Race: Reckless stereotyping by those who know little

Race: Reckless stereotyping by those who know little October 13, 2010
The archetype speaks

Simple minds can’t cope with blonde Muslims and fair-skinned Aborigines.

In the early ’90s, I was in the final stages of my university studies and had too much time on my hands. I started teaching Muslim scripture to Year 1 and 2 kids at a south-west Sydney school. On my first day, the principal took me around to various classes to pick out the Muslim children for my class. We entered a Year 1 classroom. The principal asked: ”Hands up, kids, if you are Muslim.”

A small, blonde girl put her hand up. The principal looked at her and said, ”But Jasmina, you don’t look Muslim!” The poor little girl started to cry.

It turned out the little girl’s parents were from Sarajevo. Given the high rate of inter-marriage in her homeland, it is quite possible only one parent was Muslim in a Bosnian sense.

But what does it mean to be Muslim in a Bosnian sense? Are there different senses in which one can be Muslim? Or Christian? Or Jewish? Or Australian? Or Aboriginal? Or Western?

We all know that individual human beings are complex. When they join together as a group on some common basis, the complexities don’t just disappear. If you want to generate resentment towards a heterogeneous group, a good first step is to pretend both you and they are two-dimensional.

Manufacture an “us” and “them” by ironing out the complexities. The same strategy can be used if you want to pretend you speak for a heterogenous group. Attack and defence involve the same weapons.

Last month, some 2000 people gathered at Punchbowl Park in south-western Sydney to protest against conservative politician Fred Nile’s proposal to ban the burqa. One female speaker, born and brought up in Australia, spoke of the choice between the “Western secular way of life, which robs a woman of her dignity, honour and respect …or the option of Islam, where a woman’s dignity, respect and honour are priceless”.

So Western and Islamic are opposites. Western societies don’t respect women while Muslim societies do. Perhaps the young lady should read the domestic violence list on the notice board of her local courthouse. She might recognise plenty of Arabic, Persian and other “Muslim” sounding names.

It is little wonder hardly 2000 Muslims showed up to the rally. The other 98,000 Muslim Sydney-siders seem quite content to live in a Western secular society. They don’t wish to become part of a simplistic cultural war between the binary extremes of Muslim and Christian theocrats. No doubt a similar proportion of Christian voters feel the same way.

What this all boils down to is that people should have the choice to define their identity as they wish. People should be allowed to define themselves, not have a two-dimensional group identity forced upon them. We are all complex beings with layers of identity. When we join a group, those layers don’t disappear.

This isn’t just some form of mealy-mouthed political correctness. This is reality. Those who deny such reality are often engaging in their own form of correctness to further a distinctly political agenda.

Some media pundits have become almost obsessive in their manner of denying reality. A group of indigenous activists have decided they have had enough of the new political correctness, and have commenced legal action against Melbourne-based Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.

Bolt has commented on certain fair-skinned people identifying themselves as Aboriginal. He wrote that “this self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality”.

Bolt is of Dutch heritage. If he were to see neo-conservative ex-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the street without knowing who she was, would he recognise her as Dutch? She holds a Dutch passport, and was in the Dutch parliament. She embraces Enlightenment values with the fervour of a fundamentalist. But she is black.

John Hartigan, the chief executive of News Limited (which owns the Herald Sun), was right when he said the blogosphere was saturated with people and opinions “of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance”. Sadly, we must put up with the babblings of those who know little.

But sometimes too little knowledge can be dangerous. And when this ignorance is published by a major newspaper, or on a blog hosted by the paper, the danger is multiplied.

Irfan Yusuf is Associate Editor of He is also the author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-fascist. This article was previously published in The Age.

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