I converted to Islam less than one year after September 11 and in the years that followed, I watched as Muslims in the West were forced to defend themselves against paranoid and increasingly Islamophobic rhetoric.
I remember being in the musallah, the prayer room, at my university one day and hearing two friends talk about the hijab, the veil that many Muslim women wear as part of their faith. One friend was advising the other to lie and say that wearing the hijab was easy. She figured that this white lie would make non-Muslims become more at ease with Islam. The other friend said that she felt non-Muslims would rather hear the truth: it is not easy to wear the hijab, especially in summer with the stifling Australian heat, but it is worn as a commitment to God.
I’ve come to realise that this conversation was a simple representation of an ongoing debate within the Muslim community about its place in what has been labelled ‘multicultural Australia’. As an Aboriginal woman with politically active parents, I know all too well the hallmarks of ‘multicultural society’: put simply, non-whites are there to be tolerated, used as political footballs and feared whenever they step out of sync with the rest of White Australia. As awareness of the strong Muslim community here has grown, Muslims have been required to prove their loyalty to Australia, to show time and again they reject violence, misogyny and affinity with Muslims around the world – all the stereotypes that bigots commonly fear about Islam and its followers.
Post September 11, Muslims in Australia have responded to this scrutiny by repeatedly making statements denouncing violence and misogyny, wearing Australian-flag hijabs and running programs and campaigns to show how they subscribe to an arbitrary set of ‘Australian values’ touted by politicians and media.
After the 2012 terror raids on Melbourne Islamic group Al-Furqan, Muslim representatives again went on the defensive and distanced themselves from the group. Shortly thereafter, protests by Sydney Muslims, quickly described as the ‘Sydney Riots’, occurred and, once more, Muslim representatives condemned and distanced themselves from those involved. In amongst all of this, however, there were voices of dissent within the Muslim community.
Fed up with being depicted as guilty until proven innocent, members of the community expressed their dissatisfaction with this style of community leadership. As academic Mohamad Tabbaa wrote in his piece ‘Who’s afraid of terrorists?’, ‘Such tactics only further marginalise a minority group already under much pressure, facing constant discrimination and violence, including over-policing.’ That’s why, to many, last week’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas controversy came as no surprise.
While it may seem naïve, even strange, for Hizb ut-Tahrir representative Uthman Badar to have agreed to give a talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas titled ‘Honour killings are justified’ – a title proposed by the festival itself – Badar had planned to address the way in which things like honour killings are used to fuel Islamophobia. Putting aside the offensiveness of trivialising violence against women with the misleading title, it is obvious that the festival used Badar to create outrage and, as a result, gain publicity for the event. With such an incendiary title, the proposed talk has led to another spark of anti-Muslim sentiment – something festival organisers can walk away from but the Muslim community has to live with day in and day out, because of how deep white privilege and Islamophobia run in this country.
And therein lies the real heart of this issue.
Just like the bigots who consistently ask the Muslim community to prove their loyalty to Australian values, middle-class liberals are also capable of buying in to Islamophobia when it’s disguised as edgy and provocative debate. Utilising the structures of whiteness already in place in Australia, organisers of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas were able to set an agenda to which the Muslim community were asked to respond. Then, when the (totally expected) backlash became too much, they were able to cancel the talk and walk away largely unscathed while, once again, the Muslim community was left under intense scrutiny, facing a fresh wave of paranoia and bigotry. If the attempt was to challenge the stereotyping of Muslim communities, the festival have done the exact opposite of what they set out to achieve. It’s all very similar to what Carmen Van Kerckhove defined in 2006 as ‘hipster racism’: ‘However, vicious, brainless, knee-jerk, or crudely racist a sentiment may be, once it is repackaged as merely “un-PC” it becomes heroic, brave, free-thinking.’
I am sure that after this article, middle-class liberals will feel uncomfortable and retreat to their ivory tower, and the bigots will want to tell me to go back to where I came from. The irony is I have nowhere to ‘go back’ to. My family have been here for what carbon-dating technology can only now catch up to – at least a thousand generations. Even as this country continues to debate multicultural Australia and the place of Muslims within that, I maintain that the real debate is about whiteness and privilege. Maybe that is what Australia should think about sending back to where it came from.