Friday, October 07, 2005

Fighting for Shums

I must fight on. There is no room for despair. There is no point harming or killing myself out of depression. There are too many people hurting, and also too many arrogant people dishing out the pain.

There are too many of us feeling the pain, groping in the dark, emotionally limping. We feel we march alone, but in fact we march together. We each carry a candle, and all we need is someone to light the match.

So what is my role? Tonight, I realised what it is. This Ramadan, I have decided to become the village idiot.

I am limping emotionally. But I have certain skills which are not sources of pride but reasons to be thankful to my Creator. And the source of my pain, the absence of my Shums-i-Kiwi, will make me fight on.

Rumi had a Shums from Tabriz, a Persian-speaking Turkman who opened his eyes to the wonders of Divine love. Rumi was a dry black-letter lawyer. He knew the legal system of his land almost inside out. He had every reason to stick to his path.

But at heart, Rumi was an asylum seeker, a refugee from the Mongol hordes. He saw his family massacred as they fled from Afghanistan. These images must have haunted him during the decades that followed. Shums’ arrival in Konya, Rumi’s adopted country, must have brought all those images back to him.

I am no Rumi. My legal knowledge and understanding is hardly anything compared to his. And my Shums is no asylum-seeker. But when I met her, she brought so many of my haunting childhood memories back to me.

I came to Australia when I was six months old. I grew up speaking and eating and drinking and thinking and learning and living Australian. My local member of parliament is today’s Australian Prime Minister. Yet today I feel like a second class citizen in my own land.

I grew up as a dark-skinned kid who was teased at school, often bullied. I was told to go back to where I came from. No one could say my name properly. I grew up in a state where I only knew I was Muslim because people would tease me for being different.

Where were my parents during all this? My father was away mostly. I rarely saw him. My mother could hardly speak English. She was too concerned about my learning a language I could never use at school and amongst my friends.

My Shums-i-Kiwi told me she experienced the same thing. When she spoke of her absent father who gave her an identity, a reason to be different that she never understood, it was like she forced me to recognise who I was.

We were people in no-man’s land. We had Muslim background, Muslim names but were for all intents and purposes non-Muslims. We were teased and mocked and jeered wherever we went.

My Shums never even understood what her faith was, except that she got told that Muslims shouldn’t drink. And she knew a few words and phrases like “selamat hari raya”. Hers was a clumsy Islam. A half-baked Islam.

So was mine. I always thought that to be Muslim, your mum had to wear a sari. I was taught that Muslims celebrate Divali and Yom Kippur and Holi and Eid. Muslims were people with brown skin who spoke Urdu or Hindi or Punjabi. The Iraqi Jewish lady who used to give me free ice creams and used to smile when we would go to Bondi Beach to buy our spices was Muslim. The aunties who taught me the Ramayana story were Muslims.

My Shums used to love her Muslim identity even if she never knew what it was. She would argue with people who offended her and teased her about her presumed identity. She may have known more about the Dalai Lama or Deepak Chopra than about her great ancestor Muhammad. But she felt the same passion that he did.

I also debated and argued with people. Ahmed Deedat was my hero at school. Later, I felt powered by people like Edward Said and Ali Shariati. The latter’s essays, published as “Marxism & Other Western Fallacies”, drove me into the waiting arms of social conservatism. I became a big “C” Conservative because I hated Marxism and what Marxists were doing in Afghanistan.

But even though I was still discovering who I was, at heart I was an Aussie. I always barracked for Australia in the cricket. I still wear my Wallabies jersey everywhere. I am an Aussie, just as my Shums is at heart a Kiwi.

Yet now I feel emotionally compromised. I feel depressed. I have no idea where Shums is. I don’t know if she is alright. But I do know that there is no point being overrun by despair.

I have to stand up and start marching. They have forced my hand.

They? Who are they? They are the same big “C” Conservatives that I fought next to. They have decided to fight against the values that I hold dear, even if I don’t quite understand what these values are. Even if they, the big “C” conservatives, don’t understand what they fight.

In reality, they are fighting me for the same reasons they used to tease me at school. Our new anti-terror laws have little to do with national security and everything to do with racial and ethnic and religious profiling. The laws about fighting terrorists who apparently “hate us because of who we are, because of our liberty, because of our way of life and our civilisation”.

Bullshit. This is a war about Frankenstein. Bin Ladin is the Frankenstein that big “C” conservatives created to fight their proxy wars in Afghanistan. Now Usama bin Ladin is no longer Usama bin Reagan as he used to be. And who will suffer because of this?

I will. So will my Shums. We will be deemed guilty. We will be profiled, followed, watched. Why?

Because of our names. Because of our faces. Because of our dark skin. Because we are deemed to be different even if our values and our lifestyle is the same as the intelligence services and police officers who will target and detain us.

When the government announced its new anti-terror laws, it insisted that Muslims would not be targeted. Bullshit. The President of the national police union admitted that these laws could only be implemented by ethnic and racial profiling.

So my Shums, the humble barmaid, will be profiled just because of her exotic name. She will be easily noticed because of her slightly Asiatic features and her colour of skin.

My Shums could go missing for upto two weeks at a time and become incommunicado just because someone suspects that she knows something about someone who may know something about some terrorist plot that may or may not occur. And when her fortnight is up, they might apply to a court for a further fortnight, then another, then another. And when she emerges from her ordeal, she will not be able to tell anyone about it.

If she fits the profile of a terrorist, she could be detained for a longer period in case she might be involved in an act.

So here I am hoping she doesn’t hang herself. And feeling like hanging myself. Yet the reality is that we could both be effectively “hung, drawn and quartered” as it were.

And we are not the only ones who could be deemed Muslim. I would not like to be a Sikh at this time. I will never forget catching a train and seeing a Sikh man being taunted by some boys who screamed: “Hey Usama, go back to Arabia!”

Remember that the first person killed in the United States in a racial hate-crime after September 11 was a Sikh. The first person taken into custody by the FBI was also a Sikh.

So despite my emotional limping, I have to fight on. If I really care about Shums-i-Kiwi and all the other Aussies and Kiwis deemed Muslim, I have to fight on. And there are enough people of goodwill ready to fight with me. Even if my own so-called Muslim leadership have abandoned the fight.

And when I fight these laws, I will inevitably look like the village idiot. People will ask me questions like: “Why are you fighting laws that your leaders support?”

I must march in the darkness. I think I am alone. But God will send plenty of people to fight with me - Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, people of all faiths and no faith in particular. They will all hold candles. Now is the time to light those candles, to recognise we are all fighting to protect each other and to protect the powerless. And when you fight for the powerless, the Most Powerful One is always on your side.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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