The hostage crisis that shocked Sydney on Monday has ended, but a new threat to Australia’s Muslim communities could just be starting.
After a 16-hour standoff, at least three people were left dead, including the hostage-taker, and various were wounded after the gunman held 17 people in a downtown Sydney cafe.
The now-deceased gunman has been identified as Man Haron Monis; an Iranian-born, self-declared spiritual authority, who had lived in Australia for years.
The stand-off in the cafe ended abruptly when authorities stormed the building. Gunshots sounded inside the coffee shop. Local media carried footage of security forces hurling stun grenades into the cafe.
“Australian security forces did respond to the situation as best as anyone could have expected,” said historian of religions scholar, Dr. Milad Milani, from the University of Western Sydney.
“My heart goes out to the family of the deceased,” he told teleSUR.
As three families grieve, it’s Muslim communities that are now at risk, according to Dr. Chris Allen, from the University of Birmingham.
“Research shows that immediately after terror attacks or events seen to be 'the fault of Muslims,’ there is a sharp increase in the number of street level attacks on Muslims going about their everyday business. Because of this, it is likely that something similar will occur in the wake of the Sydney siege,” Allen told teleSUR.
Allen is one of the top researchers of Islamophobia in the Western world. His 2010 book “Islamophobia” is widely regarded as one of the most successful attempts to create a cohesive definition of modern Islamophobia.
Accorcding to Allen’s research, Islamophobia is on the rise across the Western World – including Australia. Allen explained, “from my own research, it would seem that Islamophobia continues to be on the increase and can be seen in the street level manifestations where visible Muslim women in particular are routinely subjected to abuse, intimidation, threat and violence.”
Death Cults, Black Standards and the Media
Yet Islamophobia does not only rear its head on the streets, he explained.
“In many ways it can be down to laziness,” he said when asked why a number of media outlets responded to the hostage crisis with sensationalist reporting.
“The same old stereotypes being utilized to achieve maximum effect with minimal effort. However, in the current climate, such laziness can be problematic and can reinforce anti-Muslim ... attitudes, even if the media outlets don't mean them too,” Allen said.
While the Daily Telegraph drew criticism for its headline, “Death Cult CBD Attack,” other news outlets published stories airing claims ranging from unsubstantiated to entirely false.
News.com ran with, “Terrorists, you’ll never change who we are,” even though Monis had no known links to any terrorist organizations, and there is no solid evidence to suggest the attack was part of a broader terror plot.
Monis was facing dozens of charges of sexual assault allegations, and in 2013 he was charged for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, just days before the hostage crisis, Monis lost his final appeal at the High Court to have charges related to a series of controversial letters he sent to the families of deceased Australian soldiers.
The letters landed Monis 300 hours of community service and a two-year good behaviour bond, according to the Herald. However Monis’ legal woes were overshadowed by false online claims that the Islamic State group’s flag had appeared in the window of the besieged cafe.
The flag in question appeared to be a Black Standard; a black flag adorned with a proclamation of faith. The Islamic State group is just one of hundreds of organizations that have waved similar flags.
Overland magazine’s Jeff Sparrow summed it up by concluding there is one simple rule to explaining media coverage of events like the hostage crisis: “namely, almost everything said in the first few days after the event will later prove wrong.”
Allen argued that while laziness accounts for much of the unintentional errors in reporting, there can also be another, more “insidious” rationale.
“There are also those who actively seek to promote a more Islamophobic viewpoint,” he pointed out.
Speaking to teleSUR, the University of Sydney’s Dr. Leticia Anderson described the media’s coverage of the crisis as it unfolded as “disheartening,” but “unsurprising.”
Islamophobia and a Plastic Sword
One of Anderson’s main subjects of research is the portrayal of Muslims in the Australian media, and she argued the country’s press has a “long-standing” pattern of vilifying Muslims.
“In September, for example, when the government embarked upon the largest counter-terrorism raids in Sydney, there were many hysterical claims printed in the mainstream media, including the unproven assertion that there was a terrorist plot to destroy the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor,” she said, referring to a series of raids conducted by police on Sept. 18.
Australian police say 25 search warrants were conducted by over 800 officers in response to a suspected terror plot.
The media frenzy included more than the seemingly-explosive claims on imminent nuclear meltdown.
