• Mohamad Tabbaa

The Guardian Interview: Australian Federal Election

I was interviewed by Mostafa Rachwani from The Guardian on my views of the upcoming federal election and its relation to Muslims. I’ve kept the original interview format and added some supplementary notes.

You can find the published article here.

1. How would you describe the choice Muslims are presented with at this election, and why?

I would describe the choices Muslims are presented with at this election as a double bind. They must vote in one direction or another, and yet doing so necessarily brings a harm to themselves and to their communities.

Muslims who prioritise conservative values and vote towards the right will simultaneously be voting for parties and policies that criminalise and harm their communities. I include both major parties in this category. We saw the heavy targeting of Muslim communities during the Covid response for example, with a disproportionate clampdown on areas in Western Sydney. There’s the well-known targeting of Muslim youth by police and authorities, both generally in the form of racist policing, which has been documented for decades, as well as more specifically in the two decades of the War on Terror, both of which destroy countless lives of Muslims directly and indirectly. The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom are Muslim, is another example. And so Muslims have to perform a trade-off: securing traditional values comes at the cost of incarcerating and destroying the lives of many within our own communities.

This makes it difficult to live with oneself.

On the other hand, Muslims who prioritise the material safety of their people, or certain positions or policies (e.g. environmental policies) that align with their values, for example, will simultaneously be voting for parties and policies that can undermine their very identity and sense of belonging. The debates on gender and sexuality are a sticking point in many Muslim circles at the moment, for example, as well as the general stance towards religion the further left you go: generally it operates on a spectrum from neutral or irreligious to staunchly anti-religious. And so Muslims have to also perform a trade-off here: supporting certain issues that are close to your heart comes at the cost of undermining the value and place of religion in society.

This makes it difficult to live as oneself.

And of course, abstaining is not a solution since one of the decisions will go ahead regardless, so every action (including inaction) is implicated. This is why I describe it as a double-bind.

2. What are the consequences of having so little choice, how has this affected the Muslim community?

Muslims do not face a general lack of choice, they face a lack of choices that understand their concerns and needs, that allow them to vote with the dignity of not betraying themselves, their communities and their values. The consequences are varied, from rejection through to increased motivation for activism. But there is a lot of confusion, and, given the stakes, it manifests as more than mere difference of opinion: it’s experienced often as a matter of loyalty and authenticity – in relation to self, to community, to God. This promotes conflicts about identity and truth rather than debates about policies or issues.

So it’s more than simply a set of preferences or differing values. It’s felt viscerally given the real-life impacts and violence that result, as well as the implications for selfhood. So you can see, for example, how it quite easily lends itself to in-fighting and can be attached to notions of shame and guilt (e.g. “no Muslim would vote for this or that party”) and absolutist statements rather than nuanced discussion.

In short, the double-bind puts Muslims in unhealthy relation with themselves and their communities.

3. What would accurate representation look like for the community? What would you like to see brought into the national conversation?

I believe that accurate representation is neither possible, nor ideal. But a more respectful representation within this context would dictate less and listen more. It would take Muslim concerns and solutions more seriously, and not simply in proposing better solutions, but in first investing in listening to understand, not to respond. It would treat Muslims as complex humans with a variety of experiences, concerns and knowledge, and citizens with rights and obligations, rather than as problems to be managed or votes to be scored. The current relation afforded to Muslims (including organisations and those in leadership positions) from authorities is, generally, a disempowered relation. When we’re not engaged as an outright problem, we’re often engaged as in need of rescuing. It’s difficult for our genuine concerns to be raised and heard in these dynamics, and it’s impossible for us to share our knowledge when we’re engaged as aggressor or victim.

For example, after decades of political engagement, one of the most fundamental issues facing Australian Muslims has never been discussed or even acknowledged publicly. And when I personally raised it with politicians 10 years ago, they had never heard of it. Usury and interest are antithetical to Islam, and living in an economy whose foundation is usurious not only forces Muslims to live their day-to-day lives in opposition to their values, but also puts them at a structural disadvantage in relation to their peers. It puts their material development in direct conflict with their spiritual development, forcing them to choose between living authentically or living comfortably.

This is another example of the double-bind. In this example, it’s a case of structural and systemic discrimination, which has widespread implications. But we’re not at a point in our political consciousness and relationships to be able to raise it and have it taken seriously. So there’s a lot of work to be done to reach this point.

But this is not simply about Muslims as victims. All Australians fall victim to a usurious economy. This is also about understanding how Muslims have successfully developed economic models that do not rely on the violence of usury and interest, about learning from Islamic wealth distribution models that benefit everybody. Genuine engagement would mean engaging Muslims not merely as potential voters, but as citizens with valuable contributions on the important questions: of justice, economy, law and so on.

Better representation and engagement would change the question regarding Muslims from ‘what can we learn about Muslims to increase their voting patterns’, to ‘what can we learn from Muslims to better society?’

4. How do you personally feel watching this play out, and the way the community is squeezed?

I feel really sad watching this all play out to be honest. On the one hand, it pits the community against each other and leads to a lot of self-blame and isolation. Politically, it means fragmentation and disempowerment; in a political system that relies on numbers, this is political suicide. On a spiritual front, it can mean deflation and resignation, which is unhealthy for the soul.

