Most people over 30 have a distinct memory of what they were doing when they first found out about the September 11 attacks, twenty years ago.

It was a time of sheer horror, uncertainty, fear, anger and hopelessness for many people around the world.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001 was an onslaught of abuse and oppression against Muslims in Australia, especially “visibly Muslim” women who wore the hijab.  

At the time there was no way of documenting each of these incidents so the figures are based on the sharing of various stories of lived experiences within the Muslim community. Islamophobia didn’t just happen overnight.  

Thankfully the Islamophobia Register was established to get a clear picture of the magnitude of Islamophobic attacks, which disproportionately impact the easily identifiable, hijab-wearing Muslim women. (1)

The ruthless media bias fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment was relentless across most mainstream media platforms over many years, until it was embedded to form a system that disproportionately discriminated against Muslim women, impacting their right to equal opportunities in employment, in quality education, participation in sports, leadership positions, forming intersectional barriers for Muslim women to participate fully in society. (4)

It’s no wonder that immediately after the September 11 attacks many Muslim women, for fear of being the target of Islamophobic attacks, chose to remove their headscarves, for their own safety.  (2)

All peak Islamic bodies across Australia denounced terrorism over and over again.  Every Muslim with a pulse was shouting from the rooftops, “Islam means peace” yet the collective efforts were never enough.

The relentless media bias, the public figures in positions of influence, made sure the labels stuck.  The bigoted politicians made sure the fates were sealed.  The community turned the other way.

It was during these early days, weeks and months, after the September 11 attacks, a time when tensions were high and public were angry, that the Australian Intercultural Society, took on the challenging task of hosting an extraordinary Interfaith event.

The event was hosted at the iconic Melbourne venue, Leonda by the Yarra.  Despite the glamour, my friend and I hesitated as we walked in, not knowing what to expect.  This would become the first of many Interfaith events I participate in over the next 20 years.

The large hall was full of people wearing all kinds of robes and all kinds of religious headdress.  Every faith community was represented both in the audience and in the panel of speakers.

One after another, spoke the voices of peace, voices of collaboration, of community, of respect, of compassion.  Building bridges, peace-building, strengthening community, cohesion, God is love…

“Surely these people must not be watching the news,” I remember thinking, because we were greeted with open arms by a whole community of faith leaders willing to listen and to make sense of what was unfolding in the world.  There was no animosity, no fear, only curiosity and compassion.

There was an opening prayer.  There was enough common ground and common values in the room for people to have meaningful conversations, exchange business cards and form those earliest networks for interfaith engagement in Victoria.

It’s now been 20 years since those first robust Interfaith engagement events and today there’s an abundance of Interfaith networks established across Australia, all serving to bring faith communities together for the betterment of their communities.

Over the years, countless Muslim leaders shared the teachings of our beautiful deen with the broader community to counter the persistent negative stereotypes.  

With all the combined efforts of the Australian Muslim community, the transformation over the years has been significant, but nowhere near enough.

The systems and structures that are designed to discriminate against Australian Muslims, especially hijab wearing Muslim women and girls, continue to function today.

Lack of diversity in Australian mainstream media, in books, in movies, and on TV, limit and censor the authentic voices of our diverse communities.  Without positive representation of diversity in media, the biased derogatory narratives continue as the status quo.

Our politicians continue to hide behind freedom of speech to fuel widespread Islamophobia and right wing sentiment, a growing threat against Muslim communities in Australia.  There is little consequence for hate speech by public figures and politicians.  (3)

It’s now been 20 years since September 11.  We reflect this month on the families and the first respondents and the communities who were directly impacted by the September 11 attacks,  who lost their lives, their loved ones or their health.

We must also acknowledge the ongoing trauma and inequality experienced by  Australian Muslims, especially Australian Muslim women and girls, who’ve been unjustly scapegoated for this heinous terrorist attack for far too long.