• Mohamad Tabbaa

Tolerance is Bigotry's Counterpart in Keeping Muslims Divided

Everyone knows the game. It’s called “asking the Muslim question”. We’ve been playing it a lot this year. Can Muslims be trusted with a mosque in Bendigo? Are Muslims who travel overseas going to fight as terrorists? Are they Australian if they are prepared to speak about “honour” killings? Do Muslims turn the suburbs in which they live into “monocultures”?

Yassir Morsi describes this questioning as a ritualised act, eerily religious in form. The answers which are churned out time and again are a ritual too: “yes, no, not all of us.”

Take the Bendigo mosque fiasco of June this year. What should have been a standard planning permit application became a proxy war against all things Muslim. Hysterical, unfounded accusations were made against the planned mosque. Paranoid fears about Islam were projected onto an innocuous building project.

Suddenly a place to house prayer and worship becomes a focal point for discussions about terrorism, Iraq, sharia law, halal meat, burqas... This is simply the latest in a long and disturbing trend of mosque applications becoming ideological battlegrounds. But in the end, clearer heads prevail, right? If only it were so simple. The voices that inevitably come to the rescue of Muslims in cases such as the Bendigo mosque, well-meaning as they are, offer a zealotry of their own: tolerance.

One tolerates their neighbour’s barking dog. One tolerates long lines at the bank or the cashier.

In short, one tolerates the inconvenient and annoying. One does not tolerate a peer or equal; tolerance is by no means equality. In this bind, Muslims are always positioned as outsiders, not equal counterparts.

Here, tolerance and bigotry go hand in hand. The right wishes to obliterate or banish the Muslim stain upon the nation. The left graciously tolerates, even celebrates, our otherness, our exoticism: councillor James Williams, upon voting in favour of the mosque proposal, notes “I think it’s great we celebrate other cultures”.

Let’s be clear, this is not about hurt feelings and bruised sensitivities. Muslims are not concerned about being celebrated too little. There are real repercussions every time this ritual of outrage-condemnation-toleratation is performed. Every time it plays out, more conditions are added to our being tolerable. It has now become commonplace to justify mosque proposals on the basis of their being “open to all members of the public” and even being “good for business”.

This is not their purpose, and it is condescending to have to justify them in such a manner. Football clubs don’t have to justify their existence by stating that they’ll be open to hockey matches, and neither should they. We shouldn’t need to defend what is our basic right – to have a place to practice our religion. Nobody should; this is the whole point of having rights.

The response of Australia’s Muslim leaders to these matters – to speak morality to politics – is often reactionary and counter-productive. For example, Aftab Malik, the scholar in residence at the Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba, who recently wrote in support of the Bendigo mosque, justified expanding the number of mosques in Australia on the basis that they can serve as counter-terror platforms, by employing articulate, “non-radical” Imams.

Again, this first-order condemnation of terrorism accepts that Muslims simply don’t have the same rights as any other citizen to an ordinary place of worship, but must submit themselves and their case for public scrutiny and approval. Given the worrying censorship of political discussion placed upon Bendigo Mosque as a condition of planning approval, it would hardly be surprising if further down the track mosques had to demonstrate how they plan to reduce terrorism before being approved.

Uthman Badar, who was embroiled in controversy earlier this year over his Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk on “honour” killings, also fell prey to the twin forces of condemnation-toleration. He made the cardinal mistake of intending to speak while Muslim, albeit irresponsibly, and within a short few hours had been publicly crucified, as has become common practice. More telling though, and frightening, was the response from some Muslim leaders who obediently performed this ritual, publicly condemning the speaker, the group he belonged to, and in fact any and all “bad” Muslims.

But there can never be enough condemnation; every time these scenes are played out, the political space that Muslims may occupy in this country is further diminished – first and foremost for those who comply by choice.

As the Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ organiser, Simon Longstaff, took pains to explain, he had admitted Badar to the discussion because when it comes to “threatening” views, “each act of censorship is a minor victory for his [Badar’s] side”. Allowing Badar to speak was still (tolerant) Longstaff versus the (suspicious) Muslim, who was permitted to appear at the festival “so as not to surrender our [liberal democratic Australia’s] moral authority”.

