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

A Lack of Insight

Let’s play a word association game. What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘Islamic’? What about the term ‘Sharia’? Does it conjure up images of brutality and send a shiver down your spine? Hardly surprising, considering the persistent and negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media.

Whilst the Anti-Muslim rhetoric has quietened down a little following the post September 11 hysteria, western media still seems mesmerised by Islam and Muslims. Whether it’s a tabloid TV show trying to convince us that Muslims are on an agenda to recruit and convert every Tom, Dick or Harry or an unimaginatively named documentary series trying to go ‘Behind/Beneath’ or to ‘Uncover the Veil’, the media attention is just as relentless as it is disproportionate.

Given that Muslims make up only 2.2% of Australia’s total population, the percentage of media attention is certainly not relative to our size in the general population. Given this climate is it so unreasonable that we, as a Muslim community, refuse to participate in some media interviews, where it is clearly not in our community’s best interests to do so?

In April this year, the producers of the SBS current affairs program Insight contacted various members of the Muslim community to seek their input and participation in an upcoming program on plural relationships and polygamy. This sparked an internal discussion in some circles, where the merits of appearing on Insight were debated.

After a few emails were sent back and forth, and after some debate on social media forums, a number of community leaders, advocates and organisations agreed that they would draft a collective statement toInsight’s producers. The statement would be a unified response, outlining our concerns about the direction Insight was taking from an editorial point of view. This was particularly worrying following on from the sensationalist depiction of Muslims in the infamous ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs aired in 2010 which apparently enjoyed significantly higher than average ratings.

In our statement, we questioned the newsworthiness of Insight’s focus on polygamy and ultimately sought clarification from the producers on a number of points. We then invited the producers to engage with us, as representatives of various Muslim community organisations, to discuss our concerns and seek our feedback.

The producers responded promptly to our request and as a result, a healthy and protracted discussion took place between Shakira Hussain and myself (representing the signatories to the original statement) andInsight’s producers, including Insight‘s Executive Producer. At a later stage, we also engaged SBS CEO and Managing Director Michael Ebeid.

We raised a number of issues, including the fact that previous Insightprograms, (particularly those which focused on the burqa, niqab and Islamophobia) did not do these topics any real justice. Far from addressing the issues, Muslims were effectively put on trial and forced to address criticisms levelled at them. Such criticisms were often raised by right-wing commentators and played on the fear of Muslims as the ‘other’.

What was also problematic with these shows was the manner in whichInsight’s producers carefully selected Muslim guests. It was clear that the choices were made to produce ‘sexy TV’ and to manufacture on-air confrontation, rather than having an informed discussion on the issues. Whilst we welcomed the idea of showing the diversity of Muslim views, we thought the approach taken by SBS would only engender more tensions towards our community. In the end, the result was not a further understanding of Islamic principles or the promotion of Muslim diversity, but rather, further negative perceptions and alienation of Muslims.

In light of the manner in which Muslims had been portrayed on previous programs, we were of the view that Insight’s recent focus on polygamy didn’t seem to have any real underlying rationale that served the public interest. We couldn’t help but feel that it was an attempt to sensationalise, and ultimately manufacture, a controversy in a bid to increase ratings rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.

We raised our concerns, and in turn listened to SBS clarify their position but, in the end, we remained unconvinced on the merits of appearing on the show. We then issued a second statement to Insightreiterating our arguments and ultimately highlighting our refusal to participate in such a program. On both occasions, extensive community consultations took place and approval was sought from all twenty-two signatories.

I recall receiving an email from one of our supporters, congratulating us on our collective efforts. What took me by surprise was the observation below:

‘If we step back and appreciate what’s just happened, this is perhaps one of the first times we’ve been able to coordinate and act as one so quickly, and have great impact on an issue of concern and complexity.’

Finally it dawned on me then. ‘We’ had achieved what once seemed unachievable. We’d coordinated a unified media response; we’d engaged far and wide, crossing racial, ethnic, community and sectarian lines. We were unified in theory and in practice—believe me, this was no small feat! In hindsight it was by no means a perfect campaign; I would have liked to involve many others, but given the circumstances, it was a stepping-stone to bigger and better media engagement projects.

