslim Australians’ “free speech” on previous occasions.

This article is drawn from the oral testimonies of Muslims of diverse ethnic background. Since 1998, as part of PhD and post-doctoral research on Muslims in Australia, the author conducted 130 face-to-face, in-depth, taped interviews of Muslims, aged 18-90, both male and female. While speaking about their settlement experience, several interviewees made unsolicited remarks about Western/Australian media, all of them making the point that Muslims were being demonised.

Australian Muslims

Many of Australia’s 281,578 Muslims — 1.5 per cent of the total population (Australian Bureau of Statistics) — believe that as a result of media bias, they are vilified in society as “terrorists”, and discriminated in the workplace (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission; Dreher 13; Kabir 266-277). The ABS figures support their claim of discrimination in the workplace; in 1996 the unemployment rate for Muslim Australians was 25 per cent, compared to 9 per cent for the national total. In 2001, it was reduced to 18.5 per cent, compared to 6.8 per cent for the national total, but the ratio of underprivileged positions in the labour market remained almost three times higher than for the wider community. Instead of reflecting on Muslims’ labour market issues or highlighting the social issues confronting Muslims since 9/11, some Australian media, in the name of “free speech”, reinforce negative perceptions of Muslims through images, cartoons and headlines. In 2004, one Muslim informant offered their perceptions of Australian media:

I think the Australian media are quite prejudiced, and they only do show one side of the story, which is quite pro-Bush, pro-Howard, pro-war. Probably the least prejudiced media would be ABC or SBS, but the most pro-Jewish, pro-America, would be Channel Seven, Channel Nine, Channel Ten. They only ever show things from one side of the story.

This article considers the validity of the Muslim interviewee’s perception that Australian media representation is one-sided. On 26 October 2005, under the headline: “Draw a Cartoon about Mohammed and You Must Die”, The Australian warned its readers:

ISLAM is no laughing matter. Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, is being protected by security guards and several cartoonists have gone into hiding after the newspaper published a series of 12 cartoons about the prophet Mohammed. According to Islam, it is blasphemous to make images of the prophet. Muslim fundamentalists have threatened to bomb the paper’s offices and kill the cartoonists (17).

Militant Muslims

The most provocative cartoons appearing in the Danish media are probably those showing a Muhammad-like figure wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse coming out of it, or a queue of smoking suicide bombers on a cloud with an Islamic cleric saying, “Stop stop we have run out of virgins”. Another showed a blindfolded Muslim man with two veiled Muslim women standing behind him. These messages appeared to be concerned with Islam’s repression of women (Jyllands-Posten), and possibly with the American channel CBS airing an interview in August 2001 of a Palestinian Hamas activist, Muhammad Abu Wardeh, who recruited terrorists for suicide bombings in Israel. Abu Wardeh was quoted as saying: “I described to him [the suicide bomber] how God would compensate the martyr for sacrificing his life for his land. If you become a martyr, God will give you 70 virgins, 70 wives and everlasting happiness” (The Guardian).

Perhaps to serve their goals, the militants have re-interpreted the verses of the Holy Quran (Sura 44:51-54; 55:56) where it is said that Muslims who perform good deeds will be blessed by the huris or “pure being” (Ali 1290-1291; 1404). However, since 9/11, it is also clear that the Muslim militant groups such as the Al-Qaeda have become the “new enemy” of the West. They have used religion to justify the terrorist acts and suicide bombings that have impacted on Western interests in New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid amongst other places.

But it should be noted that there are Muslim critics, such as Pakistani-born writer, Irshad Manji, Bangladeshi-born writer Taslima Nasreen and Somalian-born Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who have been constant critics of Muslim men’s oppression of women and have urged reformation. However, their extremist fellow believers threatened them with a death sentence for their “free speech” (Chadwick). The non-Muslim Dutch film director, Theo van Gogh, also a critic of Islam and a supporter of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, advocated a reduction in immigration into Holland, especially by Muslims. Both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali – who co-scripted and co-produced the film Submission – received death threats from Muslim extremists because the film exhibited the verses of the Quran across the chest, stomach and thighs of an almost naked girl, and featured four women in see-through robes showing their breasts, with texts from the Quran daubed on their bodies, talking about the abuse they had suffered under Islam (Anon 25).

