Copyright Shaun Yeo
I am presently blissfully on spiritual retreat and on a social media ban for Lent. As the horror in New Zealand was unfolding, I was very grateful that I was not on social media. It was going to be easy to ignore it and the vitriol that came with it. Then, after midnight, I received an open letter from a Muslim friend.
She asked me to keep her identity anonymous and I will respect that because I know what she has been through. We met while we were studying. I am a Christian and she is a Muslim and we immediately connected. It was like we had lived the same life. We were wives and mothers. We had pursued education and we had achieved in our careers. We were both women of faith who worked within our own communities. We immediately understood each other’s experiences without the need for any explanation. We knew what it was like to be marginalised by society based on our ethnicity and what it was like to be marginalised by some from within our own community because we were women who had an opinion. We both knew what it was like to be ridiculed by some in secular society for being women of faith.
Then one morning it became clear that her burden, as a Muslim woman in Australia, was much heavier than mine could ever be. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and her face popped up. It was odd, why was her face on my feed? I clicked on the post and my gentle, kind, intelligent and caring friend was being vilified as a Muslim extremist who was allegedly inciting all sorts of ridiculous things. What was worse was that it was coming from someone within my own community. I was mortified. I had read her work, the work they were speaking of. She was no terrorist, in fact her work was considered, loving and important. I wrote to the author of the post and told him she was my friend and this was not true and asked him to take the post down. He was surprised she was my friend and said he himself did not know her and had not read her book, but that was what he had ‘heard’. I wrote to her to check she was ok. In the following months it became clearer to me she was not ok. Previously she would write and speak openly in the Australian media and she was now silenced in fear. She could no longer take the violence and hate that would be aimed at her young family and at her whenever she wrote something. It was not going to matter what she wrote, she had been targeted. You cannot dialogue with hate and you cannot dialogue with trolls.
Even as I am writing this, I know the vitriol that will follow. What about Christian lives? Don’t they matter? What about all the times they have hurt “us”. Labels will be thrown at me with an expectation that I defend myself publicly and deny them – you are a leftist, feminist, heretic and whatever else.
Over the following months I continued to watch horrified as my Muslim friend was vilified, including by some in my own community. I sometimes sent her messages to check on her, but I also retreated into silence and avoided a defence of her. It was easier.
This morning I have decided that today is not a day for retreat and today is not a day for silence. I ask you to read my friends own words of how she is feeling. For all those who have ever had a view about how evil Islam is or how evil Muslims are, either on social media or in the secrecy of the walls of your own home, this is a reminder that your views and words have wider consequences. Hate breeds hate, fear breeds fear and today as individuals and as a nation we must take a collective responsibility for our words, for every time we have vilified the ‘other’, for every time we have failed to speak up for those who have been silenced and for all those times we have remained silent in the face of wrong. To my friend, I will lament with you like the Kiwi in that cartoon and in all this grief, brokenness and hurt there is hope. I was so proud to see my own Bishop standing with Muslim religious at Lakemba Mosque last night. Today, I will stand with you also and share your voice with the world, because I know you can’t.
Dear Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten
I am an Australian Muslim woman. I am highly educated and hold a professional job. I spend a great deal of my time working with the Australian legal system. I am a wife. I am a mother. And tonight, I am frightened, anxious and so very sad.
The tragedy that has occurred in Christchurch has pierced a hole in my heart that I cannot actually close. The grief is deep. These innocent people were simply praying when massacred by a man that had a deep disdain and hatred for them, not because they said or did anything but simply because they were Muslim.
Watching the images and hearing the eyewitness accounts are beyond traumatic. We have shed tears and expressed our hurt but most of us have something in common. As hard as it is to say this we are not surprised or shocked.
Because we have lived with this fear for a long time now. Genuine fear that our lives are at risk simply because we are Muslim. I am someone who has received death threats, been vilified through the tabloids, subject to petitions to remove me from my employment and regularly receive hate mail because I am Muslim. So perhaps the threats hit close to home. I also have had the opportunity to research and present about Islamophobia in Australia and know full well the experiences of many Muslims who are attacked and vilified because of their faith.
Our fear does not exist in a vacuum. It resides and is increased in a society where our leaders sit in a parliament where it is ok to call Islam a “disease”, where it is ok to refer to a ‘final solution’ when talking about Muslim presence in society, where it is ok to wear and ridicule our religious attire as if it is nothing more than scrap material, where it is ok to say that we made a ‘mistake’ to let Muslims come to this country in the 1970’s, where it is ok to say that Muslims don’t condemn terrorism even though Muslim leaders have issued more statements condemning terrorism than they have on any other topic. Where it is ok to make Muslims feel that they do not belong!
Our fear is not created because we ask for it. Many say if you wear hijab or write about Muslim issues then this is all part of the territory – well is it?
Toughen up they say, be resilient, this happens to all new migrants and soon it will be another group that gets picked on. Those comments don’t reflect our society they say, Australia is not a racist country and after all you can’t be racist towards Muslims because Islam is not a race.
I don’t care what you call it – racism, islamophobia or xenophobia – tonight these terms are meaningless to me! They don’t help me talk to my teenage children about these attacks, they don’t help me to stop their pain as they try to make sense of why the country they are born in sometimes doesn’t feel like home. They also don’t help me explain how after today’s events a Senator can use an Australian parliamentary letterhead to blame Muslims for being killed!
Prime Minister and Mr Shorten, it was great to see you say the right things today but also very painful. So many people today genuinely seemed shocked. How do you deal with a situation where the attacks were clearly anti-Islamic and not even the media outlets could mask it? This was a terrorist attack from a right-wing extremist.
Why couldn’t you realise that when you failed to call out the attacks on Muslims, when you used dog whistling rants to fuel your election prospects and when you failed to show courage in the face of shock jocks who demonise Islam that this is where we would end up! Let me clearly say that I am not laying the blame for the attacks at anyone’s feet other the perpetrators, but that does not mean that I cannot call out the context that allows such views to flourish. A context in which we dehumanise Muslims simply because of their faith.
Isn’t it time that we realised that we cannot continue with divisive politics? Isn’t it time our leaders showed some moral courage and recognised that ‘terrorism’ and ‘violence’ is not a “Muslim” thing but something that will come from a society that lacks understanding and compassion? Extremism in all its forms needs to be called out. We need to ensure that we create a society where we all belong, one in which we see past our differences and see our common humanity.
No doubt coming days will see the best of our society come forward and stand in solidarity with Muslims. I have no doubt that we live in the best country on earth. Shoulder to shoulder we will stand strong and not let this tragedy define our society.
But tonight, please understand we are grieving. Tonight, we cannot stop crying and nothing will ease our pain. Tonight, Prime Minister Morrison and Mr Shorten as you place your heads on your pillow please remember the pain that we are going through. Believe us when we say that we are scared and most importantly please have the moral courage to go beyond the grand statements that are about gaining votes and make a commitment to create a cohesive society where we all feel that we can belong.