It is tempting to respond to escalating moral panics around “Islamic terrorism” like a speaker in a school debate, equipped with rebuttal points and counter-arguments. A kind of, I’ll raise this fact or statistic to yours.
When arguments are made about the “Islamisation” of Australia, Muslim population size statistics are often cited in order to expose the hysteria and misinformation. When we are subjected to yet another “veiling” debate, we may hear from Muslim women about their choice to veil. Radicalisation allegations are answered by showcasing counter-radicalisation programmes and so on.
I have no doubt that this “debunking myths” kind of approach appeals to many people who genuinely seek answers that will help them make sense of their confusion about various “trigger issues” associated with Muslims.
The most recent example of a “facts and figures” anti-Islamophobia strategy was Radio Australia‘s “Fact check: Does halal certification fund terrorism?” report.
Admittedly, the facts presented offered a devastating rebuttal of spurious allegations made by various Australian anti-Islam groups claiming the halal food industry funds terrorism.
Fears and concerns
Logical, perfectly rational counter-arguments are often deployed to either challenge Islamophobia, or assuage people’s fears and concerns.
Implicit in such an approach (and I feel qualified to comment given I did this for many years myself) is a sincerely held belief that one of the ways to fight Islamophobia is to offer people reassurance. Actually, not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Muslims. Actually, the halal food industry is highly profitable to Australia. Actually, most Australian Muslims are decent, law-abiding citizens.
It is counter-intuitive to respond to misinformation with a qualified refusal to explain. It requires incredible restraint and, some might even say, a degree of infuriating ideological puritanism to refuse to engage with an argument on its terms and risk this being interpreted as proof of self-incrimination.
The problem is that the more we respond to racism on racism’s terms, the harder it is to invert the white gaze, and expose the deep-seated legacies and assumptions that give racism permission to flourish.
The problem is that the more we respond to racism on racism’s terms, the harder it is to invert the white gaze, and expose the deep-seated legacies and assumptions that give racism permission to flourish. The point is: What objective does the counter-arguments and “facts and figures” serve? If they are not used in service of a wider objective of challenging the racism inherent in the way a debate is framed, then I see them as adding to the problem rather than solving it.
In the current debate about “whether halal food funds terrorism”, I have been more disturbed about the voices supporting the halal food industry than I have by the vocal, extreme voices against it. Such a debate does not call for financial statistics and arguments about trade relations because this is not a debate about certification fees or even slaughtering rituals. It is about the fact that to be Muslim is to be perpetually encountered as inherently suspicious and deviant.
“Halal funds terrorism” relies on the presumption that Islam and terrorism are inextricably linked. The narrative of terrorism and Muslims as subversive threat has been permanently affixed to anything and everything to do with Islam and Muslims. Like skin colour, or facial/cranial features, the essence of Muslimness, and anything associated with it, has been essentialised as inherently suspicious.
When a white American woman clutches her handbag as she crosses paths with a young African American man, do we offer that woman statistics about the higher probability of violence being perpetuated against her by somebody she knows? Or do we discuss how racist perceptions of black masculinity endure in the white American psyche?
You cannot do anti-racism when your response internalises the very privilege you seek to challenge. All you are doing is reinforcing racism’s structural relations of power.
Engaging in “facts and figures debates” elides the most important and fundamental question. That question is not how can I make you feel comfortable and secure about my presence, but what is it about you that makes my presence unsettling?
The latter question collapses into it far more than simple conversations about why we construct “the Muslim as Other”. This is a story about who really enjoys national belonging and political agency in Australia. It is a story about racism and how we only really talk about it as if it were limited to rants on public transport rather than it being a systemic, constitutive part of every structure of our nation.
This is mostly because we persist in fantasies about who we are as a nation. Generous and good-willed, while engaged in appalling and horrific human rights abuses of asylum seekers. Happily multicultural and “post-racial”, while seeking to forcibly close remote indigenous communities and their “lifestyle choices”.
All this because we refuse to acknowledge that we are a nation born via caesarean section. We cut open the centre of our indigenous body and forced forth a nation that continues to deny the brutal, racial nature of its very conception and birth.
Worse, we have never cut the umbilical chord of racism. It is wrapped around our collective necks and is slowly suffocating the lives first and foremost of indigenous Australians, and, then, the non-Anglo minorities of whom Muslims are, at the present time, the pre-eminent devil folk.
With our present government, there seems no hope of detangling the chord; in fact, it is being deliberately wound tighter and tighter.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning author, former lawyer and current doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University, researching Islamophobia in Australia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.