To [not] be a Muslim activist

Being an activist and a Muslim seems to be incredibly threatening in modern-day Australia.

A discussion of the merits of activism in terms of political effectiveness and strategy is ongoing. Many Muslims believe in engaging with Government as a form of activism, while others from academic and grassroots circles are demanding a politics refusal, and some see protests with non-Muslim allies as a divergence from the message.

Personally, as a community organiser observing and often participating in these discussions, I have recently begun pausing to consider if it is even possible to advocate for issues affecting our Muslim and migrant/refugee communities.

It’s 2017 and even more Terror Law reforms are being proposed by Government, with bipartisan support from both major parties. Current laws already breach human rights.

I am a Muslim who is concerned about the repercussions of these laws on my community and my family, yet I am still waiting to see these fears communicated and represented in public political debate.

There have been no press releases, no protests, no lobbying of MPs to change their vote on passing these laws – that we know of – from Muslim community leaders, and this quietness makes me even more apprehensive than the harms of these laws on our community. The Greens have raised concerns about changes which could see ten-year-olds held without charge, but we can’t expect that these calls be centring the voices of Muslims unless we are at the forefront raising these concerns ourselves.

Muslim leaders have previously either cooperated with Government in rolling out Counter Terror legislation, or organised consultations to voice concerns regarding the laws which the government then publically framed as a rubber stamp of approval.

We have seen very little collective organising against laws that concern and affect Muslim communities across Australia.

For example, in response to the 2014 roll-out of Terror Law changes, some of us organised an online petition to declare and demonstrate that, despite claims of support, many in the Muslim community actually oppose these laws. This petition was circulated and signed by about 250 people but it did not receive endorsement or support from any major Muslim organisation.

The lack of organisational support meant that the action was ultimately limited in its reach and communication as a legitimate political opposition worthy of consideration in parliamentary debate or media reporting.

It feels very strange that unlike other areas of law which affect many diverse communities and receive nation-wide opposition, such as the changes to citizenship laws that were finally blocked, policies which disproportionately affect Muslim communities seem to get neglected in advocacy and campaigning.

Similarly with Countering Violent Extremism programs, there has been a lack of organised campaigning to communicate concerns regarding surveillance and over-policing of Muslim youth. While no doubt these conversations take place within Muslim spaces, we struggle to turn the widespread dismay into oppositional action.

I reflect on these observations as I recollect the events surrounding teenager Numan Haider’s death at the hands of police. In response to his death, some community leaders, notably Hanan Dover, reached out to the family to offer support and condolences, and ran a Facebook hashtag campaign on her own wall challenging that Nouman was a terror suspect, as claimed by police,  while his funeral was attended by many community members grieving the loss of a young man.

Through the confusion and heightened sense of fear, a number of Muslim youth and socialist groups (such as Socialist Alliance, which issued a statement condemning police use of ‘shoot to kill’ in this incident) organised a protest to speak out against police brutality and over-policing of Muslim youth.

Despite anger and frustration within the Muslim community regarding the police mishandling of Haider’s case, the protest – understandably, I guess – was not attended nor endorsed by the Haider family or Afghan community, despite Socialist Alliance reaching out for their leadership on the matter. Nor was it attended by the regular number of Muslims who often support protests on Muslim-related affairs (mostly international). White socialist allies formed the majority of the protest. In hindsight, it would have been better to not have organised it in the first place, since it lacked the legitimate support such an action requires and deserves.

Earlier this year, I learnt that a young Muslim man was attacked and died later in hospital from an ‘alleged’ Islamophobic attack on the streets of Melbourne. I contacted the family’s lawyer, a friend of mine, and suggested to her that we could organise a community vigil to mourn his death and send a message that these sorts of hate crimes are the real direct consequences of political rhetoric and media representations. As was the case for Haider’s family, this family preferred it didn’t receive any such attention. It was explained to me that all were welcome to attend the funeral held at the mosque, and that was the end of it.

For the many living victims of Islamophobia, or lost victims whose families still need to function within a hostile climate of Islamophobia, it seems that the hyper-visibility that would come with a political campaign is a sentence worse than the lived experiences of Islamophobia. It feels impossible to even contemplate action which points fingers at police.

Many migrant Muslim communities come from experiences of dictatorships involving militias and brutal policing. I imagine it is particularly traumatic to have escaped those circumstances only to then be asked to stand against power structures here in Australia, with fears of deportation, or being labelled radical extremists, looming above. There seems to be a heightened sense of risk regarding advocacy against policing.

To be activist Muslims, then, I feel we need the God-bless of our communities and major organisations before we can take any real political steps – like, what would be the point otherwise? The entire function of activism rests on mass opposition that proves situations will get bad (we will strike, occupy, refuse cooperation etc.) if we are not listened to. Our political clout is supposed to come from the power of numbers and backing within our own communities.

I strongly believe that we need to organise as a community, where peak bodies such as the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) take the lead in pushing for political reform. But they won’t. The ICV reasons that it cannot effectively boycott or refuse to work with Government based on opposition to federal policies while still maintaining a relationship to accomplish its goals in other areas.

After ICV’s proposal submission for a Muslim youth ‘safe space’ earlier this year, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews attacked the peak body, saying: “proposing to create a space where people can just rant… this is a hate space. The notion you can safely, without being monitored, without being picked up by authorities, be involved in all the radicalisation we’re trying to diffuse makes no sense to me.”

He later said that the ICV’s entire funding is under review in response to their proposal and their pulling out of a de-radicalisation program.

The ICV decided it would not attend the Premier’s Iftar Dinner, which some community members, including myself, took to be a boycott of the dinner.

The ICV then announced on its Facebook Page that it would simply ‘not attend’, and wouldn’t position this decision as a political move coming from a grievance, or anything.

Community members were told to encourage leaders not to attend the dinner, but how could they discuss the politics behind the move and be taken seriously, if the ICV leadership itself would not communicate this directly to their member societies?

Again, it was Hanan Dover who led a hashtag Facebook campaign #IstandwithICV to show support for the ICV against the Premier’s public humiliation, but this campaign was not recognised even by the ICV.

In situations like this where I also supported the hashtag and what I thought was a boycott, and time and time again, whenever I have been involved in organising campaigns or protests, I have been told by some Muslim leaders: “I support you and think what you’re doing is so important – I don’t think I could do what you’re doing, so keep it up!”

Or: “I really shouldn’t be at the protests because of work, but I totally support it.”

Or, after agreeing to sign their name to a statement, I am asked: “Who did you consult in writing this? It makes us more enemies.”

I feel this rhetoric is a form of gaslighting, telling young Muslims like myself that it’s okay for us to go crucify ourselves on our own, while those Muslims in power maintain their privilege and comfort and organisational funding.

There is little regard for the personal consequences individual activists will face, as community leaders stand back and watch young people navigate political spaces without any sort of capital or backing.

While young Muslims are eagerly and excitedly joining activist spaces that advocate for refugee rights and engage in anti-racism work, they are not activist ‘Muslims’ in these secular spaces. Their faith is not publically centred, nor is it drawn upon for healing, vision and transformation.

Muslim faith spaces should really have the ultimate responsibility to back activist work on issues affecting Muslims. This is something we need to keep pushing for. Until then, I have learnt that to be activists, we need to [not]be activist Muslims.

Cover image via Fibonacci Blue, via Flickr

Tasnim Sammak

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