It’s time to leave Afghanistan

As an Afghan-Australian, I find myself increasingly being asked about how I feel about the current situation in Afghanistan.

On March 11th, US Soldier Robert Bales in the dead of night went on a shooting rampage killing 16 Afghan civilians including 9 children, some as young as 2 years old. Some of the victims were later dragged into a room and set on fire.

The latest incident have heightened tensions after US troops burnt copies of the Holy Quran in February, causing protests to erupt across the country resulting in the death of 30 people, including 2 US soldiers.   It also follows the release of the infamous video in January showing US marines urinating on the bodies of Afghans that they had killed.

I recall that immediately following the news of the latest incident, a statement was issued by NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces describing the incident as “deeply regrettable”. What happened was a complete massacre, not just a “deeply regrettable” incident. The US troops were deployed to help protect the Afghan people.  The trust vested in them by the international community and ultimately the Afghan people, albeit unwillingly in some regards, is no light responsibility and to engage in the horrific acts that they have in recent months and then have NATO describe the indiscriminate murder of 16 defenceless Afghan civilians as “regrettable” is incredibly insulting and a slap in the face of all Afghans.

I note that the terminology used by US President Barack Obama following the incidents was slightly more serious but arguably this was in response to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s rare expression of strong opposition and anger.

Ironically, the media has put forward a number of potential motives to try and explain Bales’ actions. We have been told that there may have been alcohol involved, he had experienced trauma watching his colleague’s legs being blown off and he was experiencing marital and financial issues. To the complete contrary, an Afghan, according to the Western media, kills foreigners because they are inherently archaic people or hateful, backward terrorists. The hypocrisy is painful to watch. All human beings, irrespective of their ethnicity, background or religious creed, are susceptible to engaging in violent acts of extremism. Period.

I cannot help but feel that if the tables were turned, and the 16 civilians were in fact Americans who happened to be killed in Afghanistan – thanks to the work of investigative journalists we would have known all of their names, their ages, a brief biography and potentially photographs of each of the victims. Media agencies would be jumping at opportunities to get ‘exclusive’ interviews and photo opportunities with the families and friends of the victims. Unfortunately these victims however will forever remain 16 nameless Afghan civilians. Paradoxically, the alleged perpetrator of this crime has been humanised more than the very victims of this massacre. Bales has been described as a “model soldier, who was calm under pressure and gentle with children.”

We can no longer sit back and watch our government pump millions of our tax payer dollars into a decade old war instigated by the US in the ultimate hope of trying to bring stability to the country and to impose a brand of Western-style democracy which the Afghans clearly don’t want.

Clearly there are some examples of where the foreign troops have added value and helped rebuild Afghanistan and for this I am grateful. But on the whole the US led invasion and subsequent decade old war have been a resounding embarrassment and a costly failure. Although we purport to be genuinely concerned about the Afghan people whose country we have invaded, our treatment of Afghan asylum seekers who arrive on our shores seems to suggest otherwise. Clearly we are so concerned for their welfare that we feel the urge to imprison them and their children.

Afghans are well and truly fed up with foreign intervention and as is evident the presence of foreign troops is becoming more counterproductive. The US and its allies invaded Afghanistan over 10 years ago and they haven’t been able to return real stability to the nation.

Arguably, without foreign troops, there is potential for the Taliban to return and wreak havoc. Foreign troops cannot seriously think that they have a mandate to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely though.

In a similar manner to those brave men and women who participated in the Arab Spring, I am hopeful that one day Afghans will take the world by surprise and fight for their democracy on their own terms and on their own feet.

Afghanistan once enjoyed full independence and sovereignty. There is no reason to believe that with time, the removal of all types of foreign intervention including the removal of a US led puppet government and investing more time in establishing a coordinated regional solution, we can’t return to that state.

To assume otherwise, is an insult to the intelligence of the Afghan people.

Mariam Veiszadeh is of Afghan heritage and now part of a family lawyers Melbourne office and Muslim community advocate.

