As soon as news filtered through that a “Muslim riot” was taking place in Sydney on September 15, it was clear a racist backlash was going to occur. It was also clear on what grounds the backlash would take place.
Shock jocks would immediately declare that “they all should be sent back” — meaning all Muslims. We didn’t have to wait long for the first example — Andrew Bolt wrote a response almost straight away on his Herald Sun blog under the title “We let them in. Now they threaten”.
It was clear conservative intellectuals were going to call multiculturalism a failure, inferior to an Anglo monoculture. Gerard Henderson dutifully followed this up in an article titled “Multiculturalism still has a long road to travel to reach all” in the September 18 Sydney Morning Herald.
It was clear evangelical Christians and Dawkinsite atheists would unite to declare: “See what we've been saying about Islam.” In response to the Muslim protests around the world over the past week, celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins has tweeted “jokes” such as: “Breaking news. Taliban attacks Fiji in revenge for Croatian film.”
It was clear politicians would condemn the protesters as “unAustralian”. The day after the protest, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the Sydney protest “was not the Australian way”.
While all of this may seem drearily predictable, the reaction of those who consider themselves as left-leaning liberals has perhaps been more surprising.
The SMH’s Peter FitzSimons said in his “Open letter to Islamic protesters”: “Get this straight, and quickly: some of you may be from countries where this kind of thing is acceptable. But it is NOT acceptable in this country.”
He concluded: “Racists have said for years, ‘If you don't like the way we do things here, go back to where you came from’. The net result of your actions yesterday is that — for those people specifically disgracing themselves in the CBD yesterday, not the vast bulk of Islamic Australians — much of the country now feels the same.”
In essence, FitzSimons gave voice to his distress at how hard he found it be an anti-racist now a hysterical campaign against Muslims had begun.
The NSW Greens also quickly “condemned [the] violent protests on the streets of Sydney”, saying, “there is no place in our democracy for anyone initiating violence against the police or diplomatic missions”.
Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said: “Australia is a vibrant and healthy democracy which upholds peaceful protest, but has no place for violent protest.”
But this response is wrong on many levels. First, eyewitness reports published in Green Left Weekly and elsewhere have made it clear that the simple narrative of violent protesters is not accurate. These eyewitnesses say the police attacked what had been until then a peaceful protest.
SBS also reported the police violence that day. SBS News’s Andrea Clark said: “We were standing here with about 100 protesters and what felt like several hundred police, when the protesters attempted to leave the park peacefully. They were heading into Pitt St Mall and the police just literally set upon them.”
Instead of trying to establish what actually took place, the Greens responded to media hysteria and condemned the protesters in an unfortunate concession to Islamophobia.
In the past, the Greens have pointed out that the mainstream press habitually label protests violent when they were not, or when the police have attacked protesters.
The Greens should also be aware that the actions of a few who reacted does not justify repression of an entire protest.
The backlash has been so extreme that some mainstream Islamic groups have referred to the small Sydney protest as “worse than the Cronulla riots” of 2005, when thousands of white Australians ganged up to attack as many non-white people as they could find. These groups have also called for an end to further protests.
Support for the democratic right to protest has taken a back seat to the manufactured hysteria against Muslims from the corporate press and big political parties. But democratic rights are not a tap to be turned on and off. Everyone should expect to be able to hold a protest and not be beaten up by the cops.
What anyone thinks of the rally should be irrelevant when it comes to the question of whether it is repressed. Those who celebrate the crackdown are willing to put faith in the police and the state to determine what is a legitimate protest. That is a worrying precedent.
This failure to stand up for democratic rights is having a chilling effect, as can be seen in the case of one protester, Ahmed Elomar. ABC online reported on September 19 that Elomar was refused bail despite the fact “there was no suggestion Elomar assaulted police or threw projectiles at them”.
The prosecution convinced the magistrate to refuse bail on the grounds that “Elomar's presence in a group of protesters who tried to break police lines represented a threat to public safety”.
That is, Elomar is not accused of violence, but of simply being at the protest. This makes Elomar a political prisoner, yet barely a peep has been heard about it.
Many commentators have tried to portray the protest as an irrational response to the Islamophobic YouTube video, The Innocence of Muslims.
But in a September 19 SMH article, Mohamad Tabbaa said this ignores the real context.
He said: “Many Muslims in Australia do not simply give up their identity as belonging to a global community merely because they happen to live in Australia. Many have not bought the liberal idea of individualism, and so see events happening on the other side of the planet as personally related to them.
“So, when a Muslim woman is killed collecting firewood in Afghanistan, these youth are angered at the fact that their sister was murdered. When a Muslim man is crushed to death in Palestine, they lament the loss of their brother. It may not make sense to a Western audience, but that doesn't matter.
“This is what is angering our youth, and until we start discussing it honestly and genuinely, the confusion will remain.”
The backlash against the protest makes it crucial for everyone who is against racism to stand up stronger than ever. Regardless of your views on the actual protest in question, unless we do, the only outcome will be deeper racial hatred and violence.