Lessons learned from the Sydney hostage taking

The siege involving a number of people by an armed man at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Martin Place, Sydney, Australia on Monday has come into the spotlight of the world community.

The incident, which ended with the loss of three lives (including the perpetrator) and injured several hostages, received public attention worldwide not only because it happened during the day in the heart of a big city like Sydney, but also because it was committed by a Muslim man who unfurled a banner with a tawhid (Islamic belief in one God) sentence — La Ilaha illal Allah Muhammad Rasululllah — on it.

The banner with the Islamic symbol, which was displayed through the café’s window, easily provoked speculation that the culprit was representing an Islamic militant group. In fact, when the New South Wales state police were trying to free the hostages at noon, some online media had already mentioned that the gunman was linked to a group of Australian Muslims who supported the Islamic State (IS) movement.

This speculation is understandable as the stigma of Islam as a religion that condones violence is quite effectively formed in the minds of many people in the Western world.

In addition to the 9/11 terror attacks, a series of bombings have occurred in several parts of the world with Muslims behind them, including two occurrences of bombings in Bali and three times in Jakarta.

Not to mention that a stark picture of the warring factions in the Middle East, including acts of violence by IS, have confirmed the stigma in the minds of most citizens of the world.

For some people, this unwanted fact justifies the label of Islam as a “religion of violence” in which its adherents display barbaric behavior. Islam is perceived as having religious texts that produce and export militant terrorists (Edward Said, Covering Islam).

Such a stigma often subsequently evokes anti-Muslim sentiment in many places. Indeed, Islamophobia is a very subtle symptom felt especially in countries where Muslims are in the minority.

Apart from the Bali bombings, there are at least two cases that provoked the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia.

First, the bloody unrest triggered by a group of Muslim protesters against the film Innocence of Muslims in Sydney in September 2012; and second, the news of potential violence against civilians by IS that was extensively spread by the Australian media.

Reports of individual Australian Muslims who left the country to join IS and most recently the hostage incident have exacerbated the phenomenon of Islamophobia.

However, the Sydney incident has also taught us some lessons. The most interesting lesson is how civilians in Australia were united by the #illridewithyou hashtag, which is the most beautiful hashtag I have ever seen. The hashtag went viral throughout the world and became a trending topic on Twitter a few hours after the hostages were taken.

The concern shared by Muslims in Australia that the incident would adversely impact their lives is reasonable. Some recent incidents indicate that Islamophobia exists. Islamic organizations in Australia reported at least 30 attacks on Muslims since the counterterrorism raids were launched in Sydney and Brisbane.

Vandalism targeting an Indonesian mosque in Brisbane, an attack on a Muslim lady aboard a train in Melbourne, vandalism at a mosque in Perth as well as an assault on a mother and her baby in Sydney are among examples indicating the symptoms of religion-based sentiments down under.

One important message behind the #illridewithyou hashtag is that those who love peace and mutual respect are far greater in number than those lunatics who — for whatever reason — act against common sense.

Extremism and crimes can be committed by anyone and for any reason. On the basis of human values, we have a responsibility to fight against it. This is the message that has been perfectly shown by Australians in dealing with the hostage crisis.

The hashtag also reflects typical Australian culture that respects pluralism. Australia in general is the prototype of a country where people can live together in diversity. It is a country with a huge number of immigrants.

According to the 2006 census, there are at least five million Australian immigrants, or 24 percent of the population, with different cultural and religious backgrounds. Approximately 450,000 of them are Muslims from various countries, including Indonesia.

The hashtag can also be understood as a genuine display of solidarity by the majority with the minority. It circulated on social media in a natural way.

I noticed that the movement did not only happen in the virtual world, but also in the real world when a group of Australians shared #illridewithyou pins with Muslim passengers at Flinders Street train station in Melbourne two days after the siege ended.

The second lesson was about Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s political wisdom. It was interesting to notice how he addressed the hostage-taking.

In a press conference a few hours after the incident, interestingly Abbott avoided the use of sensitive words, like “Muslim”, “terrorists”, “jihadist”, or “IS”. He referred to the siege as “a very disturbing incident” perpetrated by “an armed person claiming political motivation”.

 Abbott’s statement indicated his carefulness in describing what was happening. He was aware that his choice of words would be a reference point and would be quoted internationally. The impact of any inappropriate words could be extensive and serious. Abbott showed maturity as a political leader in a multicultural country like Australia.

Abbott’s wise attitude could be a result of intensive communication between his government and various Muslim groups in Australia recently in connection with the handling of terrorism.

Clear statements and condemnation by Muslim groups, such as by Imam Ibrahim Abu Mohamed shortly after the hostage-taking, and the huge sympathy of Australian Muslims to the victims may have also contributed to Abbott’s gentle attitude.

Although some Australian media from businessman Rupert Murdoch’s networks — such as The Sun and The Daily Telegraph — keep trying to frame the tragedy as inseparable from the hard-liners of Islamic groups, overall it could be said that the clear stance of Abbott’s government has significantly contributed to the conducive situation in the aftermath of the Sydney siege.

I think other world leaders need to learn from Abbott on how to address such a sensitive issue like the Sydney siege. Prudence and extra caution are the key words.

A wonderful cooperation and solidarity among citizens in fighting the crime and the state’s maturity in dealing with difficult situations like the Sydney incident are good examples of responses to acts of violence. At this point, violence in any form can be addressed and solved properly.
The writer, a scholar at Monash University, Australia, is a member of the board of the Indonesian Muslim Community of Victoria (IMCV).

(This article was first published in The Jakarta Post, December 19, 2014)

I teach (and learn) for the same reason I breathe. Jatuh cinta dengan kegiatan belajar dan mengajar, karena dua aktifitas inilah yang menjadikan peradaban terus tumbuh dan berkembang ^_^ I have been teaching in various institutions in Indonesia, ranging from primary school to university level. I am currently an associate professor in the English education department of Universitas Riau, Indonesia. My research interests are in the areas of (English) teacher training and education, English Language Teaching, and educational policy in the Indonesian context. I am happy to share my knowledge with all interested teachers worldwide. Feel free to contact me through my email as seen in my blog :-). Many thanks!

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