the big smoke contributor.

steering the narrative: muslims in media

story published at the big smoke.

• • •

are politicians, media and the population at large able to work together to better control australia’s “muslim” stereotype?

you can't ask that 3
One question a group of Australian Muslims is asked in a recent ABC iView series is “Have you ever been abused for being a Muslim?”. Of course, to this question there is a resounding and unified answer of “Yes”. The series is called You Can’t Ask That, wherein each episode groups of misunderstood Australians are asked questions submitted by the public. In the Muslim episode, several people from differing backgrounds and ages are asked a number of questions all relating to their religion and all highlighting one fact: that Muslims – devout, well-meaning, traditional (and sometimes not so traditional) Muslims – have been the biggest victims of the 21st century. It is clear our society hasn’t been able to separate these people from the atrocities being committed in Syria, Iraq and, indeed, throughout the world.

When – shamefully – the interviewees hear the question “Do you secretly agree with terrorists?” many laugh, but you can sense the cover up of embarrassment. An embarrassment that their religion, something that many of them hold dear and, indeed, steers a majority of their life choices, has somehow grown to link them to extremist groups and small portions of society raining down terror and fear on the rest. “When I look at those atrocities, I – and most Muslims – don’t think it’s Islam at all”, says Ali Kadri in response to the question, something he seems to have explained more than once before.

Of course, terrorism has more than spread intermittent mayhem throughout parts of you can't ask that 1western society; it has fundamentally ripped apart many Islamic countries. With a real sense of loss in his voice, Ali Kadri again remarks, “Look at Syria, look at Iraq, look at all those Middle Eastern countries. They were beautiful.” The aftermath of this destruction has resulted in countless families having to flee – flee their communities, the places they’ve grown up, their homes – for safety. It’s a reality many of us will never be able to fathom. And it’s not just whole societies that have been ruined; up to 97 percent of terrorism-related human casualties over the past five years have been Muslims, a fact some politicians rarely bring up, especially when debating Australia’s intake of Muslim refugees and asylum seekers.

“we can only hope that this rhetoric around islamic fundamentalism too, will pass. sadia khan puts it succinctly; “we focus on much on the middle east and the terrorist […] because the west has to always be scared of something.”

It is comments about this exact topic – Muslim immigration – from our own public figures and politicians, which give value and fuel to our own kind of patriotic extremism found in individuals and groups like Reclaim Australia. It is these rash and hateful public remarks too that spread misinformation and fear, especially to those in Australia who may never have had contact with someone who is Muslim. This misunderstanding is clearly shown in another question the ABC program asks; “why are you bringing Islam here?”. “I’m not really,” says Abdul Abdullah, “I was born here.” He was born here, in Australia, is an Australian citizen and yet receives “hate mail”, is “randomly” selected at airports and experiences problems trying to rent a house with his own name.

Our media outlets alike are using language that constantly perpetuates unease of the “other” and sensationalises Islam’s merits of good and evil, something that has been publicly debated since the eve of 9/11 with little input at all from those who actually follow Islam. The why and how we got to this stage of blaming Islam for the majority of the woes and worries in the world is a long and well-worn road with enthusiastic debates on both sides, which is not only damaging for Islam as a religion but takes the focus away from the real issues of the world and emboldening discussion. Interviewee from You Can’t Ask That, Jamila Hussain, perfectly describes our media’s ability to elude the real tragedy, with discussion of whether the perpetrator follows Islam: “When a non-Muslim person commits a criminal act, religion is almost never mentioned; it’s only Muslims that get their religion put up in lights and blamed for whatever they have done.” Just like the you can't ask that 2Germans and the Soviets were once public enemy number one, we can only hope that this rhetoric around Islamic Fundamentalism too, will pass. Sadia Khan, another interviewee on the series, puts it succinctly; “We focus so much on the Middle East and the terrorist […] because the West has to always be scared of something.”

The series You Can’t Ask That is a step in the right direction and actually does a great job of breaking down these barriers, which have been manifesting for years, and works towards a greater understanding between these misunderstood groups and the rest of society, striving to make them no longer marginalised. We should be surrounding ourselves and our communities with differences; differences in dress, in race, in food, in traditions, in gender and of course in religion and all that it entails. At the end of the Muslim episode of You Can’t Ask That, Ali Kadri turns the questions on the viewer: “What sort of country do we want Australia to be?”, one that is afraid of people who migrate here, who might not be the same, or “do you want to be a country were you get to know your neighbour, get to know fellow Australians, know about their culture, learn good things about their culture and teach them good about your culture, and then build a nation which has got good from everything and bad from nothing?”

