One week after the tragic Sydney siege, a new grassroots movement is challenging everyday prejudice in Australia. In what began as a stand of solidarity, the social media campaign #illridewithyou is pushing Australians to reexamine how they view race relations and religious discrimination. Video journalist Patrick Abboud takes a deeper look at what triggered the campaign and talks to young Muslims who for too long have been attacked in the streets or while using public transportation.
So you see, even though a country could turn to violence and retaliation at a time like this, many Australians have chosen to express their grief in other ways.
#illridewithyou started with a simple tweet from @Michael James_TV. He shared a story from a young Brisbane woman, Rachael Jacobs, who saw a Muslim woman remove her headscarf on a Sydney train after hearing news of the siege.
Another Twitter user, @sirtessa, then tweeted encouraging Muslim women to wear their religious attire on public transport with pride and started the hashtag #illridewithyou.
Solidarity steamrolled its way across the country and the world as the hashtag went viral — at one point topping the trending list.
President Barack Obama praised #illridewithyou during a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (At the same time, one of the prime minister's own political supporters criticized it as a "pathetic" campaign.)
Some prominent Australian media commentators slammed the campaign as "leftist." Others said the hashtag perpetuated Islamophobia rather than challenging it.
But the power of the people on the street inspired thousands all over the country to speak up about fears over public security.
Australian organization Getup! recently created a website that connects people worried about traveling on public transportation alone with other passengers willing to ride with them. Check it out.
Putting prejudice to the test - look what happens as this man heckles people posing as Muslims in Sydney’s CBD.
#illridewithyou isn’t the first time a campaign in the fight to stamp out Islamaphobia in Australia has captured the public’s attention. Kamal Saleh is the man behind an groundbreaking social experiment that puts prejudice to the test. Earlier this year he and some friends hired an actor to spend a day in Sydney’s CBD heckling people posing as Muslims. The public’s reaction was secretly filmed and the results are stunning. The video has more than 1.5 million views.
Kamal allowed me to get on a bus with him en route to meet his "Muslim sisters" - young women he will #ridewith.
Why #illridewithyou is important
This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the Cronulla Riots, and we are still recovering from the shame of it — where volunteer lifesavers at a south Sydney beach clashed with young Middle Eastern men over a week of violent sectarian assaults.
When images of hostages being forced to hold up a flag with Arabic inscriptions inside the window of a Sydney cafe where the #sydneysiege took place dominated the news, Australian pundits were quick to connect the attack to terrorism and extremist Islam.
The incident was the work of Man Haron Monis, a lone wolf who was - yes - Muslim, however he pledged no allegiance with ISIS or any other Islamic organization. There’s no question the self-styled "fake sheik" was dangerous. He was on bail for at least 40 sexual assault charges and accessory to murder, but he was not a "terrorist." Manny Conditsis, a Sydney lawyer who once represented Monis said, “This is a one-off random individual. It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous.” Prime Minister Abbott described him as a “sick and disturbed individual."
Despite the positive outpouring of support for #illridewithyou there are silent victims still feeling the brunt of this horrible event. For many of them, the backlash is alive and well.
The group of young women you’re about to hear from in this video have never spoken out. Granting rare insight, they allowed my camera inside their closed group that meets weekly. They let us in on intimate details about how racism affects their lives.
Anti-Islamic sentiment has saturated public discourse in Australia. Authorities briefly banned the burqa inside Parliament in the name of security. The government also looked at loosening racial-vilification laws which would leave Muslims more open to persecution without legal recourse. And more recently, anti-terror raids across Australia that led to arrests, the seizure of weapons and the discovery of a plan to attack Parliament have placed Islam in the spotlight.
Long before ISIS, Australian Muslims say 9/11 and the Bali bombings were major contributors to the rise of Islamophobia here. The 2002 gang rape of young girls by a group of men, many of whom were identified as Muslim, has also impacted the public perception of Muslims.
Australia has also earned a reputation as an unwelcoming nation for immigrants by implementing some of the harshest restrictions against asylum seekers in the world, many of them Muslims. These laws have been quietly removing reference to the U.N. convention on the refugee, attracting international condemnation to what was once seen as a friendly tolerant place — "the lucky country."
Earlier this year, Lydia Shelley co-founded the Australian Islamophobia Register. She says, “We noticed an escalation in relation to the incidences that were being reported directly after the terror raids and they skyrocketed to 25-30 complaints per day. We have internal policies and procedures which we follow in relation to substantiating the claim”.
Muslim scholars and community leaders have denounced any connection between #sydneysiege and the peaceful teachings of Islam - many working tirelessly to disassociate the religion with terrorism. Saed Kanawati of the United Muslims of Australia invited me to attend a class he teaches called “Understanding Islam” Although the class is open to anyone who wants to attend, he’s never allowed anyone to film the class.
This video is an excerpt from a story I produced for The Feed on SBS2 www.sbs.com.au/thefeed
Young Muslim women wearing the hijab or headscarf in public are prime targets. The media noise often silences their plight and they’re left unheard. Those that do cut through frequently feel misrepresented. Mariam Veiszadeh, co-founder of the Australian Islamophobia Register, is one of thousands forced at times to resign to “we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t comment.” She wrote an opinion piece in a Sydney newspaper after the siege. Here is an excerpt:
As this nightmare unravelled on Monday, my heart sank as I sat at my desk at work, hearing about the events occurring only a few streets away. I felt completely numb when I heard that the innocent hostages were forced to hold up an "Islamic flag". With one grotesque act, 1½ billion Muslims were at risk of being dragged through the mud, deemed "guilty by association", and religious symbols misappropriated. Unable to contain my emotions, I wept uncontrollably in my team meeting at work as the sheer magnitude of this callous act and the unknown potential violence dawned on me.
A scent of support floats over Martin place alleviating some of the pain.
This sea of flowers in memorial of the victims killed in the #sydneysiege continues to grow.
And in a beautiful gesture that’s sure to go just as viral as #illridewithyou, 23 year old Muslim bride Manal Kassem laid her wedding bouquet at the site.
But for many young Muslims the fear of being persecuted may never subside.
Follow Patrick on twitter @PatrickAbboud
Patrick Abboud is an award-winning cross-platform journalist, presenter and documentary producer. He is currently based in Sydney reporting for sbs.com.au/thefeed, sbs.com.au/dateline, and international broadcasters.