Originally published in The Daily Life 27 March 2012

Legitimising a fear of difference – major impediment to social cohesion

One of the most challenging impediments to social and community cohesion in Australia has been the alarming increase in Islamophobia – a relatively new term established in the aftermath of 9/11. The public discourse, particularly in the media and amongst politicians, surrounding anti-terrorism and the so-called rise of radicalisation is evidence of this frightening trend.

There is no one specific source for the current climate of mistrust and hostility felt towards Australian Muslims but there are certainly significant contributing factors.

The most pervasive of these factors are the very frequent and often inaccurate portrayals of Muslims and Islamic principles in the media. For an overt and unforgivable example, one only needs to refer to Today Tonight and A Current Affair, which are poor excuses for current affairs shows. Given the extent of the sensationalist misrepresentations masked as factual reporting, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to argue that tabloid TV shows such as these are almost pursuing a deliberate agenda to portray Muslims in a derogatory manner. To engage in Muslim-bashing nowadays seems to be a ratings winner.

Added to this is the very public and highly politicised media discourse surrounding the justification for the war on terror, as well as general discussions around terrorism, fundamentalism and radicalisation. The discussion of the issues is not the concern per se, but rather it’s the immediate connections drawn between these complex concepts on the one hand, and Islam and Muslims on the other. Perhaps the use of such religious labels is amongst the most popular and available explanations for what would otherwise seem to be inconceivable man-made destruction. The connections being made however lead the average lay person to conclude that all terrorists are Muslims and that terrorism is only ever carried out by groups that associate themselves, no matter how loosely, with Islam. This neglects the reality that extremists and radicalised people derive their way of thinking from a vast array of extremist backgrounds, including right and left wing extremism, separatist and nationalist movements and religiously founded movements.

The recent Oslo massacre is one such example. When it became apparent that the man behind the Oslo attacks, the biggest massacre committed by a single gunman in modern times, was not of Middle Eastern origin or a supposed follower of Islam, the Western media labelled Anders Behring Breivik a lone, self-confessed mass killer and madman. I struggled to understand why the Terrorist label was so readily used for those that somehow connected themselves to Islam, and not for the likes of blond-haired, blue-eyed Breiviks. What the Western media’s coverage of the Oslo terrorist attacks seems to show is an underlying assumption, which sets the tone for discussions around terrorism, that only people who are even remotely connected to Islam engage in acts of terrorism.

The Oslo terrorist attacks and the manner in which it was reported in the Western media are strikingly similar to those of the 1995 Oklahoma bombings. The world was shocked then, too, to find that the perpetrator of the murderous attacks was not a Middle Eastern ‘terrorist’ but rather a fair-skinned US Army veteran – Timothy McVeigh. This kind of popular discourse helps reinforce and aggravate the existing stereotypes and bigotry towards Muslims and further alienates them from mainstream society, ultimately impacting their sense of belonging and, in turn, overall social cohesion and community harmony.

This sense of alienation and disenfranchisement is shared amongst young Australian Muslims who, despite being mostly born, raised and educated in Australia, still feel like their identity is being constantly questioned. Contrary to popular belief, these young Muslims are not disengaged, poorly educated, unemployed citizens but rather are often articulate, active, intelligent tertiary educated members of society who come from families that most would regard as quintessential migrant success stories. According to the 2006 ABS Census results, 21 per cent of adult Muslim men have a university degree compared with 15 per cent of non-Muslim Australians, yet these higher education levels do not seem to translate into higher levels of employment.

Another contributing factor is the not so measured government response to the tragic 9/11 attacks and, specifically, the introduction of an unprecedented number of new counter-terrorism laws. Since 9/11, the government has enacted a whopping 44 pieces of counter terrorism legislation. The legislation-enacting frenzy following 9/11 has led some to question whether the laws go too far and essentially infringe upon our civil liberties. Some have even argued that these laws are potentially unconstitutional as they do not respect the separation of powers doctrine. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the disproportionate impact these legislative provisions have had on average everyday Australian Muslims who have felt criminalised. The high profile case of the Indian-born doctor Mohamed Haneef who was detained without charge is one such example.