Whereas there may be some justification for the claim made in the film, that some Muslim men interpret the Quran to oppress women (Doogue and Kirkwood 220), the writing of the Quranic verses on almost-naked women is surely offensive to all Muslims because the Quran teaches Muslim women to dress modestly (Sura 24: 30-31; Ali 873). On 4 November 2004, The West Australian reported that the Dutch director Theo van Gogh was murdered by a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan Muslim on 2 November 2004 (27). Hirsi Ali, the co-producer of the film was forced to go into hiding after van Gogh’s murder. In the face of a growing clamour from both the Dutch Muslims and the secular communities to silence her, Ayaan Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch Parliament in May 2006 and decided to re-settle in Washington (Jardine 2006).

It should be noted that militant Muslims form a tiny but forceful minority of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide. The Muslim majority are moderate and peaceful (Doogue and Kirkwood 79-80). Some Muslim scholars argue that there is specific instruction in the Quran for people to apply their knowledge and arrive at whatever interpretation is of greatest benefit to the community. It may be that stricter practitioners would not agree with the moderate interpretation of the Quran and vice versa (Doogue and Kirkwood 232). Therefore, when the Western media makes a mockery of the Muslim religion or their Prophet in the name of “free speech”, or generalises all Muslims for the acts of a few through headlines or cartoons, it impacts on the Muslims residing in the West.

Prophet Muhammad’s Cartoons

With the above-mentioned publication of Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons in Denmark, Islamic critics charged that the cartoons were a deliberate provocation and insult to their religion, designed to incite hatred and polarise people of different faiths. In February 2006, regrettably, violent reactions took place in the Middle East, Europe and in Asia. Danish embassies were attacked and, in some instances, were set on fire. The demonstrators chanted, “With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God!”. Some replaced the Danish flag with a green one printed with the first pillar of Islam (Kalima): “There is no god but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God”. Some considered the cartoons “an unforgivable insult” that merited punishment by death (The Age).

A debate on “free speech” soon emerged in newspapers throughout the world. On 7 February 2006 the editorial in The West Australian, “World Has Had Enough of Muslim Fanatics”, stated that the newspaper would not publish cartoons of Mohammad that have drawn protests from Muslims around the world. The newspaper acknowledged that depictions of the prophet are regarded as “blasphemous by Muslims” (18). However, the editorial was juxtaposed with another article “Can Liberty Survive a Clash of Cultures?”, with an image of bearded men wearing Muslim head coverings, holding Arabic placards and chanting slogans, implying the violent nature of Islam. And in the letters page of this newspaper, published on the same day, appeared the following headlines (20):

  • Another Excuse for Muslims to Threaten Us
  • Islam Attacked
  • Cartoon Rage: Greatest Threat to World Peace
  • We’re Living in Dangerous Times
  • Why Treat Embassies with Contempt?
  • Muslim Religion Is Not So Soft
  • Civilised World Is Threatened

The West Australian is a state-based newspaper that tends to side with the conservative Liberal party, and is designed to appeal to the “man in the street”. The West Australian did not republish the Prophet Muhammad cartoon, but for 8 days from 7 to 15 February 2006 the letters to the editor and opinion columns consistently criticised Islam and upheld “superior” Western secular values. During this period, the newspaper did publish a few letters that condemned the Danish cartoonist, including the author’s letter, which also condemned the Muslims’ attack on the embassies. But the overall message was that Western secular values were superior to Islamic values. In other words, the newspaper adopted a jingoistic posture and asserted the cultural superiority of mainstream Australians.

