Let me make a promise at the beginning of this article, "Truth, only truth, I will write nothing but the truth". And, to tell the truth I would have to admit that there are strong stereotypes against Islam and Muslims in our contemporary world media; a kind of stereotype that does not miss a single opportunity to link Islam and Muslims with terrorism; but when it's the question of any other person who belongs to any other religion or belief, the media simply overlook the 'religion' side. An example is a very recent Norway's twin tragedy. On 22 July 2011, Anders B Breivik, the Norwegian man who claimed himself to be a 'crusader' against "Muslims' takeover of Norway and Europe" and killed more than 90 people in twin attacks to draw world attention to his 'message', has been tagged as the assailant, the attacker, the gunman, the attacker, the madman (BBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Reuters), the extreme rightist, the man behind the tragedy, the alleged suspect and so on, everything, but not as, 'the terrorist'!!
He was not dubbed by the media as a 'Christian terrorist', even after his claim of being a 'Crusader to eliminate Islam and Muslims from European soil'! Wow! I was more than impressed by world media's clever coverage. Ibrahim Hewitt has nicely wrote about it in Aljazeera (23 July 2011), "...In 1969, for example, Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian Christian who set fire to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, was dismissed as a "madman" and sent for psychiatric treatment; end of story. The right-wing fundamentalists plotting to destroy the mosque, and the nearby Dome of the Rock, lived to fight another day. I suspect that this is what will happen with the Norwegian bomber/shooter; his right-wing links and Christian fundamentalist contacts will be dismissed as irrelevant. This, we will be told, was the work of a "deranged" person "acting independently". Ergo, the only organised "terror threats" to civilisation are still "Islamic-related" and the focus of anti-terror legislation and efforts must remain in the Muslim world and on Muslim communities in Europe and the USA."
Am I here today to talk about world media stereotypes and politics against Islam and Muslims? No, please let us remember the promise I made at the beginning; I'm here today to write the truth; the truth that my eyes see, and my ears hear, around me. Even though sometimes the truth itself is like a boomerang which is tremendously difficult to cope with, it can at times go against one's own people and belief. An example: on the 20th of June 2011 (last month), people have seen in the local news a group of long bearded Muslim men dressed in traditional Muslim garb (ankle length kurtas) coming out of a Sydney court, vigorously chanting the slogan "Allahu Akbar", pushing everyone around them as they emerged. Inside their circle two women completely veiled by black clothes from head to toe (full burkhas) were holding each other's hand and trying to hide themselves while walking in the middle of the circle. There was undisguised provocation and hatred in every man's face, towards western society, as though they had won a religious battle against the entire West!! I don't know about non-Muslim peoples' reaction, but I was shocked and afraid myself. It left a disgusting, bitter taste in my mouth to see the hatred in their faces and witness the drama they created on their way out of the court. There was no courtesy, no politeness, nothing that could be described as courteous, or even civil. To tell the truth, the group looked like a bunch of rude and aggressive religious fanatics!
Just few weeks after of this incident, on 17 July 2011, another group of Muslim men from Sydney held a Muslim man down on his bed and gave him 40 lashes with a cord to implement 'shariah law' as a punishment for alcohol consumption! There are a few 'Muslim figures' as well who denounce the West and democracy, tag them as 'Satan', insult western women as a whole by calling them as 'open meat which attracts flies', tag every single non-Muslim as 'infidel' and claim that one day Australia would become an Islamic state! Now if a non-Muslim becomes fearful watching these incidents, can s/he be blamed for her/his fear to Islam and Muslims? Can s/he be blamed if s/he thinks 'why are these people coming to our lands, enjoying and having equal share of every single civic facility we have, and then hating our culture and society, and calling to establish their separate law and takeover our land'?! We do need to pause here a little bit and investigate where this concept of 'Muslim's taking over' coming from? Is it entirely western media propaganda or is there really something like this among some Muslims' attitude, even though it's in a very small minority?
Last semester, while I was teaching an Islamic studies unit, there was a Muslim student who is very talented, and naturally inquisitive. Although she had three children to care for, she managed to make good grades in her regular class tests. When we were nearly at the end of our semester, she felt pregnant for the fourth time and became very frustrated and often distressed trying to juggle the physical condition of her maternity, her children, her family and her study. My natural question was 'why did you plan to have this baby at this crucial time? You are nearly at the end of your graduation! It would have been easier for you to have this baby just after few months instead of now!' She looked at me and said "my husband and in-laws think that I'm overlooking my pregnancy duty because of my study."
