My Year Undercover With Muslim Australians And Minnie Mouse Ears


You can’t beat lived experience, and Nelly Thomas has had more than a few with Muslim Australians. It provides quite a contrast to what we often read in the media.

Like many of you, I woke Saturday morning to read the news about the attack in Nice. What can one say other than it’s devastating. Also, like many of you, I read a piece in Fairfax, Inside Islamic State: My year undercover with radical Australians. Again, devastating – and frightening.

I had two competing reactions to this piece. On the one hand, good on the journalist for his dedication to investigative reporting. Such a piece involves real risks and I don’t think any fair-minded person could say it’s not in the public interest to know there’s people who want to harm the public.

On the other hand, I thought, “Hanson et al will have a field day with this.” Yet another piece about radical Muslims intent on destroying our way of life (whatever that is); feeding the fear used to justify racism.

More fear, more hatred, more division.

I have a different experience of Muslim Australians. The Conservatives keep calling for balance, so here goes.

I did a gig just after the Paris attacks of November 2015. I don’t normally begin comedy gigs with serious messages – or any messages really – but for whatever reason, that night, I opened my set with a brief message of support for Muslim Australians.

I don’t know why I did, it just felt right. I can’t remember exactly what I said but it was something to the effect that they must be having a shit of a time and that they should know they are a welcome and loved part of our community.

I then moved on to make some fart jokes. Or something. I thought nothing of this until the next day a Muslim man in the audience contacted me to say thank you and that it had meant a lot to him.

I called him and he told me how he usually feels “hated” and like we all wish he’d “go home”. I do wish he’d go home – to his house in the suburbs of Melbourne. I have since been to his house with my family where we’ve eaten delicious food from his native homeland and talked about renovations. Serious stuff.

There’s a Muslim mum at my kid’s school I’ve become friends with. We’re both on a school committee (that shit will bond anyone). We talk about things like nit treatments and whether or not the canteen at Scienceworks should serve healthier food (it should).

In our softer moments she tells me her and her husband have considered changing their kids’ names because they’re worried they’ll face discrimination or worse, violence. Her son once asked her why we all hate them. He was born in Australia and he’s 10-years-old.

A month or so ago we had some painters at our house. They were here for about a week and I actually could talk under water so I got to know them a bit. They all used two names: their actual name – Muslim sounding – and an Australian version so they can get work. One told me about a group of guys on a work site who he described as “excellent” because they have given him – a newly arrived refugee with little English – work.

He worked for them for 18 months and considered them his friends. Then, one day, one of them pointed to a Herald Sun headline that read, Boat People are Fucked (I could be paraphrasing) and said, “They should all be shot.” They didn’t seem like friends anymore.

About this time last year I had a gig in London and afterwards, my family and I were lucky enough to have a holiday in France. We did all the usual tourist things, including EuroDisney (which, incidentally, really IS the GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH). I won’t bore you with tales of Mickey Mouse and Alice’s Labyrinth, but I will tell you about the night our hotel was evacuated (fire alarm, doofus smoking).

There we were, my partner, myself and our two small kids, in our undies in a car-park, in the middle of a freezing night. My then 2-year-old daughter was shaking, she was so cold.

I approached an English speaking family with children – and lots of clothing – and asked if they had a blanket. They declined to help. A Muslim family huddling near us saw this happen and the father came over, ushered us into their little huddle and directed his daughter to take off her head scarf.

He then wrapped it around my daughter’s shoulders. We couldn’t speak to each other, but there was a lot of nodding and smiling.

As an aside, literally one of the funniest things I have ever seen was what we now call the Muslim Tenenbaums. As we were evacuated, a family of five, in height order, trotted out with torches, blankets, raincoats, Hijabs and snacks. They were ready for this shit.

Finally, I’ve got a few Muslim comedian colleagues. Two in particular are my friends. I do gigs for them, they do gigs for me and we have cups of tea at my house. It gets pretty crazy – I’ve even met their wives and I regularly harass one for photos of his new baby (a universal failing of men… not enough baby photos).

I am an atheist feminist and they are practicing Muslims dudes. We have differences of opinion about stuff and yes, we sometimes argue about it – as I do with a range of colleagues – and I can say, hand on heart, that they are among the most supportive colleagues I have.

They consistently champion female comedians and actively defend our right to call out gender imbalance and other feminsta stuff. I guess they know what it’s like to be under-represented.

The attacks in Paris are real.

The article and experience of the undercover journalist are real.

But my experience is also real and I can’t be the only one living in the suburbs, in peace, with Muslim Australians.

I’ll leave you with an image. Again, it was at EuroDisney. I was walking down “Main Street USA” (ironies abound) and walking toward me was a woman in full Burka, holding a giant fairy floss and wearing mini mouse ears. When I hear about how scary THEY are, I remember her and smile.

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.