Anti-Muslim hate in one part of the world affects Muslims all over, making it more important than ever for us to be worthy representatives of Islam and active members of our societies. By Fatimah Jackson-Best.
Thousands of miles separate Barbados and Australia, but in recent weeks Muslims in both countries have been going through similarly difficult times. Amidst Australia’s involvement in the mission against ISIS and an intercepted terrorist plot by a young Muslim man, there have been incidents of vandalised mosques, physical assaults and verbal aggressions against Muslim women and men in the country.
“Muslims are evil and have no respect for our ways” was spray painted on a mosque in Brisbane. A female senator called for the banning of the burqa and told parliament that people who support Islamic sharia law were “maniacs and depraved humans”. Australian-Muslim leaders have been calling on the country’s prime minister to denounce these recent acts and the rampant Islamophobia, but have received no response or support.
Contrast this with the small Caribbean island of Barbados and a recent front page story about a new housing development to be built on the popular and affluent western coast.[i] In the article, three Muslim men of Indian descent stated that a community centre and mosque would be built alongside homes in the neighbourhood. The story would have been everyday news if the reporter hadn’t incorrectly described the housing development as being “exclusive”. This suggested that only Muslims would be able to buy property and live there – which would exclude many in the Christian-majority country.
Needless to say, people from the broader community in Barbados didn’t take lightly to perceiving that they were being told they couldn’t live someplace because of their religion. Public reaction has been varied, and some responses were understanding about the mischaracterisation of Muslims. However, others shot out accusations, steeped in Islamophobia, about the housing development and the Muslim community.
Similar to what has been happening in Australia, some people from the broader public grasped at any speck of evidence that these Muslims were up to no good. Fear of ISIS provided fodder to those stoking fear about the imminent spread of sharia law in Barbados, and Muslim women also (predicably) took the fall as op-eds in local papers suggested the island should follow in France’s footsteps and prevent them from covering their faces and heads.
We have to regularly and earnestly engage with the broader public so that we can be at the helm of forming better understandings of Muslims and Islam
Some would say that misinformation and prejudice about Islam has negatively impacted Muslims for decades, and that 9/11 only worsened the situation. With ISIS hijacking Islam, once again it seems as though the microscope placed on our communities continues to scrutinise us so closely that any misstep re-characterises us as being a threat all over again. Most Muslims understand this reality, but in Australia and Barbados we are being reminded again.
Like Muslims in Australia, the Barbados community has also been doing as much damage control as possible. Appearing on local television and radio shows and engaging in discussions online and in other public places have made some headway. I can only imagine that this has caused the community to re-evaluate how Islam is characterised globally and how this impacts perceptions about them in Barbados.
During a television call-in show which featured several men from the Indian Muslim community, someone asked why Muslim women could not enter most local mosques. This question had nothing to do with the housing development, but it did show that people are not ignorant about our internal politics, and are using this to inform their opinions about gender relations in Islam. This is an opportunity for Muslims in Barbados to do the right thing and combat patriarchy in the religion, with perhaps the new mosque in this development being an ideal place to start.
As difficult as these situations have been, Muslims in both Barbados and Australia must continue to work towards changing the narratives about our communities. To do this, we need to be visible in our larger communities all the time and not just when a crisis happens. Too often, Muslims lay low and try to fly under the radar, but it is only a matter of time before the next Al Qaeda or ISIS pops up and jeopardises our collective wellbeing again.
Rather than being reactionary, we have to regularly and earnestly engage with the broader public so that we can be at the helm of forming better understandings of Muslims and Islam. We have to strive towards reaching a point where people immediately realise that one bad example is not representative of Islam, and we can do this by being active members of the broader communities we live in.
Our involvement in this way is an essential part of pushing for social change. And if it is change we want, then we will have to go out there and make it ourselves.