Howard Zinn, the renowned historian, said: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and place – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future”. Today the common Australian acted in such a way, to remind us that in the midst of darkness, the light of empathy, solidarity, kindness and respect still shines bright.
Here in Britain we woke up to the all too common news of a hostage taking, and most of us would have reacted to the news with the inevitable fear that it was a Muslim perpetrated act. News channels and radio stations were replete with the news, with commentators continuing the endless discussion about terrorism, radicalisation and Islam. But as the gunman held people hostage in a Sydney cafe, a strange phenomenon broke out on social media.
The spark was a post on Facebook by Rachael Jacobs, who said she had seen a woman she presumed was Muslim silently removing her hijab while sitting next to her on the train: “I ran after her at the train station. I said ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with u’. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute – then walked off alone’’.
The story of Rachael’s encounter with a woman in religious attire inspired this Twitter user, ‘Sir Tessa’, aka Tessa Kum to tweet:
“If you reg take the #373 bus b/w Coogee/MartinPl, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule,”
Moments later she tweeted:
“Maybe start a hashtag? What’s in #illridewithyou?”
And indeed this was the start, with more than 150,000 tweets using the hashtag in four hours.
The hostage situation ended after 16 hours, with commandos storming the cafe, and the hostage taker and two innocent hostages dying. Inevitably, there will be much analysis into the attack in the ensuing days by politicians, the media, and experts. However, there are a few points of note from today’s incidents that we should reflect on.
First, in an increasingly hostile world, where we are often given the “us” against “them”, or the “Islam against the West” narrative, it was non-Muslims from amongst the Australian public (the supposed “Westerners”) that acted with kindness, respect and compassion for their fellow Muslim citizens. Rather than displaying hostility against the perceived enemy, the common Australian demonstrated that the bonds of humanity and tolerance transcend the fear of the unknown – in fact, Australians demonstrated that the Muslims they know are not the belligerent, violent, radicalised, West-hating radicals, but fellow Australians that share similar values and contribute to the vibrancy of their state. Defending the rights of their fellow citizens became a matter of principle and obligation and a reason for social mobilisation. Indeed, for us living in Britain, there is a profound lesson to be learned from our Australian counterparts.
Second, the fact that so many Muslims feared a backlash following the hostage-taking, suggests that Islamophobia is real and research has shown that events such as these precipitate an increase in the number of Islamophobic attacks against Muslims. Bigotry exists, and despite today’s events of solidarity, the barriers must be broken by all – Muslims and non-Muslims. These barriers must be broken through grass roots engagement, with Muslims confidently and righteously representing their faith through wisdom and kindness. And non-Muslims must differentiate between the acts of a few that misappropriate our faith and those of the majority, who wish to live peacefully as righteous individuals. The strong counter-terrorism measures, introduced in the UK and in Australia, will do little to enhance civility, reduce radicalisation and foster solidarity between all. Today showed that the common man can catalyse this spirit of humanity, and perhaps the politicians in Whitehall should take note.
Third, a point of reflection for Muslims living in the West lies in the fact that we must continue our work in engaging with those around us and establish a confident identity for ourselves. An identity based on remaining true to the orthodox principles of Islam, which comprise compassion, tolerance and justice. We must enact these very principles in our daily lives and defend the rights of those around us, just like the Australians did today.
Muslims are a part of the West, and today’s unequivocal show of solidarity and support should give strength to those that feel vulnerable to bigotry and hate. But this should be a starting point, and there is a collective responsibility for the common man, Muslim and non-Muslim, to reinforce this civic spirit, to understand each others’ values, to establish tolerance and justice, and to carry on with the spirit of today’s #illridewithyou phenomenon. Howard Zinn’s final words in his autobiography were: “The future is an endless succession of presents, and to live now as we think humans should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory”. Today was one such victory.