I’ve dedicated my book Muslim women since 9/11 to you not just for the usual reasons that a parent might dedicate a book to their offspring, but because the topic of this particular book has overshadowed almost your entire life. And with US President Barack Obama describing the current conflict with the so-called Islamic State as a “generational struggle”, it’s a topic that seems destined to dominate all our lives for a long time to come.
You were only five years old on September 11, 2001. Even though our apartment in Canberra was about as far from New York and Washington as it is possible to get, when I saw the news on the television late at night, I went through to your bedroom to make sure that you were still safely asleep. Amid all the uncertainly about the future, it was immediately clear that Muslims living in Australia and around the world would feel the consequences of al Qaeda’s crimes.
A couple of weeks later, I left you with your grandmother in Queensland while I travelled to Pakistan to try to work out how any of us were going to manage life in the strange new post-9/11 world. Friends in Pakistan were horrified that I had left you in Australia. They had heard reports about Muslim women in the West having their headscarves torn from their heads and about the firebombing of a mosque in Brisbane. It isn’t safe for Muslims to live in the West anymore, they told me. Bring your daughter back here – we’ll find you a job in a posh girl’s school. A Pakistani journalist suggested that we could move to Abbottabad, the town where he had grown up. It was a popular holiday destination, a beautiful location with good schools. And it was a military town, so it was very safe.
But Pakistan has been a frontline state in the war on terror and Abbottabad eventually turned out to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden. Although we visited Pakistan together in 2004, we’ve spent the post 9/11 years as Muslims living in Australia.
Back when we lived in Canberra, we enjoyed many happy trips to the South Coast with a group of friends from the Canberra Islamic Centre. We were a diverse little tribe who had been born in locations ranging from Morocco to Indonesia to Australia. Some of the women wore hijab and some did not - Adalya and I do not wear headscarves in our day-to-day lives - but all of us enjoy a trip to the beach. And all of us were shocked by the footage of the riots at Cronulla beach in the summer of 2005 in which Muslim women and girls were attacked and abused alongside their menfolk.
After Cronulla, Muslims stepped up our efforts at reconciliation and bridge-building, with women playing a key role. Muslim women pitched in for the catering at interfaith dialogue events, gave interviews to media outlets, organised fashion shows in an attempt to answer people’s question about Muslim women’s dress codes. Many of us campaigned on multiple fronts – against the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers who arrived by boat, against the introduction of ever-more stringent anti-terrorism laws, against the apparently endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And after each new terrorist attack, each new crime committed by one of our co-religionists, we explained. We explained that most Muslims were horrified by such events, we explained that Islam is a religion of peace, we explained how Muslim women (particularly those whose faith is made visible by their headscarves) were coping with the impact of discrimination and harassment, we explained and explained and explained. We explained to politicians and policy-makers and journalists and we explained to total strangers on public transport who noticed a signifier of our religious identity and asked us to explain the role of Islam in everything from international politics to the application to build a new mosque in the neighbouring suburb.
Women in all communities are conscripted into the role of peacemakers and healers. It’s a role that many willingly undertake, but after nearly a decade and a half, even the most tireless among us are growing weary of explaining crimes which we did not commit and events over which we have no control. And such explanations have become an expectation. If we don’t explain, we are asked to explain why we’ve refused to do so.
You have grown up listening to this low hum of explanations and you’ve also done your fair share of explaining. I hope that my book may help to lighten this burden of explanation – if only by explaining why we ought not to be expected to explain.
Love always, Mum
What does it mean to be a Muslim in modern Australia? Ten Australian Muslims from diverse backgrounds move in to a house for eight days.
Through honest dialogue and passionate debate, the group reveals what it is to be an Australian Muslim today.
Muslims Like Us premieres on SBS and SBS On demand on 21 & 22 February at 8:30pm. Join the conversation on Twitter #MuslimsLikeUs.