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Memoir

A little too close to the sun

Advocacy in the modern age

When this essay was reprinted on The Guardian website on 6 July 2017, the writer added the short introduction below in order to give the piece context. We've reproduced it here in order to illustrate the extremity of her treatment during the first half of 2017.

Given that I am now the most publicly hated Muslim in Australia, people have been asking me how I am. What do I say? That life has been great and I can’t wait to start my new adventure in London? That I’ve been overwhelmed with messages of support? Or do I tell them that it’s been thoroughly rubbish? That it is humiliating to have almost ninety thousand twisted words written about me in the three months since Anzac Day, words that are largely laced with hate.

Do I reveal that it’s infuriatingly frustrating to have worked for years as an engineer, only to have that erased from my public narrative? That it is surreal to be discussed in parliamentary question time and Senate estimates for volunteering to promote Australia through public diplomacy programs? That I get death threats on a daily basis, and I have to reassure my parents that I will be fine, when maybe I won’t be? That I’ve resorted to moving house, changing my phone number, deleting my social media apps. That journalists sneak into my events with schoolchildren to sensationally report on what I share. That I’ve been sent videos of beheadings, slayings and rapes from people suggesting the same should happen to me.

Do I reassure my parents or do I tell them the truth? I have yet to decide.

I wrote the essay below at the beginning of the year, post Q&A but pre-Anzac. Even that statement is a reflection of the sad reality that my life seems to simply exist in reference to the various outrages my voice has caused.

Whether or not one agrees with me isn’t really the point. The reality is the visceral nature of the fury – almost every time I share a perspective or make a statement in any forum – is more about who I am than about what is said. We should be beyond that but we are not. Many, post-Anzac, said the response wasn’t about me but about what I represent. Whether or not that is true, it has affected my life, deeply and personally. 

 

‘AH, THE WORST that can happen is someone sending you an angry email. Just don’t read it, you will be fine. Don’t forget to take your vitamins. Have you checked your iron levels? You know your anaemia makes you tired.’

Modern-day activism does not garner much sympathy from my migrant parents. Looking at it objectively, it’s something I can understand: in Sudan, the kinds of fights they were involved in had much higher risks. Their friends were jailed, tortured, killed. My mother literally faced off an army who wanted to storm her university’s dormitory during Colonel Omar al-Bashir’s coup of 1989. My father would regularly tell my younger brother and I stories of what kind of dangers people faced as they fought for their political ideals.

‘One of our friends was taken by police during a protest, for no apparent reason,’ Dad recounted one evening at the dinner table. ‘We all knew that if we did not get him back in time, he would be killed. So we kicked up a huge fuss to get him back, stormed the police stations, got in the media… We did not hear anything back by the evening, and thought that all was lost. The next morning, the man’s mother heard a knock on the door. Someone had dumped a body at the foot of the gate, bloody and beaten beyond recognition. It was our friend, so badly tortured that his own mother did not recognise him. Subhanallah though, he was still alive.’

Such stories are not uncommon for anyone who has lived in a nation cursed by conflict. In fact, violence can become so normalised that it can be an expected consequence of pushing for social or political change, and there are no systems of protection in place to guarantee a person’s physical safety. It’s no wonder, then, that the battles of a young ‘keyboard warrior’ in Australia do not seem quite so serious to my war-weary parents. Compared to what they moved away from, the 140-character threats of ‘twitter trolls’ seem almost quaint.

There is one major difference, however. Although the ideas we are fighting for – human rights, social justice, equality – have not necessarily changed, the ways those battles are fought certainly have. My parents’ activism was localised, talking to issues that at most would affect the surrounding region and segment of Sudanese society. Theirs was a fight for just governance within a single country, rather than an ideological battle across nations. Like anything of that era, it was also an analogue challenge. The nature of communication meant that individual reach was limited, and therefore individual exposure appropriately throttled. This lent itself to a collective front, buffering individuals somewhat from personal criticism and opposition.

