Anti-Islam protests highlight frustration on both sides

Originally published 08/05/2015.

As many as 3000 self-titled ‘patriots’ marched to Melbourne’s Federation Square on April 4, riding on a wave of nationalism. Like the Nights Templar a millennia before, these modern crusaders sought to protect of their own Holy Land from Eastern control. But in 2015, unlike in 1096, this was no Vatican-supported quest to preserve Christianity. There wasn’t an Eastern army to meet the Western aggressors, either. Contemporary Australian opposition to Islam in the Western world continues to gain momentum as images of Islamic State atrocities in Syria and Iraq circulate and demands to protect cultural norms from “Islamisation”, a pejorative term that’s grown in popularity since September 11, have regularly been made by protest groups and their supportive online communities. They insist Western culture’s destruction by Islamic extremists is imminent and denounce cultural cohesion between Islamic and non-Islamic society. In reality, once the rose-tinted glasses and Australian flag singlets are taken off, these groups incite more unrest than they suppress. Designating Islam as a religion of hatred and evil only bolsters resentment within the minority Muslim community, and rejecting Islam’s right to exist in Australia only stews discontent, which may lead to avoidable intercultural violence.

The Melbourne protesters weren’t alone. Demonstrations took place in 16 cities across Australia, though most attracted a small percentage of the numbers witnessed in Federation Square; up to 300 protested in Perth and only 25 protesters turned up in Canberra. Support for the protests was sporadic, but they showed the level of comfort many Australians had with rejecting foreign cultures.

In Melbourne, away from the protests, Durkhanai Ayubi said she was shocked by the number of people who attended the rallies.

“I looked at Reclaim Australia and wondered how it’s possible people can get to a point where they’re so brave that they can openly deny the right of a belief system to exist and it’s being done openly and . . . without any sort of condemnation from our political leaders.”

Durkhanai is a soft-spoken Afghan-Australian, whose place as a commentator on Muslim issues in Australia have brought her to a position of prominence within the Australian Muslim community. A member on the advisory board at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and an assistant editor at Sultana’s Dream, a not-for-profit e-magazine that provides an outlet for Australian Muslim women to discuss social issues, Durkhanai embodies the strength, tenacity and outspokenness Muslims in Australia need from a leader. As an educated person, as a person not afraid to talk about Muslim issues, and as a woman, she exhibits the qualities Muslims in Australia need in a representative.

“It’s shocking that society has gotten to a point where that type of hatred can be put openly into the public domain and people are willing to get involved,” she says.

“If you have a movement where people feel like they can blame the problems of modern day Australia on a minority religious group . . . you’re going to have all sorts of problems.”

She warns Islam-targeted protests may lead to anger from normally non-violent members of the Muslim community who feel they are victims of discrimination; violence erupts more often from repression than from religious doctrine.

“For people who are already feeling marginalised, that creates real problems for them.”

Durkhanai is strong in her opposition to anti-Islam protest groups, but she’s only a single voice. With Reclaim Australia having amassed over 25,000 supporters, competing for a chance to provide a different view is a struggle for the vocal few in the Muslim community.

Australians Against Islam, a Facebook page with a name that leaves nothing open to misinterpretation, says the rallies were necessary to “raise concerns about Islamisation” in Australia.

The group, which boasts more than 6000 supporters since it was formed in December last year, says people who oppose Islamic influence in Australia have no outlet but the streets through which to voice their concerns. They argue modern political correctness doesn’t offer them the chance to publicly discuss their grievances with the growth of Islam.

“Write to the politicians, and [you get] no response. Write to the media [and] you’re labelled a racist,” a spokesperson from the group, who asked to be referred to as “the leader” of Australians Against Islam, says.

“Something needs to change.”

“There may be around 100 Islamic State members walking the streets of Australia. Nothing is being done about it.”

Herein lies the madness within the method of Australians Against Islam’s doctrine. By referring to Islamic State members as being indistinguishable from ‘normal’ Muslims, they create an intrinsic link between civil and extremist Muslims where a connection seldom exists. 100 combatants would equate to about 0.0002% of the Australian Muslim community.

Professor Samina Yasmeen, Director of the Centre of Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, says groups like Australians Against Islam are only perpetuating a historical trend of blame shifting.

“In some ways they’re doing what some Muslim communities have done [in the past], that at every stage they find a reason why they’re unhappy. [Muslims have said] yesterday they were unhappy because somebody bombed Iraq, today they are unhappy because somebody bombed Afghanistan. Tomorrow they’re unhappy because someone has done something else. I think it’s the same process,” Professor Yasmeen says.

