The Rhetoric Around Radicalisation

Abdul Abdullah


The wedding (Conspiracy to commit)
Abdul Abdullah, The wedding (Conspiracy to commit), 2015, C-Type photograph, 100 x 190 cm.
Image courtesy of the artist.


According to the late political scientist Joseph Overton from the United States’ Macinak Center for Public Policy, public policy is developed in an agreed window of political correctness. The website for the self-described ‘think tank’ states:

Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area, such as education, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This “window” of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.[i]

It is believed by many that the Overton Window has shifted considerably to the political right in terms of national security since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001[ii], and the ensuing ‘War on terror’. With this shift being led by groups and politicians like the Tea Party, News Corp and Donald Trump in the US, and locally by the Australia First Party[iii], Reclaim Australia and the Q Society, acceptable speech regarding Muslims now includes the mass condemnation of all Muslims in reaction to the actions of a few. Donald Trump, Reclaim Australia, Australia First Party and the Q Society advocate for the banning of Muslim immigration into Australia and the United States[iv], and many from those Australian organisations advocate the banning of the religion all together[v]. On 2 June 2016 I presented a talk at the New South Wales (NSW) Reconciliation Council event, I’m not racist but…[vi] where I spoke about how although Islam is not a race, stating the fact doesn’t mean you are not a racist. Although the crowd was considered politically progressive, it was heard amongst members of the audience who disagreed with my position after my talk that:“[Abdul] just doesn’t understand some cultures are just not compatible with Australian values”.[vii]

The assumption that the cultures I was referring to are incompatible with what this person understood as ‘Australian values’ is symptomatic of broader narratives regarding the ‘War on Terror’ that frame the ongoing conflicts as cultural clashes[viii]. As a Muslim who was 14-years-old at the inception of the ‘War on Terror’, my entire formative experience and transition into adulthood was over-shadowed by this negative perception. My current visual arts practice is specifically informed by this negative perception and the broad thrust of my work seeks to counter this perception by holding a mirror to its inconsistencies.

This redefinition of acceptable speech in otherwise progressive circles is indicative of how the Overton Window has shifted unfavourably for Muslims. Further evidence of this shift was demonstrated by the focus of the reporting of the 2015 shooting of a police civilian finance worker outside of a police station in Parramatta.

At 4:30pm on Friday 2 October 2015 Curtis Cheng was shot as he left work at the Parramatta Police Station by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar Khalil Mohammad[ix]. Following the shooting, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and NSW Premier Mike Baird held talks with Muslim community leaders. Ms Bishop said, “It’s the families that will be a frontline of defense against radicalised young people … so we will be working very closely with them”.[x]

The national conversation was focused on the possible radicalisation of young Muslim Australians, by what former Prime Minister Tony Abbott repeatedly labeled a death cult[xi]. By charging exclusive responsibility for the ‘radicalisation’ of young Muslims on a foreign and universally reviled group like ISIS, our government was able to avoid responsibility for, or legitimising, extreme symptoms of acculturative stress that is in part amplified by the government’s own radical policies, including our treatment of asylum seekers, our support for tyrannical regimes in the Middle East, and our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These specific government policies disproportionately affect Muslim populations, and the interventionist and exclusivist nature of the policies have lead to genuine grievances within the Australian Muslim community. By focusing on the external threat and links to domestic Muslim communities, the Australian government has been able to discredit the integrity of these grievances and distance itself from any implicit causal relationships[xii].

Complicit in this re-framing of the narrative in regards to radicalisation is the mainstream media. Former television host turned independent politician James Mathison captured this sentiment in an interview with Osher Gunsberg when he stated, ‘If your business model is getting people to read your product, then it is in your interest to provoke emotion… that’s pretty much every newspaper on Earth’.[xiii]

When The Daily Telegraph reported on the Parramatta shooting on the day following the incident, the first line of their story read: ‘THE gunman who shot dead a police staffer was a 15-year-old who had visited Parramatta Mosque on his way to commit murder.’[xiv]

According to the inverted pyramid principles of mass media writing, articles should begin with the prioritised and most essential facts of the story[xv]. Applying this principle to the Daily Telegraph’s story on the Parramatta shooting, the reader is made to believe that Mohammad’s visit to the mosque on the Friday afternoon was an integral element in his criminal act, thereby tying the shooting to Jummah[xvi], a common weekly practice of many Muslims. Revelations have since come out that Mohammad met co-conspirators on visits to the mosque, but these facts were not known at the time of the Daily Telegraph’s publication. It seems the inclusion of Mohammad’s mosque visit in the opening line of the article was not intended to provide the most essential facts of the story, but rather to play to growing fears in Australia about ‘Islamification’ and ‘Shariah law’.

