I was interning on a local newspaper in Lakemba when Man Haron Monis attacked the Lindt Chocolate Café in Martin Place, Sydney last December.
His 18 hostages – 10 customers and eight employees – were used as human shields and forced to hold up a black Islamic flag. By the time Monis had been taken down he had killed one hostage in cold blood and a second had died in crossfire.
Within a minute of hearing the news on December 15, 2014, my mother, who was overseas at that time, phoned me. My father, my uncle and my friends followed soon after, all asking the same questions: “Are you all right? Where are you? Can you get home safely?” My uncle told me not to leave the office as there were police everywhere and I could be in trouble.
Why? Because my name is Mohammad and I am Muslim.
In 2001, when the Twin Towers were attacked, I was too young to understand the impact of that event. In time I learned more about it and realised how it affected people around the world, even Muslims living in Western countries. In some Western minds, the words “Muslim” and “Islam” became synonyms for terrorism, and alarmists imagined hordes of guys with long beards and gowns holding AK-47s in one hand and the Quran in the other.
It took time for people to remember and understand that terrorism does not have a religion, religion does not equate to terrorism and Muslims deserve be treated as equals.
Then came the Martin Place siege. It paled into insignificance against 9/11 but it clearly did shake our world once more. And it scared me. I was nervous, worried first for the hostages but also for my family and those Muslims who call Australia home. I worried I would have to defend myself for something I did not do and wanted no part of.
Would I be discriminated against? How about my friends or people I know? Would they see me differently? Would I have to justify myself?
I have lived here for seven years and respect Australia’s laws and culture.
I also am proud to be Muslim. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t eat pork – but I have no problem with people who do. I have Muslim and non-Muslim friends, and I do not differentiate between them. I pay my taxes. My record is clean. And that, trust me, applies to most Muslims living in Australia. Our lives are little different than any other citizen’s.
Yet I was worried, and concerned. Why should I be discriminated against? Why should I be held responsible for the horrific act of one brainwashed psychopath? After all, Monis, a self-declared leader who had no following among Sydney Muslims, and was revealed after the event as a mentally disturbed extremist with a plainly criminal mind.
Goodwill and unity in Australia
It turns out I had nothing to worry about. My friends’ attitude towards me did not change. No one discriminated against me. My father, who wears a beard and traditional Muslim robes and attends mosque regularly, has never needed to complain about bullying, nor has he ever been told to leave our country. The incident did not change our lives in any way.
And there was an amazing, heartwarming phenomenon in the days after the attack, something that showed me, and many fellow Muslims, that the nation was not – as some would suggest – full of hate and division: a simple hashtag – #iwillridewithyou – demonstrated goodwill and unity in our nation.
Rachel Jacob was on a train when she saw a Muslim woman remove her hijab (a cloth used by Muslim women to cover their head) presumably to avoid standing out as clearly Muslim. Jacob told her to put it back on and offered to walk with the woman to ensure she was not harassed, then posted about it on Facebook. That story went viral and kicked off a trend, with 120,000 people tweeting #iwillridewithyou.
Of course, there is another side to the story: Organisations like Reclaim Australia, who believe Islam is the reason for all terrorism chaos, and Muslims should be driven out of Australia.
Its official website reads:
“Australia is a nation of many people groups with the majority being caucasian and Christian. We have successfully embraced multi-ethnicity for decades… Yet, all of a sudden we have to make all these changes to the way we do ‘Australian’ in order to cater to a minority who refuse to integrate anyway.
“If Islam can’t cope with how we do ‘Australian’ well then perhaps Islam needs to move along to somewhere where they are not so offended by the locals.
“We love Australia, our values and want our freedom back to be ‘Australian’.”
I cannot take that seriously. Such organisations do not represent Australia – just as the Islamic State (ISIS) does not represent Islam.
Make no mistake there are some incidents reported in the news or social media: crazy people yelling at a Muslim girl for wearing the hijab or a random drunk insulting a Muslim couple.
Non-Muslim Australians have been supportive
What is not reported are the thousands standing against the racism, the non-Muslim Australians who are supportive. Those people may not know the woman with the hijab but they recognise and back her right as another human being to wear it; sometimes they intervene and stand up for her, for the sake of humanity.
Faheem Emdad, a 21-year-old UWS student, remembers seeing an incident where an old man was yelling at a Muslim on a Sydney street.
“Many people came over in support of that Muslim guy and told the old man to leave him alone,” Mr Faheem told The Newsroom. “Most Australians do not differentiate among people based on their religion. They are good.”
Sadly the few bad incidents attract disproportionate attention, to the extent that people living on the other side of the world may be led to think Australians hate Muslims. And it does leave a bad taste, and lingering doubt… Even my mother has asked, before leaving the house, if she should leave her hijab behind.
I believe that as a Muslim and as an Australian citizen of this country I have a responsibility to make this country safe for everyone. Where possible I will fight brainwashing by extremists – of either side. I believe parents should make sure that they know where their kids are going when they leave the house, and who they will be with. That goes for all parents, whatever their religion or culture. We need to prevent 15 year olds becoming brainwashed and doing stupid things.
The cycle continues. This week it was France’s turn to experience the horror of terrorism. Islamic State again claimed responsibility.
Once again I am shocked and horrified, I am angry. But I am not scared or guilty.
I am not scared because I believe in people: I believe that I will not be unfairly victimised because of my name or religion.
I am not guilty because I am not responsible for it. I do not acknowledge ISIS as part of my belief, my culture or my religion; so I refuse to take any responsibility for them.
My prayers go out to the innocents who lost their lives. My prayers also go to French Muslims who must now feel as I did on December 15 – scared, anxious and worried.
I hope the people of France will show the same maturity the vast majority of Australians showed and unite to overcome the crisis together. – Md Zahin
Top photo by Jessica Heckley.