“Foreign fighters are a phenomenon. There are foreign fighters from Muslim majority states and Muslim minority states and they’re posing a threat to all people. [Militants] pose a threat in Malaysia to Malaysians, Pakistan to Pakistanis, and Australia to Australians.”

According to Durkhanai Ayubi, the media’s subjectification of the Muslim community has given the illusion this fraction-of-a-percent is a much larger portion of the population.

“All Muslims have been placed in the spotlight [since September 11, 2001] and that adds to the pressure to justify who you are, where you are and your loyalties as a Muslim,” she says.

“Until we have a media that isn’t being driven by sales for sensationalist headlines, then we’re going to have a community and a society that is driven by fear.

“Why don’t we have the same level of condemnation for non-Muslim extremists? I think it brings forward something more dangerous – a political double-standard.”

“I shouldn’t have to condemn the behaviour of terrorist groups or individuals who carry out awful actions in the name of Islam. I shouldn’t have to do that because the underlying belief is that I agree with it because that’s what Islam is. That isn’t true,” Durkhanai says.

Her point is this: few condemn Protestantism for the actions of the Klu Klan, or criticise Buddhism for the attacks reported on Muslims by monks in India, or Hinduism for the 2008 anti-Christian attacks across India, which left as many as 100 dead and 18,000 injured. Why is it, then, that non-aggressive Muslims are often linked to atrocities committed by Middle Eastern militant groups?

“There’s this massive expectation on ‘moderate Muslims’ to condemn the actions of extremist Muslims in every corner of the globe. Until we lose that expectation it’s a failing of our society,” Durkhanai says.

According to Australians Against Islam, Australians need more avenues to facilitate discussions about Islam.

“In a free Western democracy we simply cannot have . . . intolerance of other views,” the group’s leader says.

“How can you fix any issue in society if you don’t acknowledge the issue exists in the first place?”

The assumption of an inherent “issue” within Islam fuels sweeping generalisations about Muslim people, and brews repression within the community. This “microaggression” often influences repressed people or persons to retaliate aggressively.

Durkhanai Ayubi says the true cause of extremism is larger than we realise, and we will not get to see the full extent of the mental effects it has on minorities for many years.

“The radicalisation of young people can’t be separated from the feeling of alienation and anxiety, and already being presumed guilty of all sorts of beliefs by the broader community,” she says.

“The focus on Muslims is intensifying, who knows what sort of things that is going to lead to.”

Ms Ayubi says she fears continued marginalisation could lead to further violence. Victims of exclusion or bullying are more vulnerable to propaganda from extremist organisations; Jake Bilardi, the 18-year-old Melbourne boy who is reported to have killed himself in a suicide mission in Ramadi, Iraq, left Australia to fight for Islamic State in Syria and was regularly bullied as a schoolchild. Numan Haider, who stabbed two counter-terrorism police in Melbourne last year before being gunned down, had been visited by police to discuss suspicious behaviour. Being pushed into a corner, or knowing you’re under surveillance, can lead to erratic retaliation.

Professor Yasmeen says the marginalisation of Muslims may make them vulnerable to militant propaganda.

“Militancy, where people decided they will use religious justification to harm others, even fellow Muslims, really happens if the groundwork exists already and someone gives them the idea ‘this is what Islam stands for’ and they pick it up like that. There’s a lot of factors that contribute,” she says.

“The doctor who left from Western Australia [Tareq Kamleh] – he’s not socially excluded. But at one level he’s mentally somehow excluded and he feels his sense of belonging is somewhere other than here. That sense of dislocation, to me suggests that . . . there are other factors that are at play.”

“If you’re not feeling included in the community, you’re [more] likely to get into this.”

But blaming isolation as the driving force that pushes some Australian Muslims to foreign extremist cultures is completely out of the question, according to Australians Against Islam, who insist Islam is inherently violent.

“Any suggestion of Muslims joining Islamic State because they were somehow ‘unfairly treated in Australia’ is completely absurd. We will not entertain it,” the leader says.

“It’s like saying ‘He couldn’t find a job so he had to go and join a group to behead people’.”

Where, then, do we look to guide impressionable Muslims away from extremist behaviour and radical foreign influences? Durkhanai Ayubi says the enormous diversity within Islam alone means it’s hard to pinpoint a single figure popular enough to provide a positive direction for all Muslims. She says Western nations which have intervened militarily in the Middle East need to acknowledge their actions have led to creating a rift between cultures, but admits the Muslim community does need to work together and promote positive change.

