More and more often, I find myself remembering the scene from Salman Rushdie’s
Midnight’s Children in which an Indian Muslim family waits for the radio news to announce the name of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin:
“Thank God,” Amina burst out. “It’s not a Muslim name!” And Aadam, upon whom the news of Gandhi’s death had placed a new burden of age: “This Godse is nothing to be grateful for!”
Amina, however, was full of the lightheadness of relief, she was rushing dizzily up the long ladder of relief. “Why not, after all? By being Godse he has saved our lives!”
Ander Behring Breivik. It’s not a Muslim name – and this Breivik is nothing to be grateful for.
Contemporary Australia is far less fragile than India in the aftermath of partition, but like Amina, I wait to hear the name of the perpetrator of each atrocity. I brace myself against the backlash if it should be a Muslim name.
And like Aadam, when the the name is not Muslim, I cannot see it as a cause for gratitude.
Breivik has not “saved our lives” by being Breivik, although if his name had remained unknown – let alone if it had turned out to be Muhammad, or Ahmed, or Hussein – the backlash against Muslims in Europe would have rippled all the way to Australia. We had a foretaste of that in the hours before his arrest, as commentators threw away the dog-whistle and replaced it with a megaphone.
Muslims in Australia are held collectively responsible for any atrocity committed by any Muslim, anywhere. And as the initial reaction to the tragedy in Norway illustrates, we can be held responsible for crimes before there is any evidence of any Muslim involvement at all. My eye scans the media coverage of terrorist attacks, rapes, domestic violence, and several times a week I echo Amina’s sigh of relief – “It’s not a Muslim name!”
But I want to break this mood of instinctive defensiveness. My body is exhausted from the effort of being permanently steeled against backlash. The dead and the grieving – in Norway, in Somalia, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Australia, in Iraq – deserve a better response than this.
Over the coming weeks, Muslims will be gathered together for the month of Ramadan. Always, at some point during these congregations, I find myself remembering some of the ugly e-mail that I’ve received, glancing towards the door and imagining the shadow of someone like Breivik waiting outside.
But not this year. This year, I’m not going to let myself think of Breivik – the man or his shadow – and I’m not going to let myself resent the morons who fed his hate and then scrambled to lay to blame for his crime upon “the Muslims”. They do not deserve my attention.
I will reflect instead on those Muslims and non-Muslims who lost their lives on Utoya and elsewhere. Let their names be remembered – and in the case of those civilians who are dying away from the media spotlight in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq – let their names be recorded.
I’m not going to brace myself against backlash. I’m going to steel myself to keep going.