There is no denying that there are individuals who identify themselves as Muslims who have been convicted of terrorism related offences in Australia. But it is also true to say that Australian Muslims largely denounce the actions and intentions of these men. In fact, following the 9/11 attacks, major Islamic organisations from around Australia issued heartfelt statements addressed to “all the extremists of the world”, rejecting their violent acts without reservation. Despite this, an atmosphere has been created where Muslims are deemed guilty by association. This climate of fear has meant that Muslims are scapegoated and victimised, not just by the media but also by our politicians – often for some quick, cheap political gains.

In contrast to other comparable countries such as the UK, extensive powers are afforded to Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to interrogate and detain citizens, without evidence and who are not even actually suspected of engaging in any terrorist related activities, simply for the purpose of collecting intelligence. Last year, after a decade-long drawn out legal battle, ASIO enforced an adverse security assessment against Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, a prominent Iranian cleric, who had been widely praised for his moderate Islamic teachings and his significant contributions to inter-faith dialogue, by asking him to voluntarily deport himself. The allegations or the nature of the allegations against him, which resulted in the revocation of his visa, had never been revealed to Sheikh Leghaei or his lawyers. On appeal, the court declared that national security considerations overruled any notion of procedural fairness or natural justice. A bizarre departure from the very notions we hold onto so dearly as a nation that is meant to lead by example when it comes to upholding human rights.

The unintended consequence of this type of public media and political discourse has essentially helped legitimise a fear of difference and reinforced the concept of the ‘other’. Radio shock jocks like Alan Jones have capitalised and helped further exacerbate the problem. I personally am of the view that that rants from shock-jock Alan Jones were the key factor in fuelling the Cronulla riots. These riots, along with racially motivated violence against Muslim communities, attacks on international students and the vilification of asylum seekers have become a disconcerting part of Australia’s recent history which has worsened existing social divisions.

Australian Muslims, despite being an integral part of our nation’s rich history, feel scapegoated and marginalised by the wider society and many feel they are constantly required to publically reaffirm their loyalties and their level of ‘Australianness’. But since when did being an Australian and a Muslim become mutually exclusive? And what does it mean to be an Australian – is it un-Australian of me to choose not to consume alcohol and pray 5 times a day?

The harsh reality is that there are individuals and organisations that engage in acts of terrorism around the globe and who identify themselves as devout followers of Islam. Considering that these groups claim to rely on the religious beliefs of some 1.5 billion of the world’s population, extreme care needs to be taken to not make blanket statements linking Islam and Muslims to terrorism. This is particularly critical as there are direct correlations between popular media and political discourse and the manner in which Muslims and other minority groups are treated in this country.

Mariam Veiszadeh is of Afghan heritage and a practicing corporate Lawyer and Muslim community advocate. She has completed a Combined Bachelor of Economics and Law and a Post Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the University of Western Sydney (UWS).

She is an executive member and public officer of Australian Islamic Voice (AIV), an executive member of Mission of Hope, a Social Justice Coordinator of Justice and Arts Network (JAAN) and a member of the Muslim Legal Network. Mariam is also a member of both the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Young Lawyers Human Rights Committee.

Mariam has also been sought for comment by the media on issues pertaining to Islam and Australian Muslims and controversial issues such as the burqa. She has also had several opinion pieces published both in the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald on various topics.

Originally published in the FECCA (Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia) Mosaic Magazine 29 December 2011

Is Sydney a city of enclaves? THE QUESTION

THE IMMIGRANT MARIAM VEISZADEH

There’s no denying that there are parts of Sydney that are deeply monocultural. When we think ”enclaves”, many immediately think of western suburbs such as Fairfield, Cabramatta and Auburn, where it does feel like you have set foot in another country. Perhaps less noticeable though are the invisibly gated Anglo-Saxon (for lack of a better term) enclaves – such as the shire and the northern beaches. Given the multicultural society that we live in, why aren’t we mingling more?

People are naturally drawn to living among people similar to them, whether because of ethnicity, class or religious background. Some are even content to live among other ”ethnics” because, despite belonging to different ethnicities, they are sufficiently different to make them feel like they somehow fit in.

