Moderate, educated, and articulate young Australian-Muslims contradict the generalisations of Australia’s growing Islamophobic current, writes Max Chalmers.
When trying to make sense of the months-long hate campaign against Yassmin Abdel-Magied – an author and engineer in her mid-20s who occasionally appears on talk shows – it’s useful to consider the contrasting fortunes of Kirralie Smith.
A lot has changed for Smith since 2014. At the time, she was running a fringe website about halal certification, positing herself as a consumer advocate and arguing the local halal process was part of a global conspiracy.
“Islam won’t need all out violent jihad to dominate the world,” she said in one her videos. “It is being done by stealth and you and I are funding it every day with our grocery purchases.”
The article I wrote at the time treated Smith as a slight curiosity, but noted some of her arguments were being taken up in mainstream publications, including the Sydney Morning Herald. At the heart of her campaign there was a contradiction.
“Obviously there isn’t going to be jihad in this country and I’m very thankful for that, and I understand that most Muslims wouldn’t want that, I really do get that,” Smith told me. “However, the fact is that Islam is about making non-Muslims submit, and this is a way of submission.”
Like others who are part of the increasingly mainstreamed anti-Muslim streak in Australian politics, Smith acknowledged an undeniable fact – that the overwhelming majority of Australian Muslims live happily under Australian law and quietly integrate – while still clinging to an incongruous conclusion: the religion these people follow is inherently dangerous.
Smith’s way of squaring this circle was to suggest that Muslims in Australia, unlike her, simply do not understand the Qu’ran.
This is the tension that the Abdel-Magied saga has brought to the fore, and helps explain why she has attracted a unique and indefatigable ire. To put it simply, Abdel-Magied is being punished for behaving well. She has been visited by a sustained attack because she breaks the mould certain parts of the Australian polity and media have tried to set for Muslims.
This segment of the country is convinced that followers of Islam are universally a threat, and they are constantly struggling against the fact so many Muslims already live in Australia so peacefully. They are the ones who buy into Pauline Hanson’s comparison of Muslim migrants and Pit Bull Terriers.
For this burgeoning sector of the country, the apparition of a Muslim who looks like anything other than a suicide bomber is a scandal. It contradicts their varied assertions about the true evil of Islam, and the universal untrustworthiness of Muslims. This growing, increasingly paranoid audience have had their preconceptions so heavily groomed that any contradiction becomes an outrage.
That’s one reason why the drawn-out and orchestrated demise of Abdel-Magied has been so unpleasant to watch from afar [Ed’s note: Max Chalmers is now based in the US].
In February, she was attacked by Senator Jacqui Lambie on an episode of Q&A. As I argued at the time, Lambie’s line of argument – one also advanced by Pauline Hanson – should concern any Australian who supports religious liberty, regardless of their feelings about any particular faith. But it was Abdel-Magied who provoked headlines after the exchange, having said that Islam is “the most feminist religion”. It was the start of a months-long, dragging campaign.
Only brief attention was given to arguments about history and religion, because this was not really a debate: it was a character assassination. Stories in The Australian focused intensely on Abdel-Magied’s character, framing her as a hypocrite. In the most insane smear of all, the paper implied she was in some way cosy with extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, based on the fact she replied to a comment a member of the group made on her Facebook page.
The appearance of the ‘moderate Muslim’, the personage that newspapers like The Australian insist they will tolerate, cannot be allowed to stand.
“The scale [of the response]would suggest Yassmin outed herself on the program as a paedophile or a North Korean spy,” Susan Carland wrote after Yassmin Fury Round One.
Then, on Anzac day, Abdel-Magied posted: “LEST. WE. FORGET (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)”. The post was quickly removed and the author apologised.
Again, very few responders actually bothered to put forward an argument explaining why this (very ambiguous) post was offensive, moving straight to calls for Abdel-Magied to be punished. There was a glee about it. Finally, something to hang her with.
As the attacks maintained their pace, their obsessive tracking of Abdel-Magied’s movements, their hysteria, a federal senator eventually declared the young Australian should “move to one of these Arab dictatorships that are so welcoming of women.”
Already, compelling arguments have been made to explain why Abdel-Magied has come in for such heavy treatment. As Susan Carland noted in her Saturday Paper piece, Abdel-Magied was exactly the kind of Muslim migrants in Australia are constantly told they need to be: a law abiding citizen who works hard and adapts to Australian life and mainstream values. The bar is set impossibly high for many immigrants and still, she cleared it, by far.
As Carland argued, Abdel-Magied’s critics – the ones who insist, ‘no no, it’s behaviours and ideas, not identities, that we oppose’ – had unmasked themselves.
