For two years, I drove my father to the mosque every Friday to attend the midday prayer. It’s obligatory for Muslim men, so my mother and I would walk and talk for 45 minutes until the worshippers began to file out, a mix of races—young and old—and many clearly on a lunch break.
It was an ordinary Friday for these people. This was their normal. But at the back of my mind every single Friday was a societal soundtrack, so much louder in an age of social media. It was one that hummed with layers of national identity crises, of absurd claims to power and superiority, one that defined the ordinary existence of Muslims, and minorities in general, as special or dangerous. We have to keep an eye on those Muslims, right?
Twenty years ago, it was the influx of Asians that gave the likes of Pauline Hanson a platform, but she, along with many other Australian politicians, have since trained their sights on Muslims. The only white people who worry about these things are the ones who look for fault and violence in others to avoid finding it in themselves. The people who spend their lives concentrating on all that they despise, who focus blame on others for their life troubles, are people who are classic case studies in projection.
These projections are built on lies; they survive on a prevailing idea that white western society is wholly good; that it is a saviour to the world and an all-knowing global watchdog for humanity. In reality, it fosters a culture that looks for value in minorities and poorer nations to prop up its own well-being.
Take the ordinary day of a white Australian citizen: no matter their class or wealth position, there are no questions with which to deal when it comes to belonging and rights. Their humanity and existence are the default setting; they are the arbiter of morality; a stern principal grudgingly looking for reasons to celebrate diversity (‘Migrants have skills we benefit from’; ‘They work hard’; ‘They love this country’). People dare to ask if we really belong, in a country stolen from an Indigenous population.
They have the luxury of life without these judgments. Minorities deal with life’s troubles and challenges against a backdrop of systemic racism and prejudice. Poor or rich, educated or working class, their anxieties are amplified because even something like sitting in a hospital emergency room can become an experience of prejudice.
Let us be clear: racism isn’t the realm of some poor uneducated underclass. Sometimes racism is discreet and polite, and more powerful for it. For the targets, ordinary life and its challenges must occur against this backdrop.
For many of us, life doesn’t revolve around societal acceptance. We persevere. We persist even as we are consistently broken down into diversity categories, ticking boxes that make people feel better for their inclusiveness. But we are not to eclipse anyone, or stand out.
Our lives don’t revolve around acceptance yet we have no choice but to deal with it. Ordinary life for minorities is a constant stream of, ‘Yeah, but …’
We are question marks, worries to be flagged.
I have tried for many years to focus on a way forward. I loathe the idea of Muslims, or anyone from a minority, feeling that their worth is tied solely to whether or not they are a threat, to how they can peacefully present themselves to a society that doesn’t go to any pains to disguise its hatred. But sometimes this feels like an impossible task.
The Australian Government funds organisations to ‘counter violent extremism’ in Muslim youth who are simply kids trying to be young, to find themselves and their passions. Instead, they are deemed a future threat, and it’s left to organisations—often without a single Muslim involved—to condescendingly package information to them lest they get ideas about becoming ‘radicalised’.
Chew on that for a moment. Instead of diverting funds to creating a more inclusive society, politicians and their supporters merely uphold the scaffolding of this so-called multicultural society.
In my research on Arab women, one woman who worked with Muslim women told me something I never forgot: racism is exclusively about power. There are layers. Stories. The human race is multi-dimensional, capable of feeling deeply in one extreme way or another, of experiencing contrast—hate or indifference, fear or love. We are less interested in a way of introspection, or compassion, in allowing for individualism that breeds a more united whole. You get flack for suggesting individualism is worthwhile, because we are tribal and interested in the power that comes with it.
We must acknowledge that everyday worship occurs against a background soundtrack of hate. That people cannot even feel safe in a house of spiritual reflection and worship. We are props in western life. People to despise and fear, or celebrate, parading us as progress.
Enough with the surprise that years of speaking about and down to Muslims, and all minorities, is free speech. It’s hate speech and it infiltrates the collective psyche. It’s the thing that emphasises a person’s ordinary faults and weaknesses. Right-wing media has for years upheld the hysteria that wins elections with a narrative of Islamic threat, even when Australian society is plagued by numerous other dysfunctions. Domestic violence is killing women. Misogyny is killing women. Yet I have witnessed white people fret over the domestic violence rates among Muslims without pause.
While these problems seem only to be getting worse, at least in the destruction of the multicultural harmony façade, we can see the truth of it all. At least it’s not so easy to pretend that we’re just trying to talk it out.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based author and screenwriter.