PAM NILAN

In Australia ‘Muslim’ (youth) gangs are said to pose a risk to the public. That claim synthesises media-driven moral panic about young Muslim men in Australia with politically amplified public fear of ‘ethnic’ criminal gangs. Yet the term ‘Muslim’ might not signify anything specifically cultural or religious about ‘gang’ members. Here two examples illustrate the ‘Muslim’ label as chosen, and one example illustrates ascription of ‘Muslim’ by the media and right-wing politicians. Both pertain to the politics of naming.

Once assigned, the power of a name is such that the process by which the name was selected generally disappears and a series of normative associations, motives and characteristics are attached (Bhatia 2005: 5).

The adhesion of ‘Muslim’ to ‘youth’ and then ‘gang’ synthesises disproportionate public fears about ethnic youth criminality with prevalent Islamophobia. Yet it seems that when we reverse the moral polarity so that the value of ‘bad’ becomes ‘good’ in the field of gang culture, then the term ‘Muslim’ comes to connote a powerful position; a status claim of superiority. Following that logic, the reputation of a gang may gain instant kudos in the field if the label ‘Muslim’ is applied. However, that label inevitably attracts intense media and police attention. Gang life will be short.

For example, in 2010 some ethnic youth on the Gold Coast briefly created a new motorcycle gang using the name Soldiers of Islam, a direct translation of the Arabic phrase Ansar al-Islam, and the name of a Sunni Islamist militant group that operates in north-west Iraq. The Brisbane-based Courier Mail reported that members were ‘mainly young Muslim men including former Iraqi soldiers’, ‘with weapons training’, although no evidence was provided. A media-driven moral panic generated public condemnation and demands for police action. At the same time, the name Soldiers of Islam achieved instant local notoriety and a tough reputation in the local gang field. Subsequently, the Soldiers of Islam motorcycle gang disappeared after many arrests. However, ex-members were then absorbed into an existing (secular) motorcycle gang operating in the Gold Coast region. The short-term borrowing of the symbolic capital of Muslim (Islam) enabled the rapid accrual of social and economic capital by young men who were then welcomed into a longstanding local criminal gang.

Similarly, a breakaway ethnic criminal gang in Sydney took the name Muslim Brotherhood Movement in 2009 and fought for control of some drug networks. However, no formal link was ever found with the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in the Middle East, currently banned in Egypt and many other countries. In short, a geopolitically famous Islamist militant identity was borrowed to elevate the local status of a criminal gang. Although members were young men of mostly Middle Eastern backgrounds, not all were Muslim. They did not profess piety at all, nor proclaim any Islamist slogan. Rather, they boasted on social media that they were ‘the toughest and best young street fighters of Middle Eastern descent in Sydney’. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Movement symbol shows two swords crossed over the Koran while the Muslim Brotherhood Movement Gang coat of arms showed two handguns crossed over a red hand grenade. Police dismantled the gang in 2011, charging members with drug dealing, extortion, kidnapping, assault and murder. Key members were subsequently recruited by established Bikie gangs, even while serving jail terms. Once again, borrowing the label ‘Muslim’ amplified their underworld reputation.

Conversely, in the case of the so-called Apex gang in Victoria, ‘members’ did not give themselves the label Muslim, but were ascribed it in 2016. The alleged gang began as a loosely organised ‘street’ group of mainly African-origin male youth that organised public space gatherings on social media. Following avidly reported property and vehicle crimes in certain Melbourne suburbs, politicians and media sources claimed the need for intense police surveillance of African-origin youth. After a 2016 brawl with Islander youth in the Melbourne CBD, the term ‘gang’ was applied, and then the label ‘Muslim’ was ascribed by media. Racial profiling was evident. Given black skins in a majority white nation like Australia, groups of Sudanese-background youth, for example, are highly visible. Police surveillance intensified once they were identified as a ‘Muslim gang’ and many charges were then laid. Pauline Hanson urged deportation. Yet Victorian Deputy Police Commissioner Patton told a parliamentary inquiry in April 2017 that the Apex ‘gang’ was not a gang and not Muslim per se.

Despite differences, all three examples demonstrate how the label ‘Muslim youth gang’ constructs a high level of threat, risk and something to be feared. Whether chosen or ascribed, the notoriety of the label is so pronounced that the ‘life’ of the gang will be short indeed because the public reaction of antipathy and fear greatly amplifies the ‘tough and bad’ reputation. Using the words of Bhatia (2005: 10), labelling a social entity as a Muslim gang is ‘infectious’ in the politics of naming, for better or for worse.

Professor Pam Nilan is based at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Prof. Nilan is an accomplished researcher in the area of the sociology of youth. Her research is undertaken at the international level – working with colleagues in Indonesia, Fiji, Spain, and France. She spends considerable time on research projects in Indonesia.

Reference: Bhatia, M.V. (2005) Fighting words: Naming terrorists, bandits, rebels and other violent actors, Third World Quarterly, 26(1): 5-22.

Note: This piece is based on a conference paper presented to the Youth Research Committee of the International Sociological Association Congress, Toronto, Canada, 16-21 December 2018.
Image: ‘Victoria State Parliament’ used under a Creative Commons licence from Flickr user Joe Shlabotnik