The ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ misconception is explored, and at times reinforced, in new books by Australian authors, writes Shakira Hussein
Ihave sat through academic conferences that have provided less insight into the politics and sociology of violent extremism than I’ve gained from a viewing of Four Lions, Chris Morris’s dark satire about four bumbling suicide bombers. Morris’s 2010 movie is based on three years of research and was made in response to the 2005 London bombings in which 56 people, including four attackers, died. It remains relevant for those struggling to understand the mindsets of the British (and Australian) born Muslims who are prepared to kill and die in support of organisations such as al-Qa’ida and Islamic State.
There is good reason, then, to hope Australian comedians John Safran and Pakistan-born Sami Shah may be able to provide similar insights (not to mention entertainment) in their new books. This is particularly the case since, unlike Morris, Safran and Shah bring relevant life experience to the topics of religious extremism and racism: Safran as the self-styled “Jew detective” and former host of John Safran vs God and Shah as a journalist who has witnessed the devastating aftermath of suicide attacks in Pakistan.
Palestinian-Australian journalist and screenwriter Amal Awad also draws on her personal background in Beyond Veiled Cliches, an engaging blend of memoir, travelogue and interviews exploring the lives of Arab women in Australia and the Middle East.
Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables opens with a scene at a 2015 Reclaim Australia rally in Melbourne. Having been motivated to attend by photographs of white skinheads at a previous such event, Safran is taken aback to discover there are brown-skinned immigrants among the Reclaim supporters. He concludes that for the members of Sri Lankan-born pastor Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia, “religion trumps skin colour”, something white progressives fail to understand because Australian intellectuals “just don’t get religion”.
It’s true that Safran’s Jewish upbringing should provide him with a head start in this regard. Jewish scholars, writers and activists have provided penetrating insights into the intimate ways in which racial and religious identity are entwined.
Racism against Jews mutated from hatred directed at their theology to hatred based on their bloodline. And Pauline Hanson’s career illustrates a similar mutation from a hatred of Asians based on their race to a hatred of Muslims based on their religious identity.
But Safran fails to grasp the shapeshifting, amorphous quality of racism, instead attributing anything that doesn’t look like familiar oldschool biological racism to religious faith.
The fact immigrants find a way to slot their own pre-existing prejudices into those of their new homeland is hardly news. Reporting on Reclaim and other far-right events for online news site Crikey, I was struck not so much by the prominently showcased non-white participants but by the way their presence was cited as an alibi against racism.
Aboriginal flags were flown and claims of “part-Aboriginal supporters” were cited as a means of establishing a claim to an authentic Australian identity that needed to be protected against Muslim invaders. Rather than unravel Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables By John Safran Hamish Hamilton, 287pp, $34.99 The Islamic Republic of Australia: Muslims Down Under, From Hijabs to Jihad and Everything in Between By Sami Shah ABC Books, 274pp, $32.99 Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women By Amal Awad Vintage, 289pp, $34.99 these claims, Safran takes them at face value. Also troubling is Safran’s description of a Facebook post by an unnamed “famous-enough Muslim” (whatever that means) and campaigner against racism.
In Safran’s telling, this unnamed Muslim “torments” the Israeli owners of a cafe near his home in Melbourne’s St Kilda after his Muslim friend notices it offers an “Israeli breakfast”. She responds by “lashing out”, frightening the cafe’s customers, and the “famous-enough Muslim” then follows up by lashing out on Facebook.
However, having seen what Safran confirmed to me is the Facebook post in question, it differs from his retelling in significant ways. To begin with, the outraged customer is described as Palestinian rather than Muslim. Rather than “lashing out”, she is described as cancelling her order “because Israel occupies my land”. The cafe owner is then alleged to have followed her down the street, threatening and harassing her.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel (or the entire Israel-Palestinian conflict, come to that), this is a political argument about land and occupation rather than the act of religiously driven hatred that Safran describes. As anyone who has ordered Turkish delight in a Greek coffee shop would know, nationhood is at least as powerful a force as religion when it comes to producing strong emotions around the naming of food.
Describing the woman concerned by her (presumed) religious rather than ethno-national identity reinforces Safran’s overall thesis about religion as the driving force behind contemporary conflicts in Australia by depriving the reader of crucial information.
Having arrived in Australia relatively recently in 2012, Melbourne-based Shah is still learning about the topic of his book and knows it. The Islamic Republic of Australia provides an “inside” view of Australia’s Muslim communities from a writer who is still navigating what it means to be a “Muslim-y”-looking person who has embraced atheism ahead of belief.
His handbook to Islam in Australia notes there are many different ways of being Muslim and emphasises that he does not wish his loss of faith to be appropriated by hatemongers as a weapon against his former co-religionists. As he realises when his daughter returns from her Catholic school talking about Jesus and Mary, he may not be a believer but he will always be a “cultural Muslim”.
He also sets out to explain the reasons so many Muslims seethe with anger against the US and its allies, reasons that have little or nothing to do with religious belief. These are all more or less familiar concerns: the legacies of colonialism, the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the racist backlash against Muslims and “Muslim-y”-looking people. However, it is useful to hear them narrated in a “Muslimy” voice by someone who is so strongly critical of the religion itself.
Shah at times veers into prejudice against Muslims rather than criticism of Islam, not because of his atheism but because of his failure to discard his own class and ethnic prejudices.
Immigrants of South Asian background (my
HE MAY NOT BE A BELIEVER BUT HE WILL ALWAYS BE A ‘CULTURAL MUSLIM’