Response to The Drum’s all Muslim women panel

How can you claim to fight islamophobia but then be materially invested in its propagation?

It’s been just over a month since the brutal massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, Aotearoa by a neo-Nazi terrorist hell-bent on ‘restoring’ the supremacy of the white race. As though white supremacy wasn’t already a normative ideology wholly structuring the world as we know it today. As though the wilful purging of black and brown bodies wasn’t already a project well under way, not the residue of a colonial ‘past’ but the active and continued pursuit of the racist colonial vision. 

A lot has happened since then and as a community, we’re still bleeding out. There have been vigils upon vigils, several number of anti-racist, anti-fascist protests, and MPs calling for the censure of racist politicians in parliament. But in moments of crisis – when the situation is imagined to be so urgent that the most effective responses are believed to be those constructed using the language and aesthetics that would ensure our continued ‘social existence’ – is it possible to talk at once about the violences done to us and the violences we perpetuate against our own people, against ourselves? 

This question has felt increasingly more urgent in our attempts to make sense of how Muslim women in particular have responded to the Christchuch massacre, an exercise in which complicities to normativity and exclusion have been, quite painfully, laid bare. The overdetermined figure of ‘the Muslim woman’ has long tracked neatly into discourses on victimisation and empowerment, having gained extra currency in the contemporary political moment by the rhetorics of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the War on Terror that was predicated specifically on the will to ‘save’ the hapless and repressed Muslim woman. Given this perversely abundant appetite for ‘the Muslim woman’ – her image, her ‘voice’, her experience – especially when recruited to manage and overcome white supremacist violence, as real Muslim women we need to think long and hard about who we think ‘we’ are when ‘representation’ always and necessarily takes place in a violently vertical ordering of the world that happens in advance of any racialised encounter. 

On Monday the 18thof March, just three days after the massacre, ABC’s The Drum hosted a Muslim women-only panel to discuss and unpack ‘the social, cultural and political influences leading up to the Christchurch terror attack’, as per their promotional tweet. Lauded by the panellists themselves and their supporters within the community as a moment of ‘history-making’ – for it was the first time The Drum or any mainstream Australian media had hosted an all Muslim women’s panel – we have to ask for whom history has been made here when the construction of the panel was knowingly (irrespective of intention) at the expense of black and brown Muslim women, which is to say their exclusion, which is to say the absorption and co-optation of their embodied experiences? 

This was perhaps most evident in the flouting of the phrase ‘black and brown bodies’ by the majority Arab panellists (except for ‘the Afghan human rights lawyer’, as we’ve been constantly reminded), a vernacular, and certainly convenient, place-filler for the stark lack of ‘black and brown bodies’ on the panel and thereby in the purview of the national audience. The recklessness of the panellists’ compensatory ‘strategy’ here was further evidenced in a moment when one of the panellists, in responding to host Ellen Fanning’s question about what it would take for her to vote for the coalition government, said, ‘on the record’, that she would vote for them if they:

instigate radicalisation programs that report suspicious white boys in high schools, similar to what they did to Muslims… and if they take everything that they did to us and do it to that [white] community. 

When black Muslim women in particular voiced their anger at these comments for their utter disregard and sidelining of the necrotising violences perpetrated against First Nations and black communities, they were met with reprimand by the panellists who disclaimed that the comments were made in jest. This active and wilful shaming suggests a detachment that was further compounded by the fact that all the panellists put out a carefully formulated disclaimer prior to their appearance on the show ‘acknowledging’ that there were no First Nations or black Muslim women on the panel. But to what end was this acknowledgment if not their own proprietary goals? Erasure cannot simply be asterisked. In honing in on the above incident, it might seem that we’re ‘fishing’ in the minutiae here, lingering too long in the interstices, but when considered in apposition to most of the panellists’ closing remarks encouraging the audience to vote out the current government, the purported sarcasm wears thin when justice is imagined not as First Nations sovereignty–as–the total and utter dismantling of the current political system, but in a retroactive legitimising of neoliberal governmentality, another name for the coloniser. 

What’s the point then, of our feminisims, of our purported ‘radical politics’ if they don’t begin at, centre, and make space for the bodies, voices, experiences of the most marginalised in our community? If their pursuit requires or enables the further marginalisation of those already at the margins, recognising that the margin is not imagined as the edge of a paper (where falling off the paper would mean falling on to the desk) but as the edge of the world?

It is true that Muslim women are subjected to hyper-regulation of their bodies, speech acts and even their rebellions, both from within and outside the community, but this does not, and cannot, mean that we are exempt from hurting and causing harm to others, especially when we are called to account for these harms. It is not enough to scapegoat ‘love’ and the intent of speaking out of love for one’s people when this love can be incredibly silencing in its appeal. In outlining how emotions come to be weaponised towards achieving political goals, critical theorist Sara Ahmed describes ‘love’ as ‘reproducing the collective ideal through producing a particular kind of subject whose allegiance to the ideal makes it an ideal in the first place’. ‘Love’ then, and the nobility of ‘good intentions’ erases the conceivability for a ‘hate’ (read: a harm). It is therefore also not enough to enact a call out for the names of First Nations and black Muslim women ‘for next time’ after the fact. It’s performative, patronising and paternalistic and only reinforces the marginality of those originally excluded – a convenient way to deflect from doing the difficult, sweaty work of addressing grievances and restoring justice to those who have been harmed. If we understand islamophobia as operating through the racialisation of certain bodies, then we need to understand that our oppression is intimately linked with all forms of racialised oppression, including, and perhaps especially, our own anti-blackness. 

One of the most insidious rhetorics of the extended War on Terror has been the way it privileges and centres a certain archetype of palatable Muslim: restrained (not raging), white-passing (not black), and all-in-all ‘respectable’. For those who lean into those tropes, know that no amount of pleading about the imagined ‘greater good’ can atone for and rectify the fact that you are complicit in gatekeeping in the master’s house. This is how certain Muslims claim to stand against islamophobia but comply in ‘Australia Day’ celebrations, or worse, encourage the surrogation of our hijabs as unifying symbols of our ‘withness’, or worse still, co-opt the history and struggles of women of colour as a perverse justification for their material investment in a Liberal MP’s succession to State Premier, or even worse, have an all Muslim women panel revered as ‘special’ when Muslim men of colour were excluded from the conversation – a precedent that emerges from the confines of a white liberal feminism. If we are to participate in a responsible feminist ethic, our lives cannot be reduced and stripped of complexity and nuance, where we deny each other a messy paradoxical lifeworld in which decoloniality is reduced to a right to participation in the mainstream. What do we call this if not the prophecy of our neurosis of an endless struggle for recognition and approval by the west, by whiteness? 

Solidarity with black and brown folks demands openness to being made to feel at unease in one’s own world. It requires that ‘acknowledging’ one’s privilege must extend beyond a mere speech act wherein a palatable voice is positioned at the site of resistance over more structurally marginalised voices. We cannot afford a lesser, salvage solidarity that foregoes this reckoning for the simple fact that there can be no liberation and healing for any of us if there is no liberation and healing for all of us. 

by Sumaiya Muyeen and Houda Ali

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