Monday, June 25, 2012

De-normalising Racism

Islamaphobia is nothing new. European Orientalism demonized Muslims and perceived them as the ‘other’ during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Now over 200 years on and we are still trying the same thing albeit through our modern communication mediums. The sad thing is while it may suit the agenda of some, it is people on the ground who suffer. The media and our politicians are much to blame and of course some of our religious leaders add fuel to the fire. But this type of stereotyping and marginalization has ensured that Islam remains outside of the norm. It is viewed as a mysterious, seductive and cultic faith which aims to undermine our righteous Christian values. “The bearded Muslim awaits around each corner and school yard ready to pounce on our innocent youth, to viciously rape and debase our women and to wage a jihad against our western democracies”. William Muir (1891) in The Caliphate, Its Rise, Decline and Fall, states: “the sword of Muhammed and the Qur’an are the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty and the Truth which the world has yet known” French philologists Ernest Renan who wrote L’Avenir de la Science in 1848, said “the Semitic race (Arab and Jew) appears to us to be an incomplete race, by virtue of its simplicity. This race – if I dare use the analogy- is to the Indo-European family what a pencil sketch is to a painting; it lacks that variety, that amplitude, that abundance of life which is the condition of perfectibility.” What Renan tried to do was to reduce the Orient to a kind of human flatness, which exposed its characteristics easily to scrutiny and removed from it its complicating humanity. Edward Said in his seminal work “Orientalism” describes the Orientalist as one who: “constructs, and the very act of construction is a sign of imperial power of recalcitrant phenomena, as well as a confirmation of the dominant culture and its ‘naturalisation’.” Analysis of contemporary media will show one common thread. The negative stereotype, this thread is aimed at de-normalising Islam, making it alien and threatening. The Muslim is the antithesis to everything that we enjoy as a part of a healthy democracy. The cartoons of the 19th C and early 20th C depict Muslims and Turks as evil and blood-thirsty murderers. The recent Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad although offensive is nothing new. This existed in the late 1800’s and aimed largely at ridiculing the Ottoman Empire which was basically the Islamic world at the time. If we look at the television and movie industry for example, we observe in Arnold Schwarznegger action movies where he kills the Arab villain and saves the world from Islamic domination. In programs like ‘24’ our all American hero Kiefer Sutherland comes across a Turkish family who has lived in the states for 7 years going about their business yet even a normal family as this one is actually embedded in to the society as a sleeper cell awaiting orders. When their orders are finally made they wreak havoc upon the innocent Americans although good finally triumphs over evil. If we take an even closer look at seemingly innocent children’s programs like “The Simpsons”, a very clever satirical look at American society. The program makes fun of just about everything and everyone: The Christian fundamentalist next door, the Jewish entertainer with a triple heart by-pass and a smoking addiction, his over-bearing Rabbi father, the Hindu Indian Kwik-e-mart owner changing used by dates on food items, the eccentric Scottish gardener, the nerdy school principal who still lives at home with his mother, the stingy polish bartender, the alcoholic lay about, the corrupt police chief and the shonky mayor, the Italian mafia boss, the escaped convict, black plant co-worker, and of course the evil white millionaire nuclear plant owner who exploits his workers and his faithful assistant with latent homosexual tendencies. The program has covered Freemasons to sending up celebrities and presidents. Yet what is missing, in this all-American city of Springfield? De-normalising Islam has been a part of the agenda for over three centuries. Possibly, things could change, when we start to see Muslim characters on Home and Away, or Muslims reading the 6 o’clock news and when Muslims are not associated with terror and anti-social behaviour and instead with positive stories. Islam then would begin its path to normalization but there is a very long road ahead of us. The Muslim experience of racism is very real. It varies in form; women who wear the head scarf are open targets and have faced varying degrees of racially motivated attacks, such as verbal abuse, physical assaults including the pulling off of head scarves and intimidation in public spaces, by staff in hospitals, medical surgeries and shopping centres and particularly at work. Cases of women being bullied or treated unfairly at work are rising too. Most of these incidents go unreported because women do not want to lose their jobs, they do not know what complaints mechanisms are available to them or they are fearful of reprisals. Only last month a Muslim woman was physically