Sydney siege: Australia's Muslims need much more than #IllRideWithYou's hollow symbolism

I’m not against online campaigns, but is calling on people to be decent human beings really that laudable?

Osman Faruqi
Tuesday 16 December 2014 13:02
Young Muslim women lay flowers at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district on December 16, 2014.
Young Muslim women lay flowers at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district on December 16, 2014.

In response to threats of violence directed towards Australia’s Muslim community following the devastating events of the Sydney siege, a campaign called “I'll Ride With You” was launched on Twitter and soon became one of the most globally tweeted about hashtags.

The campaign called on non-Muslims to tweet their route to work with the #illridewithyou hashtag and offer to travel alongside members of the Muslim community, particularly Muslim women, in order to offer them support and protection from potential reprisal attacks.

While there is no doubt this campaign began with the best of intentions and may have made many in the Muslim community feel supported, it was ultimately a symbolic gesture. However with escalating racial tension we need more than symbolism – what we should be doing is pressing for real, tangible solutions to racism and division.

As a nation familiar with racial tensions, many people on Twitter began expressing concerns yesterday around the potential for some “reprisals”– violence targeting the Muslim community in response to what appeared to be a terrorist attack underpinned by Islamic extremism. Again, Australia is no stranger to this kind of backlash, with a recorded upsurge in violence against Muslims, particularly Muslim women, as well as vandalism of mosques following the anti-terror raids earlier this year.

While the siege was still underway and the motivations and background of the assailant had yet to be identified, the far-right Australian Defence League used Facebook to issue a call out for its supporters to “converge” on Lakemba – a Sydney suburb with a high proportion of residents from a Muslim and Arabic background. It was within this context of bigotry and intimidation that #illridewithyou sprung up.

Any threat of violence is abhorrent, but is calling on people to be decent human beings really that laudable an action? Once while walking through Sydney’s Central Business District during the afternoon I had a glass bottle thrown at me by someone shouting racist slurs. Many bystanders came to check if I was ok and offer me support. I would hope that if it occurred again in the future, this is something I could expect without a globally trending hashtag suggesting it. To me, the fact that so many Australians feel a social media campaign is necessary for such basic humanity highlights a much bigger issue.

If #illridewithyou doesn’t aim to resolve the broader issue of anti-Muslim discrimination and xenophobia in the Australian community, it’s probably because it grew so quickly with very little, if any, engagement from the Muslim community. If you asked marginalised communities how best to address discrimination, it’s unlikely they’ll say that they want to be physically protected via popular hashtags.

In fact, despite repeated call-outs, I was unable to find a single Muslim who took up the offer to ride with anyone yesterday. Some involved in the campaign have suggested it wasn’t about actually offering physical help, and that it was just a statement of support or a symbolic gesture. I’m not the kind of person to decry social media campaigns and “clicktivism” for the sake of it and nor am I not seeking to condemn those who are trying to help. Rather I believe at this stage, at this moment of tension and fear, we need to go beyond symbolism.

One of the worst things those trying to offer solidarity to marginalised groups can do is reject feedback and concerns from those they are trying to support. After stating on Twitter that I found the campaign patronising, I was overwhelmed with criticism from those who had partaken in the campaign, rejecting my concerns by stating it was a form of “solidarity” and a way to “stand shoulder to shoulder”. But if those in a position to support the Muslim community by challenging racism are serious, they need to listen to that community and not assume they know what is best.

I believe all those involved in the #illridewithyou campaign have the best of intentions and genuinely want to fight racism. I am not seeking to criticise the campaign for the sake of being contrary.

As someone who grew up in Australia never quite fitting in and copping my fair share of racial abuse, I believe all of us, from all backgrounds have a responsibility to work together and move beyond symbolism in fighting racism. There are many out there trying to divide us - particularly terrorist organisations like Isis. The best thing we can do is respectfully collaborate to build genuine solidarity in the face of division and oppression.

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