Being sought for media interviews purely based on one’s religious background defines the Muslim participant purely on their ‘faith’, devoid of any other capacity and skill set, a tendency that is symptomatic of tabloid media tactics.

Why doesn’t the media quit with its obsession of having Muslim-related content  televised under the guise of understanding and/or demystifying issues which are clearly not newsworthy, but only serve to boost their ratings.

We are trying desperately as a community to influence how we are portrayed in mainstream media. The only way we can make this a successful campaign and have commercial TV networks take our concerns seriously is to show that we stand together as one, that we are not a ‘push over’, and that we’re united in our efforts to ensure that Muslims get a fairer hearing in the media.

Mariam Veiszadeh
mariamveiszadeh.com

 

Originally published in Sultana’s Dream Online Magazine

PETITIONS – Edited extracts

7 May 2012
Statement on behalf of the Signatories from the Islamic Community
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer, SBS Insight

We understand that you have contacted various individuals andcommunity organisations within the Muslim community about participating or assisting with your research for an upcoming Insightprogram regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

A number of the individuals and community organisations that you have contacted have come together to discuss this upcoming Insightprogram, in light of previous Insight programs involving Muslims in Australia.

For all of the reasons detailed below, the signatories of this letter wish to inform you that not only do we wish not to take part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural marriages/relationships but that we are concerned about the direction that Insight is taking from an editorial point of view and the adverse implications this has for the Muslim community in Australia.

We are struggling to understand why Insight has shifted its attention to the issue of polygamy. In the scheme of things, this topic is not, by any stretch of the imagination, deemed an important topic that requires rigorous discussion and debate worth national public attention at present.

As far as we are concerned, polygamy or plural relationships are hardly practiced within the Muslim community in Australia.

We note that recently Insight focused on the issue of ‘Forced Marriages’ interviewing amongst other members from various communities, a young Muslim woman. Arguably this show may have been justified because at a Federal level the Australian government was looking to introduce legislation on the issue. Insight’s focus on polygamy however, doesn’t appear to have any real underlying rationale which serves the public interest.

We cannot help but feel that this is an attempt by Insight to sensationalise what seems a non-issue in a bid to increase ratings, rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.

Previous Insight Programs

Whilst we can appreciate that our stance may come as a surprise and perhaps be viewed as a drastic move to Insight’s producers, we remind you that our sentiments and feelings regarding Insight and its depiction of Muslims have been seriously concerning for a while.

… Insight’s programs … have focused on Muslims in Australia and as you may have noticed already, some Muslim community organisations have either shown reluctance to actively participate inInsight’s programs or have treaded with great caution when agreeing to participate.

Previous Insight programs, including those which focused on the burqa and niqab and on Islamophobia have not done either of these topics any real justice. Instead, Insight’s producers have carefully selected guests from the Muslim community that they can pitch against one another in an attempt to show a diversity of opinions. While we welcome representations that acknowledge the diversity of opinion among Muslims, Insight’s producers have manipulated this diversity to create an environment that produces on-air conflict among Muslim guests. The end result is not audience appreciation of Muslim diversity, but rather further misunderstanding, negative perceptions and alienation of Muslim communities in Australia.

Against that background, Insight’s invitation to members of the Muslim community to participate in a program about polygamy is therefore received with much reluctance. The topic which Insighthas chosen to focus on has served to strengthen our view that the producers of Insight are not strictly adhering to the objectives that SBS as a multicultural broadcaster prides itself on – promoting social cohesion and harmony and seeking to broaden cultural understanding.

Impact on the Muslim Community and Social Cohesion

We feel that Insight‘s focus on the Muslim community is disproportionate. Irrespective of Insight‘s stated good intentions, the end result is further alienation of the Muslim community….

Signatories of this letter firmly believe in engaging with media, so to take an action like this highlights the seriousness of our concerns….