Is it just a class and financial issue? Or is it because of a reinforced fear of the ”other”? Perhaps it’s because they feel that they would be subject to less discrimination. Or because they fear their children would be subjected to less bullying in the playground. Perhaps they suspect life would just be much easier without feeling alienated, marginalised and different all of the time.

My husband and I deliberately made the decision to live in areas where there aren’t many people ”like us”. Having lived on the north shore for several years, I am certain we helped break some common stereotypes. I remember one remark from one of our neighbours, a sweet Caucasian man, who commented at how well I spoke English given that I came from a country ”full of turmoil”. I was very amused. He was obviously taken aback by the fact that an Afghan-born Muslim woman could speak English.

Perhaps we need to embrace diversity a tad more. It’s an unfortunate but harsh reality that some ethnic groups feel compelled to live in their own ethnic enclaves in order to feel at home, because they don’t feel welcome elsewhere. Perhaps branching out of our comfort zones will help eliminate our lack of understanding of other cultures and faith groups.

I am all for educational programs in schools that encourage a better understanding of different cultures and ethnicities, which would improve social cohesion. With almost half of Australia’s population having at least one parent born overseas, a little more understanding could go a long way.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a Sydney lawyer.

THE POLITICIAN BRONWYN BISHOP

Sir Garfield Barwick, when foreign minister, used to speak of the strong natural ties Australia had with India – a shared legal system and wide use of English, both derived from a common colonial past, continuing membership of the Commonwealth of Nations, plus the fact we were both democracies. Yet in recent times our relations have deteriorated, most significantly because of the Rudd/Gillard government’s failure to honour the Howard government’s commitment to sell uranium to India.

We have, on the other hand, been fortunate to have many migrants from India who have become loyal Australian citizens making a great contribution to our economy and nation.

Since the time of European settlement, people have come in waves of migration. Each wave of people of similar ethnic background has tended to live in a single geographic area but as succeeding generations prosper, add to and become an integral part of the Australian nation, they move around geographically, as do the rest of us.

Australia has welcomed people from all over the world to become part of our nation and asked people to bring with them their talents and culture, which go into our melting pot, and what comes out is uniquely Australian. However, there are three elements not welcome in the melting pot – first, any belief that men and women are not equal; second, any prejudice on the basis of race; and third, any prejudice on the basis of religion.

The phrase “multicultural” seems to mean many things to many people; it upsets some and comforts others. The reality is that Australia has produced a unique culture which is made up of all who have come here and contributed to the mix.

Thus the question of the need to learn a second (or third) language is a valid one. To learn the language of our neighbours and trading partners makes eminent sense and I wholeheartedly agree with the Premier that secondary school is too late. I have long advocated learning another language early. Some pre-schoolers now have the opportunity to start learning another language.

Thus any moves to teach additional languages earlier than secondary school would have my support.

Bronwyn Bishop is the federal member for Mackellar.

THE COUNCILLOR BENN BANASIK

It is a complex question. The answer is yes, but is this a problem?

I am the son of a Scottish/Polish immigrant father and a Greek-heritage mother. The small Catholic primary school I attended formed much of who I am today. Having the surname Banasik and the look of a Greek, I was quickly labelled as ”the” ethnic child of my school.

The school lunch scene from The Wog Boy is very familiar to me. There were moments of hardship at school but that is not to be blamed on the area in which I live. Children can be cruel. I was willing to adopt everyone else’s culture and they adopted mine.

The reason why my parents chose Wollondilly to live was its closeness to Sydney, beauty, small-town atmosphere and for the people that live here. I believe my family added to this culture, as have other first-and second-generation Australians who choose Wollondilly as their home.

Wollondilly has a low proportion of first-generation Australians due to one major factor. The house prices are not suited to first home buyers and many new immigrant families cannot afford these homes until they have established themselves, saved their funds and moved further out, fulfilling the great Australian dream of owning a quarter acre block. However, this is not a problem.

