Lateline and the Anatomy of An Islamophobic Stunt

The clusterfuck of racism, hatred, and hysteria that embodies Islamophobia is still brewing in Australia and day-by-day is taken to newer heights. The past few weeks alone have seen anti-Muslim attacks even more rampant and growing, a plan to cage Muslim women in glass boxes in a horrifying level of racialised misogyny that is frankly dystopian, and one of the biggest newspapers in the country linking Hitler, a white, European, supporter of the Church, with Islam in a new ploy to demonise Muslims.

Amidst the toxic flames of racist hysteria, ABC’s Lateline decided to make their own contribution to the national Islamophobic frenzy. For those unaware, Lateline is a current-affairs program on Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC. It claims to be “challenging, intelligent, and provocative.”

Last Thursday, the host Emma Alberici decided to interview Wassim Doureihi, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Now, I know absolutely nothing about Doureihi, nor Hizb ut-Tahrir, and nor am I accusing Lateline of being the sole purveyors of Islamophobia in this country. But in this Lateline episode, Alberici delivered an absolute masterclass on how to stage a classic dog-whistling Islamophobic stunt. It had every possible ingredient you would expect in an anti-Muslim spectacle: racism, orientalism, condescension, and outright contempt, delivered in the only ways mainstream white Australian “journalists” know how: smearing, obfuscating, and demonising.

From the onset of the interview, Alberici treated Doureihi with a truly exceptional level of hostility and condescension. Even for those who have regularly watched Alberici’s interviews with politicians, the hostility was stunning. The tone was set. It was clear what this was going to be: a staged set-up designed with the sole purpose to demonise.

It was clear that Alberici knew the value of playing the white woman standing up to the Scary Brown Man™ and it was beyond obvious that this was the narrative she was seeking to create for her White Australian audience, and thus, she was playing it hard.

The first half of the interview was dominated by her attempts to make Doureihi condemn the actions of ISIS. She pursued this line with a truly extraordinary level of pig-headedness, getting visibly animated in her determination to make Doureihi take her bait and condemn the group. Here we see Alberici peddling the pervasive “logic” that Muslims have some special responsibility to condemn ISIS. The argument of Alberici, and all those who peddle this claim, is predicated on the idea that Muslims are all by default inherent supporters of terrorism, unless they jump through hoops to prove otherwise to white people. Alberici pursued this racist narrative head-on, steely determined to push it onto Doureihi. The ferocious determination with which she pursues it is really something to behold.

Visibly furious that Doureihi refuses to play into her gutter game and be cornered by her, Alberici decides to change tack and deliberately attempts to work him up into the racist stereotype of the Angry Brown Man™ she knows White Australia all came to see her “take to task”. Alberici is determined to make this a spectacle and play the part that White Australia will go crazy for. To do this, she employs the type of contempt, condescension, and callous, wilful ignorance that all people of colour are all too familiar with receiving from white people.

See, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m angry. I’m angry because it was the sheer, brazen, and unremitting contempt that got to me about Alberici’s behaviour and that really hit home for me, because that is the type of contempt that I and other nonwhite people have to endure daily from White Australia. Unrelenting racism and gaslighting abounded throughout the segment. When Doureihi rightfully refused to accept the bait that he must condemn ISIS, her response was not to hear out why it was a racist question, but to push it even more belligerently. When he brought up Islamophobia, she dismissed it as “a so-called phobia”. When he tried to answer a question, she rolled her eyes dismissively, one of multiple times. And when he tried to bring up the fact of the Western invasion that slaughtered up to a million people in Iraq, she replied, “I don’t want to talk about context.” That said everything.

Context is the last thing that professional jingoistic race-baiters like Emma Alberici want because it upturns their agenda completely. To take context into account would ruin the agendas of those like Alberici who seek to demonise Muslims and Islam as the sole, unique purveyors of violence. To take into account the reality of constant Western atrocities wrought against the non-Western world for the last thousand years hinders those who desire more war, and more imperialism. And to take context into account means having to acknowledge blame and responsibility instead of shifting it onto others, namely, Muslims. It was clear Alberici was nowhere near ready to do that, and indeed when asked why she didn’t condemn Western atrocities, she comically, nervously declared “ok, we’re out of time”. You simply couldn’t make up something so self-satirising if you tried.

The thing about Alberici’s episode was that she was not only ready to have a Muslim on her show to treat him with utter contempt, but she was determined to make a spectacle out of it for the voyeuristic viewing pleasure of White Australia, for frothing-at-the-mouth bigots around the country, the types that have been terrorizing Muslim women on the streets. To watch a white woman try and put a Scary Non-White Man™ in his place on TV is simply racist pornography for racists, and Alberici knew it, and she was working hard at it. The next day proved her efforts. Despite it being clear from the interview that Alberici was the one taken to task, she became an overnight sensation in White Australia’s eyes, having given them the White Woman vs. Mean Non-White Man™ story they go crazy for. Media framing portrayed Alberici as a hero for treating a nonwhite person with the contempt we apparently so deserve.

However, not content with the smug, self-congratulatory spectacle of racism and Islamophobia she had staged in that interview, Alberici had this galling statement to make the next day:

In his caliphate, in his ideal Islamic state would I, as a woman, have the opportunity to sit opposite him as an equal and engage in a robust discussion about these issues on the public broadcaster?

