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Perhaps some friends have been surprised by why a few ‘random comments’ on morning T.V. impacted me in recent days – but it does. Some kind souls have reached out to understand why… so this is my attempt to explain.

As a Caucasian country girl, I grew up as part of ‘the majority’. Had you have asked me about attitudes on diversity, I would have passionately defended that ‘we’ (Australians) are a tolerant society – a melting pot of cultures where everyone gets a ‘fair go’.

Sadly I was wrong.

When I was 19, much to the surprise of my friends and family (and I!) I made the decision to convert to Islam. No, I didn’t convert to get married. I converted because in Islam I found my answers. I found a belief system and way of life that resonated with me and in doing so, seemingly overnight, I went from an ‘us’ to a ‘them’.

Over the years I’ve shared some of the more bizarre experiences of living as a Muslim in Australia – like being praised for my use of the English language, being repeatedly asked where I really come from or being confronted by someone screaming ‘go back to your own country’ as their raised fists were held back by another passerby. Whilst I typically share the latter with humour, it’s only because the tears have since dried up.

In the more recent years the ‘lone wolf attacks’ have become more common. Not of higher severity but more frequent in their reminder that ‘people like me’ are no longer welcome. Inappropriate, misinformed and emotionally laden statements which would previously have been shut down by society are no longer taboo – they are excused under the guise of freedom of expression.

Whilst many see comments like those from Kruger or Hanson to be ‘once off comments by ignorant people’, I see it as a signal of how far the invisible boundaries of our social norms continue to be pushed. Public figures influence public opinion and in a somewhat incestuous relationship, a public figure will not say something that will put their reputation on the line. The fact that Kruger could make a statement and was then afforded further airtime to justify her position (not apologise) speaks volumes for the precipice we as Australians find ourselves perched upon.

Alongside being baseless and irrational, Sonia’s call to close our borders to Muslim migration was a slap in the face for many of my friends and I. Not because of the ignorance behind her logic but because we know the repercussions that will surely follow.

I don’t ‘do’ public transport anymore. Last time I took a train I was publicly humiliated by a man who was offended by my very presence – or more specifically, my attire. Perhaps unconvincingly I pretended not to understand his bigoted rants and stared blankly out the window until (thankfully) we arrived at his stop. It was a carriage packed with peak hour travellers – nobody intervened.

After the attacks in France in November last year, I rallied the strength to go to work in the city. As I have done for a while now, I arrived at a time when I knew there wouldn’t be a crowd – less chance of bumping into a ‘nutter’ or at least less ‘collateral damage’ if any incident ensued. Holding my coffee and trying to avoid eye contact, I arrived at the lift lobby where three colleagues cheerfully chatted amongst themselves. The electronic billboard flicked over – a picture of the Eiffel Tower and French flag. The awkward silence of my colleagues spoke volumes as their eyes shifted from the billboard to me – appearing to seek an apology for something I had no part in. A lift arrived. I clumsily fumbled in my handbag for ‘something’, a distraction. I caught the next lift.

Pangs of now familiar anxiety accompanied me to work this week – to some it may seem an overreaction. Sure, I believe that most people are good but when calls for an internment camp are being made in a climate of growing hostility, it is difficult to gauge just how far those boundaries have shifted and who now believes that their ‘reaction’ to my presence would be somehow justified. It would be silly of me to ‘turn a blind eye’ to sentiments that are changing. Like that magnetic pull of a car crash, I’m drawn to read the comments on social media. It’s better to know what proportion of people are calling for my beheading, isn’t it? What if the next person I bump into is the one who just called others to ‘cleanse our country of filth like them’? Or one of the thousands who ‘liked’ the comment?

Then my mind shifts to others in the Muslim community – those in a more vulnerable position than I. The Muslim child who was bullied in the playground and has nobody to play with because their dads say ‘people like them’ are all terrorists. Or the woman who ironically due to the oppression she faces within a society which espouses the desire to liberate her, removes her beloved headscarf because she just cannot face the stares and mumbling anymore. And I think of our youth, especially the boys.

Muslims in Australia already face institutional discrimination where despite higher levels of education, Muslims are disproportionately unemployed. A leading cause of radicalisation is alienation, social exclusion and lack of sense of purpose and belonging. Are we seriously that blind that we don’t see the connection? Fuelled by a sense of injustice by our apparent acceptance that a loss of life in some countries is more worthy than others, I fear that instead of creating the safe haven she selfishly dreams of, Krugers own words (and those like hers) serve only to create the conditions where radicalisation thrives. And thus the cycle continues….

So what’s the alternative? Sorry. I don’t come with solutions but let me tell you of stories that give me hope…

A woman crossing the road in the rain last week offered to share her umbrella with me.

In an apparent deliberate bid to seek some time alone with a Muslim, a woman holds a lift door open for a perhaps unreasonable time. The doors close and she asks ‘how are you?’ in the most genuine way. We chat about ‘recent events’ until ground floor and wish each other a good day. Tears well as I reflect on those few seconds of connection.

While walking with my head down (again) going to my car on Wednesday evening, an older gentleman and I nearly collided as we rounded a corner. He apologised profusely – far more than a ‘near miss’ would require. His ‘take care’ as we walked forward made me wonder if there was more behind our brief encounter. Regardless of intention, his humility at the time of vulnerability warmed my heart.

However despite the good, while those boundaries of ‘social acceptability’ continue to be blurry and pliable, many of my friends and I will continue to make different decisions as we go about our lives. Online grocery shopping will be my default mode of operandi, I’ll likely skip on going out for milk after sunset and I’ll consider the best route and time to avoid the crowds yet not be too alone. I’ll be deliberately kind to shop keepers and those I interact with and I’ll ‘joke’ about being everyone’s worst nightmare – a covered woman with a backpack entering a corporate building in the city.

I once too would have been afforded the privilege of living my life unaffected by world events however I accepted long ago that its no longer a luxury I’m able to indulge in.

Like the frustration of a puzzle which is missing a piece, we’ll never be able to solve the problem without a complete picture. With both emotions and ignorance rising, I share my personal reflections and experience as a means to connect.

Sister Jenny Bryant

Victoria, Australia


22 July 2016

(reproduced with permission from Sister Jenny)

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