Found an interesting article by Raymond Bonner of the New York Times on Muslims lifesavers in Cronulla, site of the race riots in Sydney a bit over a year ago.
Australian Muslims Go for Surf, Lifesaving and Burqinis
“As a teenager growing up in a Sydney suburb, Mecca Laalaa never felt anything but Australian, even though she was for the most part unable to engage in the most quintessential of Australian pastimes: swimming at the beach…Now, her clothing quandary solved by a novel fashion, the burqini, Ms. Laalaa, a vivacious 20-year old, has become a Surf Life Saver, as volunteer lifeguards here are known, lured to the beach by a new outreach program for Australia’s Muslims.”
An interesting example of Muslim contextualization don’t you think?
I think it is worth reflecting on the role clothing plays in assimilation woes. You don’t get a fraction of the same media commentary on Buddhists, even though Buddhists are more numerous and increasing at a greater rate in Australia. Why this perception? They just aren’t as visible.
Over the years I have heard numerous Aussies express fears of a ‘Muslim takeover’ but truly, I find that provides more insight into their personal paranoia than political reality. Not only are such claims disturbingly xenophobic, they are also laughable. Not only because of their extreme unlikelihood (a Buddhist takeover is far more likely by the statistics) but it also shows just how unaware some Aussies are of the religious diversity in their midst.
2 thoughts on “Burquas and Bikinis”
Part of the problem is one of imaging a stereotype of Muslims. The garments worn by Muslim women are readily imprinted in western consciousness. The images are reinforced visually in electronic forms of media: think of the unflattering “bums up” view given by western cameras of Muslims praying. Very few western photos/film footage ever shows a front-on shot (i.e. the camera at the front of the mosque).
One can easily associate Middle Eastern images of Muslims and violence (guns waving, shooting, bombs etc). The other image that is trotted out annually is of the Hajj to Mecca.
To answer your question about perception: the Islamic world is easy to demonise due to political conflicts in the Middle East.
At the present time we do not have any wars occurring in any south-east Asian Buddhist nations. Although if one can remember the 1960s there were anti-war protests made by Vietnamese Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in petrol set alight. That was a graphic image when opposition to the War was forcefully framed in media discourses in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
There are not many mainstream media discourses that give any credit to Muslims through history or even in the present day. For example, very little is ever said about the debt Europe owes the Islamic world for preserving the Greco-Roman writings of Plato, Tacitus etc.
The architectural, musical, mathematical, philosophical accomplishments of the Islamic world are rarely mentioned outside academic discourses (or inside the Islamic community itself).
There is a deep rooted suspicion and fear of the “East” in certain threads of European thought. The figure of Muhammad was long vilified as that of a madman in European literature during the Middle Ages. The fears were grounded in the Crusades, the Mongol invasions, and the Ottoman Empire.
Interesting to note that the classic “vampire” stories were set in the “East”. Dracula comes from the Balkan region at a time when the Turks controlled it. Dracula as an all-pervading threat/evil arises in the East and goes to London to wreak havoc. There are other cultural examples one could point to but these are enough to show that deep-rooted suspicions are easy to revive and inflame.
If one imbibed just today’s media images and added in a smattering of ideas about the crusades and “sword-wielding” armies riding on camels and horses, then it is easy to perpetuate ignorance and instill fear band loathing.
Of course in the Australian setting we can also take a good hard look at our collective xenophobia — a group of Anglo-Celts living in a remote continent with cultures to the north that are so vastly different. Our insular experiences have reinforced suspicions of the “alien other” at different times. One need only recall Mr Howard in the 1980s whipping up a frenzy over “Asian migration”. Those who look different are easy to peg as dangerous especially when one’s knowledge is shallow and rooted in ignorance and prejudice.
One of the ironies is that some of those who have expressed these fears of an Islamic theocracy most forcefully to me are Christians from the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum, people who are very dedicated themselves to putting their own religious stamp on the nation. When I have suggested that those who would dream of Sharia law in Australia are closer to them than they realize, they have generally stared back uncomprehendingly.