This incident also reminds me one of my personal encounters with a senior society member who, at a BBQ gathering asked me 'how long have you been married for?' When I replied, not knowing the intention of the question; she gave me a petty look, her face full of regret and frustration. She said, 'How can we dream of Islam being established on the earth, when we don't establish it in our home? Our girls are now being so westernised that they take four years to become pregnant for the first time!! In our time we had four babies in four years!!' I know I should count these remarks as just 'someone's personal perception', but to be honest, can we really ignore the concealed perceptions behind these remarks? Do they not reflect a number of Muslims attitudes towards their women's 'baby production duty' and towards western society?
I know my truthful writings would make some of my Muslim brothers and sisters angry and to be honest, to some extent I am already used to it. I remember one of the strange reactions I had to face from a senior Muslim society member just after I got admission to a PhD programin a western university. He was trying to persuade me to change my supervisor from non-Muslims to Muslim! When I said that I myself am very comfortable with a non-Muslim supervisor and have no reason to even think to change, one of his bitter comments was "see, how the university brainwashed you! That's how the West, Christians and Jews are buying out all of our Muslim young brains!"
A strong resentment towards the West and non-Muslims from a significant number of Muslims is a fact that cannot go unnoticed. Though I have no idea why these types of Muslims who hate the West so much yet choose to live in the West, I wish I could ask them why did they come here if they do not like to be here? Now please do not tag me as a 'racist' or 'anti-Muslim'. I'm being obedient to my promise to tell the truth, the truth that I see in my surroundings, and that's why I said its' really difficult to cope with the truth, because it may go against one's own people! And let's also not forget that I am a Muslim, a Muslim who tries her best to remain faithful to, and practice Islam; not the 'taking-over-infidel's-land type of Islam' but the Islam that I study in the Qur'an and Hadith. The Islam that teaches me peace, justice, and mutual coexistence with different people with different opinions, cultures, and religions. And in my attempt to practice Islam in my everyday life, I encounter both Muslims and non-Muslims with their strong stereotypical attitudes against each other, and I feel very sad.
I remember that day very clearly, 9/11 of 2009. I was coming back home after my regular shift at Woolworths as a cashier. I knew it was 9/11 and I was a little bit afraid because of my hijab which silently screamed my identity: there she is, a Muslim!! I stood closer to the people who were waiting for the train to ensure my security. One minute before the train was due to arrive, two men came down to the platform, one of them was drunk. The drunk looked at me, saw my hijab and started to shout, pointing his finger towards me, 'look at this bloody terrorist here, we should kick her out of our country, they are f***ing Muslim terrorists killing our people everywhere'! Shocked, humiliated and insulted I didn't know what to do. I wished I was not there, in front of so many people; not a single one of them said anything to that man. They listened, looked at my humiliated face, then ignored everything as if nothing had happened. I came back home trying to keep the tears from my eyes. I knew, this was the small price we, the general community of Muslims have to pay everyday because of the other 'so called Muslims' words and actions; and also because of the world media portrayal of every Muslim as a potential terrorist.
That's not the end. A few months later again while I was coming back from work, two young men entered into the train compartment where I was sitting in a corner, reading a book on my way back to home. First they casually asked me what I was reading. Then they started to ask me about my hijab, why I was wearing it. Not knowing whether the conversation was heading to, I tried to politely explain that it's my religious instruction to cover my hair. At that point both of them started to laugh and just before they were getting down in a station, one of them shouted to me from the door 'shove my ass with your hijab mate, you little ***ing hijabii!'
A few weeks ago, one of our non-Muslim family friends said to my husband on one occasion that '...the way I see the Muslims on TV and everywhere, I always believed that Islam is sort of cruel, and Muslims are brutal, especially oppressive to their women and they are uncivilised. Until I personally met you and your family and few Muslims like you'. Later when I was thinking about this comment, I was sad, thinking that even though this comment is an appreciation in personal level, it points towards the failure of Muslim population as a nation to construct a good image among the others. It indicates, at a grass roots level, peoples' fear and confusion of Islam and Muslims.