This fear is reflected on the United Patriots Front website in its description of ‘phase 5’ of the ‘spread of Islam’:

When the Muslim population becomes the majority and/or Islam gains control of a nation (e.g., Taliban in Afghanistan), Sharia law is imposed on the host society, which is then locked down against non-Islamic influences, including Christianity. The ideal Islamic state is Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law is the only law of the land and enforced without mercy.[xvii]

According to the Australian Government’s Living Safe Together website:

Radicalisation happens when a person’s thinking and behaviour become significantly different from how most of the members of their society and community view social issues and participate politically. Only small numbers of people radicalise and they can be from a diverse range of ethnic, national, political and religious groups[xviii].

By this definition the UPF and their ‘nation wide movement, opposing the spread of Left Wing treason and spread of Islamism’, would be considered a radical group. The government factsheet goes on to say:

As a person radicalises they may begin to seek to change significantly the nature of society and government. However, if someone decides that using fear, terror or violence is justified to achieve ideological, political or social change – this is violent extremism.

By his own admission, the leader of the UPF Blair Cottrell uses ‘violence and terror’ to ‘manipulate women’[xix], and should therefore be considered a violent extremist.

The UPF joins other radical Australian groups that oppose Islam including, but not limited to, Reclaim Australia, Australia First Party, The Australian Defense League and Q Society of Australia, which describes itself on its homepage as a:

Not-for-profit civil rights organisation run by a dedicated group of volunteers. Our supporters come from different ethnicities and creeds—all bound by a common goal—to inform Australians about Islam.[xx]

All these groups warn of the spread of Islam and align themselves with their European equivalents including PEGIDA in Germany, Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) in Denmark, the English Defense League (EDL) from the UK and the Greek Golden Dawn.

A common belief among these European and Australian far–right radical groups is the belief in the ‘Eurabia conspiracy’[xxi] or ‘Shariah creep’[xxii], where apparently a combination of left wing policies, European and Arab political elites, and unmitigated immigration will lead to the deliberate Islamification of Europe, application of Shariah[xxiii], and the enslavement of non-Muslims. In efforts to oppose this ‘Islamification’ these groups pressure governments to cease Muslim immigration, protest Halal certification, protest the building of mosques and even petition councils to deny proposed Muslim cemeteries[xxiv].

Anti-Muslim sentiment has risen sharply in the United States since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001[xxv], and has been fueled by the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from anti-Muslim groups like Stop Islamisation of America[xxvi] (SIOA) and Act! For America[xxvii] who promotes similar principles to their European and Australian counterparts, explicit opposition to Islam has become acceptable mainstream political discourse. During his 2016 Republican Primary Campaign, presidential candidate Donald Trump announced that he planned to ban all Muslims entering the United States:

Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by [Muslims] that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.[xxviii]

Early in the year fellow Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson told interviewers that a practicing Muslim should never be allowed to be president, because Islamic teachings are inconsistent with the US Constitution[xxix]. This distrust of Muslim communities in the United States has created an environment where the Muslim identity has been both politicised and criminalised.

On Monday 14 September 2015, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested at his Texas school after bringing a homemade clock to class to show his teacher[xxx]. CNN quoted him saying,

I built a clock to impress my teacher but when I showed it to her, she thought it was a threat to her … it was really sad that she took the wrong impression of it.

It was reported that his teacher thought the clock looked like a bomb and reported the incident to the police. After being taken into custody, it was ascertained that it was indeed a clock and that there was no evidence to suggest that he intended to create alarm[xxxi].

