Sydney siege: why my heart sank when I saw an Islamic flag

As a mother and a fellow Australian, I join the rest of the nation in grieving the loss of two innocent Sydneysiders who so tragically lost their lives in the Martin Place siege. My thoughts and prayers are with their families, the rest of the hostages and their loved ones. I went to Martin Place on Tuesday to lay flowers in their honour.

As this nightmare unravelled on Monday, my heart sank as I sat at my desk at work, hearing about the events occurring only a few streets away. I felt completely numb when I heard that the innocent hostages were forced to hold up an “Islamic flag”. With one grotesque act, 1½ billion Muslims were at risk of being dragged through the mud, deemed “guilty by association”, and religious symbols misappropriated.

Unable to contain my emotions, I wept uncontrollably in my team meeting at work as the sheer magnitude of this callous act and the unknown potential violence dawned on me. The love, compassion and unconditional support my colleagues showed me that day reaffirmed my belief that love will always triumph over hate.

I dreaded the calls that I would start receiving from the media – asking me to “comment” on the unfolding crisis, like I was somehow connected or responsible for this lone, mentally deranged gunman. I immediately thought, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t “comment”.

I then somewhat hesitantly roamed the streets of Sydney’s CBD with my work colleagues to find a taxi, which seemed like an impossible task. Being visibly Muslim, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I finally managed to find a taxi travelling in my direction and shared it with two lovely women named Michaela and Dixie.

The pain must have been visible on my face, as they comforted me with their words of solidarity and support. The taxi was unable to drop me off all the way home so Michaela insisted on driving me the final stretch to my door; a beautiful gesture from a complete stranger, which helped mend my heart. It is only later that I discovered the #illridewithyou hashtag, a social media campaign which not only helped restore my faith in humanity but reminded me that visible Australian Muslims would no doubt bear the brunt of the rampant Islamophobia which to some extent, will inevitably follow.

Racist groups have already started exploiting this unprecedented tragedy. Predators who foster ill will, division and hatred at a time of tragedy are sacrilegious to those who have lost their lives. It is socially irresponsible behaviour – whether it comes from racist groups or shock jocks.

How we respond to tragedies define us as a nation, as a community and as a people.

There are many unanswered questions, which will no doubt have complex and complicated answers. But in time, they must be asked and as a nation, we must have the frank conversation of what we want and how we will achieve it. In doing so, it is important that we challenge the prevailing narrative, free of hysteria. We must not give in to the temptation to demonise, stigmatise or alienate entire communities.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 17 December 2014