This mutually exclusive “us” (Australian) and “them” (Muslim) permeates the left-right political spectrum, and has infected much of the Muslim leadership too, as we see demonstrated time and again. In response to the so-called Sydney riots of 2012, Muslim leaders applied a blanket ban to any form of protest or media engagement. They used similar silencing techniques in response to the recent FODI fiasco, and indeed with any Muslim controversy that hits the news. Jamal Rifi recently demonstrated this binary thinking in a tweet responding to army chief Peter Leahy’s call for a 100 year war on (radical) Islam:

peter leahy you don't need to fight Islam at all.we all ,as Australian ,need to counter MUSLIM radical ideology.we can show you how
— Dr Jamal Rifi (@JamalRifi1) August 8, 2014

The solution is always the concession of rights and more placating silence. It is not difficult to be angry with such a response – indeed, many Muslims are, which is entirely understandable. Muslim leaders are simply acting on what so many Muslims already know about their position in Australian society: namely, that when it comes to politics, Muslims have only the right to avoid incriminating ourselves any further.

Muslims enter the political stage already set against a backdrop of violence and terror: Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, suppression of women, irrational beliefs and various other imaginations of barbarity and backwardness. Commentary — any commentary — is always liable to add further incriminating “evidence” on top of this long list of crimes for which we stand perpetually accused.

Despite commonly held notions on the topic, there is no “correct” response to this kind of Islamophobia, least of all the curative properties of the “positive” Muslim story. Much like a suspect in a television trial, the one who denies their guilt only increases in suspicion, becoming the prime suspect. The “bad” Muslim who complains of double standards is accused of being anti-western, or not assimilating enough, while the “good” Muslim who nonetheless still practices their rights is accused of taking over the country, of assimilating too much.

I experienced this first-hand for almost two years as media spokesperson for the Islamic Council of Victoria. Complaints of local instances of Islamophobia, including assaults against Muslim women, would often be dismissed with “Yes, but Muslims are killing Muslims in Syria and Iraq, how do you explain that?”

Muslims face a host of challenges in this country: being labeled a “raghead” or “terrorist” at random; Muslim women having their hijab ripped off and assaulted; discrimination in the workplace, even among those holding high office. We are subject to an intense surveillance program, which takes the logic of the always-suspicious Muslim to its extreme, while the news of two Australian Muslims illegally assassinated earlier this year was met with government silence.

George Brandis, the attorney-general, has announced plans to introduce further measures to scrutinise Australia’s Muslims, atop our already expansive counter-terror laws. These include granting authorities access to computers of those not even suspected of a crime, allowing private correspondence to be retained for up to two years, stripping citizens of their passports on mere suspicion of criminal intent and the reversal of the centuries-old presumption of innocence.

The more politically conscious Australian Muslims are understandably furious, and have created an online petition opposing the planned changes. But speaking in the name of the Australian National Imam’s Council, Sheikh Mohamadu Nawaz welcomed the proposal, assuring Brandis, “of course we have discussed various ways of de-radicalising our youth”. With so many Muslim organisations in receipt of counter-terror funding, they can hardly be expected to act otherwise.

Attempts to host a basic “know your rights with Asio” information session were stifled earlier this year by numerous Islamic organisations due to this financial relationship. In a refreshing move, after intense community pressure some Muslim organisations recently reversed their support for these laws by boycotting an AFP dinner organised for them. Time will tell how this new engagement will proceed.

Would our fellow Australian citizens give their unequivocal support to a Muslim appeal to maintain our basic rights?

Would such a call be met with validation and acceptance of the dilemma faced by Australian Muslims in the era of the war on terror? Or would Australians rationalise an exception that would continue to exclude the Muslim, while simultaneously retaining the fantasy of a liberal society based on freedoms and rights? It is a folly to imagine that any such expansion of Asio’s powers will be restricted solely to Muslims anyhow, as the havoc caused by Asio’s negative assessment of asylum seekers, or surveillance of environmental activists, has illustrated.

We are trapped in a bind that can only be met with, and simultaneously create, a radical politics. Instead of taking charge of this politics and encouraging it to flourish, many Muslim leaders are caught offside, defending our right to silence as our very salvation.


[First published in The Guardian]


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