Rewriting the narrative in the Sydney siege

Sydney Muslim community leader Jamal Rifi, centre, and his family members pray at a makeshift memorial after the siege in Sydney. Steve Christo / AP Photo
Sydney Muslim community leader Jamal Rifi, centre, and his family members pray at a makeshift memorial after the siege in Sydney. Steve Christo / AP Photo

Muslims in Australia and across the world would have felt their hearts sink at the news that a gunman with an Islamic flag had taken hostages in Sydney. As with similar recent attacks in Austin and Ottawa, both conventional and social media filled with speculation that it was an ISIL attack.

But in the case of Sydney, a remarkable thing happened: a counter­narrative emerged to balance the prevailing view that Islamic terrorists had struck in the heart of Australia’s biggest city. This newspaper has long advocated spreading strong alternative messages to offset the twisted interpretation of Islam propagated by groups like ISIL and Sydney now stands as an example of how it can work.

At first, though, the messages were all bad. One Sydney newspaper stated definitively it was an ISIL attack and used headlines like “Death cult CBD attack” and “The instant we changed forever”.

But soon after the 16-hour siege began, the Grand Mufti of Australia released a statement to “condemn this criminal act unequivocally and reiterate that such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam”. Long before the siege was over, more than 40 other Muslim groups in Australia had issued similar messages.

The police also were quick to release information about the gunman, Man Haron Monis, to show he had a history of violent and sexual offending. The implication was that he was mentally disturbed, as with many similar attackers, and that the Islamic overtones were more a flag of convenience than a reflection of Monis’ faith.

On Twitter, #sydneysiege began trending as people vented their opinions – often extremely negatively about Islam. One woman who saw a Muslim woman remove her hijab asked her to put it back on and offered to make sure nobody bothered her, a gesture of support that made the Muslim woman burst into tears.

This turned into #illridewithyou, a hashtag in which non-Muslim Australians offered to accompany and defend their Muslim compatriots if they feared being on public transport. While the siege was still underway, #illridewithyou soon outpaced #sydneysiege.

There is no simple response to the poisonous messages proffered by ISIL and its ilk. But as Sydney shows, a strong counternarrative can make it clear that the vast majority of Muslims and right-minded people everywhere abhor their views and their violence.

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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