In the comfort of my home, surrounded by birds chirping and winter sun shining, I listen to Iqbal Bano singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s haunting poem:
My heart, my fellow traveller
It has been decreed again
That you and I be exiled
And wander the streets of the earth.
Turn to every town
To search for a clue
of a messenger from our Beloved
To ask every stranger
the way back to our home.1
It transports me back to the afternoon in 1978 when my lovely mother, Begum Sarfraz Iqbal, drove my ‘uncle’ Faiz to Islamabad Airport. He was leaving his beloved Pakistan, where Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime was tightening its noose and harassing revolutionary thinkers such as him. An unmarked car followed until the driver lost us. Silence permeated the air among so many souls wandering at the airport. And then Faiz left Pakistan to live in exile. Our lives were touched by the shift from democracy to authoritarianism in Pakistan.
Living in Australia since 1979, I have become accustomed to a life not shaped by unexpected military takeovers. Elected governments receive their share of criticism, but we all know that democratic norms govern our relationship to the landscape we are a part of. These norms assume a cooperative and collaborative relationship between the citizens (the ruled) and the government (the rulers). Citizens elect representatives who operate on the compact underpinning our societal and state structures to ensure citizens can realise their full potential as human beings. The enabling capacity of the state encompasses the responsibility to protect its citizens from domestic and external threats. Against the backdrop of legislation passed by elected representatives, our law enforcement agencies and military are empowered to play a significant role.
The need for a state to protect its citizens has motivated recent counter-radicalisation legislation and other policies introduced by the Australian government. As the Arab Spring has turned into an Arab autumn and a power vacuum has emerged in Iraq and Syria, more than 140 Australian Muslim youths have left Australia to join what they consider to be jihad. Fighting alongside ISIS and other protagonists, they appear to be enthused by a promise of a caliphate that would re-create the glory days of early Islamic history. These young people are not necessarily poor, uneducated and underprivileged. They span a wide spectrum of capacities and qualifications. Accomplished, educated young women and men from middle-class families appear on ISIS videos disowning their Australian identity in favour of a jihadi-Islamic identity. They invite others to join them in what they consider to be a re-creative experience, either in life or after death.
The danger posed to Australian citizens can hardly be exaggerated. There is no guarantee that when some of these young people return from the Middle East, they will not mobilise others. A similar phenomenon occurred when Arab Afghans had returned to their countries of origin, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Algeria. Enlivened by their assumed successes in rolling back a superpower, the former Soviet Union, they had gradually introduced concepts of salafi jihadism in their respective societies. In Pakistan, my country of origin, the same ideas have unleashed a wave of militancy and continuous violence. The places I considered safe no longer are. I worry when my husband, James Trevelyan, wants to visit Pakistan without me. Would he be safe? I wonder and find reasons to delay his trips until I can accompany him. As if I could protect him against fanaticism and terrorism.
So I do not question the legislation introduced by the Australian government. I am comfortable with the idea that participation in foreign conflicts ultimately threatens the safety of other citizens and is an offence. I am at ease with criminalising the actions of anyone participating in militancy before unleashing it in Australia either instantly or at a later stage. I accept the state’s right to allocate $18 million to counter radicalisation.
But I wonder if the responsibility to protect its citizens has not blinded state institutions to the unintended consequences of the language being used to justify its legislation. The process is not new. It started soon after 9/11 and gained momentum after the 2005 London bombings when our government accepted and reacted to the threat of home-grown terrorism. However, the recent phase of criminalising (Muslim) militancy seems more strident and less sensitive to the feelings of the majority of Muslims who are law-abiding citizens. It deeply upsets me when our Prime Minister declares: ‘I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a religion of peace. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often and mean it.’ I see in this a state that does not hear or extend respect to all of its law-abiding citizens equally. I look around and see my Muslim friends working long hours, serving others, contributing to our society and bringing up the next generation of citizens to be successful in Australia while being Muslims, because they know and believe Islam is a religion of peace. I feel for them when one tells me, ‘I wonder if I should ask for a Muslim meal on the plane because that would single me out.’ The constant focus on Islam as ‘the threat’ profoundly influences Muslim youths from lower socio-economic backgrounds who quietly tell their confidants they feel they do not belong here. The impact on them is probably even more profound than on those educated Muslims who, like me, are professionals.
Today’s narrative of counter-terrorism and security has evoked the same feelings as when we farewelled Uncle Faiz into exile so many years ago: an inner sadness and gnawing apprehension of what was to come. Uncritically framing the security threat in terms of Islam is denying some Australian citizens their sense of belonging and inadvertently weakening the very essence of democracy, on which depends the security of us all. It hurts me to know that the state, in its efforts to make us more secure, has actually made some feel less secure. It is not too late to reintroduce an inclusive narrative that would make us all feel safer.
- This primarily used the translation by Hamid Rahim Sheikh, <http://allpoetry.com/My-Heart,-My-Traveler-with-English-Translation>; and one verse from Satendra Nandan, ‘Migration, Dispossession, Exile and the Diasporic Consciousness: The Body Politic of Fiji’, in Ralph J. Crane and Radhika Mohanram (eds), Shifting Continents / Colliding Cultures, Brill, 2000, p. 51.