Just when you thought we could move on to other challenges (like, you know, the survival of the planet), it’s Back to the Future on “the Muslim issue”. Someone needs to tell the director that franchise is getting stale.
Raids under the anti-terrorism legislation in Melbourne last week, ugly scenes during a protest against an anti-Muslim film yesterday, us-and-them language from politicians, Muslim women conscripted to play therapist to a nation in the grip of moral panic – actually, it’s Back to the Future meets Groundhog Day.
Does anyone really need to say that getting young children to hold signs that call for beheading is A Bad Thing? Or that violent clashes between protesters and police are likewise A Bad Thing? Or that no community ought to be held collectively responsible for the actions of a small minority? – and etc etc etc. Doesn’t all of that go without saying?
Well, no, apparently it doesn’t, so the Prime Minister and the Premier and the NSW Police Commissioner have all issued motherhood-and-apple-pie statements, laced with alarmist nationalism. The protest was “not the Australian way” (Gillard), “the unacceptable face of multiculturalism” (O’Farrell), undertaken by “extremist criminals” (Scipione).
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To call this a disproportionate and racialised response does not in any way trivialise the ugliness of the scenes on the streets of Sydney or excuse the violence committed. I was as repulsed by those scenes as anyone else – but why do I feel the need to say that? Again, shouldn’t it go without saying? I’ve done my share (and a bit extra) of “denouncing extremism” over the past decade-and-a-bit, but I’m starting to question the rationale. If it’s having any effect at all, it may be communicating the opposite message to that intended.
The Muslim women whose “call for calm” was profiled in The Age are all personal friends of mine, and I fully endorse and share their sentiments. And yet I wonder whether their (and my) efforts have crossed the line from futile and are into the realm of counter-productive. From the point of view of non-Muslims, by feeling the need to dissociate ourselves from “troublemakers”, we are (counter-intuitively) taking responsibility for their actions. And from the point of view of those Muslims whose experience of racism and vilification has left them feeling marginalised and alienated, our need to absolve ourselves of responsibility for crimes that we did not ourselves commit can only heighten their sense that Muslims are held to a different standard of behaviour to other Australians.
So let me say some other statements that should really go without saying. Gillard, more than most politicians, should know that as abhorrent as Saturday’s protest was, there was nothing unAustralian about its ugliness. As an (Australian-born Muslim) friend observed, actually, it’s very Australian. That doesn’t mean we should honour it as part of “our” grand national tradition, but nor should we regard its perpetrators as external to “our” history and society.
Given the damning television footage, I wouldn’t argue with Scipioine’s description of some of the protesters as “criminals”, although I note that this verdict preempts the court process. But “extremist” here is code for “Muslim” – the (alleged) crimes committed were repulsive and unacceptable but they were not particularly “extreme” by the standard of actions to come before the legal system. Nor should we just dismiss allegations of police misjudgment and/or misconduct without appropriate investigation.
We’re caught in a no-win situation here. We’ve repeated that “the extremists” don’t represent us so many times that it’s threadbare script. We need to come up with some new lines, but I’m still groping for them. It’s exhausting.
Someone wake me up when Groundhog Day is over.