The most horrifying test for witches during the Middle Ages was the swimming trials. Women were tied up and thrown into lakes or rivers by people believing that the “sacred water of Baptisme”, as James I of England wrote in 1597, would reject them if they were practitioners of the dark arts.
If they floated, they were found to be witches and were executed. If they sank, their innocence was proved – but they also generally drowned.
While it was probably unpopular with the victims, the societies enforcing it could feel satisfied that, no matter the outcome, their test rid them of any individuals they did not like or trust, and did a brilliant job of keeping people in line.
And so it was in the past two weeks that a Salem-esque furore descended upon Australia and surrounded Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
In The Australian alone, there have been 26 editorials and opinion pieces, and four front pages and exclusives. As I write, the choleric exchange on ABC-TV’s Q&A with Senator Jacqui Lambie has led to 10 consecutive days of coverage. Every major news site in the country, and some internationally, has run at least one piece on the unfolding drama – 184 at last count.
Yassmin has had screenshots taken of her Facebook exchanges and stories written about them. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has been forced to weigh in. A former prime minister has shared his views and parliamentary question time has debated what happened. Petitions with thousands of signatures have circulated in both support and condemnation. On Twitter, the usual bottom-dwellers have fed on the sludge and regurgitated worse of their own. Even Solange Knowles, the American pop star, has chimed in.
And to what do we owe this reaction? The scale would suggest Yassmin outed herself on the program as a paedophile or a North Korean spy.
It was nothing even close to that.
Yassmin’s crime was to say that she found Islam feminist. She also said she believed sharia taught adherence to the laws of the land, that culture and faith were often conflated, that killing gay people was against her religion, and that she’d travelled the world telling people how much she loved Australia.
The response in certain parts of the press was a frenzied, paranoid witch-hunt that saw culpability everywhere. When no evidence of guilt was present, it was created. This was beyond mere reporting or disagreement with her opinions. The Murdoch media in particular was out to annihilate Yassmin – a trial by ordeal, a water test. During a time of wars, famines, terror attacks and the most controversial United States president in history, Yassmin is being treated by the media here as Public Enemy No. 1.
One article on the front page of The Australian was entirely about a Facebook exchange with a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The exchange contained little more than a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir criticising her performance on Q&A, and Yassmin asking him what he thought she could have done better. This was published in a scurrilous attempt to try to conflate Yassmin’s opinions with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s, or present her as somehow aligned with them. Her DFAT trip around the Middle East to promote Australia’s culture, and no doubt present a modern, feminist image of a Muslim woman to locals in the region, was condemned as a waste of taxpayers’ money, and worse.
Such attacks are initially confusing – isn’t this progressive, feminist form of Islam what we want Muslims in repressive countries to be exposed to? By any measure, Yassmin is the kind of Muslim that people from across the political spectrum claim to want in Australia: “modern”, “moderate”, ‘feminist”, “patriotic”, “tolerant”, “liberal”. She’s a mechanical engineer and won Queensland Young Australian of the Year. She sits on the board of an anti-family violence organisation and is the gender ambassador for a bank, for goodness sake. She fits so well the description of the kind of Muslim Australian politicians and the media have been demanding for so long it would be laughable if she weren’t so authentic.
So why the vicious, excessive response?
That she dared to claim a personal coherence between Islam and feminism was the tipping point. By doing so, Yassmin strayed into a territory outlets such as the News Corp papers would not concede. Women’s rights are theirs, and the subject has no place being bandied about by uppity Muslim women. Feminism is something the West beneficently imposes on Muslims, never something that can be indigenously theirs, and certainly never in a form that isn’t Western, liberal and secular. To them, the only way a Muslim can be a feminist is to view Islam with the same unwavering misogyny-goggles they do.
That many other male and female Muslims around the globe have made a similar claim – that Islam is a feminist religion to them – is either irrelevant or unknown to Yassmin’s detractors. And it is convenient to dismiss all those Muslims as confused or deluded with references to the unarguably appalling treatment of Muslim women in certain Muslim-majority countries.
An opportune argument, however, is not always accurate. The different treatment of women in Morocco or Indonesia – the latter the world’s most populous Muslim nation – compared with that in Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite all these nations claiming some degree of inspiration from Islamic law, demonstrates that the way sharia is interpreted and implemented is by no means uniform.
The simplistic arguments arrayed against Yassmin dangerously erase all other political, cultural and historical factors in the way a country defines and applies its laws to women. Muslim women around the world use Islam to fight the sexism they experience, and have done so since the earliest days of Islam. Records from more than a thousand years ago show Muslim women challenging with men their sexist treatment, and using Koranic verses and prophetic statements for their argument. This happens to this day. It is not new, and it is not a Western import. To say so is not in any way a denial of the grim reality many Muslim women face – indeed, it’s an affirmation. But that affirmation includes Muslim women choosing different ways to fight their oppression. And some choose religion as their tool. This may be unpalatable to some in the West, but shockingly enough for them, Westerners do not have the monopoly on fighting sexism.
If a Saudi cleric defines sharia rulings relating to women in one way, and a Muslim feminist theologian with decades of scholarship defines them in another, completely opposite way, why is the former given more authority in the Western estimation than the latter? As Yassmin tried to articulate in the choppy Q&A bunfight, there is a woeful lack of knowledge about what sharia actually is, how it manifests in a Muslim’s life, and how it was formed and reformed. And for all the non-Muslims merrily weighing in about sharia being imposed in Australia, there isn’t much evidence for their expertise or even rudimentary knowledge. If someone cannot name the five pillars of Islam without Googling it, how much insight can they really offer on what sharia is and isn’t?
For all the cries of wanting “moderate”, as opposed to “fundamentalist” or “radical”, Muslims to speak up and dominate the presentation and definition of Islam in Australia, the situation of Yassmin has shown there are those in Australia who don’t actually want either type of Muslim, and never did. Their response to Yassmin – which isn’t just a rejection of her opinions, but a full-scale assault on her existence – is indicative of far more than just their feelings towards her. It finally puts into full technicolour display the truth of their feelings towards Muslims: that the only acceptable Muslim is a non-Muslim.
This is why so many across the political spectrum fall over themselves to embrace Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who has called Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and “the new fascism”, and has said the West is “at war with Islam”. Not terrorism or radical Islam – Islam, period. Ayaan is an avowed apostate. By her own declaration, she is not a Muslim. And yet she is probably the most popular “Muslim” to many in Australia. That an ex-Muslim who travels the world telling people how dreadful Islam is can be the only acceptable kind of Muslim reveals exactly why Yassmin received the response she did.
It doesn’t matter how moderate or modern or feminist or liberal or patriotic one is – if they are also proudly Muslim, they are a problem. Their opinions will be lacerated with the attention normally reserved for society’s worst. Their Muslim-ness is the insurmountable problem, so when they remind us they genuinely have an adherence to their faith, especially in relation to an area as socially flammable as feminism, they will be turned on with the force of a thousand suns.
The outrageously disproportionate treatment of Yassmin is a warning to such people: keep your head down, or we will destroy you. This is beyond merely staying in line. As this saga has shown us, the lines will always be shifted. The politics of this are brutal, the media’s campaign unrelenting. A person’s life is bludgeoned to make a point and the point is this: you can speak, but we will make the consequences so pernicious you will wish you hadn’t. And we will make any who come after you reconsider even opening their mouths.
So often we hear the same bleating refrain, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” After the past fortnight, the answer is apparent.
You just threw her, and every other Australian Muslim, in the water. Moderate or fundamentalist, sink or float, the outcome is the same. And that was always the plan.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2017 as "The Australian crucible".
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