Our leaders and media have created an environment that has effectively provided people with permission to hate, emboldening people to encounter Muslims as “the enemy in the war on terror” or as potential radicals, as though we all carry a “radical” dormant virus ready to be activated at any moment, writes Randa Abdel-Fattah on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.
Studying the phenomenon of Islamophobia from the point of view of the perpetrators has involved me pouring over transcripts of interviews with people who, on the one hand, equate Islam with Nazism or seek to install abortion clinics in suburbs with large Muslim populations, and those who, on the other hand, congratulate themselves for “tolerating” Muslims – the ones with those elusive “moderate” credentials, that is.
Two weeks ago, I hit a low point. The principal of an Islamic school had invited me to speak to her senior students, expressing her profound concern for the students’ eroding self-confidence, confused identity and sense of belonging in Australia.
As I sat down to prepare my talk, I felt overwhelmed with despair. Studying the rise in Islamophobia, conducting my fieldwork among self-proclaimed “Islamophobes,” experiencing racism first-hand or witnessing my close friends and family go through it, seeing our country spiral into a state of paranoia over asylum seekers and “home grown radicals” and introduce legislation that makes a mockery of human rights and basic civil liberties, watching the travesty of injustices the first people of this land continue to suffer by people who would still deny our nation’s continuing racial project – all of this left me feeling utterly overwhelmed.
I wondered what I could possibly say to these students.
Like my secondary school experience at Australia’s very first Islamic school, the students are taught to see themselves as Australian Muslims. Indeed, my children attend an Islamic school and when I watch them performing “Give me a home among the gumtrees” or singing the national anthem (even the second verse), the irony is almost painful. It would seem that there is something the majority wants us Muslims to do in order to be fully accepted, but they never tell us what it is.
Our leaders and media have created an environment that has effectively provided people with permission to hate, emboldening people to encounter Muslims as “the enemy in the war on terror” or as potential radicals, as though we all carry a “radical” dormant virus ready to be activated at any moment.
With the spectre of the discourse of terrorism, Shari’a law, Islamic State and radicalization looming in the background, was it not disingenuous of me to speak to the students and ignore the fact that to be Muslim in today’s political climate is to be implicated in a politics of Islamophobia that positions Muslims as the antithesis of Australian values? Would it not be irresponsible of me to speak about Islam from the position of somebody with a deep conviction in its teachings and capacity to inspire a moral and ethical life built on respecting and honouring the rights of everybody, no matter their faith, gender or background, without acknowledging that one’s speech and testimony as a Muslim will almost always be construed in ways that refer back to wider narratives over which we have no control?
There was a time in my life when I had faith that we could rise above the challenges of being a minority in our homeland and forge strong identities despite the invisible structures of racism. And yet there I was staring at a blank screen reflecting on the fact that, in this past year and a half, I have questioned such faith. It is not just the hidden injuries of Islamophobia and racism. What is happening in our name in 2015 to the first people of this nation, to asylum seekers, to the marginalised and raced, makes my blood freeze. I cannot understand how we collectively remain silent and complacent.
I confess that I arrived at a point where I felt incapable of speaking – overwhelmed with the bleakness of a social and political order that seems doggedly committed to inequality, inhumanity and hypocrisy.
And then I turned to my Islamic tradition and stumbled across a saying of Prophet Mohammed which I had long forgotten:
“If the Hour (the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.”
The dynamism of the Islamic faith offers believers an intimate, unmediated engagement with the texts of Islam. The Prophet’s words were like a ritual cleansing, instantly washing away the grime and dirt of despair and hopelessness. I immediately felt both ashamed and empowered. Ashamed because I realised the arrogance implicit in a sense of despair: I should not feel I have the luxury of despair; I have no right to despair when people are suffering, depending on our advocacy and political struggle to render their suffering visible. And I felt empowered because it seemed to me that my own faith tradition is based on hope – on projecting the best image of oneself and humanity into the future and working to realise that until the very end.
On the eve of Ramadan, I addressed a large hall of senior students. Students who are still searching for meaning in their lives – for identity, for affirmation and validation. Students with big dreams and students with ambivalent plans. Students afraid to project themselves into the future because they are shackled by the poisonous us and them rhetoric of today. Students defiant and gloriously optimistic of their ability to be Australian in a way that is not dependent on the acquiescence of white Australia. I shared with these students my belief that the incomprehensible suffering, cruelty and injustice of today’s global order represents a call to work – not to despair.
Drawing on our shared religious tradition, I told the students that in the Qur’an God says that he has “commanded justice” (7:29). The numerous verses in the Qur’an that command human beings to stand for justice, protect the weak and oppressed, work tirelessly to do good – and to do all this without giving up – can act like a soothing balm against the wounds of racism and marginalisation. Pursuing justice can be a liberating, empowering path for identity formation. That is how I came to find my life path as a young person back in 1992, when a social justice fire rose in my belly with the impact of the Gulf War on my community. I told the students how my entire identity has been forged in a politics of resistance – resistance against stereotypes, against racism, against orientalist feminism.
I came of age in the same year as the first Gulf War. I went from being a Muslim kid in a Catholic school to a Muslim kid in an Islamic secondary school – suddenly I was a wog, a nappy head, a terrorist, a sand nigger, a camel jockey, a target for “go back to where you came from.” I fought racism with adolescent passion and sheer obstinacy. I raised my voice in support of Bosnians being slaughtered in the Bosnian War in the 1990s, convinced of my responsibility to speak out, even if nobody but God woul
d register my tiny voice and makeshift placard at a small suburban protest in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. The point was that God demanded action over complacency, hope over resignation.
But there was something even more invigorating than this realization alone. I soon learnt that the struggle for justice and human rights is perhaps the best thing people can use to anchor their identities. Serving others is the best way we can know ourselves.
As I heard students share with me their anxieties about Islamophobia, and their commitment to internalising the ethics of Islam as a roadmap for a life lived as a global citizen, I felt ashamed that I had allowed myself to internalise the negative vibes of the racist discourse I have been analysing these past two years. Not only will I not give those who hold on to a morally impoverished vision of society the satisfaction of “winning,” but my faith demands that I celebrate the blessings and infinite wonder of a universe entrusted to us.
In this seventh day of Ramadan, as I abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, I find that even as my physical strength wanes, my spiritual strength increases. To recalibrate one’s life around a struggle against injustice is not about trying to achieve a kind of feigned, self-serving virtuousness. It is about humility. When I bow my head on the ground in worship to my Lord who commands we seek to live ethical, moral, compassionate lives in service of others, I am reminded that there is nothing to despair about. There is no need to feel confused or lost.
There is truly inner peace in this realization. Contemplating the offer of a life that transcends the hate and injustice that surrounds us and transforms pain into hope is exciting. Whether a bright-eyed student or a jaded adult, there is always a moment when one is faced with the choice to plant a seed and hope for tomorrow, or walk away consumed with yesterday.
As a Muslim I must always think and feel my way to the future, for it is there that God waits for me to ask: what did you do with the life I gave you in the time and place I chose for you to live?
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning author of eight novels. She practiced as a lawyer for ten years, and is now completing a PhD in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.
(Article reproduced with permission)