Maintaining the tradition of large blocks and mainly single-story dwellings has made Wollondilly what it is today. Sydney is not a homogenous city, so the differences of areas need to be embraced, not shut down. We must take solace that Australia is only 200 years old and Sydney is still finding its feet. I’m excited to take my son to Leichhardt, Newtown, North Sydney, Parramatta and Cabramatta to experience the cultural differences our city has to offer.

I love Wollondilly; I grew up here and have chosen to raise a family here. The area is accepting of everyone who integrates and brings something to our community. The people stick together in times of emergency. Change is inevitable. But the key to successful integration, I believe, is not forcing new monocultures into areas which have a low proportion of Australians born overseas, but rather providing incentive for new Australians to bring aspects of their own culture to our outlying communities.

Cr Benn Banasik is deputy mayor of Wollondilly Shire Council, which has the lowest proportion of foreign-born residents of any Sydney local government area.

THE SOCIOLOGIST ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ

Widespread cultural deprivation haunts Sydney; locked away in inaccessible pockets, protected by barriers of hills and rivers, impoverished communities draw on ever less relevant cultural resources to survive in a globalising world, dooming their children to constrained futures and leaving them unskilled in that increasingly-important capability of inter-cultural communication and multilingualism.

Barry O’Farrell’s adventures in India and China reflect his government’s recognition that the future of NSW is inevitably intertwined with the expanding economies and escalating aspirations of Asia. Sydney’s biggest export industries are education, financial services and tourism, all of which are crying out for skills in Asian languages and the often forgotten Arabic.

Yet during the wave of antipathy to multiculturalism that swept through Australia during the Howard era, exacerbated by fear and hostility towards Muslims and people of colour, government reports show pursuit of languages other than English declined dramatically. The great push towards Asia of the 1980s and 1990s that saw children studying Bahasa Indonesia in primary classes across NSW dribbled away after the collapse of the

”Asian tigers” and the Bali bombings.

Victoria’s former premier Steve Bracks once told me Sydney was doomed to cultural ghettoisation by its geography, its appalling public transport, its hostility to immigration, and its grudging commitment to multiculturalism. Compared with Melbourne, Sydney has a higher concentration of groups in specific locations, whether long-term Australians or more recent immigrants.

Driven in part by the historical location of migrant reception camps and later refugee internment camps, the pattern of ethnic settlement tends towards clusters around a mix of “attractors”. These include transport hubs, availability of cheaper medium- and high- density accommodation, and access to heritage and own-language cultural resources.

Sydney’s history offers great examples of creativity, as well as some seriously unfortunate times of conflict. Cultural interaction generates frictions: they can and do produce light (opportunities growing from cultural interaction) and heat (the Cronulla riots). Communities can learn from the city’s history how to build what sociologists call ”bridging social capital”, that underpinning of trust between communities that forms the basis for productive diversity. Or they can choose not to learn and suffer the consequences.

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz is co-director of the cosmopolitan civil societies research centre at the UTS.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald 12 November 2011

Ad campaign shows the real Islam

So religion shouldn’t be advertised on TV, or so say the many critics of the recent MyPeace TV ads promoting Islamic values. One of the more than 100 reader’s comments appearing on Sydney’s Daily Telegraph’s article on the campaign has posed the following question: “Why . . . that is the question that needs to be answered . . . WHY . . . is it to stir up the Australian people?” My answer to that, for what it’s worth – is no, not at all.

Contrary to what some in the media would have you believe, Australian Muslims are not on a mission to convert everyone to their faith, but rather, they are trying to wrestle Islam’s image back from the distortions created since the decade-old war on terror began.

The lies, fabrications and distortions attributed to our faith have not only come from so-called adherents of Islam who have twisted its teachings to justify their criminal acts, but also from media organisations and policy makers who are content to spread misrepresentations about Islam and Muslims, to serve their own interests.

This campaign is as much about presenting the everyday face, not extreme interpretations, of Islam — something that is rarely given media attention.
Since it began airing a week ago the campaign has received a largely positive response according to MyPeace which wants to help fast track the process of changing the challenging and harmful misconceptions about Muslims and Islam in Australia.

