RACE APART

The ‘good Mus­lim, bad Mus­lim’ mis­con­cep­tion is ex­plored, and at times re­in­forced, in new books by Aus­tralian authors, writes Shakira Hus­sein

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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’

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