When Australian media carried images of counter-terrorism police carrying a sword adorned with Arabic script from a Sydney home during the high-profile raids, the Daily Mail ran with the headline, “Was this the lethal sword terror cell planned to use to behead an innocent victim on a Sydney street?”
According to the sword's owner, Mustafa Dirani, the answer was no. In October, Dirani told the SMH the sword is a common Shiite household ornament, and it was made of plastic.
“It's ridiculous. I have never talked about carrying out a terrorist attack, I've never thought about it, it has never even crossed my mind,” Dirani told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Yet the possibly bladeless sword didn’t take the edge off a string of high-profile attacks on mosques and Muslims in late September and October.
In Melbourne, one woman described as being of “Muslim appearance” was allegedly beaten and thrown from a train, after being bombarded with racial abuse by another passenger.
Read more about Islamophobia in the Western world here.
The spate of attacks added to already unusually high levels of discrimination across Australia.
According to the results of the latest Mapping Social Cohesion survey from the Scanlon Foundation, 19 percent of Australians faced some form of racial or religious discrimination in 2013; the highest level since the annual survey began in 2007.
Yet division isn’t bad for everyone, Anderson explained.
“During the fortnight following the counter terror raids in September ... the prime minister's approval rating soared, returning nearly to the levels it had been at early in the government's first term,” she said.
During that fortnight, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s approval rating rebounded by six points, according to Newspoll. That came after months of mounting disapproval.
Yet as Anderson pointed out, the boost was short-lived. According to an IPSOS poll in early December, Abbott’s approval rating dropped a whopping 12 points in November.
Anderson lamented that Abbott is likely to again try to “capitalize” off the hostage crisis to “divert attention away from the crisis in in their domestic political standing.”
“The brunt of the backlash occasioned by both the hostage situation itself and the whipping up of anti-Muslim sentiment by unscrupulous politicians will be borne by ordinary Muslim Australians, just as we saw during late September and through October,” she concluded.
A Smokescreen for Unpopular Policy
The government’s attempts to sweep social and economic problems under the carpet with racism is exacerbated by a complaint media, according to one of Sydney’s most prominent refugee activists, Rachel Evans.
According to Evans, refugees from predominantly Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan are among the most threatened by Islamophobia.
“They are ... trying to privatize a raft of government services and assets – US$24 billion worth – and hand them over to the private sector,” she told teleSUR.
She also pointed to plans to deregulate university fees and increase healthcare prices as two other wildly unpopular moves by the Abbott government.
While the government is “trying to transfer more money from the poor to the rich,” she said it isn’t hard for the media to whip up Islamophobia to distract voters.
Most of Australia’s media landscape is controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s press empire, and Fairfax Media.
“Murdoch and Fairfax both backed Abbott in the elections and they support the governments measures,” she said, though commented that it’s the former that is most to blame from rising Islamophobia.
“Murdoch is reactionary to the core and leads the vitriol against Muslims, refugees,” she said. Evans finished by concluding, “So yes – hyping up Islamophobia and racism ... is a tactic of distraction.”
Despite fears that Muslims could be again targeted by renewed Islamophobia, Allen suggested there is “one significant difference” today: #illridewithyou.
Allen described the hashtag as “an organic social media campaign that sends out a very clear message of solidarity and support” with Muslims in the wake of the hostage crisis.
Trending worldwide at the time of writing, #illridewithyou called on commuters in Australia to offer to accompany to Muslims on public transport to offer solidarity and physical protection from any Islamophobic backlash.
The campaign began after far right groups like the Australian Defence League waded into online discussion about the hostage crisis.
“If (one) person is harmed we are calling on all Australians to converge on Lakemba tonight. Who is ready?” the Australian Defence League tweeted.
Lakemba is a suburb in Sydney with a large Muslim population. While many social media users lashed out at Muslims, as Anderson pointed out, “throughout yesterday ... #illridewithyou was referenced upwards of 90,000 times on Twitter.”
At the time of writing, that figure had become closer to 250,000. Given that the spontaneous campaign is almost “without precedent,” Allen suggested it could be the deciding factor in whether Australia sees a repeat in the wave of Islamophobia after September.
There's a lot of love, you just need to know where to look #illridewithyou— Cam Hadfield (@hadfieldcam) December 16, 2014
Or, as Dr Milani put it simply, “it’s a great example of the Australian attitude to stand up for what is right and stand by a ‘mate’ when in trouble.”