Islamophobia comes to Coburg

It seems that a Melbourne woman was attacked on a train last Thursday, apparently because she looked Muslim. According to the article, her head was bashed repeatedly against the wall of the train, and then she was shoved out at the next station. Police are calling for witnesses to the attack to come forward.

This is, alas, only one of a number of attacks on Muslims over the last few weeks, in response to the actions of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State, and the recent decision to raise our terror alert to high. Each of these attacks makes me feel both horrified and sad, but this one strikes particularly close to home, because the train line on which she was attacked was the Upfield line, and the attack occurred between my local station, Coburg, and the next one up the line, Batman – at which she was pushed out of the train.  Charming.

I am appalled – shocked – horrified at this.  Chilled, too.  I can’t believe that this could happen in my suburb.  One of the reasons I love living here so much is that this is such a welcoming, multicultural community.  With my Mediterranean colouring and tendency to wear long black skirts, I feel as though I blend in to the neighbourhood, and feel at home, neither invisible nor glaringly visible, in a way that I never was in the posh eastern suburbs where I grew up.  More than that – I feel very safe here.  Even after the horrible business with Jill Meagher, I never really felt at risk walking around the streets here.  The one time I was accosted and threatened in Coburg – by an older, and, as it happens, white man, and in broad daylight – a woman of middle-eastern appearance stopped her car to ask if I needed help, and two Polynesian-looking men crossed the road and sort of loomed at the man while asking him questions in a friendly fashion, so that I was able to get away. While the attack shocked me, I actually felt safer living here afterward than I had beforehand, because here was clear proof that people would stop to help someone who was in trouble.

I gather a couple of men on the train did assist the woman who had been attacked, and good for them. And I hope that she is OK, and feeling at least somewhat reassured that people eventually came to her aid, but it’s still a hideous thing to happen.

And here’s the thing.  I talk about the pleasant feeling of not being too visible, and that’s a luxury, really.  While the government’s new laws allowing them to read our emails and scan our personal files do make me feel nervous – I’ve always been a little on the eccentric and outspoken side, which probably makes me look suspicious to the right kind of mind – the fact is that I’m probably fairly safe. I’m white, I’m Christian, I was born in Australia, I’m gainfully employed, I’m too old to be a Disaffected Youth, I’m married, I’m female, and I don’t wear a headscarf. All of these traits tend to be viewed as non-threatening.

In addition to making me non-threatening by default, these traits confer an even bigger advantage on me.  They code me as normal.  If I were to go off the deep end and start stabbing people (hello, ASIO, please note that I’m all about non-violence and not even a little bit stabby), nobody would say that this was because I was a Christian, or because I was Australian, or even because I was female – though, actually, they might put the irrational parts of my behavior down to the female part. Moreover, my behavior wouldn’t be seen as evidence – even Proof – that white, Christian, Australian women were inclined to randomly go off the deep end and stab people. It would simply be this specific Catherine who read one badly-written grant application too many and lost it. (hello, my scientists, please note that I’m not going to read one badly-written grant application and lose it. Or I would have done so years ago.)

I have, in other words, the privilege of being seen as and treated as an individual – as Catherine, not as One Of Those People. And this is as it should be.

On the other hand, if I were young and Muslim and from Afghanistan – and especially if I were in the habit of waving ISIS flags around like a young idiot – the story would be different. My behaviour wouldn’t be ascribed to social isolation, or to mental illness (and yes, I am well aware that there are all sorts of problems with that particular set of narratives), or to being, quite simply, an unpleasant person. It would, almost certainly, be ascribed to my religion. And this would then become further evidence that my religion is all about people who go off the deep end and stab people.

And that is not right.