And in fact, when people become afraid, they lose their judgement and they overlook injustices because of that fear. In this contemporary society, even a blind would see the fear of Muslims and Islam in a non-Muslim's eye. This is the fear that gives birth to a horrific situation where Muslims are increasingly becoming subjects to injustice. Most of the people simply keep their eyes closed when there is any injustice towards any Muslim, because they are not sure whether justice is applicable to this 'uncivilised, West-phobic Muslim' or not. That is why Muslims are continuously being victims in different countries, in the name of 'state security' and people just keep their mouths shut. That is why we see the Australian case of Dr. Hanif who was detained on false terrorism charges and later deported to India; we see the American case of Dr. Aphia Siddiquee who was abducted by an American security agency with the help of Pakistan government officials and later became well known by the name 'prisoner 650'; and according to the description of eye witnesses, the extent of her physical and mental torture was so severe that she is now psychologically and emotionally abnormal.
Very few cases like Hanif and Aphia accidently slip through the mysterious and sensitive concrete 'security' wall; but no one really knows how many Muslims have really been, and still are suffering in the name of 'state security' worldwide; and to tell the truth again, no one cares! As I said, Muslims are tagged as a 'security issue', so there is always confusion and doubt as to whether anyone should really be concerned about justice to these Muslims who are causing so much 'security trouble' in the western world! This is what I call the dehumanization process. The Jews were subject to dehumanization before the holocaust. They were not human, they were 'Jews', and anything inhumane to Jews were justified!
I remember my first experience in Australia as a Muslim. I was looking for work, but it was really hard to find. On top of that, my head-scarf/hijab made it more difficult to find a suitable job. To make constructive use of my time, I was thinking to do some voluntary social work. As my passion is humanitarian work, I called a Muslim voluntary organization who works with the Australian detention centre. Being completely new to Australia, the concept of 'detention centre' was completely strange to me, I was curious to know everything about it. So I started to research on 'detention centre' and downloaded a few articles on the topic which I saved in a folder named 'Australian detention centre' on my desktop.
This was at the time I came to know about Dr. Hanif and Dr. Aphia's case. Naturally I was saving articles on various worldwide Muslim detainee cases as well, to read them later. One day one of my friends who had been living in western countries for a while came to visit, and somehow sat with my laptop and began to browse. Suddenly she screamed at me, 'What is this folder'?! She was pointing to the folder I saved on detention centres. Before I could reply I heard her scream again, 'Oh my God! Why on earth did you save all these articles?!' It took a while for me to calm her down and explain my voluntary social work. But she did not calm down at all, her direct comment was, 'Look! You are new here in a western country, so you don't understand this security issue, do you? Every single Muslim is a potential suspect. God forbid if 'they' somehow get your laptop and see this folder full of articles on Australian detention centres, you know what will happen? The next day the media will shout that a Muslim woman terrorist has been arrested on suspicion of involvement with state security issues! Oh God, delete this folder now!'
She was so overwhelmingly afraid for me that I deleted the folder on the spot. At that time I thought she was over panicked. But now, after living three years in a western country, I can understand the social setting of fear and madness towards Muslims in the western world. This understanding doesn't give me any hope. It makes me afraid as I see how a significant number of Muslims' hatred towards the West exacerbates the situation. I see a strong anti-Muslim attitude growing bigger and bigger. I see the misrepresentation of Islam by a number of 'Muslims' making their own nation's dehumanization process quicken; and day by day in this post 9/11 world, Muslims are gradually sliding down from 'human beings' to 'Muslims' only! I see how world media and politics are intertwining the Muslims with the security issue.
The only remaining hope is that all the incidents, comments, and perceptions I've mentioned in this article do not represent the mainstream, both for Muslims and non-Muslims. The mainstream might be religious or not, but they have a basic human understanding of life. They have their everyday work to do, where they struggle for a better future for their children, for a better home and a better livelihood. This hope grows stronger in me when I see people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in the East and in the West, taking enormous risks in their career and lives to uncover the truths, to let the world know what's going on behind the scene, to help the world see the truth more transparently.
Even though they are very small in number, I cherish their braveness, I salute their humanity and I close my eyes and pray "Please Allah, do not let the mainstream suffer for the 'minorities' extreme perceptions', please help us to understand each other with more compassion, kindness and generosity. Give us strength to treat each other as 'human' first and help us to overcome our 'fear' which makes us overlook any injustice to anyone, please!"
Farjana Mahbuba is a PhD candidate on Islamic gender studies at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.