On the other hand, it also means that Australians as a whole miss out on a wealth of knowledge and experience that could really address the most pressing issues that we face, and not just materially or politically. Muslims are one of the few remaining groups that have held onto a meaningful spiritual tradition that has survived modernity and is capable of helping people navigate the spiritual pitfalls of a world suffering from disillusionment. So whilst sidelining Muslims might result in increased power for some, it also, arguably, results in increased suffering for all.

It’s a lose-lose situation.

5. Do you have faith that things are changing? If so, or if not, why?

Change is constant, but watching the direction of that change is fascinating. There’s a growing divide within Muslim communities which appears to correlate to the growing divide in Australian politics generally. On the one hand, that suggests a greater integration, for better and worse. But it also means that what Muslims are in a unique position to contribute to Australian society is often being lost in the culture and identity wars that they’re increasingly engaging in.

The progress that the Muslim community has made in such a short period and in desperately challenging circumstances is really incredible, and I think we need to acknowledge that. A fragmented, migrant community, navigating the longstanding philosophical challenges of modernity (including those posed by secularism and colonization), in addition to the immediate challenges of the global war on terror and centuries of military intervention, that has retained a strong sense of identity, has above-average educational levels and is beginning to mobilise materially … this is quite the achievement and should be celebrated.

In the next phase of moving beyond survival, I would like to see Muslims mark their contribution in more meaningful ways: what can Muslims draw on from their traditions to contribute meaningfully to debates on justice, environment, economy, law, violence, spirituality, education, healing, art and so on? What can we teach a young and growing country from our long and rich tradition, having passed through and recorded many similar struggles over a thousand years of governance and civilization? We have a lot to offer and I’d like to see us build up the courage to offer it without apology.

The signs from the younger generation of Muslims, who are finding ways to synthesize their identities, is promising. If they continue to focus on healing and developing their self-confidence, I believe the Muslim community will continue moving in a promising direction. So yes, despite the many setbacks and frustrations, I do have a lot of hope in our future direction.

6. Do you think these overarching issues have resulted in apathy, or even negativity, towards politics and this election from the Muslim community?

These issues have definitely led to apathy, negativity and resignation amongst many Muslims, though I’m not sure that it’s more pronounced than the general population. What I find more interesting is how it has motivated Muslims in specific ways. For example, there are numerous political scorecards being developed and shared by Muslims on issues important to them. This is an important change visible in recent years. It signals a greater direct participation in democracy, but also a greater embrace of liberal notions of individuality and choice. Muslims are in a quite unique situation as they wrestle with the individualism inherent in liberal democracy, whilst attempting to maintain their sense of universal solidarity with the Ummah.

So again, a bit of a double-bind: greater Muslim participation and therefore democratic representation, but built on and therefore further entrenching certain liberal notions that run contrary to the Islamic ethos. It's quite the experiment.

I think naturally this will draw some people away from direct political engagement and result in apathetic attitudes, but even so, many alternative forms of politics are taken up. For example, I’m always fascinated by the Da’wa stands that Muslims run. In their own, often unwitting way, these are a form of political engagement with the secularity of the public space, and in this sense, even if they might be apathetic to elections in particular, they are also directly political.

7. How have we ended up with this dynamic, between political parties and the Muslim community?

It’s a long and complicated history, but there is a consistent and understated thread of fear that marks its course.

Throughout a number of organisational roles, I’ve sat in many engagements with authorities, and the fear amongst Muslims that often permeates these engagements is palpable. In addition to the challenges that face migrant communities generally, the Muslim community in the last 20 years has been operating under the spotlight of the War on Terror. We’re talking raids, extreme laws, targeting and harassment, media discourse and even international wars. This is the background against which such political discussions take place; they’re not neutral or disinterested. The relational dynamics between Muslims and authorities is directly infused with this violent energy, and obviously Muslims are on the disempowered end of it.

Many times I’ve engaged with Muslims in leadership positions, only to find in private that their positions were simply covers for their fears. People in Executive positions and in the ear of government have directly told me that they feared the government would take their children, that they would be deported or incarcerated, or even the fact that they would lose valuable funding for community projects… And so there has been for a long time an unspoken strategy of safety through acquiescence: we tell them what they want to hear, and they leave most of us alone. It’s understandable given the extreme violence and fear that the War on Terror has wrought, but it’s obviously a self-destructive strategy.

You could say we’ve been in an abusive relationship with government and police for decades, and we’re suffering the effects of that prolonged abuse.

But again, as the community grows and learns more about our predicament, about healing and transformation, these dynamics will necessarily transform with them, and we’re already seeing that play out. I’ve spoken previously about how younger generations are finding their courage and refusing to be bound by a politics of fear that exists to placate anxieties. We’re seeing more and more of this, and it’s a balancing of that previous politics of fear, so this current generation will likely be facing different challenges and will have to learn to not fall into excesses in their own ways.

8. What advice would you have for Muslim voters?

It’s difficult to provide specific advice in such a broad situation. Although it sounds mundane and unattractive, guarding against falling into excess is quite important, as it’s easy to practice a politics that is simply reacting against what came before it, and that simply reproduces the same problems from the opposite end.

I would say the most important thing is not a singular issue, policy or party, but that Muslims look after themselves, take care of themselves. And this means first understanding who they are, where they are, and what self-care looks like spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically in this situation. In a way, that’s very basic advice, but in a much more important way, it's also the basis of the prophetic advice and underpins everything that we do.


With thanks to Mostafa Rachwani for the opportunity.


Recent Posts

See All