Now, let’s be clear here: the terrorist group calling themselves the Islamic State is doing its very best to muddy these particular waters by – well, calling themselves the Islamic State while committing acts that can only be described as terrorism. It’s awful, but not really surprising, that people then start equating Islam with terrorism.  And a certain subset of these people will then go off the deep end (for reasons that  – naturally! – have nothing to do with being white, or Christian, or female), and take out their angst on anyone who looks Muslim.  Sadly, there are enough people in the world right now who are having miserable times that this subset is larger than usual.  I imagine that it’s probably quite cathartic to be able to look at someone and see a clear enemy, someone on whom we can justifiably take out our aggressions.

I don’t know what motivated the boy who stabbed two police officers before being shot last week. It’s possible that he didn’t really know, either – it’s probably a sign of my age, but I always wince a bit when I hear about an 18 year old getting swept up in some radical religion or cult or the like and then going out and hurting people. I can’t help feeling that someone, somewhere has taken advantage of that person and his or her youth. Which does not justify the going out and hurting people, but it still makes me sad.  In any case, yes, it’s possible that he really was an unpleasant person. He certainly did the wrong thing – two men are in hospital as a result of his actions, so this seems to be pretty much undeniable.  Myself, I strongly suspect it was a combination of stupidity, isolation, anger, and being used by people who have no care for individuals, but only for their agenda.  Religion, I suspect, had the same part in it that alcohol or addiction might have in another crime – it was an excuse to do something he wanted to do already.  But I did not know him, and it’s probably unbecoming to speculate about his motivation at this point.  I do feel awful for his family, who, it seems, were totally unaware of his behaviour, and are doing their best to help the police figure out what was going on there.

Numen Haider’s actions were not right. His death was not right. And treating him as representative of his entire religion or nationality is also not right.

So let’s start with one thing. Let’s stop calling it the Islamic State. Quite a number of prominent Muslims have pointed out that this particular group are about as far from their understanding – and indeed, most Muslims’ understanding – of Islam as it is possible to be. (According to one article, even Al-Qaeda finds them to be excessively extremist, which sounds a little dubious, but is sort of impressive, in a negative way, if true). But quite seriously – we should not be lending legitimacy to this group’s claim to speak for all of Islam when most Muslims are even more appalled by them than non-Muslims are. British Muslim leaders have, in fact, stated that calling this group the Islamic State constitutes a slur on their faith.

I’m going to go with the French Foreign Minister on this one:

“I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

You can rely on the French to phrase things nicely.  Daesh it is (I’ll leave the cut-throats out of it – I’m not French enough to carry that off.)

Having stated that most Muslims are appalled by Daesh, I feel compelled to state it again, because I’ve found myself in more than one conversation recently in which the person I was talking to commented that it was all very well to say this, but if this were the case, why weren’t more prominent Muslims coming out and condemning Daesh?

It’s true that this is not something that is getting wide coverage – it’s much less dramatic than death and disaster and terrorism – but that doesn’t mean the statements aren’t being made.  There are at least two Fatwas against Daesh, dozens of statements from individual Muslims as well as leaders in  numerous different countries, as well as an open letter from an international group of theologians explaining to Daesh exactly why they were theologically wrong.  I’m not sure how much Daesh actually cares about theology, but I rather suspect the real target of that letter is everyone else.

Here are some examples:

In Australia, the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) released a statement denouncing ISIS as criminals, reassuring Australians that “they have nothing to fear from their true Muslim neighbours who want peace and security for everyone regardless of religion“, and calling on the government and media to refrain from using the term “Islamic” when referring to the group.

“ANIC warns all Muslim Australians not to trust the internet and social media as some material may have dangerous influences on vulnerable minds. Instead Muslims must get proper religious advice from knowledgeable, respected and qualified Imams. ANIC believes that wrong behaviour usually stems from an incorrect understanding. It is therefore imperative in countering extremism that the correct principles of Islam are taught. Imams around Australia have been working tirelessly to educate their respective communities.”

After Haider’s death, Sheikh Abdul Azim, who is the President of Australia’s National Imams Council,begged for calm, stating that “ISIS is an enemy for the whole world“.

