From Indifference to Islamophobia: Australian Muslim Responses
Extract from speech given in 2012…
long before the advent of ISIS & the latest Syrian wars.
Twenty years ago Muslims across Australia were more or less a contented lot; they had freedom of religion, could build their mosques and schools with less trouble from local council, the law was even-handed; racism and religious vilification were officially decried; hijab-wearing women were not scared of going out in public. Opinions and views on Middle Eastern politics were expressed inside people’s ethnic enclaves, mosques, and the privacy of their own homes. In any given year there was bound to be a colourful outburst from the irrepressible Mufti of Australia and one could always count on the annual hijab debate — but it was basically a low-temperature era in community relations. Non-Muslims knew little about Muslims and mosque communities were happy to maintain that social distance.
But September 11, 2001 changed that — we were now entering a high-temperature era in community relations. During the Howard years the same level of political reassurance and support went missing. Now the voices of prejudice became drawn from a wider spectrum.
This paper outlines how Australian Muslims have managed — or mismanaged — the fallout from this crisis; how they attempt to define their hybrid identities in a high-temperature era, and what strategies are presently being utilised by Australian Muslims in this transitional phase to break down community apprehension and mistrust.
One of the key questions here is tied up with identity. Asserting a positive image in difficult times is an ongoing struggle. Australian Muslims are constantly expected to demonstrate their loyalty either by draping themselves in the Oz flag, (often a woman in niqab) or publicly and repeatedly denouncing acts of terrorism. Leaders are caught on the back foot trying to explain themselves — not only locally but also in relation to trouble spots around the world — Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan –– as if they are in some way responsible for these events. A crime committed by an individual or a group of individuals is seen as their crime.
To be sustainable an identity needs sources of self-respect. Our media, popular culture, social landscapes and territories — located in schoolyards, at the beach, shopping malls etc sustain and reflect majority identities. A beleaguered minority on the other hand, has to scramble for its self-respect. The T-shirt slogans "Lebos rule" and "Proud to be a Muslim" for example that we saw in TV images during the Cronulla Riots in 2005 were a desperate adolescent attempt to find self-respect irrevocably damaged years before in the Sydney Gang rapes of 2002.
Youth I spoke to in the mid 1990s saw no reflections of themselves in pop culture; they grasped at straws. Today the "sit up and take notice of me" images are of Jihadists –– not Mohammed Ali or Malcolm X –– and the rumour-mills trundle out the sad, ludicrous message that Will Smith or Michael Jackson are the latest converts!
Other parts of a Muslim identity have to do with one’s degree of religious attachment to Islam. Another is the attachment to your country of birth.
Today the word "indifference" is long gone and everyone has an opinion about Muslims (even Muslims have an opinion about other Muslims) and the term "Islamophobia" is part of our lexicon. Muslims and Arabs around Australia have identified September 11 as a defining moment in their lives. Many –– regardless of their degree of religious attachment — still believe that they are living in the shadow of hostility; this response is almost universally held.