Today, a public advocate’s platform is digital and greatly magnified. An issue or debate unfolding in one place can be amplified through a video or tweet to gain international support or condemnation – sometimes both – simultaneously. News travels almost instantly, and the feedback is equally as swift. Individuals can be rewarded with incredible highs – a following that spans the globe, the ability to easily create content that reaches millions, membership of an online community that ‘gets it’ – but also with floods of criticism and personal, pointed abuse. The way this feedback is delivered is also incredibly isolating – abuse appears in an individual’s inbox, Twitter feed, Facebook page. And while the inverse to this – retweets, likes, positive comments and messages – does give some sense of solidarity and a collective front, that front as a number on a screen rather than the physical presence of others can only go so far towards steeling your resolve. There is little shared experience to commiserate upon. Even among those who identify with each other, it is difficult to convey a commutable sense of such personal attacks. We might all be fighting the same fight, but we have our own demons that divide us for easy picking.

Furthermore, an individual’s online presence creates a safety concern that is different to those experienced by previous generations. Whereas my parents would have feared government retribution in the form of being detained, disappeared or killed, the threats faced by activists and advocates today are not nearly as organised. They are amorphous, overwhelming and seemingly impossible to defend against: imagine every single piece of information about you, which you have inadvertently made available online somehow, in the hands of someone who does not know you, does not like you and does not care what happens to you – either a teenage hacker or a national broadsheet – and few rules or consequences if that information is used against you. It is almost enough to terrify an activist into silence. Almost.

‘You should just get offline!’ I am regularly advised, after explaining what it is like to be a commentator in the public space, advocating for ludicrous concepts such as the right to be heard or the seemingly radical ideal of equality. Asking us to come offline is like asking us to leave the streets. Sure, it’s the safe thing to do, but it ignores the importance of the online in any struggle today. The online and offline worlds are inextricably linked; in 2017, they are simply different dimensions of the same reality.

 

I LEARNT THESE realities in a baptism of fire in September 2016, after I walked out of a speech and accidentally picked an ideological fight with an American woman who is an important literary figure. What I did not realise at the time was that this is something a young, brown Muslim woman simply must not do, particularly if the conflict is even vaguely connected to the nebulous concept dubbed ‘identity politics’ – a phrase coined, seemingly, to dismiss or disregard anyone asking for their oppression, historical context or personal reality to be recognised and respected.

How silly of me to miss the memo. Respect is so passé.

I shall spare you the details; googling ‘Lionel Shriver Yassmin Abdel-Magied’ should be enough to keep you entertained for hours. Put simply, I had flown a little too close to the sun. I’d been given my wings, told I could fly with the flock and contribute to the discussion as an equal, told I could be a part of ‘us’. No one mentioned the feathers were fixed in place with wax, and the sun wouldn’t hesitate to strip them away.

Walking out, and then writing an (admittedly) emotionally charged piece about my reasoning, led to an unexpected – and global – ideological hammering. Criticism and ad hominem attacks were levelled from all over the world, starting with Australia’s national broadsheet and stretching all the way to The New York Times.

Not only was the outcry deafening, but the commentary it unleashed was merciless. Breitbart, the (fake?) news site and platform of the alt-right – formerly chaired by Steve Bannon, now Donald Trump’s chief strategist – featured an article on the incident. It was not as cruel as it could have been, if I’m honest. But it was certainly deeply convinced of its own self righteousness:

‘Everyone’s entitled to their opinion’… But if that opinion happens to be so ill thought-through, poorly argued, whiny, needy, constrictive, selfish, ugly, ignorant, flat out wrong and probably quite dangerous too, then they deserve to be called on it and relentlessly, mercilessly mocked till they never spout such unutterable bollocks ever again in their special snowflake lives.

I had messages from friends in India, Italy and Indonesia whose friends and family had been discussing the affair. For a brief moment, it became the topic of dinner-table conversation. The result of that spotlight though, meant that for the next three or four weeks, my life was overwhelmed by this story. I had hundreds of emails a day, to the point where I began to automatically delete them and avoided my multiple inboxes completely, to the chagrin of those who were trying to connect for non Shriver-related business. I deleted Twitter from my phone, deactivated Facebook and wrote almost nothing online for an entire month. Which, for me, is a pretty long time indeed.

But because the online is not truly separate from the offline in our lives, it wasn’t truly an online coma. The modern-day equivalent of a pack of citizen paparazzi, perhaps, were still on the front lawn, constantly slipping notes under the door, knocking on the windows, yelling obscenities. While I couldn’t hear or see them, I knew they were there.

For a modern day ‘social-justice warrior’, as we are often pejoratively named, being attacked online comes with a sense of being desperately alone. It was me and a glowing screen, the dings of messages, tweets, emails sent by strangers reminding me of my place in the world.

