Think The Muslim Australia Day Billboard Should Be Re-instated? Think Again

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A public campaign backing the use of photos of Muslim children on an Australia Day billboard has received widespread support. Somayra Ismailjee explains why it shouldn’t.

A campaign to reinstate ‘Australia Day’ billboards featuring a photograph of two Muslim girls wearing the hijab has raised over $165,000. The initiative has been hailed as an act against racism, but not all Muslims agree.

By now, most are familiar with the story: the controversial billboard was removed after garnering threats and negative attention due to its representation of two visibly Muslim children, photographed at an ‘Australia Day’ celebration a year prior. While many have been in favour of reinstating the billboard as a statement of Muslim belonging, the issue of ‘Australia Day’ itself being advertised has rightfully attracted criticism.

Organisers and proponents of the campaign argue that reinstating the billboard is a gesture against the Islamophobia which saw it removed in the first place – that the 12 billboards and half a dozen newspaper ads to bear the image this week are a defiant move against the climate of racism targeting Muslims in Australia. This wholly skips over the underlying dynamic.

Islamophobia cannot be fought without undermining white supremacy, and white supremacy in Australia is contingent on the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – of which ‘Australia Day’ is a significant marker.

There is no ‘anti-racism’ in an act which further entrenches the systemic oppression of one group, for the sake of token inclusions of another.

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Vicious attacks directed at the two young children featured in the campaign have also shown that even Muslims participating in public displays of patriotism are rarely accepted in mainstream society, so why is the image of Muslims still co-opted to perpetuate the myth of an inclusive state?

Muslim communities are fed the idea of respectability politics: that if we ‘integrate’ better, and ‘assimilate’ into beliefs and values that Western countries lay claim to, then bigotry will no longer affect us, and Islamophobia will cease to exist. Symbols and gestures are used to negotiate on this level of politics: attempting to make the hijab synonymous with the colours of blue, red and white, or smiling, non-threatening faces, overlooks the true nature of racism.

It cannot be fought and won with billboards while the bodies bearing the brunt of racialised violence are ignored.

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In light of this, many Muslims have since taken to social media to express their concern about the celebration of ‘Australia Day’ and the use of Muslim children in advertising it, while the sister of the two girls featured in the billboard also addressed the history of ‘Australia Day’ in a post responding to the abuse faced by her family, stating “Most [Aboriginal people] do not celebrate Australia Day as it is a day of mourning to them, as it was the day their ancestors were killed and oppressed by the British settlement!”

As Muslims, we must acknowledge that much of the persecution we experience is inextricable from the history of oppression against Aboriginal people. The racialisation of, and ongoing violence against, Aboriginal bodies has been central to the foundation of the Australian state: a state built on genocide, which has sought to uphold the perceived “purity” of whiteness through decades of brutal assimilation policies, forced closures of Aboriginal communities, restrictions on immigration, securitisation measures disproportionately targeting certain ethnic groups, and overt racism permeating its political class.

Children locked up in immigration detention on Nauru, August 2016. This image is courtesy of Mums 4 Refugees.
Children locked up in immigration detention on Nauru, August 2016. This image is courtesy of Mums 4 Refugees.

Some of the most systemic examples of Islamophobia in Australia have their roots in mechanisms of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Manus, Nauru and Christmas Island, where hundreds of people of colour are indefinitely detained – most of them Muslim or from Muslim-majority countries – are known as modern-day gulags, but they are not unique. As Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites point out through their work, the offshore detention of people seeking asylum can be located among a tradition of the Australian state trafficking people of colour away to islands such as Rottnest, which was historically used as a prison for Aboriginal men.

It is ironic, then, that the crowdfunding campaign is considered an example of Australia’s benevolence toward people seeking asylum, with one representative of the Australian Muslim Women’s Association stating that the nation’s approach to refugees is “inclusive” and “ethical” as evidenced by the response.

This divorces individual acts of generosity from their political context – in actuality, Australia’s treatment of refugees has been internationally condemned, named both morally and legally reprehensible. Meanwhile RISE, a refugee welfare organisation run entirely by refugees and ex-detainees of Australian immigration detention centres, have distanced themselves from the billboards, acknowledging Aboriginal sovereignty and attempts throughout history to erode it.

There is a growing movement among Muslims to reject the celebration of January 26th as ‘Australia Day’ under the firm belief that our acceptance should not come at the exclusion of any other minority. Further, our communities should be aware of our role as settlers and the role of our complicity in perpetuating the dispossession of Aboriginal people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Muslims.

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Relying on nationalism for acceptance immediately positions us at odds with those victimised by it. While much of this occurs under the exercise of power by white supremacists and saviours alike, it is up to our communities to overcome the dynamic which pits us against one another.

As stated by the collective ‘Muslims Say No To Australia Day – Invasion Day – Billboard’ on Facebook, the billboard “is merely a symptom of a much wider problem that must be addressed in its entirety within the Muslim community”.

It is also telling that of over $165,000 raised by the campaign, most has been spent on placing billboards and advertisements – images symbolising the integration of Muslims into the liberal fantasy of a “multicultural” utopia – in every state and territory, while only ‘leftover’ funds were intended for donation to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. In this campaign, the idea and visual semiotic of Muslim assimilation has been prioritised over the actual wellbeing of Muslims in Australia, particularly those made most vulnerable by the state – refugees.

In a hasty change to the campaign after many, including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Larrakiah Muslim writer Eugenia Flynn, called for the money to be donated to Aboriginal services, these ‘leftover’ funds will now be given to Indigenous X and Children’s Ground. Although seemingly a step in the right direction, it is evident that in the mainstream cause for “anti-racism”, symbols still pervade over material realities.

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As Aboriginal voices continue to point out, spending such a significant sum of money on nation-wide billboards celebrating a day of dispossession has come at the direct cost of ignoring how the funds could, instead, be used to aid communities most affected by it.

While the intentions behind the campaign may have been benevolent, its impact is contentious and damaging. To construe it as an act of anti-racism is to ignore what truly underpins racism in Australia – socially, politically, and historically.

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Somayra Ismailjee

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