You know, every time I hear that some idiot has gotten hold of a gun and committed unspeakable crimes I brace myself for the almost inevitable revelation that he or she was “mentally ill.”
Then, in that moment, in addition to the horror of violence, the destruction of lives, and the grieving of loved ones and communities, stigma is resurrected. All the work we all do to reduce stigma, to educate others, to prove to society that the mentally ill are not dangerous and should not be feared or discriminated against becomes moot. These unspeakable acts offer proof to society that the mentally ill ARE dangerous. That we should be feared. And we, as advocates of mental health, need to work that little bit harder once more.
The same can be said for Muslim communities. Except, unlike mental illness which is largely invisible, Muslim individuals cannot hide their faith. And, quite frankly, they shouldn’t have to.
Yesterday, Australia watched on in disbelief as a political extremist held seventeen innocent people hostage, at gunpoint, for over sixteen hours in the Lindt Cafe in Sydney’s CBD. The siege ended in tragedy when heavily armed police were forced to enter the building, the once bustling cafe lighting up in the night with gunfire and the air pierced with screams. Tragically, two people, a 38 year old mother of three and the the 34 year old manager of the cafe, lost their lives. Four more were injured, including a police officer. The community, and the nation in general, was rocked.
As soon as I heard the news, turned on the TV and saw that an Islamic flag was being held up in the window of the cafe, I literally flinched. Shit. I thought. Not again. This is a really bad time to be an Australian Muslim.Before so, but particularly since the absolutely horrific events of 9/11, Muslim and Islamic communities have been stigmatised and discriminated against. Innocent men, women and children who have absolutely nothing to do with the violent acts of religious and political extremists are harassed, bullied, and assaulted. I’ve heard stories of women getting onto busses with their children and being called “terrorists” and spat at. Muslim men being attacked walking home. Mosques being vandalised. How is the direct persecution of individuals who have done nothing wrong, the law abiding, peaceful citizens who cannot be held responsible for the violent actions of a small minority, possibly acceptable behaviour?
As with mental illness, we always hear about the few people who do something absolutely horrific, not the thousands of other people who just get on with their lives peacefully. I found this great diagram from Anonymous Arabist which illustrates the extent of Muslim terrorism in relation to the religion. I’d like to reiterate the authors disclaimer that she had to enlarge the population of Al Qaeda by ten for it to even show up on the diagram.
Regardless, from the moment I saw that Islamic flag, I knew there would be a backlash against the Muslim communities in Australia. And then something surprising happened.
A young woman on her way home from work saw a Muslim lady, clearly distressed, about to pull her hijab off. She ran after the Muslim lady and told her not to take it off, that she would walk with her if she was scared. Then, first within Sydney, then from around the country came the outpouring of Facebook posts and tweets from people offering support to Muslims, literally offering to ride public transport with them if they were concerned for their safety, and showing solidarity. The hashtag #illridewtihyou was born.
Of course, this kind of social media campaign won’t fix the problem. But it is a step in the right direction. I’m so relieved that in the wake of such a tragedy, there is outstanding recognition that the violence was the result of a single extremist individual, not an entire faith.
To the loved ones of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson, who tragically lost their lives, my thoughts and prayers are with you. To the hostages who have gone through a hell I can’t even begin to imagine, I pray for your physical and mental recovery. To the police force, thank you for dealing with such a difficult situation in such a remarkable manner. And to the Muslim communities #illridewithyou