The violence of forgiveness

‘I’m talking about assuming the best in people … showing others radical generosity in the face of their hostility even when it hurts. This is the harder choice because it demands much more restraint and patience, and so much more strength.’ So advised Waleed Aly Tuesday night on popular television program, The Project. His comments came as a response to yet another barrage of anti-Islam voices in the media, primarily Sonia Kruger, who called for Australia to ban Muslim migrants from entering the country to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

Pauline Hanson also appeared on Q&A Monday night, espousing her age-old argument that Islam is a political ideology incompatible with a modern secular society, and which ultimately seeks to control people.

This followed columnist Andrew Bolt’s wildly provocative article, asking ‘who could blame’ vigilantes who took up arms against Muslims in defence against a rising (and surely inevitable) homegrown Islamist threat.

In the midst of this violent rhetoric, Aly yet again pushed for the ‘peace and love’ route, urging people to sideline their anger against figures like Kruger, and instead ‘try to understand their fear, and then empathise with how they came to their conclusion’.

This begat the #SendForgivenessViral campaign, a movement intended to encourage people to forgive and empathise rather than get angry.

Yet, beyond the well-intentioned hashtag lies a harmful form of symbolic politics common to liberal activism, including Aly’s.

In calling on the outraged to employ laudable virtues such as empathy, patience, and understanding towards those seeking to harm them, Aly performs an act typical of mainstream liberalism. That is, to obscure systemic injustices and destructive political realities in preference of a terse symbolism that fails to address those material realities. In this case, an orchestrated appeal to an abstract forgiveness that does nothing to alleviate the suffering already felt by those on the receiving end of Australia’s many violent practices. It is no small irony that on the same day of Aly’s impassioned speech for forgiveness, yet another woman was found dead in police custody.

What Aly and many like him fail to recognise is that this racist rhetoric and genuine fear is produced by the same systemic forces that they ignore when offering such problematic solutions. Aly says that ‘while it feels good to choose destruction, right now I think we need to try construction’. Yet discussing destruction and construction as a matter of ‘choice’ assumes an empty, even playing field, and obscures the fact that there is already a construction: a system constructed on the bodies of undesirables, and which constructs, in turn, the racist ignorance, anger and fear that Aly calls us to sympathise with.

In this politics, racism is reduced to a deficit in communal love and respect, rather than a product of racialised politics, aggressive foreign policy, or the wider oppression of minority groups. Racism becomes a bad attitude, rather than a bad system producing bad attitudes. Aly’s liberal worldview has him placing individuals at the centre of society and its systems rather than the other way round. Therefore, problems are solved not by addressing the institutions and systems that generate them, but rather by rehabilitating the injured individual, who is tasked with adjusting their mindset in order to address violent realities.

This explains how many Muslim and non-Muslim figures alike have chosen to extend a dinner invitation to radical figures such as Pauline Hanson as a means of addressing Islamophobia. Islamophobia, presented merely as a lack of dialogue and engagement, is stripped of its virulent history: enacting the harshest anti-terror laws in the world becomes a sideshow to the real problem of not sharing tea with a racist politician. It is precisely this symbolic politics that, in a twisted logic, has for years demanded the ‘good Muslim’ subject condemn Muslim violence as a way of ending violence against Muslims.

Heartwarming as it may be, in a climate of systemic violence, Aly’s struggle of abstracts and ideals is precisely what facilitates the internment camps he fears. Indeed, his insistence on symbols provides the soothing balm that covers for the violence we already enact. It’s how Australia can claim to be multicultural while enacting a border policy that inspires neo-Nazis, and post-racial while incarcerating the highest number of Indigenous people on earth.

And so, in his emotional appeal to the Gravitron that we’re apparently all on as individuals, Aly glaringly misses the main lesson of the analogy: who exactly is spinning the Gravitron? Who, or what, is it that’s spinning us into oblivion?