It’s something to think about.

• • •

finding a home: melbourne life squeezing international students into humbling circumstances.

story published at the big smoke.

• • •

Littered throughout the Internet are advertisements for room shares, advertisements that correlate to places scattered across Melbourne, aimed – of course – at people who don’t have the money to splash on things like privacy and personal space. Things like rooming licenses are disregarded, food is labeled with names, and going to sleep doesn’t mean the lights go out.

Bastian is from Chile. He’s been here on a student visa for about a year and a half now and has stayed in more than his fair share of rooming houses. When he first arrived in Australia he found a place to stay located in the CBD of Melbourne. “It was hard to sleep,” Bastian recalls, “but the good thing was, it was close to everything.” It was hard to sleep because Bastian was sleeping in the lounge room, with two other people, in a two-bedroom apartment. The two actual bedrooms had three more people, meaning this small Melbourne apartment was home to a total of six. Bastian was often awoken during the night by others simply grabbing a drink from the kitchen.

He didn’t want to leave the cramped space, because it was so close to his work and school, but one day he came home to find all his possessions in rubbish bags. “There were no beds in the living room or anything,” Bastian says. “I asked the guys what happened and [they said] ‘we have to find a new place quick, because we are all kicked out from here’.” All three that were in the living room that is, now left without a roof to sleep under. “It was illegal to have that many people in the apartment. I didn’t know.”

“after getting kicked out of his home, the chilean didn’t get his $400 bond back, roughly his weekly wage. his visa requirements as a student mean he is forced to work for cash, and when you need to be paid cash-in-hand, there are limited career opportunities.”

Having managed to have a look through one of these rooming houses in central Melbourne, it is clear the level of living standard that is being upheld throughout this system. No-one is sleeping in the lounge room, no, but are neatly packed two by four like little sardines into the two bedrooms. Each tenant has a bed – top or bottom bunk – a lockable cubbyhole, a sliver of wardrobe space, some room in the fridge and a tub to house their toiletries. All of this for about $150-$200 a week. Home sweet home.

“It was weird; they have like a kind of business,” reflects Bastian on his time in an apartment such as this. And in a world where space is increasingly becoming a commodity, that’s exactly what it seems to be; inner city property is being purchased and small portions of it leased for a great profit. The only benefit to tenants is the convenience of not filling out any forms, making this a very attractive offer for international students and workers that are willing to sacrifice personal space and sometimes piece of mind, to be close to employment and the places they study.

After getting kicked out of his home, the Chilean didn’t get his $400 bond back, a sum amounting to roughly his weekly wage. His visa requirements as a student mean that he must be enrolled in an approved course at all times – each of which needs to be paid for up front – and is not allowed to work over 20 hours per week. With these small hours of paid work, he must cover his living expenses and school fees, as well as the renewal of the visa itself each year. Bastian – like many others in his situation – is forced to work for cash in order to be employed for more than the allotted hours per week, and when you need to be paid cash-in-hand, there are limited career opportunities. He is currently studying commercial cookery and working as a chef. “I enjoy [cooking] a lot,” he says, “but it’s not my passion. I love music.”

Bastian says he tried to get an apartment for himself and a friend when he first arrived here “but I never could because they were asking for a lot of papers and money. So I couldn’t afford.” Right from touch down, international students like Bastian don’t get the option of having their own space; it’s near impossible to earn enough to support themselves within the visa guidelines, and even if they do manage this by working cash is hand, actually getting a private room or a place to themselves is another challenge altogether. We forget how much of a luxury it is to have your own space, a quiet place to study and sleep, to not have to lock away your valuables and worry if an inspector may come in the middle of the day and pack up your life into garbage bags.

Bastian found a new place to stay after his first room sharing experience, with a bit more space, out in the suburbs. He was still sharing with four people in a single room but, the lounge only had a couch and TV. He would get through day after day by waking and heading to class, then work until past midnight, going home to sleep and pressing repeat. He reflects on the situation he and his fellow classmates face: “we think about the future, we need to save some money to pay the next course, and then the next course. Just to be able to stay here for longer.” He plans to save as much as he can before making his way back home. At the earliest, this will be in 2020, when his new nephew and his little sister will be five years old.

“That’s the thing I miss the most, I think,” Bastian says. “I cannot see them growing up.”