The Danish cartoons also sparked a debate on “free speech” in Australia’s leading newspaper, The Australian, which is a national newspaper that also tends to reflect the values of the ruling national government – also the conservative Liberal party. And it followed a similar pattern of debate as The West Australian. On 14 February 2006, The Australian (13) published a reader’s criticism of The Australian for not republishing the cartoons. The author questioned whether the Muslims deserved any tolerance because their Holy Book teaches intolerance. The Koran [Quran] (22:19) says:

Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. Scalding water shall be poured upon their heads, melting their skins and that which is in their bellies.

Perhaps this reader did not find the three cartoons published in The Australian a few days earlier to be ‘offensive’ to the Australian Muslims. In the first, on 6 February 2006, the cartoonist Bill Leak showed that his head was chopped off by some masked people (8), implying that Muslim militants, such as the Hamas, would commit such a brutal act. The Palestinian Hamas group often appear in masks before the media. In this context, it is important to note that Israel is an ally of Australia and the United States, whereas the Hamas is Israel’s enemy whose political ideology goes against Israel’s national interest. On 25 January 2006, the Hamas won a landslide victory in the Palestine elections but Israel refused to recognise this government because Hamas has not abandoned its militant ideology (Page 13). The cartoon, therefore, probably means that the cartoonist or perhaps The Australian has taken sides on behalf of Australia’s ally Israel.

In the second cartoon, on 7 February 2006, Bill Leak sketched an Arab raising his sword over a school boy who was drawing in a classroom. The caption read, “One more line and I’ll chop your hand off!” (12). And in the third, on 10 February 2006, Bill Leak sketched Mr Mohammed’s shadow holding a sword with the caption: “The unacceptable face of fanaticism”. A reporter asked: “And so, Mr Mohammed, what do you have to say about the current crisis?” to which Mr Mohammed replied, “I refuse to be drawn on the subject” (16). The cartoonist also thought that the Danish cartoons should have been republished in the Australian newspapers (Insight).

Cartoons are supposed to reflect the theme of the day. Therefore, Bill Leak’s cartoons were certainly topical. But his cartoons reveal that his or The Australian’s “freedom of expression” has been one-sided, all depicting Islam as representing violence. For example, after the Bali bombing on 21 November 2002, Leak sketched two fully veiled women, one carrying explosives under her veil and asking the other, “Does my bomb look big in this”? The cartoonist’s immediate response to criticism of the cartoon in a television programme was, “inevitably, when you look at a cartoon such as that one, the first thing you’ve got to do is remember that as a daily editorial cartoonist, you’re commenting first and foremost on the events of the day. They’re very ephemeral things”. He added, “It was…drawn about three years ago after a spate of suicide bombing attacks in Israel” (Insight).

Earlier events also suggested that that The Australian resolutely supports Australia’s ally, Israel. On 13-14 November 2004 Bill Leak caricatured the recently deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in The Weekend Australian (18). In the cartoon, God appeared to be displeased with him and would not allow him to enter paradise. Arafat was shown with explosives strapped to his body and threatening God by saying, “A cloud to myself or the whole place goes up….”. On the other hand, on 6 January 2006 the same cartoonist sympathetically portrayed ailing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon as a decent man wearing a black suit, with God willing to accept him (10); and the next day Sharon was portrayed as “a Man of Peace” (12).

Politics and Religion

Thus, the anecdotal evidence so far reveals that in the name of “freedom of expression”, or “free speech” The West Australian and The Australian newspapers have taken sides – either glorifying their “superior” Western culture or taking sides on behalf of its allies. On the other hand, these print media would not tolerate the “free speech” of a Muslim leader who spoke against their ally or another religious group. From the 1980s until recently, some print media, particularly The Australian, have been critical of the Egyptian-born Muslim spiritual leader Imam Taj el din al-Hilali for his “free speech”. In 1988 the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils bestowed the title of Mufti to Imam al- Hilali, and al-Hilali was elevated to a position of national religious leadership.