“We have to remember that at the end of the day we’re all Australians and we have to look after each other. My message to my fellow brothers and sisters in the Muslim community, I know that you love this country. The police are not our enemy. The police are our protectors…. Islam is a religion of peace, Islam is a religion of love, Islam is a religion of respect. Please, let’s show our brothers and sisters in the community the real picture of Islam.”

Incidentally, there seems to be a pretty broad theme in all the Australian articles I’ve read that the police are actually on reasonably good terms with the older Islamic community (and are encouraging them to report any assaults or abuse that may be religiously or racially motivated), and it’s the younger ones who are being drawn to extremism.  I’ve also seen several Australian sheikhs specifically mention that they speak against ISIS at their mosques, and are trying to get parents to talk to their children more.  That last statement has a rather sad sound, to my ear.

Dalil Boubakeur, Chairman of the French Council of the Muslim Faith spoke a few days ago at a rally of French Muslims: “We, Muslims of France, say stop to barbarism.”
More here.

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz ak-Sheikh issued a statement in condemnation of the group,saying, among other things, that “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims.”
More information here.

Also in Saudi Arabia, Iyad AmeenMadani, the Secretary General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 million Muslims, denounced the group, saying that “they have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence.”  This was back in July, incidentally.

In the UK, senior Sunni and Shiite Imams joined forces to create a four-minute video denouncing ISIS as an “illegitimate, vicious group who do not represent Islam in any way… We are Muslims united against ISIS, against terrorism, against atrocity, against pain and suffering.”
(If you can’t watch the video, there is a good article about it here)

In the USA, Qasim Rashid, who is, among other things, a lawyer, writer, spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and a Muslim Chaplin for Virginia State Prisons wrote a Ramadan message to ISIS telling them that they do not speak for Islam, and providing extensive historical examples, as well as quotes from the Koran itself to back this up: “ISIS must be brought to justice for their crimes against Christians and all humanity. Whatever religion they claim — it is not Islam.”

In Saudi Arabia, Saykh Abdallah bin Bayyahin has issued a Fatwa against Daesh: “We ask you, out of concern, to reflect on these enlightening statements and to re-evaluate your positions, for turning to truth is better than persisting in falsehood.  We are not ignorant of the injustices that exist, and we earnestly call for them to cease; yet we believe that the chances for justice are better when there is peace, not war. Everywhere the widespread wars must stop, and the mindless civil strife must halt so that we may gain life and not lose both this world and the hereafter.”
Discussion of the Fatwa can be found here.

Another Fatwa against Daesh, this time from Sheik Usama Hasan of London: The fatwa states that although Muslims have a “moral obligation” to help the Iraqi and Syrian people, they must do so “without betraying their own societies”. So, it is “religiously prohibited to support or join” the IS.

I don’t pretend to know much about Islam (I have read the Koran in translation – and I have to say, that gets you some pretty weird reactions on a tram – but not the Hadiths), but if I’m understanding correctly, Hasan is from a Shia background, and bin Bayyahin is Sunni.  And while Hasan is considered rather controversial, bin Bayyahin is a pretty important figure.

And if that’s not enough, 126 Muslim theologians have also weighed in, including Professors, Sheikhs and Imams from countries as diverse as the USA, Sweden, Egypt and Yemen: “You have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder,” the letter states. “This is a great wrong and an offense to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world… It is forbidden to equate ‘the sword’—and thus wrath and severity—with ‘mercy,'” the letter states. “Furthermore, it is forbidden to make the idea ‘mercy to all worlds’ subordinate to the phrase ‘sent with the sword,’ because this would mean that mercy is dependent upon the sword, which is simply not true.”
The full letter can be found here.