“It finally puts into full technicolour display the truth of their feelings towards Muslims: that the only acceptable Muslim is a non-Muslim.”
After Abdel-Magied announced she would be moving to the UK this week, author Randa Abdel-Fattah argued that many who cheered the attacks might now be at a loss. The point was not so much to chase Abdel-Magied out as to exert control over other Australian Muslims, and use the attacks as a tool seeking to “control and dominate”. The attacks on Abdel-Magied were a warning to others.
“Many Muslim women avoid the media, think twice about public interventions because the personal cost is so vicious and so high,” Abdel-Fattah noted.
The Kirralie Smith dilemma adds another element, one which both of the above authors hit on.
Abdel-Magied represents the kind of Muslim those truly invested in the politics of Islamophobia do not want to see. She is a threat because she is one of the few Muslims who can get a slot on TV without either a) actually supporting extremism or b) denouncing Muslims. That is why she must be destroyed.
How do you square the circle when a Muslim in public life doesn’t fit the menacing profile you have developed for them? You hound them till they crack. Or, as in Yassmin’s case, you chase them out of town.
This also explains the abject horror inspired by Waleed Aly, a moderate, mainstream, liberal commentator.
As with Abdel-Magied, you may well object to a particular position held by Aly. But it is only by virtue of his religious identity that he could ever be treated as truly outrageous by so many. And it is only by virtue of his liberal beliefs, articulate nature, successful integration, and handsome televisual image that his identity could cause such burning fury.
He is worse than the extremist. He is the moderate who thinly-veiled Islamophobes have insisted they will accept.
With the ferocity and fury that have been unleashed, it’s easy to forget just how absurd the situation is. Abdel-Magied has consistently put forward a familiar critique of Australia as a nation that has failed to represent and respond to all of its inhabitants and has committed historical wrongs as a state. She adds a kind of identity politics to this, a way of thinking now intuitive to many younger Australians especially.
You may take issue with this worldview or ideological bent, but you can’t deny it is drawn from mainstream currents.
In a society that bills itself as open, Abdel-Magied should have the right to make radical and even extremist critiques. As it turns out, however, she does not.
Take this passage, from a piece she recently wrote for The Guardian:
“Australia has all the ingredients for a flourishing, harmonious and inclusive society. We have incredible monetary wealth, with the longest streak of economic growth of any developed nation. We are home to the oldest continuous living civilisation, the source of millennia of wisdom. Our natural landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful, and, despite restrictive migratory policies until the mid-70s, we have quickly made up for lost time. According to the 2016 census, 49% of the population is either born overseas or has at least one parent born overseas. We are the envy of nations worldwide, and rightly so.
Despite this good fortune, however, we are deeply disillusioned with our leadership and institutions.”
This ranks very low on the Australian Culture War scale, if it registers at all: an old argument delivered in a relatively conciliatory form.
Part of the response to Abdel-Magied is undoubtedly explained by score settling in the culture wars. With right wing commentators watching their own pursued for what they view as crimes of political correctness (but what are actually often little more than bald faced instances of racism), they try to get one back where they can. Lest we forget (Barry Spurr, Paul Sheehan, Andrew Bolt, Tony Abbott).
But far more of it is retribution for her refusal to really fuck-up.
FAST forward a few years and Kirralie Smith now has links with federal MPs. She has enjoyed massive and often uncritical media exposure, and become a backer of Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. Her proximity to the mainstream has steadily increased. As Yassmin Abdel-Magied prepares to leave the country, Smith’s agenda is no longer a curiosity.
This stuff is now seeping deep into the Australian psyche. The authors and political sponsors of the hit pieces on the likes of Abdel-Magied raise their eyebrows petulantly at the vile, bloodthirsty comments their own commentary inspires. They try to distinguish themselves from their acolytes, as if their highbrow Islamophobia could never be confused for the less polished remarks that so often literally call for internment, bloodshed, and apartheid.
They feign surprise when their attacks do exactly what they are designed to do.
Migrants do not have to take the path of Abdel-Magied. The process of immigration is one that may take generations to settle. It is a tumultuous transformation. People need to be given the room to acclimatise, to make paths for themselves on their own terms.
But that is not the path Abdel-Magied has chosen. She has rapidly joined the mainstream conversation and been unafraid to assert her identity, on her own terms. She has taken a few steps down the well-trodden paths of Australia’s culture wars. She has not functioned purely as a spokesperson to denounce her own non-white community.
And worst of all, she hasn’t done anything unethical or outrageous in the process. That’s a crime a growing number of Australians cannot abide.