Throwing Away Muslim Australia's Hard Work


The world is abuzz with talk of a "stupid" film that’s taken ticking off Muslims to a whole new level. But in Australia, we can no longer discuss why that’s the case.

Before this weekend, there was a glimmer of hope that for once, Muslims could step into the media foray and push forward a debate about all the reasons a film inciting hatred towards their religion should be globally deemed unacceptable.

Instead, they are forced back on the defensive.

There is nothing more frustrating than realising all the years of effort put by community advocates, youth and leaders into reconstructing a post-September 11, post-Cronulla Riots image of the Australian Muslim community is shattered by one protest. Especially when the reasons behind the protest were fair.

After all, freedom to create a highly offensive, provocative movie with the sole purpose of discrediting a religion and desecrating all it holds sacred surely means that there is an equal freedom to oppose it?

But that’s moot now. Because the well-intentioned protest that did go ahead in Sydney on Saturday went ahead without a permit. And more importantly, because that protest erupted into what the media referred to as a "riot", and resulted in the injury of protestors and police alike, as well as eight arrests.

Which leaves the rest of the Muslim community with the grim task of dealing with the consequences.

Australia’s Muslim community leaders have loudly and firmly condemned the violence of Saturday’s protest. Australia’s non-Muslim commentators have also taken it upon themselves to condemn the violence. To them, the turn of events on Saturday is a confirmation of the stereotypes of thuggery and extremism often wrongly associated with Muslims.

And yet, the placement of the word "wrongly" in that sentence can now be contested. After all, weren’t the images on the nation’s television sets telling? And why else would police be forced to resort to pepper spray?

There is another side to this narrative. Updated news reports on Sunday gave airspace to protestors and witnesses who saw acts of unnecessary police aggression. There were claims of police provocation. Police brutality, just like violent protesting, is unacceptable and illegal. And it is now being investigated.

But it is futile for Muslims to throw this into the media discussion mix. Perceptions of the protest were set the minute violence erupted, and the damage was done. To attempt to broaden the conversation beyond protestor aggression is, apparently, an attempt by Muslims to shift the blame and deny responsibility.

Some Australian, non-Muslim commentators have taken their condemnations a step further and criticised the very idea of the protest. What’s the big deal, some ask? It’s a low budget, badly made film. Why can’t Muslims handle mockery of their religion? The Messiah was satirised by Monty Python, so why shouldn’t the same apply to Muslims, even if it offends them?

Theories abound in plenty of op-eds. Some say it’s a reaction to years of West-waged war against Islam. Others say it’s further proof that the film that sparked it all is spot on.

As for the Muslim voices, a heavy schedule of defensive damage control occupies their time. All in all, it remains to be seen whether the work of one weekend did anything but undo years of interfaith work.

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