A woman alleges she was raped in August 2002 in the city of Sydney. The alleged perpetrators spoke Arabic. Apparently ‘for years’ men were raping prostitutes in Kings Cross earning them the name: MERCs. Middle Eastern raping c----. There were a series of gang-rapes in Sydney in the early 2000s in South-West Sydney. Some of the perpetrators were Australians of Middle Eastern descent. Sexual assault is one of the least reported crimes.
This woman's sexual assault took place within the time range of these gang rapes. It was not reported. It was based on this constellation of ‘facts’ and unsubstantiated claims that Paul Sheehan wrote a column connecting Louise’s claim of sexual assault to a rape ‘epidemic’ in Sydney in the early 2000s.
The thread that Sheehan uses to stitch together his story is a racist, matter-of-fact, common doxa that constructs a taken-for-granted figure of the Muslim/Middle Eastern/brown man as rapist. This figure reifies a racialised discourse that stigmatises and maligns Muslim men wholesale via the rhetoric of criminalisation.
And it works. Because these have become the acceptable terms of how the media presents any story connected (even wrongly) to Muslims. And they are acceptable to a readership that largely takes their truth value for granted.
The production of this image of the Muslim man to be feared depends on what Goldsmiths' academic Sara Ahmed calls ‘past histories of association’. The label rapist becomes a metonym that slides between words, remakes connections and stirs a history of Islamophobic narratives.
According to Sheehan's article (both the original and ‘corrected’ versions), as well as his poor excuse of a clarification, sexual assault is foreclosed as a Muslim/Middle Eastern crime. It fits into a context where the image of the deviant, criminal, hyper-sexualised male Arab/Muslim has been firmly embedded by the media, commentators and certain politicians in the national psyche.
And this is the devastating and sobering reality Australian Muslims must contend with. The story had purchase, and was published and accepted as credible, because it speaks to an enduring and prevalent racialised stereotype of Muslim men. For example, Sheehan offers a general proposition: "Sexual assault is one of the least- reported crimes, and for years the NSW Police contributed to this phenomenon by pretending it did not exist".
Just in case readers were to make the mistake of assuming that this is a problem without an ‘ethnicity’, Sheehan then adds: "This was a root cause of the Cronulla riots." Cronulla works like Velcro to stick ‘sexual assault’ to Muslim/Arab male. In this sticking process, Sheehan also manages to hail the narrative that the Cronulla riots were a justified civilising mission.
Five thousand mostly Anglo-background young men who descended on Cronulla beach and attacked anyone ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ were, according to this logic, provoked. All it takes is one short statement to form an assemblage of myths and tropes. There is no risk of ambiguity here. The message resonates because the myths and tropes endure.
What is at stake here is not Louise’s story, but the logic that underpins Sheehan’s original and ‘corrected’ story, and subsequent ‘clarification’. The only ‘evidence’ for associating the gang rapes of the early 2000s to Louise’s assault was that Louise did not report the rape. This was the “context” for Sheehan’s “thinking”.
Even now that he admits that her story "had been carefully constructed on a foundation of embellishments, false memories and fabrications", the connection that builds the algorithm remains. And it is an algorithm that has wider purchase because of a decade of cumulative and persistent images and narratives around the deviant Muslim male.
That this kind of reasoning process commands centre stage of the opinion page of one of the most important newspapers in the nation, speaks to the pervasive and systemic extent of Islamophobia. When it comes to Muslims, professional practice, critical faculties, editorial checks and journalistic integrity are suspended.
Muslim and brown men who have been maligned by association, stuck with the image of rapists, are merely offered a ‘correction’. Apparently, then, the problem is not the logic that empowers somebody like Sheehan to write such a piece. The problem is in the details: uncorroborated facts, “untested aspersions against an ethnic group”.
This, then, is racism’s invisible and quiet power. Cumulative, sustained, unaccountable practices of racialisation which adhere like superglue to real bodies and lives are to be forgotten because, regrettably, they were ‘untested’. The premise underlying the aspersions are not fundamentally racist. They are simply ‘untested’.
There is an entire community of Muslim men, young and old, particularly those of Middle Eastern background, who are impacted by these kind of stories. They are forced to come of age, go to school, drive their cars, walk the streets, party with friends, hang out in a cafe, apply for a job, submit rental applications– all with the burden of sleazy, hyper-sexualised, perpetrator upon them.
This racist stereotype becomes their essence. Who they are in reality is utterly irrelevant. Stereotype becomes fact. What follows them through life is the haunting and exhausting work of proving themselves as the ‘not rapist’, ‘not misogynist.’
While Sheehan has apologised to the NSW Police, he has not apologised to Muslim/Middle Eastern men. And why would he? The enduring figure of the bad Muslim male does not need to be ‘tested’. For Sheehan, and many of his readers, it is fact, actual facts aside.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is the author of ten books and a doctoral candidate at Macquarie University.