Aly would have us believe that it is our individual attitudes – our destructive anger and hatred – that make things go round. If we have learned nothing else from the atrocities of the past (and clearly we haven’t), we should at least have learned of the banality of the process of evil, and how those who carry out violent pogroms can be driven by a genuine fear such as Kruger’s. But that does not make the deaths inflicted by their hands any less deadly. More instructive would have been to unpack what produces these fears, and how such fear has festered and spawned the growth of the likes of Hanson, Kruger and others alike, and generally pushed left-leaning political parties strongly to the right.

What is really forgiven in Aly’s gesture, then, is a global system of inequality, of racialised, gendered social relations that enrich some at the direct expense of others.

If we want to speak of a banal evil, we should look no further than the misplaced hashtag.

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Mohamad Tabbaa

Mohamad Tabbaa is a Melbourne-based criminologist and former Executive Director of the Islamic Council of Victoria, working closely with the Muslim community in Australia. His research focuses on the intersections of speech, truth and violence, with a particular focus on the question of courageous speech. You can find more of his work at

More by Mohamad Tabbaa ›

Claudia Sirdah

Claudia Sirdah is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

More by Claudia Sirdah ›

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  1. Thank you for this important analysis. A telling moment was when Aly said something like “Pauline, and Sonia, and Malcolm and I are all afraid”! As if “we” are all afraid in the same way, and if “our” fears are interchangeable.

    1. Hmmm – I don’t necessarily agree. And the authors don’t propose any sort of solution (possibly because there isn’t one at present). Waleed Aly’s stance is, to me, much like a frightened woman’s who is trying to placate a dangerous man by softly appealing to his humanity. Muslims are justifiably in fear of the dominant culture in Australia right now and it is necessary for us to truly understand that at an emotional level – so being reminded by folks like Aly is fine by me. If, as the authors decide, it is the “global system of inequality, of racialised, gendered social relations that enrich some at the direct expense of others” rather than the “injured individual” who is at fault, then how come the worst sexism, sectarian violence and plain old death and destruction are enacted most violently in countries which are largely mono-culturally Muslim? No – I think, more than ever, we are being whipped into a frenzy courtesy of social media and irresponsible sensationalist journalism – aided and abetted by self-serving politicians who know they will get votes if they scare us stupid. Australians need to look outside our comfortable little continent to understand that the vast majority of us have it very, very, good and we are less in danger of a terrorist attack than almost anywhere else in the world. It has been pointed out that we should be more afraid of having a car smash or being victims of domestic violence (women mostly) and it’s true! If only Australians were more pro-active about the disgraceful rate of homicide against women! Given that it is well-nigh impossible to turn around the culture and politics of a system quickly, we actually need to start with the individual. Every single person who is given the chance to relate to a Muslim on a basic human level will be one less to support the jingoistic knee-jerk rhetoric that is being spouted by those who really should know better. Waleed Aly is a Muslim and he may be a liberal – so what? He is also a smart, philosophical man who has considered his response carefully, unlike so many others.

      1. No doubt Waleed Aly is a smart and philosophical man, but ultimately, he is fulfilling a media role. Your sentimentality toward him is naive.

      2. No doubt Waleed Aly is a smart and philosophical man, but ultimately, he is fulfilling a media role. Your sentimentality toward him is naive.

        I agree with you that it all comes down to the individual. That is true but unfortunately also naive in a world determined by masses of left and right and by social media, not to mention corporations and groupthink. The list goes on and on.

        1. I am neither naive nor sentimental, I can assure you. And I believe I mentioned social media as being a big part of why this witch-hunting is occurring. Is it so hard to imagine what it must be like to walk out the door every day and wonder who is going to spit at you, try to pull your headdress off, tell you to “go back home”? I see a lot of good politico-sociological terms being thrown around but none of these explanations is contributing to a solution. We just need to use our imagination and decide not to be arses to people who have done us no harm whatsoever and who have committed no crime except that of being “other” than we are.

          1. But, it is not enough to say just be a good person. This is a magazine of literature and cultural politics and you have to come up with something a bit more analytical and critical than merely be a good person. That means addressing systemic change, social structures and entrenched disadvantage. It’s too easy and sentimental to simply fall back on theold adage be a good person, which you are advocating. Waleed Aly is on national television for crying out loud. What a missed opportunity to address systemic change, social structures and entrenched disadvantage. What an opportunity to provide some sociophilosophical analysis. You say just be a good person. You can’t tell people what to do. tell them that and they are likely to react by being bad just for the hell of it. That is why magazines like Overland exist so that wider sociopolitical issues can be addressed and analysed. You seem to have missed the point entirely.

