by JAMILA RIZVI
Today was a beautiful sunny morning in Sydney and I woke up, excited to be going shopping with fellow Mamamia writer Lucy Ormonde. But instead of the usual calm and friendly atmosphere of Sydney’s CBD, we were met by scenes of riot police, angry protesters, violent chants and anxious bystanders.
The film Innocence of Muslims, which is a low budget film that mocks the Prophet Mohammed and Islam, has sparked angry protests across the world. The reaction to this film in the Muslim world has been extraordinary and it has led to violence breaking out in Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia, Iraq and Libya.
I had, perhaps naively, assumed that this level of outrage would not reach Australia. I was wrong.
In Sydney today, Lucy and I noticed several small groups of men, calling excitedly to one another in Arabic and running down the footpaths. To be honest, we thought little of it.
We first realised something wasn’t quite right when we noticed multiple ambulances rushing through the streets. Police cars followed. Riot police vans followed after that, skipping over the curb in their efforts to get to their destination as fast as possible.
We were shopping in Pitt Street, when we heard chanting and cries from the middle of the mall. Walking outside we saw what appeared to be a fairly peaceful protest – more than a third of the protesters were women and children.
There were some signs and a few banners but from what I saw, they were few and far between. The bulk of the protesters were dressed like anyone else in the CBD and the vibe was tense but didn’t feel angry.
It was about ten minutes later that we heard shouts from outside of Sportsgirl and so we threw down our purchases and ran into the street. There were around 100 police forming a barricade across the open area between the shops.
As we tried to move forward to see what was going on, we were pushed back by police and asked to move along as fast as we could. The police were armed and were deadly serious. It made me think how fast the mood in the city had changed – my adrenalin was pumping and I had gone from being an interested bystander to feeling decidedly unsafe.
Lucy – infinitely more sensible than I – suggested we get out of there.
A little later we headed to Hyde Park, where we saw a much diluted protest. The numbers were significantly fewer than what we saw in the city and the proportion of women and children has shrunk considerably. I saw several women who appeared to have been part of the protest initially, pushing prams and walking quickly; they were headed towards the train station.
My impression of being around and near that protest today, was that many of the original protesters could see their peaceful demonstration being taken over by a violent and angry group of extremists, who carried disgraceful messages of hate – so they got out of there.
In the park, the mood of the protest had darkened. Police surrounded a group of men who all held signs carrying sick and disgusting slogans, many of which incited violence. We saw signs that said things like ‘Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell’ and ‘behead all those who insult the prophet’.
News channels have since reported that the protest in Hyde Park did turn violent, following a bystander yelling out that promoting murder was appalling. He was reportedly pelted with bottles and other hard objects and police had to intervene to protect him from the protesters.
Sky news is also showing footage of a policeman being wounded and photographs of children aged around 6 or 7 holding signs carrying the slogans I mentioned above are doing the rounds of Twitter. The images are truly sickening and I still can’t quite believe that they were captured in the city I live in.
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Today my mood went from curious, to uneasy, to disgusted, to scared.
I’m scared, not so much by what has happened today but by what comes next.
What was supposed to be a non-violent protest against a stupid and intolerant B-grade film, has gotten out of control. And with similar protests occurring the world over and sparking far more extreme violence – I am scared for what happens next.
Like all over the Western world, there is a minority of disenfranchised young Muslims here in Australia – mostly men – who are angry and disconnected. They feel misunderstood. They feel misrepresented. They feel alone.
Incidents like today give them somewhere to take that anger. And that is so very dangerous. In the era of social media, where it is almost impossible to identify ringleaders of such protests and when a message to take action can be spread in minutes – such protests can turn ugly faster than ever before.
It is now up to Australia’s Muslim leaders to stand up, condemn today’s protests and call out those who were involved for inciting and being violent. Those signs were disgusting, many of the chants were appalling. The Muslim community and Muslim leaders must shout from the rooftops that these were not the actions of peaceful protestors – they were the actions of extremists with a sick and perverted view of Islam.
But what is potentially as dangerous as the actions of protesters today, is the reaction of other Australians.
And I want to implore those of you who will watch these scenes on your television screens tonight, with your hands over your mouths in shock: Do not let the actions of a violent and sick minority affect your view of the peaceful and good majority.
It is easy to have a xenophobic and angry reaction to what happened today. Don’t let yourself give in to that.
I know it is easy to have such a reaction – because there were moments today when I felt exactly that. There were moments when I felt sick and scared and wanted to scream – get out of my city, get out of my home, this is not what my country is about.
I know that sometimes it can be hard to believe because of what we see in the media – but the vast majority of Australian Muslims are tolerant, kind and peaceful people. And they are just at horrified at today’s scenes as you or I.
Don’t make them feel even more isolated and alone.
Instead, let’s take this opportunity to recommit to building a more inclusive and tolerant Australia.
Let’s blame and condemn the actions of those who deserve it, those who made our beautiful country’s most famous city a scary and ominous place to be today. But let’s not let that blame and condemnation extend to those who happen to share the same religion.