Al-Hilali became a controversial figure after 1988 when he gave a speech to the Muslim students at Sydney University and accused Jews of trying to control the world through “sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treason and economic hoarding” (Hewett 7). The Imam started being identified as a “Muslim chief” in the news headlines once he directly criticised American foreign policy during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. The Imam interpreted US intervention in Kuwait as a “political dictatorship” that was exploiting the Gulf crisis because it was seen as a threat to its oil supply (Hewett 7).

After the Bali bombings in 2002, the Howard government distributed information on terrorism through the “Alert and Alarmed” kit as part of its campaign of public awareness. The first casualty of the “Be alert, but not alarmed” campaign was the Imam al-Hilali. On 6 January 2003, police saw a tube of plastic protruding from a passenger door window and suspected that al-Hilali might have been carrying a gun when they pulled him over for traffic infringements. Sheikh al-Hilali was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting police (Morris 1, 4). On 8 January 2003 The Australian reminded its readers “Arrest Adds to Mufti’s Mystery” (9). The same issue of The Australian portrayed the Sheikh being stripped of his clothes by two policemen. The letter page also contained some unsympathetic opinions under the headline: “Mufti Deserved No Special Treatment” (10).

In January 2004, al-Hilali was again brought under the spotlight. The Australian media alleged that al-Hilali praised the suicide bombers at a Mosque in Lebanon and said that the destruction of the World Trade Center was “God’s work against oppressors” (Guillatt 24). Without further investigation, The Australian again reported his alleged inflammatory comments. Under the headline, “Muslim Leader’s Jihad Call”, it condemned al-Hilali and accused him of strongly endorsing “terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, during his visit to Lebanon”. Federal Labor Member of Parliament Michael Danby said, “Hilali’s presence in Australia is a mistake. He and his associates must give authorities an assurance he will not assist future homicide attacks” (Chulov 1, 5). Later investigations by Sydney’s Good Weekend Magazine and SBS Television found that al-Hilali’s speech had been mistranslated (Guillatt 24). However, the selected print media that had been very critical of the Sheikh did not highlight the mistranslation.

On the other hand, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell has been critical of Islam and is also opposed to Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war in 2003, but the print media appeared to ignore his “free speech” (Dateline). In November 2004, Dr Pell said that secular liberal democracy was empty and selfish, and Islam was emerging as an alternative world view that attracted the alienated (Zwartz 3). In May 2006, Dr Pell said that he tried to reconcile claims that Islam was a faith of peace with those that suggested the Quran legitimised the killings of non-Muslims but:

In my own reading of the Koran [Quran], I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages (Morris).

Muslim leaders regarded Dr Pell’s anti-Islam statement as “inflammatory” (Morris). However, both the newspapers, The Australian and The West Australian remained uncritical of Dr Pell’s “free speech” against Islam.


Edward Said believed that media images are informed by official definitions of Islam that serve the interests of government and business. The success of the images is not in their accuracy but in the power of the people who produce them, the triumph of which is hardly challenged. “Labels have survived many experiences and have been capable of adapting to new events, information and realities” (9). In this paper the author accepts that, in the Australian context, militant Muslims are the “enemy of the West”. However, they are also the enemy of most moderate Australian Muslims. When some selected media take sides on behalf of the hegemony, or Australia’s “allies”, and offend moderate Australian Muslims, the media’s claim of “free speech” or “freedom of expression” remains highly questionable.

Muslim interviewees in this study have noted a systemic bias in some Australian media, but they are not alone in detecting this bias (see the “Abu Who?” segment of Media Watch on ABC TV, 31 July 2006). To address this concern, Australian Muslim leaders need to play an active role in monitoring the media. This might take the form of a watchdog body within the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. If the media bias is found to be persistent, the AFIC might then recommend legislative intervention or application of existing anti-discrimination policies; alternatively, AFIC could seek sanctions from within the Australian journalistic community. One way or another this practice should be stopped.