Being a Muslim in Melbourne

Our home in one of the suburbs of Melbourne,   is the best compromise my family could ever have. It has all the amenities that a first-world country can offer, yet the ambience is like the basak  (countryside)  in the Philippines we Meranaos love and cherish—if not for its lack of electricity and running water. Back then, high-speed internet was not even a figment of imagination.  I grew up in the basak area where the chirping of birds, the  rising and setting  of the sun watched from our balcony and my favorite–the nightly appearance of  thousands of fireflies cloaking our trees were common every day occurrences. When we moved to the city, all of them were gone. No birds, no balcony and certainly no fireflies.

When we arrived in Melbourne, we were lucky to have rented a house with a balcony in a quiet suburb. Except for fireflies, we do hear the birds loudly chirping and cawing every day. Some of them are brave enough sit on the ledge of the balcony  with us, as my hubby and I sip coffee while watching the sun go down or call our families in the Philippines, or post a photo of the horizon on Facebook. Indeed, Melbourne lives up to its reputation of being the most liveable city in the world.  I never thought that the socialscape would change so soon. The Islamophobia that swept the country lately indeed has its impact on some Muslims, including us. Lately, my daughters and I, being hijabis,  have experienced being  shouted at by some car passengers while we were walking on our way home. They yelled“F*ck off! Get out!” It happened to us twice but even if we have experienced racism ourselves, we do know these are merely isolated incidents which do notrepresent Australia at all.

I wasn’t really aware of the Sydney drama yesterday until a friend I only met on Facebook,Sharon Collins sent me a message of support. She was concerned that the hostage-taking might have a backlash on us Muslims , particularly women and wrote that if I and my family needed to be safe somewhere, her home is open tous.  She then gave me her address and her number. Her message prompted me to check what was going on and learned aboutthe double hostage-taking.

I say double because  the hostage-taker has also taken captive the written shahada, the Muslim declaration of  faith in Arabic—a symbol that any body who is Muslim identifies with. In fact, a revert’s first act as a Muslim is to say the shahada.  I remember trying to perfect writing the shahada as a kid  and I would write it on my notebooks and books. Back home in the Philippines, houses would have the shahada as wall decors whether embroidered, painted or cross-stitched.If  that beloved symbol is found in my possession on my way out of the airport, I know that the police will be concerned and I cannot say I can entirely blame them with how extremists keep on hijacking that image.  Now, it has become a dreaded symbol, appropriated by extremists  who claim to be Muslims, yet perpetrate all sorts of un-Islamic  activities. The hostage-taking ended with the death of what appears now to be a lone-wolf sex offender who engaged in black magic and shunned by the Australian Muslim community and sadly of two of his hostages.  His other hostage, the written shahada, will long remain to be identified with extremism in the minds some people and  will not end anytime soon. I feel so sorry for the innocent people  and their families involved in this incident. There is no justification whatsoever to kill innocent people.

My friend’s message really touched me. We have never met in person and yet her first reaction to the Sydney incident was to reach out to me and offer her support knowing that as a Muslim, I could be profiled. My husband also called me from work and advised me and our girls not to go out just yet and that if I needed to go out, I should try to use a beanie or a hoodie instead.(One time my daughter and I used hoodies instead of hijab while we were walking and this guy shouted at us to “Go the f*ck back to your country.” After our initial shock, we burst out laughing because we really didn’t fool him with our hoodies!) It is safer to err on the side of safety. However, reading the comments and words of support from an eponymous Facebook group of Non-Muslims Supporting Muslims re-assured me that this beautiful country remains the tolerant,welcoming and peaceful haven that I first thought and knew it to be.

The hashtag #Iwillridewithyou, inspired by Rachael Jacobs in Sydney who offered to walk with a Muslim woman who was scared of being targeted and quietly removed her hijab and Twitter user@sirtessa who offered to “escort” hijabis who are afraid to go out. That hashtag is now trending worldwide and rising by the hundreds of tweets per minute and reached over 120,000 tweets and counting. The messages of love and support from Australians are just overwhelming that anybody would feel that humanity is in good hands. This is the Australia that I know and love.

Both the police and the media (not all of course) also insist that the incident is an isolated incident,  and have nothing to do with terrorism nor organized crime.  I have to say that the media and police handled the situation from being exploited by  groups or persons who would have devious motives.  As a Filipino, I can only say that we can learn from the way the media here and the police did not sensationalize the already tense situation, but this is another story.  I love the way the authorities assured Australians to go about their  daily business and not make the incident disrupt their lives. I do hope and pray that  things will go back to normal soon and the Australia that I used to know will be back to its old self. Although, there is no denying the fact that this sad incident has otherwise brought out the best in people as they come to support one another in spite of their differences. For me, I used to consider Sharon Collins my friend. Not anymore. She is now my sister and one of these days,  I will visit her home somewhere far from Melbourne to make that virtual hug she sent me yesterday a reality.

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About darangenwomentoday

PhD student University of Melbourne, Australia (Culture and Communication); MA-Media Studies (New School University, New York City); Director, Press and Information Office (Mindanao State University); Former Vice-Head, National Commission on Culture and the Arts Committee on Cultural Information and Special Events; Former member, National Commission on Culture and the Arts Committee on Monuments and Sites; and Former Vice-Chancellor for Research and Extension (Mindanao State University).
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