With Pauline Hanson soon to return to Canberra, the question of how to respond to bigotry is being asked with a new urgency.
Or should we, as Sydney pub the Lord Gladstone did, cut Hanson out altogether, hold ironic parties and chow-down on halal snack packs.
Dr Mehreen Faruqi, a Greens MP in the NSW Parliament, is trying a novel approach.
Faruqi has been in Parliament for three years now, speaking up on issues as diverse as greyhound welfare and abortion law reform. But since taking the job, a steady flow of dispiriting correspondence has arrived in her office.
Born in Pakistan, the MP says she receives “hate-filled sexist, racist, or Islamophobic messages” virtually every day. Now and then they come in the form of a hand written letter, but most of the hate trickles in via email and social media. The volume has increased over time, spiking alongside Faruqi’s public profile.
“My staff see it as well,” she says. “So on the one hand, it’s quite distressing for myself and my staff to see all these really violent messages. On the other hand, I think there’s also a real danger of us becoming normalised to it.”
“I think it’s good to take back some control as well as expose it for what it is. I know so many other people – especially a lot of Muslim women – who are in the public eye who receive similar messages, so we can’t really ignore it.”
And that’s why Faruqi decided to start replying, one message at a time.
The result is Love Letters To Mehreen, a series of memes which utilise a typically daggy stock template and juxtapose the diabolical comments next to wry responses from the MP.
In the most recent meme, Faruqi responds to a comment from ‘Julie’.
“I hate to tell her but she is nothing but a smelly fish infested twin headed Muslime bush pig,” Julie had written. The message was punctuated by three animated emoji: a brown pig, a pink pig, and a camel.
This was Faruqi’s response:
In others, the MP spellchecks her aggressors, and links back to a series of South Asian home cooking videos she produced (in one of the videos she demonstrates a Sivaiyyan recipe for Eid-al-Fitr. One follower complains that there should be a warning about the high sugar content but the comments are otherwise approving).
The purpose of Faruqi’s memes is to expose the kind of vitriol directed at Muslims, but it’s also a therapeutic exercise – cathartic both for the MP, her staff, and those in the community. There’s no right or wrong way to react to this kind of thing, she says, but humour does allow you to cut through.
She’d like to see other leaders, inside and outside of parliament, do the same, especially when it comes from within their own ranks – the George Christensens who add fuel to the fire of those turning up on her Facebook wall.
“It’s often expected it should be incumbent on the Muslim population – whether it’s as an individual or as a community – to either apologise for things that happened in the world or to forgive people,” she says.
“We are one of many groups in Australia and I think it’s actually incumbent on everyone who people listen to, or who people look up to, to stand up and really speak out about such racist comments.”
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