The topic of Sydney’s protest against C-grade “film” Innocence of Muslims has been well documented. There should be zero doubt that the actions of a small group of irate young men aren’t reflective of Muslims in Australia, or even globally , despite the well-publicised outrage. Like many, we’re distressed by images of injured people, and children holding placards that call for violence.
The big issue at play isn’t a questionable low-budget, low-cred “film” that mocks the Prophet Muhammed, but what these angry reactions mean. On one level, they symbolise a disenfranchised generation, something Waleed Aly has dealt with superbly here.
In a more immediate sense, there are after-effects to consider because these troubling events have a profound impact on how society views and accepts Muslims. Every illegal, disruptive act tarnishes an entire community of Muslims who attempt and manage to co-exist peacefully in society. There was a surprisingly swift and unified response from concerned Muslims because not only do we disagree with the actions taken, the outcome of these events is more rage – usually directed at us. We were in damage control, because Muslims who are visibly practising – namely, men in beards and women in headscarves – often bear the brunt of these acts.
It’s a subject close to both of us because we’ve both been on the receiving end of abuse at some point. Backlash post-catastrophe is a recurring narrative for Muslim women. We both know what it’s like to be targeted – to overhear the bus driver talk about filthy Muslims who shouldn’t be allowed in; to have an assembly of bottles thrown at you by loons in a passing car; to have a tirade of vitriol spewed at you as you go about your everyday business.
Far from being victims, Muslim women will hold their heads high and continue on, despite any negative outcomes. Still, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Muslim women deal with the threat of verbal and physical assault when the hordes are at play.
It runs deeper than the visible, too. Excessive behaviour informs perceptions and every Muslim becomes an unwitting spokesperson. As one friend mentioned, the first thing she was asked at work on Monday was if she’d seen what happened. The question left hanging in the air was how she felt about it. As though it might make a difference, she was expected to immediately undo what happened.
Women in headscarves are easy targets for retaliation, but it’s not necessarily an overt expression of anger we’re up against. This same friend worried about more implicit issues – smeared by association, we’re subject to assumptions, which plays into our personal and professional lives.
Even Muslim men will attest to the damage it does to a woman’s freedom to practise her religion as she pleases. NYU imam and NYPD chaplain Khalid Latif once described how, in the aftermath of September 11, the women in his community took steps to look less Muslim, out of fear of reprisals against them. It’s the “hijabi” (headscarf-wearing woman) or any type of “visible” Muslim who suffers.
As a young university student, Latif removed his tell-tale Muslim prayer cap in an attempt to blend in, and look less “Middle Eastern”. He vowed never to hide his identity again, after a fellow female Muslim student removed her face-veil but retained her headscarf. He felt that if a woman could bear the brunt of looking Muslim after the worst terrorist attacks on US soil, so could he. Nasya spent five months as a visiting scholar at NYU in 2010-2011, and never saw Imam Latif without his prayer hat. You can hear him tell his story of being Muslim in the aftermath of September 11 here. (It’s a long video but worth the viewing).
There are many things that as Muslim women we’re tired of, but over time, we just accept. We’re sick of vocalising our disgust, and condemning and distancing ourselves from the anger, but we accept that we have to, because other peoples’ actions are what will do the talking for us.
Women are caught in the crossfire between those who seek to use the riots for their own anti-Muslim agenda, and fellow Muslims who accuse us of selling out for apologising for appalling actions that besmirch our religion. Yet, we condemn because we must – intimidation, violence and causing offence to others are unacceptable acts.
Just as the images of the protest are disturbing to non-Muslims, they’re equally distressing to us, as Muslim women, who know that the Prophet walked away from people insulting him, and stopped his companions from beating up on a man who urinated in his mosque. It goes some way to explaining why it’s the women of our community who are highly proactive in seeking out calm after the storm.
The negative outcomes for Muslims, unfortunately, do not seem to offer pause for consideration amongst the angry protestors, who feel so offended by a film they haven’t seen that they get embroiled in violence and cause damage to property. They seem not to understand, or care, that this isn’t becoming of law-abiding members of society, nor is it a glowing endorsement of Islam, a religion that prescribes peace by its very name.
This week, in Melbourne and Sydney, the Islamic Council of Victoria’s Office for Women is hosting the Australian and New South Wales premiere screening of a film about a US high school football team that is predominantly Arab-American, preparing for an important match during Ramadan and close to the ninth anniversary of 9/11. The guests at each event are high achievers like AFL player Bachar Houli and NRL ambassador Hazem El Masri – people who inspire young Muslim men and women.
The event was months in the making, but while the riots in Sydney have now cast a shadow over it (as it will with most Muslim issues and events) showing successful Australian Muslim role models like Houli and El Masri can be part of the healing process. In the meantime, we can only continue to engage as constructively as possible and hope for greater understanding that there are deeper issues at play than a film designed to incite a violent response.
Dr Nasya Bahfen is a journalist and producer with ABC Radio Australia and Radio National, and a research associate at UTS.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based writer and author.