Muslims are subject to constant criticism for not doing enough to assimilate into Australian society and be accessible to the media, in order to help correct widely-held misconceptions about our religion.

This campaign, funded by both Australian Muslims and non-Muslims, is the first attempt by an Islamic organisation to do exactly that.

It’s a gesture to reach out and extend a hand of friendship to the wider public to show that we share common values.

It also serves as an invitation to the wider community to gain more knowledge about Islam — not in an attempt to convert but rather to educate and foster understanding.

It seems that Australian Muslims are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Besides, how else can one get unbiased, unedited, independent air time on popular commercial TV stations, other than paying for an advertisement?

There would be no need to invest significant amounts of money in such campaigns on some of the commercial networks if we felt we were given a fairer hearing in their coverage of Muslim-related issues. Nor would there be such a need if Muslims in Australia didn’t constantly feel like they were required to publicly reaffirm their loyalties and their level of “Australianness”.

I often pose this question – since when did being an Australian and a Muslim become mutually exclusive? Is it un-Australian of me to choose not to consume alcohol and pray five times a day?

Given the extent of the sensationalist misrepresentations masked as factual reporting that is prevalent in the media, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to argue that some current affairs shows appear to run deliberate campaigns to portray Muslims in a negative manner. To engage in Muslim-bashing nowadays seems to be a ratings winner.

But perhaps most disappointing and harmful of all, is the fear-mongering actions of some of our politicians who engage in dog-whistling politics against Muslims, often for cheap political points. For example South Australian Liberal Senator Cory ‘ban the burqa’ Bernardi’s call to ban the burqa managed to garner some significant public and media attention to cast Islam in a negative light.

All of this has helped legitimise a fear of difference and create an atmosphere where Muslims are deemed guilty by association.

Why then, given these challenging circumstances, are we so quick to shoot down a positive initiative by a group of Australian Muslims to highlight to the rest of the Australian public that our values are no different to the very values cherished by mainstream Australian society?

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer and Muslim community advocate.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald 2 November 2011

Hoodlums who happen to be Muslim have no respect for Islam

The recent case of the Muslim men accused of lashing another Muslim in his home is still to be decided by the courts but early reports suggest that Islam was once again hijacked and used as justification for criminal behaviour.

As lawyers and as Muslims, we find it reprehensible when Islamic jurisprudence is appropriated by backyard thugs whose actions show an utter contempt and arrogant disdain for the ethical, moral and reasonable principles that underlie Islamic theology.

The majority of Muslims are fed up with a minority who are content to manufacture ugly interpretations of Islam, which are far removed from the compassionate and just jurisprudential legacy we have inherited. Unfortunately, we live in a society where very few people make a distinction between the teachings of a faith and the myriad interpretations and distortions such teachings can produce.

We are also fed up with the media highlighting every criminal or stupid act by somebody who happens to be Muslim. There are more than 300,000 Muslims in Australia and while the vast majority are law-abiding, they stand accused alongside every Muslim who has a run-in with the law. The media attention is disproportionate, leaving the grossly unfair impression that the majority of Muslims are on the wrong side of the law.

The Muslim community is as diverse and eclectic as any community which broadly falls under a religious category and individual actions should not be extrapolated to a judgment about an entire faith community.

For every outrageous false claim made by a Muslim in the name of Islam, whether to justify misogyny, brutality or ideological divisions, there are countless Muslims – lay people, scholars, academics, community workers, activists, professionals, students – countering such ugliness.

We are not here to defend badly behaved Muslims. To such Muslims we say you should be held to account if necessary.

As Muslim women, as lawyers, as Australians, we have this message: there is no fundamental or intrinsic incompatibility between Islam and democracy.

We also say this: fears about the criminal code of sharia having a place in Australia are generated by sensationalist scaremongering. The criminal code is barely implemented in Muslim majority countries so any such debate is a moot point. That some might seek to justify their behaviour on the basis of sharia does not mean their actions are a true reflection of sharia law or that sharia law is coming to Australia. To be a good Muslim and a good Australian are one and the same thing. A life devoted to Islam’s ethical and moral principles means a person will strive to have integrity, be law-abiding and embrace civic responsibilities.

