Here’s a random scene from the life of Larry, a 43-year-old liberal-minded agnostic, Jewish South African/Australian:
A little while ago, upon alighting the train at Southern Cross Station, in the centre of Melbourne one busy weekday morning, I was asked by a young, traditionally dressed Muslim woman if I knew where the place was where you registered births. As I had been to the exact building before, I happily pointed out where she needed to go and walked with her part of the way through the busy station. She was shy, but sweet and thanked me as she headed out of the station and across the busy intersection of Collins and Spencer Streets towards her destination.
Here’s another in my illustrious life…
A few weeks ago, needing a haircut before a wedding, I drove to our local shopping strip, parked my car, withdrew money from the ATM and went in search of someone who could cut my hair. Soon I found a funky-looking barbershop that had opened recently (it used to be a frozen yoghurt shop) and took a seat. A little while later, a young Middle Eastern-looking man with an accent like Turkish Delight showed me to a seat, asked me what kind of haircut I wanted, and then proceeded to cut my hair. We had one of those rambling, but friendly conversions you have when someone cuts your hair – I asked him how long the shop had been open and how it was doing and he asked me what my plans were for the weekend and about my family. 15 minutes later my head was neatly trimmed. I thanked him, paid and left.
And here’s one more…
A month ago my infant son was sick and we were in the Royal Children’s Hospital. A young trainee doctor with a Muslim name came in to check on us. He was a bit nervous, but politely asked a few questions about why we were in the hospital, what had happened and how things were now. He listened to my son’s chest, asked a few more questions, and then said goodbye and moved on.
These three random and unremarkable moments keep popping into my head like flashing lightbulbs whenever I encounter the opinions of Australia’s vocal Anti-Muslim brigade led by Pauline Hanson, the leader of far right political party One Nation, who believes all Australian Muslims should be treated with suspicion “You can’t tell a good one from a bad one” she said recently.
Others like cartoonist Larry Pickering told a dinner hosted by the Anti-Islam Q Society: “I can’t stand Muslims” while conspiracy theorist and aspiring politician Kirralie Smith from the paradoxically named Australian Liberty Alliance believes Halal-certified food is funding Islamic terrorism and should be banned.
I keep wondering how these three people live there daily lives in one of the world’s most multicultural societies, where you only have to step onto a train, bus or tram to encounter 10 different nationalities, three or four ethnicities and half a dozen different languages
How do they react when a Middle Eastern man dispenses their medicine in the pharmacy, swipes their items in the supermarket, delivers their new television or asks them directions to the shopping mall? Do they yell abuse, ignore them or cross to the other side of the street?
Do they avoid the local grocery store because its own by Lebanese people, or move to new seats in the cinema if they find themselves seated next to a Muslim family? Do they carefully read every food label before purchasing in case it happens to have Halal certification?
And what about when they travel overseas for work or holidays? Do they deliberately avoid flying Arabic carriers like Etihad or Emirates Airlines even if they happen to have the cheapest fares or the best reputation for food and service? What do they do if their flight to Paris or London refuels in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur?
What about sport, that great Australian tradition? How do they feel when Australia plays cricket against Pakistan or Bangladesh or a soccer match against Iran, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates? Will they watch Australia at the next FIFA World Cup in Kuwait? How do they feel when cricketer Usman Khawaja, the first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia, scores a brilliant test hundred or when Richmond midfielder Bachar Houli, a devout Muslim, scores a goal at the MCG and the stadium erupts?
How do those people who worship at the altar of anti-Islam navigate their daily lives? Do they constantly have to remind themselves to hate and despise fellow citizens based on their ideological position or does the mask slip from time to time?
Do they ever question any of their beliefs? Are their views malleable or fused into some solid form of rage that is impenetrable? Do they doubt anything they believe? Is there any chink in their armoury?
Thankfully, I don’t have to navigate any of those daily challenges. I take everyone at face value and like to think I make no pre-judgements of anyone.
Also, I have been lucky enough to have travelled to many Muslim countries in my life – Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia to name a few.
Most of my experiences in these countries have been extremely positive – nowhere is perfect – and enlightening. I have learnt about fascinating and ancient cultures, seen beautiful architecture and art, sampled new delectable cuisines and shared stories with warm and charming people.
I say this not to boast of my travel exploits, but to make the point that I think you can only be anti-Muslim from a position of ignorance.
Indeed, a recent poll by Pew Research asking people to estimate the proportion of their country’s population that is Muslim shows just how uninformed we are.
In France the estimate among respondents was that 31 per cent of the population was Muslim when the real figure was 7.5 per cent, in the US the perception was that one in six Americans were Muslim, whereas the actual figure is one in 100.
Australians thought Muslims made up 12.5 per cent of the population when the true figure was only 2.4 per cent.
None of this should detract from the heinous actions of Islamic extremists, who make up a tiny proportion of the 1.6 billion Muslims whom we share the planet with.
Indeed Muslims themselves are the targets of many of these brutal acts, as the recent horrific chemical attacks orchestrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own people have shown to the world.
And let’s not forget the role the anti-Muslim movement plays in creating the next generation of extremists.
“…trying to demonise all Muslims is only confirming the lying, dangerous message of the terrorists,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in a recent rebuttal to the bigotry of Pauline Hanson.