In the long run we recognise that it is not feasible for Muslim community organisations to have a blanket boycott of Insight. We wish to develop a more constructive relationship with Insight‘s producers and researchers. However, at present and with the current editorial line adopted by Insight, we have come to the conclusion that it is not constructive for the signatories of this letter to take part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

We are happy to meet with representatives from SBS and discuss the issues outlined in this letter in further detail …

Kind regards,
Statement on behalf of the below Signatories from the Islamic Community
7 May 2012
Signed:

Mariam Veiszadeh, Australian Islamic Voice
Maha Abdo, United Muslim Women’s Association
Samier Dandan, Lebanese Muslim Association
Tasneem Chopra, Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights
Imam Haisam Farache, Minister of Religion
Mehmet Saral, Affinity Intercultural Foundation
Sherene Hassan, Islamic Council of Victoria
Mehmet Ozalp, ISRA Australia
Hameed Attai, Shias in Australia
Shakira Hussein, National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies,University of Melbourne
Hany Amer, Islamic Egyptian Society of NSW
Kuranda Seyit, FAIR
Hanan Dover, Mission of Hope
Sara Saleh, Australian Youth Forum Chair 2012
Mal Mac Rae, Islamophobia Watch Group
Maria Bhatti, Lawyer & Community Advocate
Nora Amath, Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity
Lisa Worthington, Academic UWS
Silma Ihram, Australian Muslim Women’s Association
Khaled Sukkarieh, Islamic Council of NSW
Malikeh Michels, Local Government Councillor
Dr Louay Abdulbaki, Hikmah Institute
Siddiq Buckley, Australian Islamic Mission

***

17 May 2012
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer and Angus Llewellyn, Executive
 
Producer, SBS Insight

Following on from our Statement dated 7 May 2012 and the subsequent meeting between our representatives… we would like to clarify our position with respect to the upcoming Insight program regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

We would like to begin by extending our deepest gratitude and appreciation to Meggie and Angus for making time to listen to our concerns and engage in an open dialogue. We were very pleased with the outcome of the meeting and felt that it was a mutually beneficial and constructive discussion.

We have discussed the issues raised in the meeting with the rest of the signatories and in response we would like to clarify and reiterate our position.

Participation in Upcoming Program on Polygamy

We wish to reiterate that polygamy is not widely practised amongst Muslims and in our view, not deemed an important topic that requires meticulous discussion and debate worth national public attention at present. The technical aspects of polygamy are complicated and are not able to be properly explained in sound bytes. A poor or inadequate explanation of such principles leads to confusion and ultimately misrepresentation… This in turn will lead to mistrust and increasing levels of Islamophobia being displayed in the Australian community.

Our participation in the upcoming Insight program would inadvertently and incorrectly imply that polygamy is high on our list of priorities and practices when it is not ….

Against that background we would like to exercise our right not to participate and provide an opinion on this topic as we do not feel that it is in the interests of our community to do so.

Whilst we appreciate that Insight is designed to be an ideas forum where debate is encouraged, we sincerely hope that the upcoming  program does not disintegrate into a visual spectacle of conflict and turn into a debacle as was the result when the ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs were aired as this would lead to further  polarisation and ultimately alienation of the Muslim community.

Participation in Future Insight Programs

… our position with respect to the upcoming show does not imply a blanket boycott against all future Insight programs and was not intended to create an impression that Insight has any ill intentions or has an anti-Islamic agenda. We understand that Insight’s producers are exercising their best endeavours to remain true to the SBS Charter and promote social cohesion and community harmony by providing a platform for Australians of all backgrounds to voice their opinions.

We believe that the best way to engage the Muslim community in the future is to extend an invitation to them to participate in an individual capacity as Australian citizens discussing topics that impact all Australians rather than be asked to participate solely because they are Muslim and being asked to comment on Islamic principles and practices as community leaders.

Whilst we wouldn’t be participating in the upcoming program about polygamy, we would carefully consider participating in future Insightprograms which better served the interests of our community.

Kind regards,
17 May 2012
Signed: [Twenty-two signatories as before]

 

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