There is a scene in Mira Nair's film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel, where its protagonist, Changez Khan, returns with a colleague to New York from a business trip abroad immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. At customs, Changez, a Pakistani national who graduated from Princeton University and is now working for a prominent Wall Street firm, is stopped by airport security and subjected to a strip-search, despite the protests of his white American colleague. This is the first in a series of humiliations and false arrests for Changez in the wake of 9/11, and this believer in the American Dream is transformed from being a poster-boy for Ivy League education and global capitalism into a resentful scapegoat for American fears about Muslims and terrorism.
These last few weeks I have been wondering what it must feel like to be a Muslim, or even be vaguely "Middle Eastern" in appearance, in Australia. At the more risible end of the spectrum, calls for the banning of the burqa, either because certain politicians claim to find it "confronting", or because it is seen as a possible disguise for women (or men - for who would know?) intent on terrorist acts in Parliament House, dominated the headlines and editorial pages for several days.
What has been of more serious concern to me has been the way that social media has given a platform to people wishing to air, and, in doing so, spread their paranoia and fear about Muslims in the wake of the counter-terrorism raids in Sydney. A random selection of Twitter feeds, for example, yielded tweets ranging from the acerbically cynical ("So the peaceful Muslims were planning to behead a few Australians on Australian streets") to the violence-inciting ("Eradicate them! It's only a matter of time before these radical Muslims will behead an Australian!"
I found the following tweet particularly revealing: "Muslims in Sydney claim they are being picked on. If you don't like it pack up your terrorist relatives and f--- off out of #Australia then." Behind this charming exhortation is not just the assumption that all Muslims have terrorist links and should therefore be subject to police profiling; but worse, that Muslims in Australia are somehow not quite Australian, and that they are fundamentally aliens who have somewhere else that they can move to, a place in the Middle East probably to which they owe their primary allegiance.
This kind of bigotry is rooted in sheer ignorance: no one who has an Australian Muslim friend or work colleague could possibly think of their being any less Australian than an Australian with a name like Christopher Tsolkas, Marie Bashir, or Hieu Van Le.
The film actor and director, Ben Affleck, was recently on a talk show, "Real Time with Bill Maher", where another guest, prominent neuroscientist and secularist Sam Harris, described Islam as "the motherlode of bad ideas", and the host Bill Maher compared Islam to the Mafia. Affleck challenged them both, describing such talk as "gross, racist, disgusting", and went on to say, "How about the more than a billion people, who aren't fanatical, who don't punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don't do any of the things that you're saying all Muslims do? You're stereotyping. You're taking a few bad things and you're painting the whole religion with the same brush."
Pity the country whose national politicians do not have a fraction of the intellectual integrity and moral courage of a Hollywood actor. The demonising of asylum seekers by politicians and the media in Australia is not very different from the demonising of Muslims that is happening right now; in fact, the fear of asylum seekers and the anxieties about Muslims are probably directly connected. I have never been a great fan of Ben Affleck's acting (have you watched "Pearl Harbour" or "Gigli"?), and so I never thought I would ever say these words: we should all take Ben Affleck as our role model. We need to stand up for truth, and confront bigotry and ignorance wherever we find them.