The Sydney siege and what it means for Australia

The Sydney siege and what it means for Australia
3 min read
17 Dec, 2014
When a gunman held 17 people hostage in a Sydney cafe, Australia stopped. But this act should not be seen in isolation - any reaction to this act should consider wider attitudes to race and violence.
Australians reacted with shock to the hostage siege in Sydney [AFP-Getty]
A couple of days before the tragic events in Sydney, reggae musician Damien 'Jr Gong' Marley released a video for his song Is it worth it? Gunman world.

The lyrics are haunting when listened to against the backdrop of the hostages' deaths in the non-space of the Lindt cafe:

And when a gunman makes choice,
I wonder what goes through a gunman's mind,
And does a gunman think twice,
     The cafe siege disturbed the moral core of Australians, including myself, because of its immediacy and its visual power.
Before him take another someone life,
I wonder what it is a gunman say,
To the father when a gunman pray.

The video for the song was made by Nabil Elderkin, an Iranian-Australian director who has worked with artists such as Kanye West and basketball player Lebron James.

Yet Man Haron Monis, another Iranian-Australian, has over the past days captured the headlines as the hostage-taker. Hundreds of news reports have mistakenly tagged him as a "cleric".

The unfolding spectacle of the Muslim gunman evokes a familiar script memorised by Arab and Muslim communities in the West:

  1. Violent attack occurs in a metropolitan centre
  2. Arabs and Muslims hope the attacker is not one of them
  3. Mass media labels attack a terrorist incident and the Arab/Muslim attacker the embodiment of evil
  4. Arab and Muslim leaders condemn and apologise for the attack, distancing themselves from the attacker while declaring their loyalty to their country's way of life
  5. Pundits and talking heads explain the psychology of the terrorist, making tenuous links to religious ideology
  6. Politicians promise to fight terrorism more effectively, and call on Arab and Muslim community leaders to help
  7. Funding is pumped into cultural programmes targeting "at-risk" Arab and Muslim youth.

This is exactly what happened in Sydney.

Some critics might argue that the solidarity campaigns in the country, when the hashtag #illridewithyou went viral, shows a deeper sense of empathy and understanding of the Arab and Muslim communities' fears of racist incidents towards those wearing Muslim clothing, such as the hijab.

It showed the inherent moral goodness of non-Arab and non-Muslim Australians.

This is to say that Australians elevated themselves above lazy stereotypes. The intentions were noble, altruistic and much needed in a time of moral confusion.

However, Arab-Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage noted, in light of the recent events, that "white" Australians have never had any problem being nice, friendly and helpful to others when they are classified as passive and in need of help - a clear example of the dynamics of racial power.

The cafe siege disturbed the moral core of Australians, including myself, because of its immediacy and its visual power. What is neglected though are the operations of violence that mark Australia on a daily basis where 27 percent of prisoners are Aboriginals even though they represent 3 percent of the Australian population.

It has been 10 years since Cameron Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man, died in the custody at a police station in far north Queensland. The policeman alleged to have beaten him was cleared of wrongdoing.

Refugees are illegally locked up in heavily fortified prisons that stand as edifices of a cruel government policy that does not value refugee lives. These are people who are, literally, dying to come to Australia.

The Cronulla riots of 2005, which saw 5,000 white men and women brutally inflict harm on those considered to be 'of Middle Eastern appearance', have receded in the amnesiac annals of a nation intent on becoming a middle power.

These acts have faded into the background. They do not discount the violence of the hostage taker but it is important that the national blanket of grief that follows does not cover our eyes to the dynamics of "everyday" violence.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.