IT IS OFTEN said that in times of crisis, people’s humanity shines through. Yesterday’s siege of a café in Sydney by a Muslim extremist which tragically culminated in two hostages’ deaths, was an example.
Upon hearing of the hostage situation in Sydney and its apparently political-religious motivations, a Muslim women removed her hijab on a train, perhaps as a sign of shame for what cowardly actions were being perpetrated in the name of her religion. Or perhaps it was out of fear – a fear that is unfortunately, justified historically. For example, in the three weeks following the 7/7 suicide bombings in London in 2005, hate crimes against Muslims rose by over 600% when compared with same period in the previous year.
Public outrage rightly ensues subsequent to terrorist acts, but also, mild xenophobia can morph into fully fledged racism and racial profiling. Globalisation, for all the bad it has done, should have eroded this outdated xenophobic paranoia, but a panic sets in when people hear of cowardly acts of terror such as the siege in Sydney yesterday, and for all our self-proclaimed liberal democratic, mature, civilised nature, people can regress to a form of tribalism and fear of ‘the other’.
Terrorism trades in fear: it is its sole currency
In Sydney yesterday, however, the actions of another young Australian woman demonstrated the reality that the things which differentiate us from our neighbours are negligible in comparison to the things which unite us. The young Sydney woman followed the Muslim woman and told her to put her hijab back on, and that “I’ll walk with you”.
She tweeted the encounter and generated the #illridewithyou hashtag. The idea soon went viral achieving over 120,000 mentions from people who wished to accompany Muslims on public transport who may fear public backlash against their people. It was an extraordinary show of solidarity and humanity which offers a blueprint for how we should deal with terrorism. Terrorism trades in fear: it is its sole currency. But shows of strength such as this basic gesture are deeply meaningful. It illustrated that as humans we can stand together and not become lured into an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality.
There are things which differentiate us all: race, religion, political affiliation, gender, nationality, and so on. For better or for worse, these things exist, and there is little in the immediate future we can do about it. It may be that in the distant future mixed-race marriages will blend all the races together, and religious traditions will either merge or dissipate. But for now, it is the world we live in. It is a world of diversity.
What we do have control of, however, is how we deal with such diversity. Do we treat people as members of a race, religion, or gender, or do we treat them as people? Despite all the politics, despite 9/11, Israel, Abraham and Mohammad, the #illridewithyou initiative was indicative that the everyday task of commuting to work should be conducted without being racially associated with terrorism. The cultural differences between peoples can sometimes be vast, but they in no way diminish that which unites us: our fundamental humanness.
Culture clashes can be difficult to navigate – but we can do it
The gesture was also significant in its inclusivity and appreciation of difference. Others have cultural traditions that we might not understand or appreciate – indeed, we might even find them nonsensical. Yet they are meaningful. If we were to examine western culture we may note particular expressions of identity that many people hold dear. For some, clothing and identification of culture might be seemingly innocuous facets of our lives that we could do without. But for a great number of people, these are not trivial details – their culture runs deep and, save to the extent of this infringing upon the freedom or happiness of others, this should be respected.
In order for a peaceful inculturation to occur between diverse populations, a cultural sensitivity must be employed. Cultural differences need to be treated with a certain level of respect and dignity, and the #illridewithyou gesture did that. Although we can acknowledge again that whilst we are all different, such difference is very marginal in comparison with the many ways we are all human and all wish to commute to work on a Monday morning or have a much-needed stop-off in a coffee shop without fear.
Navigating this culturally sensitive terrain can seem difficult at times, particularly in the contemporary context of poignant manifestations of culture-clashes, such as the siege in Sydney and the ongoing campaign of IS in Syria and Iraq. Yet this show of solidarity demonstrates that multiculturalism can be quite simple too.
Dr Gary Keogh is a researcher at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @g_keogh