While there was an outpouring of support for Ahmed following the story, including from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, then President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, there were still several prominent voices that spoke out against the boy and his intentions. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins questioned the motives of Ahmed Mohamed on Twitter[xxxii], and attached a YouTube video clip titled Mohammed [sic] Clock is a FRAUD[xxxiii]. The Republican Party nominee for Vice President in the 2008 Presidential election Sarah Palin wrote on a post on her Facebook page:

Yep, believing that’s a clock in a school pencil box is like believing Barack Obama is ruling over the most transparent administration in history… Right. That’s a clock, and I’m the Queen of England.[xxxiv]

One of the comments that I found most concerning was by self-proclaimed Liberal Commentator Bill Maher on his show Real Time, who justified the suspicion cast on Ahmed: ‘… Because for the last 30 years it‘s one culture who has been blowing shit up over and over again.’[xxxv]

The implication of this statement is that Muslims are predisposed to violence because of their culture and are therefore more likely to bring a bomb to school or act out a violent threat. This example of egocentric exceptionalism greatly exaggerates Ahmed’s proven non-existent threat, ignores the statistical evidence of violence in North American schools, and doesn’t take any account of the United States’ extremely powerful and influential military-industrial complex that manages to promote a culture of military spending that annually is close to the combined military spending of the rest world[xxxvi]. If there were one culture that was responsible for ‘blowing shit up over and over again’ over the last 30 years, it would unequivocally be that of the United States[xxxvii]. According to the Council of Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko the United States dropped 23 144 bombs on Muslim-majority countries in 2015 alone.[xxxviii]

The broader implication of Bill Maher’s statement is that Muslims are irrationally violent and aggressive, and their culture is the primary reason for this behavior. By divesting them of political and cultural agency, the statement reduces their humanity and justifies violence against them. The devaluing of communities based on religious beliefs or race continues a colonial tradition that relies on pseudo-scientific justification for the continued invasion, occupation, exploitation and murder of those communities that have been deemed inferior by colonial powers. Apart from the Ottoman imperial ambitions and colonisation of Greece that ended in 1821 and the Balkans that ended just prior to the outbreak of World War One, and the later invasions by the now independent nation of Turkey in the region, including the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, in the past 250 years no other Muslim majority country has invaded a non-Muslim, ‘Western’ country, and the only Muslim majority country to invade a non-Muslim country with the intention to occupy was Indonesia when it invaded East Timor in 1975. In that same time period each of the 47 Muslim-majority countries that claim sovereignty in 2016 have been attacked, invaded, and often occupied and colonised by ‘Western’ countries. In the past 30 years alone the United States has bombed or occupied at least 14 Muslim-majority countries[xxxix], so to suggest Muslim countries or cultures are inherently more aggressive than other nations or ethnic groups is quantifiably wrong.

It is my position that while Muslim groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban subscribe to extreme, atypical views and practices; they do not represent the vast majority of Muslims. This unrepresentative status is at odds with the perception of Muslims by many in the West, whose own elected governments, officially representing the will of their constituents, hold and act on policies that I understand to be radical and violently extreme. In Australia these policies include indefinite offshore detention for asylum seekers who are mostly Muslim, the illegal invasion and occupation of Muslim majority countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, the retention of meta-data and mass surveillance of domestic Muslim communities, and the implicit support of the United States and their radical foreign policy. The radical foreign policies of the United States includes enhanced interrogation techniques, indefinite detention without trial, assassination without trial, covert bombing in places like Yemen, Somalia, Algeria and Syria, and the support of tyrannical regimes[xl]. Most disturbing about the exceptionalism practiced by many Western critics of Muslims is the lack of empathy exhibited, and the resolute denial of causal links between their actions, the actions of their representatives, and the current situation in much of the Muslim world. In an interview for Salon, Neuroscientist Sam Harris said,

The fact that we invaded Iraq is merely a background condition for this local explosion of jihadist triumphalism and horror—one that is fully explained by a commitment to a specific interpretation of Islamic scripture.[xli]

By absolving themselves of any personal responsibility they deny any genuine political, social or cultural grievances justifiably held by many in the Muslim community.

This lack of regard for, and projection of criminality on Muslims was explicitly demonstrated by two news stories that were the impetus for my 2015 photographic series ‘Coming to terms’. Both stories involved the death of infants and children at the hands of non-Muslim occupying forces in Muslim-majority countries. In July 2015, it was reported by Al Jazeera that an 18-month-old Palestinian boy was burned to death after Israeli settlers set fire to his family house in the West Bank[xlii] in what is known as a price tag killing[xliii]. Following the attack, footage from an Israeli wedding showed guests stabbing photos of the murdered boy[xliv]. The second story, in The Guardian, revealed some of the language and attitudes exhibited by United States’ drone pilots who flew on active missions in Afghanistan[xlv], including that children in combat zones were often called ‘fun-size terrorists’, in reference to smaller ‘fun-size’ chocolate bars. On both these occasions the disregard for the humanity of innocent human beings was explicit. The projection of violence and criminality reframed these children as legitimate objects for targeted killing, guilty of crimes it was imagined they had the potential to commit.


