Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wrong Words, Difficult Emotions

Some friends of mine are seriously thinking of moving to Canberra. They are expanding their business, and want to open a factory from where they can service clients. If their business grows, they will provide livelihoods and jobs to numerous Canberra households, not to mention contributing to the local economy.

And what is it that impressed them so much about Canberra? I spoke to one of the directors.

“When I walk through Civic wearing my hijab [traditional Muslim headscarf], no one even takes a second look at me. Everyone is friendly and helpful. It’s such a friendly place. They don’t presume I have bombs strapped to my ankles or something crazy like that”.

That was on Sunday night. The views expressed by this couple were in accord with what I personally know and have experienced. Canberra is not a place where racism is the flavour of the month.

My family are originally from Canberra. When my Delhi-born parents arrived in Australia, they headed straight for Canberra. My mother made her first friend in Canberra, a Hindi-speaking Jewish lady named Anne. How typical of the Canberra environment that it could be the scene of a lasting friendship between a Jew and a Muslim.

One of my closest friends, a Sydney paramedic, grew up in Canberra. Both she and my sister were born in the old Canberra Hospital. In 2003, when I decided to enrol in a Masters Program, the ANU Faculty of Law was my first choice. And because I stayed in Melba, the law library at UC was a regular place for study.

I have always regarded Canberra as a vibrant cosmopolitan city where people do not care what colour your skin is or which God you worship (if any) or how much chillies you put in your food. Hindus in Florey and Muslims in Yarralumla or Monash gather for worship in as much peace as Catholics in Manuka.

With these experiences of Canberra, readers can imagine how shocked I was to be asked by one Canberra talkback host about why Muslim Australians refuse to assimilate. What made me even more amused was that the questioner spoke with a more British accent than my broad East Ryde “Strayn” accent. It sounded like John Howard asking Prince Charles why he did not show more loyalty to constitutional monarchy.

Muslim Canberrans play an active role in Canberra life. They work senior public servants, political staffers, academics, lawyers, doctors, engineers and in other professions. They manage small businesses and large Commonwealth government departments. They employ and are employed by Canberrans of other faiths and of no faith in particular.

In the recent terrorist attacks, Londoners from all backgrounds suffered. A recent edition of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph included the story of a devout Muslim girl whose parents were originally from the Indian sub-Continent. She is missing and presumed dead. Her family were shown on UK television mourning her disappearance.

When Canberra faced its bushfire tragedy, all Canberrans suffered. And all Canberrans pitched in and provided assistance to those directly affected. Amongst the donors were members of the Canberra Islamic Centre who collected funds and provided other support and assistance to the relief effort.

Given these contributions, one wonders what more Canberran Muslims could do to “assimilate”. But it is also true that in difficult times, people can use the wrong words to express difficult emotions. And although I did enjoy giving that talkback host a run for his money, perhaps his words reflected the pain and anguish that many feel.

So how should I respond? Perhaps it would be best to use the words of a man at the centre of the London tragedy. Mayor Ken Livingstone had hardly finished celebrating London’s Olympic dream coming true when he was faced with the stark reality of terrorism in his heartland. He had every reason to use the wrong words to express difficult emotions.

And whilst others were getting ready to blame and attack anyone who resembled Islam, Ken Livingstone told it how it was. He described the terrorist attacks as being “aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old … an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.”

The Mayor went onto say that “the city of London is the greatest in the world, because everybody lives side by side in harmony. Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack. They will stand together in solidarity alongside those who have been injured and those who have been bereaved”.

Canberra and London share the same features – harmony, tolerance, solidarity. Those who act and speak against these values are helping terrorists achieve their goals. The fuel of the terrorist fire is hate. The opposite of hate is love. And those who love Canberra will love all Canberrans.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005