Drip by drip, message by message, it’s the Chinese water torture of the online age.

 

THE WEEKS ROLLED by inexorably. The influx of messages eventually slowed, and a semblance of normality was restored. It seemed the storm had passed.

Months later, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I bumped into another important literary figure. Tall, imposing and very British, he was the type of high-level agent who wouldn’t normally bother with someone like me – save for the fact that I too am tall, and our eyes met briefly as he crossed the lawn. He slowed as he approached me, then stopped as his face brightened.

‘Oh I know you,’ he said. ‘You’re the girl they’re all talking about!’ I assumed he was referring to the elite group of global literary stars gathered at the writers’ party that evening.

‘Good things I hope?’ I said, glibly.

His response was emphatic and, in a typical English fashion, faintly apologetic.

‘Oh no, no, I’m afraid not. They all disagree with you really.’

‘Oh!’ I feigned shock, though of course I was very well aware. The next line was much more genuine though: ‘I do wish they would disagree to my face! I would love to have a conversation with them…’

The agent shook his head. It was late, and he looked slightly intoxicated, which was probably why he was more forthright than Englishmen usually seem to be.

‘Oh no, no one would do that. You’re very intimidating! We’re all a little frightened of you.’

I flashed my biggest, pearliest smile and pointed at my teeth. ‘Look at this face, hey? How could I possibly be intimidating?’

But it seems there is something incredibly intimidating about a young, brown Muslim woman who is unafraid to speak her mind. This became clear again in February 2017, when I was invited to join a panel discussion on ABC’s Q&A.

You may have seen the video – after all, it took only a week for the clip to reach twelve million views on Facebook. In essence, I challenged Senator Jacqui Lambie’s views on Sharia and Islam, loudly and passionately. The immediate response online was incredibly positive, bolstering my confidence – but that hubris was short-lived. My head above the parapet, I then became the subject of a strange and unnecessary character assassination by the national broadsheet. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘I’m never going to get a corporate job again. Who will employ me after the things that have been said?’

But this time around, I would be pleasantly surprised. Within a week, voices of support made themselves heard: radio presenters challenged the criticisms levied against me, breakfast show hosts defended my reputation, and much ink was spilled in calling out the bullying and canvassing for a more considered and egalitarian response. I could not believe it, to be honest: the articles and columns laced with hatred I had come to expect, but others putting themselves on the line to offer their support? It was a humbling and fascinating experience. Perhaps, on reflection, I was not in this alone after all.

 

THE IRONY IN all this, of course, is that I am no one very important. I do not hold an elected office, I do not officially represent any racial or cultural group, and I have never been part of a political party, union or even political student organisation. I am a twenty-five-year-old Muslim engineering chick, born in the Sahara desert, whose words occasionally find themselves in the public arena. And if a few words that I put together are enough to terrify institutions into attacking me, stumbling over themselves to demonstrate why ‘people like her’ are wrong and why we should not be listened to because our words are oppressive, then one has to ask, what are they so afraid of? Why are they so afraid? For if the argument was truly as irrelevant as so many claim it to be, then surely it wouldn’t be worth all this energy.

Today’s identity politics are about power – but not ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ power. The reality is, real power – that which lies in financial resources, the mainstream media and politics – is held by hands similar to those of fifty or a hundred years ago: white, male hands. Not much has changed. Sure, there are several women and people of colour fighting the fight, and many more making their way up the ranks, but look at the true hallmarks of power. Who owns the media companies, controls the big corporates, runs the countries? If the real, hard stations of power are still in the hands of those who have always had it, why are they so worried?

Part of me suspects that the reason these attacks are so vitriolic, swift and all encompassing is because they are about identity. Identity politics is personal, and that’s why people take it so personally. By asserting my identity in a way that challenges my ‘place in the world’, I inadvertently challenge the place of those who feel entitled to their privilege and status. That feels not only wrong to such people, but deeply, personally offensive – because what is at stake is who they are in the world. And so they fight viciously, because if privilege and status and wealth and whiteness define who they are, what else could be more valuable?

Those who lack a definitive ‘place’ in society have little to lose by calling out injustices and structural inequalities, and much to gain by disrupting the status quo. For those with something to lose in that disruption, this can be a terrifying prospect. For everybody else, it is a reminder of the strength and conviction that is needed to fight for a more just world. On that, my parents and I agree.


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review