Bride II (Subterfuge)

Bride II (Subterfuge), 2015, C-Type photograph, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rather than reconstruct the violence of targeted killing, or explicitly portray children in any way in my work, the resulting images refer to the traditions of wedding photography. The wedding as a ritual has been used to act as an almost universally understood celebration of optimistic union. By exploiting the shared cultural understanding and signifiers of the wedding, the series draws the viewer into a familiar space, to which many can relate. In the same way that children and infants can be understood as universal signifiers of innocence, weddings can for many be understood as traditional precursors to the production of children, and therefore the production of innocence.


Groom II (Stratagem) sml

Groom II (Stratagem), 2015, C-Type photograph, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Wedding (Conspiracy to commit), Bride II (Subterfuge) and Groom II (Stratagem) depict a bride and groom in traditional Malaysian-Muslim wedding attire. The Malaysian wedding attire has a personal relevance to my personal cultural heritage and familial ties to the country. The balaclavas worn by the figures signify the projection of criminality. Their use in this series is designed to speak to the audiences’ personal experiences with the depiction of criminals like terrorists or burglars, in cinema, literature or in the media. When planning the compositions and lighting arrangement I was influenced by the symmetry and colour palette of Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2013 Only God Forgives[xlvi]. While the themes in the film do not lend themselves to the reasons I made this series, I found the otherworldly atmosphere created by the lighting and colour choices in the film emphasised a sense of discomfort that helped disrupt the audiences’ expectations.


Bride I (Victoria)

Bride I (Victoria), 2015, C-Type photograph, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


The final two wedding-themed images in the series Coming to terms also feature a bride and a groom, but reference the 19th Century English Gothic Novel by Charlotte Dacr titled Zofloya (AKA The Moor). The works are called Groom I (Zofloya) and Bride I (Victoria), and are named after the titular character in the book and his accomplice ‘Victoria’. The character Zofloya is described as ‘black Moor’ and a slave, and Victoria is a malicious rich woman from a noble class who is seduced by the Moor. In the final scene Zofloya reveal himself to be Satan, reinforcing for the reader a conflation of blackness, otherness and a Muslim identity with evil, deceit and violence. In addition to exploring ideas of the projection of criminality on a wedded couple, these works reference the European anxieties of the threat of miscegenation, and the strength of the Muslim Ottoman Empire that appear to be reflected in the unfolding narrative of Zofloya.[xlvii]


Groom I (Zofloya)

Groom I (Zofloya), 2015, C-Type photograph, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

A central objective of my visual arts practice is to challenge the window of what is considered politically acceptable. By interrogating the nexus of cultural perception and political power I aim to aid the building of empathic relations between superficially disparate communities. The ambiguous ambitions of the ‘War on Terror’ have driven a divisive narrative that has resulted in the disproportionate marginalisation, vilification and suppression of the Australian Muslim community. With my work I hold a mirror to these distortions and in doing so I hope to encourage better mutual understanding of shared values, and legitimate, respectful understanding of cultural difference.



[i] “Overton window,” The Mackinac Centre for Public Policy, accessed May 15, 2016,

[ii] “The Overton Window’s right-shift and dilemma of the self-defeating compromise: how to solve this?” Daily Kos, accessed May 15, 2016,

[iii] “Immigration harm”, Australia First Party, accessed May 15, 2016,

[iv] “Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering US”, The Guardian Newpaper, accessed May 15, 2016,

[v] Bianca Hall “Restore Australia: the party that would ban Islam”, The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed May 15, 2016,

[vi] “I’m not racist, but…” New South Wales Reconciliation Party, accessed June 5, 2016,

[vii] Anonymous, overheard at an even by author, “I’m not racist but…” Event. Giant Dwarf Theatre, June 2, 2016

[viii] Mark salter, “The Clash of Civilisations and the War on Terror(ists): An Imperialist Discourse”, Centre for world dialogue, accessed July 1, 2016,

[ix] Siobhan Fogarty, “Parramatta shooting: Police search mosque in shooting investigation” ABC News, accessed April 4, 2016,

