[URBANTH-L]REV: Dabbous-Sensenig on Bin Laden in the Suburbs

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Fri Apr 14 14:51:42 EDT 2006

From: Sensenig Dabbous <sdabbous at ndu.edu.lb>

This book reveiw was also presented, albeit in a much more extensive
version, at the Lebanese launching of the publication at LAU Beirut in
the spring of 2005.


Global Media & Communication, April 1 2006, Volume 2, No. 1,
Sage Publications

Book reviews

Scott Poynting, Greg Noble, Paul Tabar and Jack Collins
Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other
Sydney: Institute of Criminology, 2004. ISBN 0975196707

Reviewed by Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, Lebanese American University

Bin Laden in the Suburbs is about the rising fear of the Arab/Muslim Other
in Australia over the last decade. It illustrates how otherwise peaceful and
law-abiding communities of Middle Eastern origin are uniformly vilified
by both the sensationalist media and opportunist politicians, because of
a handful of crimes committed by some of their younger members.
Though the guilt of the perpetrators is nowhere contested by the
authors, they loudly denounce the guilt of right-wing politicians and
newspapers who have racialized and pathologized these crimes, and who
have imputed the guilt for these crimes to entire communities merely
because they happen to be Arab and/or Muslim.
The authors passionately argue that we are witnessing, in contemporary
Australia, the emergence of the 'Arab Other' as the pre-eminent
'folk devil' of our time. As they explain, this image 'has little to do with
the lived experience of those of Arab or Middle Eastern origin, and
everything to do with a host of social anxieties which overlap and feed
upon each other in a series of moral panics' (p. 3). Herein lies the book's
basic weakness. This study neither convincingly illustrates the former
nor substantiates the latter. The strengths of this study, in comparison,
lie in its theoretical foundation and its anti-racist commitment, being
written in the best tradition of Australian multiculturalism.
The considerable time span covered by the study (from approximately
1998 to 2003) and the authors' previous work on the same topic
(Collins et al., 2000) allow them to draw attention to the fact that anti-
Arab and anti-Muslim racism is not a consequence of the September 11
attacks, as one might naively believe. Indeed, as they write, the attack on
the World Trade Center only exacerbated existing tendencies within
Australian society.
To conduct their analysis, the authors draw on a wide range of
relevant theories from various fields in the social sciences: media studies
(for issues of representation and media analysis), cultural studies (Said's
critique on Orientalism), sociology (for studies on moral panics, crime
and deviance, and race, ethnicity and crime), and political science
(Althusser's notion of interpellation and Gramsci's concept of hegemony).
In this respect, the study surpasses most, if not all, similar studies
about the representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western media.
>From a theoretical perspective, not only do the authors apply
existing concepts useful for the study of racism in the media, but their
work at times adds to, if not challenges, what has been said on the topic
in some of the most established and authoritative studies. This is
especially relevant in relation to the authors' nuanced analysis of media
representation of the police handling of ethnic crime. While Van Dijk,
whose seminal Racism and the Press (1991) is acknowledged in this study,
shows how the media basically mitigate police acts and police brutality
when dealing with immigrants and ethnic minorities in the UK, the
Australian study points to a more 'ambivalent relationship with the
police; sometimes supportive, sometimes critical' (p. 69). The authors
draw attention to the existence of a 'space in between' accepted by
Australians and often reproduced in the media, where 'ordinary' citizens
prefer to locate themselves, at equidistance from both those corrupt or
incompetent institutions meant to protect them and from the 'ethnic'
Arab and Muslim Other (p. 72).
As far as the main objective of the book is involved, the authors
convincingly prove how the construction of the evil Arab/Muslim Other
has little to do with the statistical data pertaining to Arab/Muslim
communities, and everything to do with xenophobia and political
expediency. They expose the gap between the media frenzy and political
condemnation regarding crimes committed by these communities on
the one hand, and actual police and court reports on the other. They
argue how fear was exploited by some politicians and eventually