“Within the Muslim community there are so many different kinds of belief systems, different attachments, and different interpretations of religion, which is very normal in any sort of social group,” Ms Ayubi says.

She acknowledges the broader Islamic community has the responsibility of assuring a peaceful Muslim future in Australia. A lack of appropriate community services for those feeling alienated within Islam’s cultural structure, she says, is partly to blame for isolated outbursts from small pockets. The way Mosques are run, with an all-powerful, older, male figurehead, doesn’t give Muslim women a place to discuss the issues in their lives. Gender segregation also means men are less likely to open up about feelings of repression.

But, she says, Islamic cultures have many times felt the brunt of Western aggression, and that may lead to future reprisals.

“We’ve had a real failure of understanding how wars [Australia has] been involved in have contributed to the radicalisation, destruction and chaos in the Middle East.”

“I do think that needs to be talked about.”

“[The West has] been involved in endless, aimless wars, that have fuelled chaos and dissatisfaction and poverty and created generations of children that have seen their families killed and that are going to grow up carrying resentment and anger.”

The Gulf War (1990-1991) saw as many as 35,000 casualties within the Iraqi army, with over 5000 Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians reported as having been killed; over 110,000 civilians died as a result of the Iraq War (2003-2011); 19,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. After a visit to Afghanistan in 2012 following the Coalition-initiated conflict, Durkhanai described Kabul as “a shambled mess, barely a city”.

Professor Yasmeen agrees: “Afghanistan and then Iraq . . . have played into the hands of some, especially in the case of Iraq. I believe Americans need to accept some sort of responsibility.”

“There’s a Western narrative that has emerged that looks at Muslims being divided and there’s a Muslim narrative that has emerged that looks at Shiites being better than Sunnis and Sunnis being better than Shiites and if you combine that with the Jihadi narrative it creates a concept of who needs to team up with whom to fight which culture.”

Unsurprising, then, that Western actions in the Middle East may be resented by refugees. It’s the sort of heated resentment not quickly cooled by the splash of ink from an Australian stamp in a refugee’s passport.

“There’s a massive gap in accountability of everything that’s happened in the last 10 to 20 years,” Durkhanai Ayubi agrees.

Predictably contrary to Durkhanai’s and Professor Yasmeen’s arguments, Australians Against Islam maintains the fault falls at the feet of Islamic culture.

The group’s leader insists “Islam is extreme by nature” and “If there is no extremist religion, then there aren’t extremists committing acts in the name of that religion.”

“Islam is completely unsuitable for a modern day Western democracy.”

It’s a view probably not shared by an overwhelming majority of the more-than-470,000 Muslims living peacefully within Australian boarders who have no interest in militant activity.

But while Australians Against Islam claim “the impact of Islamisation has been devastating” in Europe, and Islamic immigration to Australia “must be halted immediately”, for Durkhanai Ayubi the journey toward creating social cohesion – and eliminating the chance of violent reprisals from minorities within the Muslim community – is long overdue. Australia must look at cultural issues honestly and without delving into ignorant sensationalism or fear mongering.

“The only way to overcome all sorts of barriers is to have informed exchanges and debates and to give people who know what they’re talking about space in mainstream media,” she says.

“There should be an expectation of responsible, intelligent politics. I don’t think we’ve reached that level yet.”

Islam is going through troubled times in the eyes of the media and the perceptions of the Western public, but the issue is not necessarily contained entirely within Islam and is not only down to Islamic doctrine – it’s also within non-Muslim perceptions of Muslim people. Greater efforts for collaboration between cultures could increase harmony, but both sides must commit to working toward healthy change. A pinhead size of the Muslim community share similar views to groups like Islamic State, just as a very small minority within Christianity support the views of the Klu Klux Klan. Future cohesion requires a renewed perspective and a concerted effort to building a greater multicultural society.

Professor Yasmeen says ensuring peace in a multicultural Australia will take time, and that collaboration between the media, the government and the public is necessary to make the important steps.

“If we were looking at America – a teenager who picks up a gun and goes and kills schoolkids and the teachers is as much a threat to American society as a Muslim kid who decides to leave America and become a militant. You cannot focus more on that Muslim identity and less on [the American].”

“If you say militancy is a crime, you sick to that. If hatred is a crime, you stick to that. If mistreating citizens is a crime, you stick to that.”

“We need to say we will counter extremism full stop, of all cultures, all religions and all backgrounds. I don’t think as a multicultural society we can afford to not do that.”

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