This is what blowback looks like:

In Sydney, a protest against a provocative film ends in scenes of violent clashes between some protesters and the police.

In Canberra, a young woman in a headscarf is confronted by a random stranger who offers to “punch her for the police”.

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My smart, quick-witted friend has been taking martial arts classes, so I’m pretty sure that this bigot would have bitten off more than he could chew, had he actually tried to land a punch on her. Luckily for him, my friend told him that she’d prefer to be beaten up by the police rather than by him, and offered to call them on his behalf. He was left confused, but he can console himself that at least he didn’t feel the force of my friend’s Anaconda Choke.

Stories like these generate a range of contradictory responses even within the same individual, never mind an entire community. My most immediate response was pure, undiluted outrage. What the hell makes anyone think that they can treat my friend and other women like her in such a manner? To assume a licence to stand in judgement on a total stranger, and deliver the verdict in such a repulsive manner? Who does he think he is? Are we really supposed to respond to such abuse by showing how friendly and likable and ordinary we can be?

(My friend, by the way, is both friendly and likable, but not ordinary. They broke the mould when they made her. She’s extraordinary.)

And so the next impulse is to try to nuture, to make people see my friend as the likable and funny and extraordinary-in-a-good-way person that she is, if you just take a closer look. To explain her to others, to make them see her as I see her.

And then I’m back to outrage. She has no reason to explain herself, and I ought not to take it upon myself to explain her.

Articles by various Muslim writers this week have displayed both impulses, sometimes within the same article. The immediate impulse by many Muslims to crises like 9/11 and Cronulla was to explain, to issue corrections regarding popular misconceptions, to highlight positive role-models, break stereotypes, win-hearts-and-minds.

And some hearts and minds have been won. The problem is that they belong to people who were never really a threat to us in the first place. They may have held misplaces assumptions that saw women in hijab as passive victims of patriarchy, but they didn’t advocate regulation of Muslim women’s dress, let alone resort to intimidation and harrassment.

And while we focused on explaining ourselves, a generation has come of age watching news footage of the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan and listening to a soundtrack of Muslims being held to a higher standard of behaviour to other Australians. And they’re feeling that yesterday’s young turks are sounding like today’s old farts.

I like both the old farts and the young turks, by the way. We’re all destined to play both roles, after all.  (And yes, kids, I’m fully aware of how boring and cliched and Auntie-ish I’m sounding here.)

My friend tells me “I’d like it to all die down so that punchy bogans can go back to being generically racist rather than having specific context. We’re definitely not going to convince haters that we’re all cuddly care-bears, and I’m not sure that should be our aim. I would like to reserve the right to be an angry protester should I wish to be. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath, a lie down if necessary, and keep on keeping on.”

I can’t sort the blowback from the payback from the backlash from the wood for the trees anymore. At the moment, the atmosphere feels saturated with a poison that will not be dissipated by either explanation or outrage.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m hedging my bets and trying both.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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