Let us name criminal behaviour for what it is and not grace it with any religious labels.

Randa Abdel-Fattah and Mariam Veiszadeh are both lawyers working in Sydney and devout Muslims

Originally published in The Daily Telegraph 15 August 2011

If Breivik was a Muslim he would have been branded a terrorist long ago

It seems the word ”terrorist” is an exalted term reserved only for a select few.

And, if my reading of the media is correct, it’s one that is not being applied to Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik.

It’s part of a worrying trend in the Western media to selectively and, on occasions carelessly, employ this word as it sees fit.

The Oxford English dictionary defines terrorism as “the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.
Yet how ironic is it that the media are the very ones that alter its definition in order to suit their own agendas?

And let’s not forget that in order for something to be called an act of terrorism by the Western media, quite often it needs to be carried out by someone who is, even remotely, or purports to be a Muslim.

Why not throw in the word ”fundamentalist” as well, as the media appears to do so readily when it is confronted with an outrage.

Does Breivik’s self-confessed crimes not satisfy the dictionary definition of terrorism? Or is it that his skin too white, his eyes too blue and his ethnic and religious background too pedestrian? Perhaps he is just too Anglo-Saxon and belongs to the wrong religion?

Are his actions lacking political controversy and media saleability?

Despite being the man behind the biggest massacre committed by a single gunman in modern times, the media have labelled Breivik a lone, self-confessed mass killer and madman. Nothing more, nothing less.

Amid all of this, Islam has yet again found its way into the middle of this sorry and sad episode as it emerges that Breivik was, among other things, an outspoken Muslim-hater. It has been reported that he carried out his demented mission to save Christian Europe from the invading Muslim hordes that he somehow views as being a significant threat to Western civilisation.

Respect for the sanctity of life is the cornerstone of all great faiths and Islam is no exception. Any acts of terrorism, irrespective of who the actual perpetrators are, are a violation of these sacred teachings. Why is it then that acts of terrorisms are not categorically treated in the same manner?

The Oslo terrorist attacks (I’m calling it that even if the media won’t) and the way it’s been reported are strikingly similar to those of the 1995 Oklahoma bombings – one of the most destructive acts of terrorism on American soil.

In the wake of the Oklahoma bombings journalists were quick to jump on the band-wagon and label it a terrorist attack carried out by Islamists.

When the dust settled and it became clear that they were wrong, the T word was conveniently swept under the carpet.

The world was shocked to find that the perpetrator of this murderous attack was not a Middle Eastern terrorist but rather a fair-skinned US Army veteran – Timothy McVeigh.

Not much has changed since then as yet again media organisations have come under heavy scrutiny for rushing to judgment by linking the latest Oslo terrorist attacks to Muslims.

For example Britain’s best-selling The Sun newspaper published a banner headline on Saturday describing the attack as an “Al-Qaeda massacre: Norway’s 9/11”. By the time the newspaper hit the streets Norwegian police had dismissed any links between the attacker and the extremist group.

Some commentators have said it was yet another example of the entrenched anti-Muslim bias within the Western media that was set in train by the September 11 attacks.

The anti-Muslim bias is alive and well – just ask an Australian Muslim about the impacts of the deeply ingrained culture of Islamaphobia particularly within the media.

As a Muslim, reading about the Oslo terrorist attacks is incredibly disturbing. Breivik claims to be part of a well-resourced and highly motivated network wanting to overthrow Western governments that tolerate Islam.

Not only are we under attack from those who have hijacked our faith and who label themselves devout Muslims and commit atrocious crimes in the name of our faith, we now have the likes of blond-haired, blue-eyed Breiviks also trying to destroy us.

It does beg the question though: who is really to blame here?

We can’t demonise an entire faith-based community, like we did following the 9/11 attacks, can we?

Our politicians and policy makers, more so on an international level, but also here in Australia, have collectively helped to create a climate of hatred by engaging in right-wing, dog-whistling political discourse. It seems that we will never learn.