translated into a rise in electoral support for conservative parties and
Considering, however, that the authors promise an in-depth study
of the Australian media construction of the 'Arab and Muslim Other',
and what this construction tells us about Australian society, the authors
adopt neither of the two existing methods normally used when
analysing media texts: that is, quantitative content analysis or
qualitative textual or discourse analysis. Though the authors set out to
explain 'the methods for gathering, recording, and analyzing' this data
early on in their introduction (p. 5), nowhere throughout the study is it
clear how this is done. The only reference to their research methods is
found in a paragraph on page 5, where the authors describe their data as:
'media extracts, garnered from an exhausting but not exhaustive
monitoring of the major print media . . . in Sydney concentrating
around November 1998 to early 2000, and August 2001 to September
2003' (p. 5).
Moreover, throughout the book, the authors often back their
analysis and conclusions with statements referring to the data or the
sources studied as being a 'tirade of letters to editors', or a 'plethora of
press articles both tabloid and broadsheet' (p. 158). Because the authors
anchor their research findings indiscriminately in actual news reports,
editorials, letters to the editors, and the like (they do not distinguish,
methodologically or conceptually, between these very distinct formats of
writing for newspapers and the different ideological role they play in
constructing reality), and because they never offer any quantitative
assessment about the dominance of the racist comments and views they
find in the different newspapers, the reader is left wondering whether
there exist any significant counter-hegemonic constructions of Arabs
and Muslims in the newspapers studied, whether these alternative
constructions vary from one newspaper to the other, and finally whether
these constructions are more visible in some formats than in others.
Unfortunately, such a methodological approach or weakness ultimately
forces the reader to wonder whether he or she was not selectively
and exclusively exposed to those 'extracts' that fit the thesis of the
authors of the book, and to ultimately doubt the research findings
themselves because the 'representativeness' of the samples studied, on
which the thrust of the thesis is founded, is simply overlooked.
Another weakness of the book lies in its total neglect of the
specificity and agency of Arab/Muslim communities themselves in
inducing or nurturing public anxiety in Australia. Indeed, one is led to
believe that we may safely substitute the Arab and Muslim communities
studied with Greeks or Italians without affecting the results of the study.
Furthermore, the authors ignore inter-ethnic differences, studying a
sample of Lebanese male youth without reflecting on the role of religion
and class in shaping their identity. As such, the study fails to take into
account the paradigm shifts of the last 15 years in the sociology and
historiography of immigration and ethnicity, which stress the need to
address those ethnic differences in order to fully understand the
complex phenomenon of migration.
This omission allows the authors to conclude, quite confidently,
that the construction of the Arab/Muslim Other is purely a mass fantasy
spurred by historical, economic and political changes and insecurities
(namely globalization), not by what Arabs or Muslims inside and outside
Australia think or do. In their zeal to expose the racism of Australian
society and (justifiably) to defend Arab/Muslim immigrant communities,
they sidestep serious issues plaguing both Arabic cultures and Islam,
especially in the area of gender. Such 'defence' remains unconvincing
and flies in the face of the plethora of Arab and Muslim feminist studies
that have extensively documented the sexism and misogyny of
Arab/Muslim cultures and their patriarchal interpretation of Islamic
Scriptures, and the influence of such interpretation on legislation as well
as on the lives of millions of Arab/Muslim women.
Unless the authors are willing to acknowledge this aspect of Arab and
Muslim life, their denunciation of the racism found in white Australian
statements about the misogyny of Muslim and Arab cultures amounts to
little more than a well intentioned act of 'political correctness'.


Collins, J., Noble, G., Poynting, S. and Tabar, P. (2000) Kebabs,
Kids, Cops, and Crime: Youth, Ethnicity and Crime. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Van Dijk, T.A. (1991) Racism and the Press: Critical Studies in Racism
and Migration. London: Routledge.

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