And last, but not least, ordinary Muslims have added their voices to sites called “Not in my name” on Facebook and YouTube, and to Muslims against ISIS on Facebook

And that’s just what I was able to find in half an hour of Googling on a computer that was running on dial-up speeds (though reading it all and writing about it has taken considerably longer, which is why this response is coming today and not yesterday).  I’m sure there is more.  But if you don’t have time to go looking, this article from the Center for Research on Globalisation, and this blog post by Deacon Greg Kandra of Deacon’s Bench, have both done excellent jobs of collecting examples of Muslims speaking out against the terrorist group.  (Much better jobs than me, in fact, because they know who and what they are actually looking for, unlike me…)

There is some hope in all of this. I thought the Victorian Police Commissioner’s strong plea to the Muslim community to report vilification and attacks, and the Muslim community’s response to this, was very heartening. Victorian Premier, Denis Napthine, went out of his way to say after the shooting that “the incident is not about faith or ethnicity, but the alleged behaviour of one individual“, adding that Victoria has “a harmonious, diverse multicultural and multi-faith community … we shouldn’t let a single incident divide that.”

And, while I do not like Tony Abbot, and am not at all sure that his determination to go to war is what either Australia or the Middle East needs right now, I was very pleased to hear him telling the UN that “whatever they think or say, these terrorists aren’t fighting for God or for religious faith… A terrorist movement calling itself “Islamic State” insults Islam and mocks the duties of a legitimate state towards its citizens.”

Incidentally, I will note that it was almost as difficult to find this statement as it was to find all the ones above with the various Muslim leaders condemning terrorism – they are there, but one has to search fairly well to find them. The press really is not interested in anything on this subject that isn’t threats and violence.

On a personal level, I’m also pleased to see Australian church leaders responding to the Weekend Australian’s article saying that we will need to fight radical Islam for 100 years (no, I am not going to link to that) with a statement of solidarity, promising to love our Muslim neighbours for 100 years.   I’ve signed it.  You can sign it too, if you like – it’s not limited to religious folk.  (I like this article, too.)

I’m not too sure where to end with this.  I think it’s clear that there are moderate voices on all side.  I think it’s also clear that there are a lot of people who are going straight to emoting and acting without stopping to think first.  But most of all, I think it’s important that for every radicalised Muslim voice, or every Islamophobic Australian one, we try to remember that there are many, many people who really are just trying to go about their daily life with kindness and respect for others.

We should do so, too.


Note: I’m all too aware that I don’t know a great deal about Islam, and I definitely know very little about its religious and political structures.  It is therefore all too possible that I’ve said something incredibly stupid or offensive somewhere among all this.  If this is the case, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to fix it.  Note also that all comments are currently moderated – if yours does not appear immediately, it’s probably because I’m asleep or at work.

6 thoughts on “Islamophobia comes to Coburg

  1. Beautifully put. I love that you took the time to find so many examples of Muslims condemning Daesh’s actions, particularly when the mainstream media seems to think such things either don’t exist, or – at best – are an afterthought to their lurid headlines.

    • Thank you so much. Yes, I wanted to put together that list, because I keep having that same conversation again and again with people who really are better than that! But it’s true, too, that even when the mainstream media reports on this – and most of my sources were relatively mainstream media – the articles don’t get read as much, and thus don’t get recommended, and still don’t get seen. Even setting aside bias (and I think we have plenty of bias to set aside), I suspect it’s difficult to get much mileage out of this sort of story.

      If I had world enough and time, it would be kind of fascinating to do a blog with a daily round-up of who has condemned extremism today. Because it’s obviously an ongoing thing that people behave badly in the name of their religion, and then their co-religionists condemn this. And I suspect that over time, it would become very clear that the condemnations come in much larger numbers than the individual acts of violence…

  2. Hi Catherine,

    I’m a student journalist from Monash University. I’m writing an article about the current burqa issue going on in Australia and I’d love to include your experience on donning the hijab. If you don’t mind contributing, could I perhaps get your email so we can discuss more about it? Alternatively, if you choose to get back to me you may email me at [redacted] 🙂

    Looking forward to hear from you soon!

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