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Amal Awad

Australia is having an identity crisis

'Even before 9/11, Arabs were viewed as untrustworthy, unsavoury and ungrateful' [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 26 July, 2017

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Comment: Growing up as an Arab-Muslim in the West, I was expected to forge an 'Australian' identity, even when I wasn't considered Australian, writes Amal Awad.
"…the burden of the brutalised is not to comfort the bystander. That's not our job..." 

These were the powerful words spoken by African American actor Jessie Williams in a BET (Black Entertainment Television) awards speech that went viral last year. As with all things viral, however, Williams' words were bound for the graveyard of memes, his energy capturing global attention but for a moment, before citizens of the world moved on to their next grievance.

Of course, I'm speaking of observers, not those living the experience of racism. Those living it never really live without it. No matter how little importance you afford it, racism hums like in the background of your life.  

While the speech Williams made was praised for its lucidity on the Black Lives Matter movement, it was how he urged people not to pander to bigots that really stuck with me. Because it seems that the opposite reaction to anger against racism is the love-heals-all approach of breaking bread.

In Australia at least, we've seen a lot of it, especially among the current bogeyman - Muslims, of any background.

The intensity of distrust around Muslims, packaged in hysterical claims around halal certification, financing terrorism and migrants agitating for the adoption of sharia law, as well as 'concern' for the rights of Muslim women.

It's not being Australian or Arab that defines me

It would take more than a column to walk you through the sorry phase of media headlines talking about 'people of Middle Eastern appearance'.But even in the lead up to 9/11, Arabs were viewed as untrustworthy, unsavoury and ungrateful. Crime rates in socio-economically deprived areas (particularly Sydney and Melbourne, which have high Lebanese populations) were explained with racist and limiting commentary that suggested such crime was cultural.

It's not something that Arabs have escaped in light of a broader distrust of Muslims. In fact, it has only intensified hatred towards us.

I'm really not one for victimhood. I don't tweet out all of my grievances about how people perceive me as an Australian citizen of Palestinian heritage, born into a Muslim family. I learned a long time ago that to do so is to not be living my life.

But it has taken years for me to understand how racism, insidious and ever-present, is more institutionalised than public. No matter how many videos you see of drunken people screaming at foreigners on public transport, it's the undercurrent of 'otherness' that infiltrates all aspects of social life.

And it is ever-present in media; particularly popular culture. Hollywood had long ago defined Arabs as swarthy, dirty thieves and terrorists, its women reduced to meek, subjugated, aimless victims.

An identity crisis

Down under, if minority communities aren't being chastised for not being 'Australian' enough, they're being told to demonstrate loyalty to the adopted nation by keeping their communities in check.

Donald Trump, during his election campaign, famously promised to keep Muslims out while he made America great again. His opponent, Hilary Clinton, took a different approach, calling on Muslims to stand at the frontline of the "War against terror". 

Either way, Muslims were outliers. And while Islamic communities around the world are not limited to Arab ones, they are irreversibly intertwined.

In a country like Australia, this has certainly been the case and it is proving increasingly disastrous.

Because let's face it: Australia – and probably the US and UK – is experiencing a severe identity crisis. "It" as a nation is not easily defined, and that's why so many people are frantically trying to enforce a definition that preserves hierarchy and structure that doesn't overthrow existing power balances.

Let's face it: Australia – and probably the US and UK – is experiencing a severe identity crisis

This definition is an identity of whiteness - the default, the norm, the right. Migrants are welcome, but they shouldn't outperform others. Shine too bright, work too hard, live your life: It's ultimately all relative in the minds of racists. Because they see themselves as the norm, not just the majority.

In Australia, the current bogeyman are Muslims of any background [Anadolu]

This is nothing new. But we're so wholly aware of it now that it's overwhelming. It's driving people head-long into extreme identity politics, causing further separation, fostering greater distrust, and confusing people into latching onto identities that mean more than they should.

It's confusing people into latching onto identities that mean more than they should

We can say farewell to any level of individualism in today's social media-saturated society. As I discovered when I researched my most recent book on 'Arab women' - a label I must work with if only to dismantle it and strip away its power - we are, as humans, compelled towards belonging; to feeling safe, even if it's through a prism of fear.

This is what drives racism, which is essentially an act of power. It is not enough to say to the Anglo-Australian that their unhappiness in life could be directed inwards to find a solution – for a relatively young country, Australia has consistently blamed 'outsiders' for its social problems, for any problem at all really.

And our leadership isn't helping.

Our government doesn't celebrate migrants. Currently, it chastises them, questions their loyalty and desire to be here, and tests their dedication to learning English, raising the bar on what it means to be a good citizen. Being a law-abiding one only matters when it comes to pointing out the issues migrants bring - domestic violence, for example, seems to be a different beast when the perpetrator isn't white.

This may not be surprising, but it's breathtaking given Australia's history. It's a land built on invasion, a sordid history that its First Nations people are still paying for.

Where to now?

Refreshingly - some people are learning to talk about it. While there is no denying that Muslims – collectively – are subject to fierce judgment and distrust not only in public life but by openly bigoted politicians – there is a growing awareness.

It's there, bubbling beneath the surface. A sense of things. That if this happens to Muslims, it could happen to another minority in a few years.

It was only last year that Australia's immigration minister Peter Dutton lamented Australia letting in refugees of the Lebanese civil war. Not long after, the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke of the need for migrants to make an effort to learn English as though not a single one has, and as though the nation's future prosperity depended on it.

You never really belong here. You are asked where you're from, perhaps out of curiosity, but also as a polite reminder that you are a visitor to Australia

It doesn't get more "us and them" than that. And this is what we deal with as migrants or children of migrants. You never really belong here. You are asked where you're from, perhaps out of curiosity, but also as a polite reminder that you are a visitor to Australia. That anything you do or commit is more meaningful coming from you - you are not judged by the same yardstick.

History tells us that this occurs in cycles. Infamous Australian politician Pauline Hanson isn't known for her biting observations or wit - she is known for the hate speech she espouses. Twenty years ago, she warned of the Asian invasion. Nowadays, her target is Muslims and their halal branding – and all that it stands for.

The hysteria surrounding migrants only grows shriller over time. This is because kids of migrants have grown up now and are, as appeared to be the initial desire, blending in.

We have names that are difficult to pronounce, but we can still be put in our place in a moment. It's that insidious racism so many feel but can't prove. An underlying sense that you're lucky if someone overlooks your heritage.

Not having to be defined by these labels is a privilege afforded to people who don't come from an ethnic minority

But this is the way of it in western countries. Countries that are built on their diversity, even as they frantically try to maintain separations with only the illusion of wholeness.

The problem for me isn't that I'm being made to feel un-Australian. More disturbing is that other people are telling me how to think and feel, even as they espouse the significance of freedom, human rights and free speech.

For my whole life I have been an assembly of labels and identities that offer aspects of me, but not the whole. Not having to be defined by these labels is a privilege afforded to people who don't come from an ethnic minority.

It's not being Australian or Arab that defines me. Yet in an attention-deficit world, where things must often be simplified and defined without an ounce of elasticity, it seems to be the only thing that matters for some.


Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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