attacked in broad daylight, in the main street of Sydney CBD, whereby two men crept up behind her and pulled off her headscarf. Then intimidated her and no-one came to help. Another case where a student teacher was regularly made fun of because she wore the head covering and made to feel unwanted and inferior. Racism is an ugly thing. Yet, we all know that it exists and to a certain degree we accept it. The fight to eradicate racism is not nearly strong enough in Australia. Because of our very long history of racism in this country, we have grown very complacent and many always assume that it will not happen to them so why should they be concerned. But that is because most Australians live in places where they are sheltered from the real effects of racism. In the multicultural heartlands of Sydney and Melbourne, you will find that a very different environment and Muslims, as well as Chinese, Indians and Pacific Islanders are a dominant feature. In suburbs like Lakemba, Fairfield and Auburn, we find that Islam is very normalised and accepted. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians co-exist, harmoniously and with very little tension. In Coburg and Broadmeadows, there is a nice balance between the so many diverse cultures that are sprinkled along Sydney road, from Greek, Italian, Slavic, Asian, Indian, Turkish and Arab as well as new cultures emerging from Africa and Afghanistan. For many, who are isolated from these places, see a different world, where they rarely mix, rarely have contact with the other, and know of only negative stereotypes reinforced through the media, these racist inclinations continue until it is manifested in the form of abuse or physical assault. The Cronulla riots reminded us of just how relatively minor tensions can blow out into an all out war. However, Muslims are not just sitting on their hands and doing nothing to address the issue of racism and particularly Islamaphobia. They are taking various measures to breakdown the barriers. The youth movements are extraordinary and there are several groups emerging. A new initiative called Y-factor has really taken a strong step towards that path through the use of Facebook and online radio broadcasts. Another group calling itself Justice and Arts Network (JAAN), is using art to address social justice and discrimination. The Sydney Refugee Advocacy Network are a bunch of motivated Muslims taking up the fight for the rights of refugees. And the Australian Muslim Womens Association is addressing Muslim women’s issues in employment. This month, they are holding a Q and A style forum hosted by local Muslim personality Waleed Aly and panelists include successful business woman Miriam Silva and Race Discrimination commissioner Helen Szoke. The project also involves workshops which will explore the Muslim woman’s experience at work and ways to address this, this includes barriers to promotion, direct discrimination, inadequate provisions for religious practices and cases of bullying, harassment and intimidation. Project co-ordinator Zaynab Hawa, says, “We are excited about this initiative because firstly its long overdue and this issue needs to be raised and discussed but also we are at a stage where we have successful Muslim women in employment, who can be role models and speak out against these practices of discrimination and prejudice.” The program will look at situations like Mariam’s who experienced racism during her student teaching practice; Mariam, expresses how she was made to feel inadequate and unaccepted during her training. She said, “My building confidence was tarnished, I was given no sense of hope and instead of professional constructive criticism I was the victim of derogatory names and continuous scrutiny. I went into this prac with a high sense of willingness to learn but was blocked at every opportunity through consistent negativity. Furthermore working in an environment where I was evidently discriminated and subjected to racial taunts was not helpful in my experience. I do not wish for any student to undergo the same treatment as I did and feel traumatised and deeply affected by my first experience in the teaching realm.” In general, these types of experiences and many more serious ones are affecting both women and men who adhere to the Muslim faith. For men it is not as obvious but finding time to pray or a clean place to pray is often met with antagonism and refusal. For many men who are looking for work, there are difficulties because of their Islamic names, such as Mohamed or Abdullah. So often today, many are anglicising their names just to fit in or get ahead. Mohamed becomes Michael or Mick and Abdullah is Alex or Andy. For others they are discouraged for working outside of their local community and tend to stick with their own ethnicity, this does very little for community cohesion and harmony and only promotes further alienation and isolation. The longer these trends continue, the more potential there is for a divided city. To address these issues local Muslim youth have to take ownership and responsibility to become catalysts for change. Breaking down barriers and stepping outside of their comfort zones.

No comments: