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Disempowered young Muslim men turn toxic

By Shakira Hussein - posted Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Taj Din al-Hilali's obnoxious speech likening women who dress immodestly to "uncovered meat" who incite rape has reinforced perceptions of Islam as a religion with nothing but contempt for women. Yet if I believed this, I would not be Muslim. I hold to my faith in large part because of the positive example of Muslim men in my life, men who treat women with consideration and respect.

But as Hilali's comments illustrate, there are Muslim men (and not only Muslim men) whose attitudes to women are beneath contempt. Yet contemporary gender relations among Western Muslims is only partly a story about the relationship between men and women; it is also about the relationship between old men and young men.

My half-brother was a radicalised young British Muslim man long before it became fashionable. If Mustafa belonged anywhere, he belonged in London.


Born of a Pakistani Muslim father and a Sri Lankan Buddhist mother, he spoke no language other than English and had no realistic future anywhere outside Britain. For him, Britain was no light-filled liberal democracy but a racist and closed society.

Like many Asians of his generation, he grew up conscious that "Paki bashing" was considered easy sport by the violent young men of the far Right. By the time he reached adulthood, he believed that every failure and rejection he suffered was a result of white racism. This racism was not proving to be an insurmountable barrier to other young men of similar backgrounds, but Mustafa did not believe white people would provide him with an even break.

But there was no refuge to be found in his parents' identities, either. He regarded Buddhism as idolatry and he longed to be Muslim. But for his father's family, being Muslim was entangled with their home culture: speaking Punjabi, marrying within the family network, following established social etiquette. Even second-generation Muslims from ethnically homogenous families are not fully literate in this culture; Mustafa, with his mixed background, could make nothing of it.

Mustafa may have regarded British society as the enemy but, as far as his family was concerned, he was far too British to be a real Muslim. And so he found refuge elsewhere, in a form of Islam where ideological commitment was more important than literacy in one's ancestral culture.

Initially he drew inspiration from the Iranian revolution, undeterred that he was Sunni and the Iranians Shia. But he admired any Muslim who was strong, who stood up to the West, who didn't compromise. Mustafa experienced disempowerment within British society and within his family; he admired those who could seize power in the name of the weak.

Young men who have been denied status attempt to gain it by wielding power over those more powerless than they, most obviously the women in their lives. When I came into Mustafa's life, we were both in our early 20s. I was his sister, someone he should look after (as he put it), although the reality was control. I was also half white, a representative of the society he so resented but could not escape.


It was a volatile combination. He was obsessed with the idea that I was having sex with white men, "dragging the family name through the mud" (despite the fact the family supported me, not him). He saw my independence as arrogance and he was determined to cut me down to size through surveillance, harassment, threats against me, my family and my friends. Islam did not inspire his behaviour but his particular understanding of Islam provided him with justification.

I was more fortunate than most women in such situations; Mustafa and I have different citizenships, and he was eventually denied entry to Australia. But I had learned how to fear and, once learned, fear is difficult to unlearn.

In the years since then I have written thousands of words on political Islam; not one word has been about Mustafa. I write about him now because our entire society seems to have been infected by the kind of fear that he generated in me. We may fear old men such as Hilali and Osama bin Laden, but even more we fear the young men they inspire.

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First published in The Australian on October 31, 2006 as 'Brother made fear familiar foe'.

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About the Author

Shakira Hussein is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne specialising in Muslim women, gendered violence and racism.

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