[x] Siobhan Fogarty, “Parramatta shooting: Police search mosque in shooting investigation” ABC News, accessed April 4, 2016,

[xi] Rachel Olding, “Tony Abbott’s obsessive use of the phrase ‘death cult’ fails to resonate with half of Australians”, The Sydney Morning Herlad, accessed June 4, 2016,

[xii] Halim Rane, “Muslim Radicalisation: Where Does the Responsibility Rest?” ABC News, accessed June 4, 2016,

[xiii] James Mathison on the Osher Günsberg Podcast. August 30, 2015

[xiv] “Parramatta shooting: Multiple shots fired outside police HQ on Charles Street”, The Daily Telegraph, accesser May 16, 2016,

[xv] “The Inverted Pyramid Structure”, Purdue Owl, accessed October 16, 2015,

[xvi] Friday prayers

[xvii] “The spread of Islam”, The United Patriots Front, accessed October 16, 2015,

[xviii] “What is radicalisation?” Living Safe Together Initiative, accessed October 4 2015,

[xix] Michael Bachelard and Luke McMahon, “Blair Cottrell, rising anti-Islam movement leader, wanted Hitler in the classroom”, The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed November 12, 2015,

[xx] “The Q Society”, accessed November 12, 2015,

[xxi] Bat Ye’or, Eurabia: The Euro-arab Axis. (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005)

[xxii] Kevin McCullogh, “Shariah Creep”, Town Hall, accessed June 4, 2016,

[xxiii] Islamic law

[xxiv] “Campaign to stop Muslim cemetery”, Australia First Party, accessed November 12, 2015,

[xxv] “Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West”, Gallup, accessed May 15, 2016,

[xxvi] Pamela Geller, “Stop Islamization Of America”, accessed May17, 2016,

[xxvii] “Act! For America”, accessed May15, 2016,

[xxviii] “Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering US”, The Guradian, accessed May 15, 2016,

[xxix] Rula Jebreal, “America’s embrace of Islamophobia is new – but not surprising”, The Guardian, accessed May 15, 2016,

[xxx] “Muslim teen Ahmed Mohamed creates clock, shows teachers, gets arrested”, CNN, accessed November 15, 2015,

[xxxi] “Handcuffed for Making Clock, Ahmed Mohamed, 14, Wins Time With Obama”, The Ney York Times, accessed November 20, 2015,

[xxxii] Richard Dawkins, September 20, 2015 (12:46 am), post on twitter,

[xxxiii] Thomas Talbot, “Ahmed Mohammed Clock is a FRAUD”, accessed November 16 2015,

[xxxiv] “Anger as Richard Dawkins becomes the latest celebrity to attack Texas schoolboy Ahmed Mohamed over his homemade clock after Sarah Palin says it DID look like a bomb”, Daily Mail Australia, accessed November 12, 2015,

[xxxv] “Real Time with Bill Maher”, HBO. Season 13, Episode 27, 2015

[xxxvi] “How much stronger is the US military compared with the next strongest power?” Military 1, accessed March 12, 2016,

[xxxvii] William Blum, “United States bombings of other countries”, accessed June 20, 2016,

[xxxviii] Adam Johnson, “”U.S. Dropped 23,144 Bombs on Muslim-Majority Countries in 2015”, Alternet, accessed June 20, 2016,

[xxxix] “Why has the US invaded, occupied or bombed 14 Muslim countries in 14 years”, Stop War, accessed November 8, 2015,

[xl] Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars (Sundance selects, 2013)

[xli] “Sam Harris talks Islam”, Salon, accessed June 20, 2016,

[xlii] “Palestinian baby burned to death in settler attack”, Al Jazeera, accessed November 15, 2015,

[xliii] “Price Tag and Extremist Attacks in Israel”, Anti-defamation league, accessed November 15, 2015,

[xliv] “Wedding Video Shows Jewish Extremists Celebrating the Death of Palestinian Baby”, Vice, accessed March 15, 2016, “

[xlv] Ed Pilkington, “Life as a drone operator”, accessed March 15, 2016,

[xlvi] Nicholas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives (Space Rocket Nation: 2013)

[xlvii] Sophia Rose Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination (Oxford: New York, 2015) 114







Abdul Abdullah is an artist from Perth, currently based in Sydney, who works across painting, photography, video, installation and performance. As a self described ‘outsider...


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