Exploring ‘You See Monsters’: Art, Racism and Islam
November 23rd 2017
‘You See Monsters’ is an upcoming ABC documentary which explores the work of a new generation of Australian Muslim artists who are fighting anti-Islamic bigotry with creativity, satire, and irreverence.
The following conversation is the first part of our three part audio series. Listen back to the Canvas: Art & Ideas interview with Canvas host, Abdul Abdullah, his brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah (AKA the ‘Prototype’), artists Cigdem Aydemir and Safdar Ahmed, slam poet Sara Mansour and comedian Aamer Rathman.
Abdul Abdullah: Ethnically, everyone here in the studio is from all over the place, but we’ve all got one thing in common which is that we identify as Muslims, or Muslims in Australia. Last year a survey was released that said half of Australia has negative or ambivalent attitudes towards Muslims. Abdul-Rahman, do you think that’s true? And if so, why do you think that is?
Abdul-Rahman Abdullah: I guess it’s just the unfortunate state of affairs that we find ourselves in, the idea of ‘Muslims being the bad guy’ is such a normal point of view, its a mainstream point of view, it’s a very standard one and that’s reinforced from the top down.
AA: And Sara, how about you?
Sara Mansour: I think that negative or ambivalent attitudes towards Muslims comes from ignorance. I agree with Abdul-Rahman in the sense that it comes from the top down and these stereotypes are reinforced by the rhetoric of politicians who engage in politicising our identities.
AA: If I looked at this in 2000, I wouldn’t think that 50% of the Australian population knew what a Muslim was. How do you feel about half [of Australia] feeling these ways towards Muslims?
Safdar Ahmed: Yeah, I mean I think about that all the time. I was in high school pre 9/11, and of course there was racism because it was an Australian high school but, it was never about me being Muslim because people genuinely didn’t know what Islam was. It was just the colour of my skin, right? [And now], we’re 16 years into the war on terror and nothing has been done really to combat Islamophobia from the top down. Its only ever escalated and it’s still escalating. So it seems the natural place for us to be. There’s nothing that’s been done by politicians to stem the hysteria or the fear. Everyone’s traded on it consistently so it’s only ever increased.
AA: And Cigdem, what do you think of that?
Cigdem Aydemir: Yeah, ditto, I think. It’s a lot [less] covert now and especially being a non-veiled Muslim woman, I hear a lot of it, it’s in my face… They’ll just state everything that’s on their mind and yeah it’s scary, but I guess in some ways it’s good that it’s out there and it’s not covert as much.
AA: And how about you, Safdar?
SA: Yeah, I think part of the problem is that most Australians don’t even know how to define racism and aren’t quite aware of how racist they’re being, when they take these negative stereotypes and attitudes towards Islam, so you hear the argument a lot that “oh, I’m not racist I’m just opposing Islam and that’s a religion so how can I be racist because there’s no race called Islam”, and that’s missing the whole point, because race has always been a socially and historically constructed thing, and if you look back to classical anti-Semitism and early forms of racism, it was always about religion, language, culture, identity, it was never just about eugenics or what have you, as well as being about skin colour and appearance, so I think Aussies today, many people oppose Islam without knowing they’re being racist, they seem to think Islam is some sort of ideology and you know, that they’re good people for resisting it somehow, and I think they need to be educated as to their racism, I suppose.
AA: I saw this Vice interview where a guy from the EDL in the UK was talking, he kept saying that he wasn’t racist, but then he’d describe people as like using the N word and then he’d be like, “nah I’m not racist, that’s not racist”, and then he’d just keep using it, and that seemed to be a real disjuncture in their understanding of the word racism.
Race is at the centre of what’s causing all the bigotry these days. Our policy towards asylum seekers and refugees for instance, exploits racism and xenophobia, and then one nation and Pauline Hanson and all of the Islamophobia that they’re sprouting and yet there’s no one in our political system that’s calling it racism. It’s just seen as somehow a legitimate political discourse, and that’s a part of the problem, how can the community call it racism if our own leaders refuse to do so.
SM: In a number of states there are laws that make it illegal to vilify Muslims. So in South Australia, Queensland, Victoria, and the ACT, you can’t actually vilify a person based on their religion. [However], there isn’t national legislation to put in place those mechanisms to ensure that if someone wants to use that argument [that] ‘vilifying [a] group isn’t wrong because it’s not illegal’, then we need to think about incorporating legislation to ensure that people that are vilified, such as Muslims, or other religious groups, do have action, legal action and a cause to recompense for suffering whether it’s online or in the physical and political sphere.
AA: Yeah I guess it goes on to are we obligated to follow [the law], like how does that fit in to our context.
SM: Well that’s the thing isn’t it because there’s been a lot of talk about section 18C and obviously the amendment to the bill wasn’t passed, but there has been that talk of ‘if someone wants to be racist or wants to vilify a group they will do that because they’re shit people’, not because they actually believe that it’s illegal and therefore wrong. But I genuinely do think that it’s important to have legal action because historically that’s the way that, for example, indigenous people have been able to have some of their rights. As we all know, Australia’s the only country that didn’t actually have a treaty with the indigenous owners of the land and it’s only through case law, like Mabo, that they were able to have some of their land and to have recognition that they have a spiritual connection with it.
AA: I was working with this Muslim kid in a juvenile justice facility who was 16 and who’s entire formative period had been overshadowed by the war on terror. It really showed in how he talked and what he thought of the world. In what way has the generation of Muslims who have grown up in Australia post-9/11 grown up on a siege or how have they been influenced? Aamer?
Aamer Rathman: [Well] we’re 15-16 years into the war on terror. That’s kids who literally have not known a world where Islam was not the enemy, where their own culture wasn’t being represented back to them every night on TV or you know through the newspapers, as the enemy where they have to go to school every day and defend their family, their beliefs, their existence. This is the part that gets left out of every radicalization conversation. If you raise a generation of kids who are told repeatedly you don’t belong here, you’ll never be one of us, well then when someone comes along and says “guess what, they’re never going to accept you”, that’s very seductive to people because that’s what they’ve been told to believe anyway.
AA: I’ve been doing a little research into the idea ‘acultural anxiety’ and the ABC’s of self-determination which are autonomy, belongingness and competence. The only research that that seems to have been done is in the southern states of America looking at Mexican migrants or children of Mexican migrants and their propensity to join criminal organisations. It was exactly that. It was that idea that not feeling like you belong, not having any autonomy and not feeling competent but finding that in groups that provided them. [Therefore], the motivation to join a terrorist organisation is a similar motivation to joining an outlaw motorcycle gang.
AR: Absolutely, yeah —
AA: Joining something.
This is the catch 22, you consistently tell people “you don’t belong here, your way of life is the opposite to ours”, and then you turn around and say “oh these people don’t try to fit in here enough”.
AA: Exactly, yeah!
AR: Yo, you just, you can’t — like, it’s rigged.