(Content note: Religious extremism and terrorism.)
It was such an ugly, ugly story–and all the uglier for being so painfully familiar. A Muslim radical, newly arrived to Australia, took the most effective tool of communication he had–a gun–into a nice little coffee shop in Sydney and took hostages. He did some awful things there for a while before Australian forces moved in on him; he and a couple of other people died in the chaos, while others were injured.
It was weird to see this happening in Australia–one doesn’t imagine that to be a country filled with religious extremism and violence like we see elsewhere. Indeed, the fellow turned out (according to that BBC link up there) to be a Muslim who was in the country on an asylum offer, which must have been a welcome worn rather thin by the fateful day he strode into the cafe; he was out on bail awaiting trial on what the BBC cryptically called “a number of charges.” Crowds gathered on the street outside to watch the drama unfold; from time to time hostages would escape and run into the arms of the police outside. It finally ended with bloodshed and many tears and a lot of shock, and you can bet the families involved have my full sympathy and condolences, and my hopes that the survivors will get all the help they need to recover.
As you can quickly imagine, the Muslims in the area immediately denounced what happened at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe at busy, upscale-looking Martin Place. Leaders and scholars of the religion were quick to issue denunciations of the terrorist, denunciations that by now feel almost rote, they must happen so often: they are shocked and horrified, and very nervous indeed that people will think these terrorists represent Islam when, in one Muslim’s words, “yet again their faith has been dragged through the mud by a group of young individuals who represent no one but themselves.”
It’s got to be downright scary to be a peaceful Muslim every single time one of these violent extremists does something violent and extremist. I can only imagine the fear that these Muslims must feel when they walk down a street or go about their business in public. People who are Muslim aren’t always ethnically Middle Eastern, but their dress often makes them stand out in a crowd no matter what their skin color might be. They’ve been a target for a while; when 9/11 happened in America, I was attending an SCA event in the Deep South in a small town not long afterward–and everybody there got specific instructions not to step outside the campground wearing anything the locals might construe as Middle Eastern attire. Middle Eastern costume and historical studies were a fad at the time in that area, so this was a warning that was not only timely but necessary. The organizers were genuinely worried that some costumed SCAdians might get their asses shot just going into a 7/11 to buy sodas, even though everybody there was whiter than Christmas snow.
So one can’t really blame Muslims for being nervous about how they might get viewed after one of their own religious members committed a terrible act. It’s the same fear that black people have after a black person gets caught doing something terrible. People in dominant groups tend to focus on the membership in a marginalized group when stuff like that happens. That membership starts looking like it is to blame for whatever act got committed. It becomes a reason to blame the perpetrator–and to mistreat all the others in that group. When a white man commits an act of violence or terror, we don’t critically examine his “culture” in such a way, or hold all white men responsible for the acts of that one white man–unless he turns out to be a member of a very fringe group, like a hate group or out-there religion.
We’ve seen acts of solidarity before–in war-torn areas like Pakistan and Egypt, where Muslims held hands to form a chain of protection around Christian churches to protect those attending Mass, or Christians doing the same thing to protect Muslims kneeling in prayer. But that stuff happens in areas where life and death are on the line all the time; those photos come from places that are far away, places Westerners can’t even imagine most times.
Right after the Sydney siege, an Australian woman noticed another woman on public transportation removing a hijab–hiding it, and with it her Muslim identity out of fear of retaliation. It broke Tessa Kum’s heart, so she chased after the Muslim woman after they’d gotten off the vehicle. She asked the Muslim woman to put the hijab back on if she liked, and Ms. Kum would walk with her to give her protection against anybody who’d give her any crap for wearing it.
The Muslim woman “started to cry,” Ms. Kum tweeted later, “and hugged me for about a minute–then walked off alone.”
The tweet got attention, though, and suddenly Australians were tweeting #illridewithyou as offers of assurance, reassurance, and protection poured through the digital world in support of Muslims who were understandably afraid to display any visible signs of their religious affiliation. Take a look at that mic.com link up there–look at all the messages from Australians offering support and help for any Muslims who were nervous about going around in public. And take a look at the Twitter feed itself–it’s quite inspirational.
That terrorist wanted to make Australians afraid, to make them hate, to stoke the flames of war. But it looks to me from here like all he did was make people come together and transcend the division that religion causes so often. Even criticisms of the movement–and certainly there are some valid ones that could be made, though mostly I’m just seeing small-minded ideologues flapping their pieholes in the feed–have the potential to start a real dialogue about privilege and marginalization that clearly needed to happen.
This whole thing reminds me of some quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King about nonviolence:
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. (1958) . . . Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction … The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (1963)
Let’s face it. Extremism begets extremism; violence begets violence. It doesn’t end till one side’s destroyed. There’s really only one way to break that chain without bloodshed.
What confounds zealots the most is love. Real love, not the redefined abuse that many zealots mistake for love. Love accepts; love heals; love binds; love attracts. Love confuses people who rule through hatred, fear, and discord. They don’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. Love listens; love accepts; love offers a hand. Love doesn’t care about hierarchies; it has no interest in domination; it destroys walls and towers. Love makes roads where hate tries to make walls. Love builds bridges after hate has shattered them all. Love refreshes the weary and lifts up the hearts and gazes of the downtrodden. Love holds the line, resisting without breaking.
And damn it all, religious hate is wearisome if it is anything in the world. I think sometimes that zealots and extremists are the way they are because they think eventually they’ll just exhaust their victims into compliance. Make no mistake: if they can’t have solidarity in belief, they will happily take compliance. They understand active resistance; their entire worldview revolves around how to answer blow for blow. But they don’t understand what’s starting to flare up in small blooms of holy fire all across the world.
It doesn’t really matter what I, personally, think of the hijab or any other article of identifying clothing someone wears to signal affiliation. I mean, sure, it’d be nice if every Muslim woman in the world could be perfectly free to remove those veils and scarves if she wanted to do so. But it’s not up to me, nor should it be, and I think it’s wrong to compel someone to dress a certain way if there’s not a good reason to make that demand, like safety. It is not okay to make someone feel unsafe for any reason. It is not okay to make Muslim women especially feel so afraid that they must remove a garment many of them have been indoctrinated to feel is a shield against the world. If they’re going to take it off, let them do it because that’s what they really want to do. Until then, we must not allow ourselves to fall into the same extremism, judgment, and violence that that terrorist fell into in Sydney. If we’re to have any hope of moving forward, it will have to be for the right reasons or it isn’t going to happen.
This siege was awful, and I denounce violence like it in the strongest possible terms. I’m relieved that it’s over and mourn the lives lost. With that in mind, I want to say that I’m feeling a new sort of hope that the aftermath of the siege has been something this affirming and loving. I almost wish there were an afterlife, so the terrorist involved in this attack could see it from wherever he would be.