Sydney siege: confronting our anti-Islam backlash

In the aftermath of the Sydney siege, I hope the outpouring of support for the Muslim community will define us more than the anti-Islam sentiment that ignited immediately. But I’m sceptical.

As I write this, NSW police have announced an end to the Sydney Siege. Two innocent people have died, as well as the gunman. Rather than speculate in the midst of this meagre amount of information, I prefer to cast my mind back to those early minutes and hours when the news broke that a gunman was holding people hostage in the Lindt Chocolat Café in Martin Place.

No sooner had the terrible story come to light, than the media speculation, misinformation, and outright lies came flying thick and fast. Leading the way was The Daily Telegraph, which didn’t bother itself with such pesky irrelevancies as “facts” and “evidence” when it announced that “IS takes 13 hostages in city café siege”.

Of course, it was not an Islamic State flag, nor was the perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, associated with any terrorist group. As his lawyer said: “This is a one-off random individual. It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous.”

But of course, by then the damage was done. Despite the fact that the police didn’t call it a “terrorist attack”, and that the perpetrator was a classic “lone wolf”, with a string of violent offences, the fact he was also Muslim means that, to many western audiences, his actions reflected on Islam and all Muslims.

Shortly after the siege’s defining image – workers holding up the black Shahada flag in the window of the Lindt café – was beamed around the world, Lindt’s Facebook page was flooded with messages of “support”, congratulating the company for not being Halal certified, immediately linking Islam itself with the incident.

While it is true that this gunman put Islam front and centre by utilising that flag, let’s put the emphasis where it belongs. He may have made it about religion, but the operative word here is “he”, and not “religion.”

Like many other violent men, Man Haron Monis was charged with many crimes, including being an accessory to his wife’s murder. Also like many other violent men, he slipped through the legal cracks and went on to offend in one of the most horrific ways possible.

Despite the copious amount of western criminals and gunmen who have held up, shot and killed many innocent people – one of the most recent incidents of which took place in Melbourne just two weeks ago – no one would seriously suggest they represent the entirety of white society, nor do they cause widespread fear and panic. But such is the marginalisation of Muslims that they are not given the benefit of being individuals.

The reason is simple. Westerners are regarded as complex human beings who are driven and influenced by a wide range of factors, including politics, mental health, and personal dispositions. Meanwhile, Muslims are often represented as a marauding horde, a grotesque collective that acts on nothing other than primitive, religious ideology.

This dehumanising depiction may fit neatly into The Daily Telegraph’s irresponsible “clash of civilisations” style rhetoric but does little to tell us anything about the reality of our world.

But let’s back up for just one moment. Yes, it was a Muslim man who held those hostages, causing the death of two. What this should tell us is that our global society has a problem with violence. More specifically, we have a problem with widespread male violence and an unwillingness to even recognise, let alone confront it.

By allowing ourselves to believe this latest gunman did it purely because of Islam, we don’t have to confront those questions about what it means to be human, and the violence that is indelibly entrenched in our collective experience of humanity.

The Sydney Siege was not an organised terrorist attack. It was a violent rampage by a narcissistic man who should have been put away a long time ago, and who used Islam as a convenient peg for his own delusions and grievances.

What remains to be seen now is whether the outpouring of support for the Muslim community that spontaneously arose with the #IllRideWithYou hashtag will define us more as a nation than the anti-Islam sentiment that ignited even more quickly.

While I fervently hope for the former, the history of our society’s attitude to Muslims, along with its reluctance to confront its own violent tendencies, leaves me feeling sceptical.

As a Guardian columnist noted on her Facebook page this morning:

So what I’m supposed to take away from this horrific event is that the issue is that the perpetrator is a Muslim extremist who was granted asylum and not that he was a man who should have still been in jail and who had a demonstrated history of self-entitlement crimes including several physical and sexual battery charges against him as well as being an accessory to his wife’s murder? Glad that’s sorted then.