Muslims in Australia. (Nobody asked me for this, but here's a story from Uncle Randall...)
I first got to know some Muslim people when I worked at the Telstra call centre in Burwood, back in 1999.
I was nineteen years old. Very angry and withdrawn teenager, dyed hair, baggy punk/work clothes,carrying around and art folio covered in offensive slogans and band names, telemarketing for a corporate giant. Go ahead, tell me you don't like how I look, or what's written on my bag. Hated it there.
Other than one friend, the only people I really talked to there were some of the Muslims. There were dozens of Muslims working there, don't know why. Telstra was hiring lots and lots of people, from what I gathered, word had got around at a few mosques, a lot of people had applied. Many of these men and women all seemed to know each other.
Of course, at first I never made any remarks, asked any questions. The hallmark of political correctness would seem to be to simply not notice someone's appearance, clothing, skin colour, disability, gender.
What I knew of Islam came from the Spike Lee film on Malcolm X, dramatising his discovery of orthodox Islam, from his originally distorted/ bigoted representation of it.
From hip hop I knew about five percenters, (thanks to groups like Public Enemy and Brand Nubian). So there was something tangentially cool, to me, about muslims. A vague connection to the rap culture I still admired.
Months into working with some of these folks I eventually started asking some of the women in my team those questions, the ones you want to but can't because you'll look stupid, or racist, or sexist.
Why do you wear that... y'know, that uh stuff? Doesn't it bother you? Isn't it weird to be surrounded by other women who don't. Do people give you a hard time?
Without exception, each person I asked was happy to talk about it. This wasn't some cult or club or secret gang, these things represented their beliefs, how they saw and understood the world, their families and community.
This dialogue continued into year 2000. My teammates/friends Waleed and Susan (an engaged couple) understood my lack of understanding, I stopped being embarrassed. I would greet people at work 'asama mulakim/malakim salam'. Got such a kick out of that.
I swapped my friend Anthea a copy of her family's Qu'ran for my paperback copy of The Big Questions (Philip Adams in conversation with cosmologist Paul Davies).
The book she gave me was beautiful, hardbound leather, embossed wih gold trimming, annotated pages, Arabic and English side by side, the works. Not the sorta thing I could slug in my backpack and read on the train.
I took so long reading it, Anthea said I could keep it. She was so happy I was taking interest to read it. I, frankly, took a lot of pride in doing so. I couldn't wait to add it to my bookshelf, and vainly show off that I'd read it. I never finished reading it. (Eventually getting the more-portable penguin paperback version, and read that copy whole). I still have it though.
I read other books too. The Hadith. The book of Taweed. Another whose name I can't recall (lots of apostrophes).
I watched Terry Jones' 4 part series on the Crusades, and Waleed lent me his tape of the 3 part Empires series shown on SBS. I learned about Moors and Caliphs and Mongols and King Baybars (badass).
In early 2001, I found out a high school friend I was still in touch with, Rabbi, was becoming Muslim. He gave me lots of material from IISNA, an organization dedicated to putting out lectures and argumentative pamphlets to convert people.
As a disaffected youth with some pretty heavy medical problems, I thought about Islam as something that actually might be for me, maybe. The people at work were so much more intellectually switched on and less-judgemental than the Caucasian Aussies. Their reassured certainty about the hows and whys of the universe appealed to me.
I even started learning some Arabic (both spoken and written), so I could one day read the Qu'ran in the original language it was created/written down.
It was Rabbi who put me off, ultimately. He had a convert's zealousness, always trying to get me to come down to his mosque. He also talked about how western philosophers were all wrong and rejecting a whole bunch of other stuff I still thought was awesome. My friends at work didn't pull that shit.
Then one of Rabbi's other friends started calling me, telling me at length down the phone how much happier he is now. Since he converted. Too. How excited he was that I had been talking to Rabbi about Islam. It creeped me out. Cult people have a way of doing that.
I started to see, for me, some holes in the story, some stuff that didn't fit me right. Also, as my medical situation improved, I less and less needed that overarching cosmological determinism. I remain an atheist to this day.
But nothing changed. My friends were still my friends and I still had a young person's voracious curiosity for knowledge. Historical, scientific, philosophical, and you can't avoid religion if you're serious about any of those three fields.
September 11th 2001.
Everything changed. Nothing changed for me. Every idiot never saw how bad the USA had it coming. Overnight everyone is renting 'The Siege' (Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington), no one is touching Rambo III.
The news starts saying all types of shit. I was already living out of home (from parents) so no broadcast TV, but when I would see the news, I knew it was... wrong.
I remembered asking Susan at work if she was getting any flack of people in the street for being a Muslim, she looked down and said this "nothing physical". She didn't want to say anything else.
It was like she had shrunk into her headscarf. But it wasn't the hajib that her free humanity was suffocating under, it was what Australia was putting onto her hajib.
Coincidentally, I ended up leaving that job not too long after 9/11. Telstra pulled back it's casual telemarketing stuff, so we could all watch dust clouds over New York for weeks.
But I never forgot the people I worked with (and to my delight, years later I saw Waleed pop up as a presenter/journalist for SBS).
In those years since Telstra I've travelled in 5 countries with Islamic populations since then. I've met many Muslim poets. Some individuals I met were easy not to like, most were hard to dislike.
No-thing ever put on a television can take away my years of experience working/talking to/travelling/performing with Muslim people.
It's not "them" I recoil from, firebrand racist Aussie, it's you. You're the one who tries to run my bicycle off the road, bug my phone, copy my hard drive, dismantle my employment prospects. Lie to my face. Make my life harder. You are not my friend, or my protection.
None of thr Muslim ever looked twice at my bleached hair, or told me off for my offensive art folio.
I'm appalled by what I see going on in this country at the moment.
I'm not threatened by something I don't agree with, or don't share in. Today I'm no fan of any religion, but I understand that people are not solely their beliefs or the books they hold dear.
Islam isn't going away. From the many Muslims I met, the stories they've shared, I know these communities are resilient enough to survive your bullying, your violence and intolerance.
I'm not going to say I have 'faith', I just know people. It was on that term, as people, that I first got to know Muslims.
Peace be unto you, salam.
-Randall Stephens, September 2014.
Reposted from my Facebook page. Please feel free to share around, if you think it will help.