Here in Australia we like to give the impression we are the Lucky Country. We have the beaches, the weather, the laid-back attitude – all of which has attracted countless Brits to these shores. It is however, a carefully cultivated image – we like to project that we are immune from all the bad stuff that’s taking place in the rest of the world. We aren’t of course, we just don’t want you to know that. So when something like the riots that occurred in Sydney last weekend take place, Australians are a bit taken aback, to put it mildly.
It’s OK for us to view the angry mobs burning flags and effigies in a foreign country, far, far away. But when they do it in our own backyard, our heckles get raised. It’s no secret that Australia has an uneasy relationship with multiculturalism. This is a country that had the White Australia policy little more than 40 years ago. It’s a country that receives only 2.5% of global asylum claims but is spending $1.4 billion to ensure these asylum-seekers are processed off shore. It’s a country where 1 in 10 are considered racial supremacists.
When men with beards, skull caps and white Kurthas, who don’t look like your average “Australian” start chanting and burning flags in the centre of Sydney’s CBD the old “us” and “them” rhetoric gets brought up again. Stereotypes that are never too far from the surface get raised. There are calls for these men to be sent back to “their Islamic country of origin” (whatever that means) even though 38% of Muslims in Australia are born here . There are calls for the children carrying placards promoting beheadings be put into care (they won’t be ). And then there are politicians who point and say, look, see what happens when you promote a multicultural society – you get violence.
It’s easy of course to take this line of argument. It’s easy to look at a small group of protestors and make assumptions about not only the 400,000 or so Muslims who call Australia home, but the millions of Muslims living in pockets across the West. People like myself.
By Muslim standards my family is very liberal. Some Muslims may not even consider us to be Muslims, even though we are. We just don’t wear hjiabs, don skullcaps or grow beards. We happen to feel that our religion is a private matter, between ourselves and our God. It’s not a thing to be politicised. And it’s certainly not a religion that incites hatred and violence. We lead our lives like normal citizens of a country that we love. The main difference between us and those rage-filled guys acting violent and spouting all kinds of vitriol is that we don’t make a fuss. We go about our business, contributing to the economy, and trying as best as possible to assimilate ourselves into the nation we call home.
Most Muslims living in the West are like my family – i.e. boring. The media won’t find much, if any, of what we do all that interesting. Which is why we don’t get the airtime. That instead goes to a few fanatics who know how to create a scene. In fact, they are so good at creating drama, the media is hooked. It can’t get enough. The Wire has got nothing on these protestors when it comes to dramatic tension.
It’s just unfortunate however, that the actions of a few is able to damn the religion of many. Not just in Australia, but all over the West. In the UK a recent survey revealed that more people would support an anti-Muslim political party than reject it. The protests around the world about a YouTube clip that most of those protesting haven’t even seen, has further worsened this image. We can of course become defeated by it. We can claim that the fanatics have won. That in fact, progressive Islam is over. It’s not of course, it’s just not as interesting. For the voices of reason to be heard above the raucous rabble, the media narrative needs to change.
There is no defending their actions, but we could look at the reasons why these men are protesting. We might be able to point to the fact that most of them are disenfranchised, that they have no other outlet to voice their opinion. They see the media elite talking about people like them, even though these talking heads have never actually spoken to anyone like them. Economically many of these men are suffering, a lot of them are unemployed and from poor backgrounds. They have not had the opportunities that many of us take for granted. But once you start looking at these people as complex individuals rather than as the demons they have been painted to be, you start to realise the situation is more complicated than you previously thought. And that of course, turns people off. At the end of the day, whether in print or online, the media is all about black and white. It’s when you get into the greys that things get difficult, and really who has got time for that?
But perhaps we need to start making time. As Albert Einstein once said, “It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.” We have to live together after all. There is no going back from that.