In March this year, Pauline Hanson said in an interview that you couldn’t tell ‘a good Muslim from a bad one’. The comment may be outrageous, but I, despite being Muslim, can see her point. Not because she’s right. Rather, because many things in our society start to make sense when we look at them from Hanson’s perspective.
Hanson’s words should not be taken merely as an Islamophobic rant. She has, in fact, articulated very clearly a racialising logic that is deeply entrenched in our society. As Stuart Hall, the prominent cultural theorist, points out, one of the predicates of racism is that ‘you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same’. All Hanson did was tweaked this very familiar racialising mantra to adapt to a Muslim context.
The hysteria over Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Facebook post on ANZAC Day is a case in point. Her credentials would have made us believe that she was a ‘good’ Muslim: a young, talented, black, Muslim woman presenting for the national broadcaster and holding a position on a DFAT advisory board, she was almost a symbol of Australia’s multicultural success story. Almost. Until the public spat between Yassmin and Jacqui Lambie exposed Yassmin’s true colours.
Yassmin turned out to be a believer in shariah law who thinks Islam is the ‘most feminist religion’! And now she also wants Australia to remember the ‘boat people’ and the people of Syria and Palestine on ANZAC Day!
At a time when the Australian government is introducing tougher citizenship tests to reinforce Australian values on new migrants, someone like Yassmin, who has such close affiliations with the government itself and receives taxpayer money, betrays her own shortcomings in the adoption of Australian values.
Yassmin is perhaps a classic case of the good-Muslim/bad-Muslim confusion. But ironically, at the same time, the furore over her ANZAC Day post is also a classic example of the racism that permeates our society, which artificially constructs, and then simultaneously blurs, the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Muslim.
Let us ask ourselves what exactly was so outrageous about Yassmin’s post that she deserved to be so publicly humiliated to the point of even being called a ‘b****’.
In piece in the Guardian, Richard Ackland wrote of Yassmin’s post, ‘You’d really have to work overtime to extract an iota of offence from such a remark.’
In Sydney Morning Herald, Jane Gilmore notes a few ‘left leaning’ commentators who have ‘critiqued the politics of ANZAC Day’ in much stronger words than Yassmin’s, yet their criticisms have barely drawn a whimper from the public, the media or politicians. Therefore, Gilmore argues, the hysteria over Yassmin’s post ‘cannot be separated from racism’.
The disproportionate level of public outrage that Yassmin’s post has received – despite the fact that debates and criticisms surrounding ANZAC Day are nothing new – only highlights the over-policing of minorities that has become commonplace in Australia.
Yassmin is black, a woman, and very visibly and proudly Muslim – the perfect combination of everything that can possibly make her one of the most obvious objects of the social panoptic gaze.
Of course, it is not Yassmin’s Facebook post that is inherently wrong. It is the constant disciplinary vigilance over everything that Muslims do or say that makes her post controversial.
It is not Yassmin’s lack of Australian values or her supposed disrespect for a day of national commemoration that is the issue. It is turning ‘Australian values’ and days like ANZAC Day against minorities to measure their otherness that makes Yassmin, who ticks almost every category of otherness, improbable.
It is not Yassmin’s façade of a ‘good’ Muslim hiding her true colours that is problematic. It is her Muslim-ness itself that is problematic.
Yassmin is not a ‘good’ Muslim. Nor is she a ‘bad’ Muslim. She’s just Muslim – a member of a racialised, over-policed minority in Australia. And that is the problem.
Despite the name-calling, insults and calls to sack Yassmin, many of her critics have affirmed her right to free speech. Yet it is precisely Yassmin exercising her right to free speech that caused the collective wrath of the entire society to rain down upon her.
Perhaps, this is why, Yassir Morsi, a critical race scholar, says that racism is about power. The power to name the Other. The power to discipline. The power to punish and reward.
Yassmin had the right to free speech. She just did not have the power to defend herself from the consequences of speaking as a black, Muslim woman.
So, as Pauline Hanson asks during her interview on A Current Affair, why don’t good Muslims speak up? The good Muslim does not speak up simply because she can’t. Because, when the Muslim is constructed as the Other, there can be no Muslim who is ‘good’.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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