Irrespective of which end of the spectrum you belong to, we seem to be, whether consciously or not, helping cultivate a battleground for those who are literally dying to be soldiers.

Will our governments and the media wake up and realise that the battle that now needs to be fought is the one they essentially helped to foster – a battle against Islamophobia, racism and right-wing extremism?

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer and Muslim community advocate.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald 29 July 2011

Everyone loses if hatred prevails

AS a Muslim, I am relieved that Osama bin Laden has been brought down and his reign of terror brought to an end.

His death represents a defining moment in the battle against terrorism. A battle not fought by the West alone, but by the majority of Muslims whose faith was hijacked on September 11, 2001.

Despite my relief, I will not celebrate his death, as I do not believe anybody’s death should be cause for celebration. That does not stop me from feeling that justice has been served.

But it prompts the question – when and how will justice be served for the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, from all walks of life and faiths, who have been killed in the process of pursuing bin Laden?

Every time I think about the plight of the Afghan people, I am gripped by tremendous sadness. I am an Afghan myself, who came to Australia at the age of seven.

Although they are a resilient people who have managed to withstand centuries of repeated foreign intervention, the Afghan front in the war on terror has caused great damage to my country and her people. I am cautiously optimistic that one day in the not too distant future we can close this dark chapter in Afghanistan’s history.

Bin Laden represents many things to many people. To me he was the catalyst for a dramatic rise in Islamaphobia, a previously unknown term.

Further, he contradicted the true message of Islam and he violated the sacred Islamic teachings upholding the sanctity of all human life – not just Muslim life. He represented a distorted form of Islam and caused the deaths of countless Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.

He created so much mistrust and fear of Islam that his actions, message and rhetoric have caused pain to not only those he considered his enemies, but those he, however delusional he may have been, considered to be his friends: The Muslims on whose behalf he claimed to speak.

There can be no question that September 11 had a profound impact on Muslims. On that day, it was not only the planes that were hijacked and crashed into the twin towers – Islam was hijacked and Muslims all around the world were taken as hostages.

The news of bin Laden’s death makes me remember how I felt when I heard about the planes crashing into the twin towers and the terrible aftermath of grief, mistrust and vilification that followed.

I happened to be at my sister’s house in Penrith that night. I was up late watching the news and saw Sandra Sully announce the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I felt sick in the stomach, knowing full well what was to come. I knew my life, and the lives of other law-abiding Muslims, would never be the same again.

Being a visible Muslim (I am referring to the fact I choose to wear the hijab) means that many people associate me with what happened on that September day.

As unfortunate as it is, some people cannot seem to differentiate between everyday Australian Muslims going about their lives, and the extremists who choose to commit horrific and unforgivable crimes in the name of my faith.

The crime of 9/11 was committed in the name of Islam and the perversion, dishonesty and distortions bin Laden used to justify the attacks makes my blood boil.

There is no denying that a minority of Muslims are sympathetic towards bin Laden. Not necessarily because they condone his inciting of violence against innocent men, women and children, but because, perhaps, they saw him as an advocate of their political and social grievances.

They saw him as an advocate of a just war, in the same way there are those who defend the death of civilians in the war on terror as part of the wider narrative of a just war. It seems human beings will never learn the senselessness of violence.

There are other Muslims, unsympathetic to bin Laden’s cause, but who are hesitant to accept America’s version of how the battle with bin Laden played out. Given America’s track record with fabricating intelligence to justify wars in the Middle East, the scepticism is understandable. Perhaps, if bin Laden had been captured alive and tried in court, the conspiracy theories would have been put to bed.

I am not naive to think that bin Laden’s death will significantly change his followers’ twisted thinking. Nor has the West scored the moral high ground. We are all losers when we allow violence and hatred to prevail.

If we are to learn anything out of this bloody mess, then let it be that we can and must work collectively to change the narrative that Islam and the West are at war and, in so doing, we will deny a battlefield to those who wish to be soldiers.

Mariam Veiszadeh is of Afghan heritage and a lawyer and human rights advocate

Originally published in The Daily Telegraph 6 May 2011