  2. Thank you both for the timely and important commentary. I’ve heard of White Privilege and Male Privilege. Aly suffers from celebrity privilege: the notion that ‘I’ as a media personality, not only have the right, but the desperate urge to comment on, and become the authority of all things. He is very, very smart. And his ego is unfortunately a long way out in front of the more respectful value of humility.

    1. Tony, you seem to be going the man. Is that constructive? Maybe you’re not attempting to be constructive – I dunno?

      I agree that this is an interesting and provocative commentary. I was hoping for some form of alternative to be offered here. If Aly’s approach is ‘shite’, what do the authors propose?

  3. Adorno had something to say on this I think. Ontolerance number 66 in Minima Moralia (1951). It’s here
    The first part: “Melange. – The usual argument of tolerance, that all human beings, all races are equal, is a boomerang. It opens itself up to easy rebuttal by the senses, and even the most compelling anthropological evidence for the fact that Jews are not a race at all, will in the case of a pogrom hardly change anything at all, since the totalitarians know very well who they want to kill and who not.”

  4. Seems a bit like you’re overextending Aly’s message a bit. He’s not proposing to solve world issues through fluffy niceness. He’s just asking people to not make it worse by being total dicks to each other.

  5. I am no great fan of Aly’s work but (as I understand it) all he is saying is lets begin by not standing on opposite sides of the Gravitron yelling at each other. Yet you have managed to find your own place on the carnival ride that allows you to object to both Aly’s position AND the racist position. To answer your question we are all spinning the Gravitron and articles like this are helping to power it.

  6. Great analysis. There is a missing term, the Australian nation on the question of the virtue of which Aly’s call, on nationally syndicated television, for everyone to individually and virtuously forgive, is implicitly grounded.

  7. When has appeasement ever worked? The appeasers are seen as weak and the monsters continue to monster encouraged by the lack of appropriate condemnation which they read as tacit approval.

    A nice cuppa tea is not a universal panacea.

  8. The authors are halfway there in recognising the shortcomings of the right-on liberal approach (which is well-intentioned and something I admit I would default to) but fail to recognise what Alison Reid states: that Muslim nations and cultures exhibit extremes of violence, sexism and corruption which is some of the fuel for local racism. This racism is also spurred by the intellectual laziness, gullibility and mob mentality of white and/or Christian Aussies (including people of Chinese, Polynesian, Greek, Italian and Maronite heritage) I unfortunately am seeing in my Facebook feed. There’s plenty of blame to go around, although I lay it primarily at the feet of conservative politicians and tabloid media agenda-setters.

  9. Australia as a country of migrants whose identity is in constant need of proof has taken the systematic US war propaganda and the logic that builds Guantanamo to new heights. Australian analysis has completely lacked the insight that what is sold to us as racism and discrimination incarcerates both the subject and object in the corporate world who indiscriminately sells anyone’s soul to the next best thing on the market. Only relentless analysis can break a cycle of choice less violence and resist the marketing of brand racism, terror and antiterror.

  10. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful perspective.

    Do you have any good recommendations for a starting point for reading about structural theory? In particular I’d like to understand the theory-of-change being put forward by it.

    I understand the focus on structural factors, but to suggest that engagement on the individual-level is pointless seems a little extreme (which, is not a point I believe you put forward).

  11. The PhD authors have pointed out it is not a time to sit back and forgive. Although what they didn’t say seemed to say more than what they did say. Are they supporting meeting aggression with aggression? History shows that can lead to frightening outcomes although results could be worthwhile. There’s an ancient saying “The very wise are not easily alarmed and are able to distinguish between what is apparently dangerous and really dangerous”(Chinese). No one truly travels alone in the world and in this confusion humanity surely hopes we are not being taken/led down a path to prolonged regret.

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