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The loaded concept of citizenship

By Jamila Hussain - posted Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The Australian Government has a series of web pages about citizenship. They provide information on why citizenship is important, an invitation to the 900,000 permanent residents who are eligible but have not yet taken up citizenship to do so promptly, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and similar matters.

For the majority of Australians, the concepts of citizenship, nationality and identity are so closely connected that there is never a need to consider any distinction between them. If you are born in Australia of parents of Anglo-Irish or northern European descent, you are automatically an Australian citizen, have Australian nationality and will almost certainly identify yourself solely as an Australian.

If you are a migrant or a child of migrants, you or your parents may have taken out Australian citizenship, and acquired Australian nationality, but you may still retain a strong connection to the country of your birth or of your parents’ birth. Your identity then may be not so clearly and exclusively “Australian”.


Even if you do not feel that you have a strong connection to any other country and are proud to be an Australian, you may be identified by others in the community as an outsider.

This may be because of your appearance - if you have dark skin or features which mark you as coming from Asia, or if you are of “Middle Eastern appearance”, your identity in the eyes of others may be fixed by that appearance, and or by your observable cultural and religious customs if they are noticeably different from those of the average Anglo-descended Australian.

In the words of one of my students, a young woman born in Australia but of Middle Eastern descent:

Although I was born and bred in Australia, I often found myself wondering how I was going to fit a certain mould that I thought being Australian was. … Maybe these early years of being called “wog” and “Arab” (like that is a bad thing) … forever kept within me the feeling of inferiority … I feel compelled to defend myself and my cultural background and religion all the time … all Arabs are perceived as Muslim and thus terrorists.

In recent years, it seems that the people the government, and probably the majority of Australians, who would least like to become citizens are migrants from Muslim countries. There is a deep-rooted suspicion of Muslims that has been fed by events in the past few years - the Tampa crisis, 9-11, the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, and nearer home, the horrific pack rapes committed by a few young Australian men of Lebanese Muslim background, and on account of which the reputation of the whole Lebanese community was blackened.

The prime minister appeared to be particularly alarmed by the news that the London bombings were perpetrated by home-grown terrorists having British nationality and citizenship.


How to overcome this problem - that those who attack Australia might emerge from the ranks of Australian-born citizens?

One response advocated by many police and military experts is to increase the powers of police and ASIO and to bring in increasingly restrictive anti-terrorism laws. These inevitably have the effect of limiting civil liberties so that law-abiding Australians, Muslim or otherwise, may inadvertently be caught in the net by perhaps making a donation - in good faith - to an overseas aid organisation that may be found to have links to organisations designated as terrorists by the Federal Government, or meeting socially someone who is later suspected of being a member of such an organisation.

A second effect of stringent anti-terrorism laws is to increase the alienation of local people of Muslim background.

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This article is based on a talk given at a seminar hosted by The Independent Scholars Association of Australia Inc in August 2006.

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About the Author

Jamila Hussain lectures at the University of Technology, Sydney in Islamic Law and Asian Law and Culture and at the University of Western Sydney in Comparative Law. She is Australian born, of Anglo-Irish descent and a convert to Islam.

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