Every now and then, you get to understand – even just for a moment – someone else’s point of view. You might have assumed you knew all about it, but it’s rare to feel it, to glimpse what life is like for another human being.
At a forum organised by the Islamic Council of Victoria on the weekend, a group of around 100 people turned the tables on five journalists about media coverage of Muslims, terrorism, counter-terrorism laws, police raids, multiculturalism and the hijab. It was polite and welcoming – we all got a box of chocolates at the end – but what people wanted us to understand was that to be a Muslim in Australia now was to feel hurt, angry and bewildered.
People spoke about waking up, day after day, to a relentless focus on terrorism and its implied or specified links to Islam and Australia’s almost 500,000 Muslims. One man believed there was a “media jihad against Muslims”. Some spoke of comments beneath media articles that were viciously anti-Muslim, implying that all Muslims were terrorists or terrorist sympathisers, and didn’t belong in Australia.
Another, a doctor and a board member of a well-known Islamic school in Melbourne, said he worried about young people who had absorbed anti-Muslim sentiment all their lives. The 19-year-old Muslim man whose photo was mistakenly published in The Age identifying him as a suspected terrorist went to ground, seriously depressed.
Islamic Council board member Junaid Cheema said he had recently been called a “fucking Muslim” in the street. He joked about it – he liked to think of it as a “cultural exchange”. But for a teenager, such things weren’t so easy to brush off. All of this, one man said, was “ripping our community apart”.
It was uncomfortable to hear the pain behind the complaints. Would it not be a tragic irony if the focus on what foreign minister Julie Bishop calls the biggest threat to the global order since the second world war meant that we were alienating rather than enlisting Australian Muslims to help, if we were ripping them apart?
Would it not be a bitter irony, too, that in our desperate attempts to stop homegrown violent extremists and to deter Australians leaving to fight overseas, we were actually fanning the radicalisation we seek to counter? A few days after Tony Abbott told a regional summit on counter-terrorism that “Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die,” Cheema had a more complex message. Islamic State (Isis) appealed to youth to join up because it tells them “Australia doesn’t want you,” he said. At we at the point where some Australians hear that message and feel it to be true?
As the government reminds us daily, it has a duty to protect Australians. That’s a complicated duty requiring a balance between powers and resources for intelligence agencies and police, and maintaining the civil freedoms that supposedly define us.
Our prime minister can be a rhetorical wrecking ball, but in no case has his lack of subtlety been more damaging than his remarks about Muslims. The media doesn’t deserve to be let off the hook, either. Journalists have to cover this story, but at times parts of the media have inflamed fear and mistrust. In turn, many Muslims have come to mistrust and fear the media.
But it is the prime minister who is critical in setting the tone for national conversation on these issues and Abbott has presided over a breakdown in the relationship between many Muslims and their government.
Some leaders have given up engaging entirely; others are hanging in there. A few are firebrands, sure, but the overwhelming majority are not, or were not until they kept being told they were the problem.
It is hard to see the Abbott government’s approach as anything but politically motivated as it promotes its national security credentials as one of its strengths against Labor. Back in 2011, then immigration spokesman Scott Morrison reportedly urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate’s concerns about “Muslim immigration”, “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim migrants to integrate.
That suggestion was crude but the strategy appears to be in place. There was the aborted attempt to ban the niqab from parliament last year and Abbott’s “Team Australia” rhetoric towards migrants. It is hard to keep up with the mooted new laws, from suggestions of cancelling the citizenship of those who fight overseas to trying to shut down propaganda through banning vilifying and intimidating speech. Alongside those laws, good and bad, there are subtle digs at Muslims generally.
“I’ve often heard western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace,’” Abbott said a few months ago. “I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.” The implication was clear. Muslim leaders weren’t saying it often and if they were, they didn’t really mean it.
These issues aren’t easy. More than 100 Australians have gone to Iraq and Syria to join Isis, at war both with Shia Muslims and the west’s foreign policies and values. The mentally unstable Man Haron Monis held hostages for 17 hours in Sydney in December, a siege which left two innocents dead. A handful of young Muslims raised in Australia have become attracted to Isis’s apocalyptic vision and allegedly planned attacks at home.
It’s not that Muslims don’t care about all this – if anything, they are panicked about their kids to the point of paranoia. They point out, too, that the vast majority of those murdered by Isis are Muslims.
Yet so defensive have many become that they seem too quick to denounce any criticism as Islamophobia or racism. And there is a reluctance to acknowledge that Isis and its affiliates in Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere have anything to do with Islam and the raging, painful discussion about its potential reform.
But really, how can we be surprised if many Muslims are turning inward, putting up defences? Others soldier on. Some groups are mentoring young people at risk of radicalisation. Several are already running or planning to run programs to counter Isis propaganda. Some are so furious at the government they want nothing to do with official programs. Journalists complain that Muslims are reluctant to speak with them.
And if they express what they feel, if they push back, they risk being accused of not being “on the team”, of not belonging in Australia at all.
If you are not a Muslim, imagine for a moment being in their shoes.
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