Alberici realised that no Islamophobic stunt is complete without pulling out that well-known racist line that Muslims are inherently misogynists. Here in the West, and here in Australia, where rape culture abounds, where I and every other female I know have stories of harassment by men on the street, and where an even more alarming number of women have stories of sexual violence, according to these racist faux-feminists, it is apparently Muslims who are the real misogynists. In Australia, where the biggest risk to a woman is her own partner, it is apparently Islamic culture that is uniquely misogynistic. And here in Australia, where one woman is killed every week by her own male partner, apparently the Islamic world is the true bulwark of misogyny. If there was one single sentence that encapsulated so completely the cartoonishly simplistic and breathtakingly bigoted worldviews of Western media puppets like Alberici, this would be it, and they should all be ashamed. There are truly no real differences between these “elite” poseurs and the average raving bigot on the street that the white middle class loves to admonish for a sense of superiority.

This Lateline episode didn’t only embody every classic element of anti-Muslim propaganda; it also embodied everything that is wrong with mainstream media. Instead of being a mechanism for speaking truth to power, it is all too eager to be a cheerleader for power. See, Lateline has built up a reputation for itself in this regard. Five years ago, Lateline decided to smear Australian Aboriginal men, and more specifically, the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu in the most grotesquely racist way imaginable, and in doing so, did PR for the racist abomination known as the Northern Territory Intervention. Since then, it has never apologised for the reprehensible manner I which it smeared Aboriginal men based on entirely fabricated and unsubstantiated reports.

Lateline has developed a pattern of perpetuating racism and refusing to be accountable for it, and for this reason, I am not holding my breath waiting for either the ABC, Lateline, or Emma Alberici herself to grow a spine, take responsibility, and apologise for spouting reprehensible bigotry. It is all part of their agenda.

In the same way that Lateline smeared Indigenous people to sell a racist government policy, Lateline again deployed racism against Muslims to cheer on the new Australian bombing of Iraq. And for this, Alberici has earned a pat on the head from Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

I hope Alberici enjoys her 15 minutes of fame while us non-white folk remain dealing with the frenzy of racist hysteria running rampant in the nation. In the meantime, I hope she one day finds it in herself to apply the same level of intense scrutiny to white politicians as she did to Doureihi. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Emma Watson, Jacqui Lambie & co., and Islamophobia: racially-blind feminism at a time of racialised misogyny

In case you missed it, burqas remained in the headlines this week, a week after Cory Bernardi reignited his crusade against the Muslim women’s garment, decrying it as a “shroud of oppression” and a “flag of fundamentalism” and declaring that it has “no place in Australia”. Jacqui Lambie was to follow next, and managed to outdo Bernardi by appropriating the Facebook propaganda of a fascistic, far-right British group. It was all fine until it was revealed the photo had been stolen and was of Afghan heroine Malalai Kakar who had been killed opposing the Taliban. Far from apologizing for desecrating Kakar’s memory as she was accused, Lambie declared Kakar would have been honoured by the use of the image. It was then that Nationals MP George Christensen stepped in to scold her for tarnishing his beloved “anti-burqa movement”. What followed on Thursday was Bernardi then requesting a burqa-ban in parliament – to not see this as a warm-up for a nationwide one would be naïve in the extreme. And to not believe that the rest of the government of which Bernardi is a member are encouraging his crusade would also be naïve in the extreme.

When burqas are dragged into the spotlight, it is Muslim women who are really dragged into the spotlight, and this time it is in the midst of a truly toxic wave of Islamophobia rising in the nation. Mosques have been attacked, anti-Muslim rallies held, individuals attacked and threatened, bomb and death threats sent out, and a sensationalist political and media machinery thriving daily off the demonization of Muslims to a point of such desperate hyperventilation that a completely innocent young man has just been smeared as a terrorist by Fairfax Media in the feverish drive to profit from stoking the flames of racial hysteria. It’s tempting to look at Lambies’ Bernardi’s and Christensen’s actions as the idiotic antics of fools, but bigotry dressed in a clown suit is still bigotry and still ruins lives and too many lives have been ruined in the course of just a few weeks.

In the post-9/11 context the actions of these politicians must be recognized as deliberate efforts to cash in on the political currency of Islamophobia – with Muslim women central to their mission. Anti-burqa crusaders derive the value of their invective in cloaking it in the language of liberation, saviourism, and patriotism. And so logically, the burqa must be made to represent the antithesis of these things: anti-Westernness, otherness, oppression, and extremism – a “flag of fundamentalism” as Cory Bernardi put it. Anti-burqa crusaders masquerade as champions of liberty even though their agenda is one of authoritarianism, driven by misogynistic, racist, orientalist, and colonialist attitudes: the desire to control non-Western women and our bodies.

The fixation – or frankly, obsession – with non-Western women and our bodies is hardly new; in fact it has been integral to Western hegemonic aspirations, and one that Edward Said certainly touched on in his classic, Orientalism. Said noted how constructions and representations of non-Western women were first and foremost an expression of Western hegemony over non-Western cultures. Since then, many postcolonial feminist scholars have focused on the location of the female body at the centre of techniques of control, not least Meyda Yegenoglu’s incisive interpretation of just what it means to ‘unveil’ an Arab/Muslim woman. Yegenoglu observed that the burqa/veil signify not just the Oriental woman but the Orient itself. Thus, the control of the Muslim woman is by extension, to the Westerner, the means to bring Islamic culture and Islamic peoples under control – with the Muslim woman at the centre of the technique of domination.

And it is in this exact way that Muslim women in Australia have been made fair game for the worst kind of self-serving, dog-whistle politics, to unleash a wave of hatred upon a community in a way that is tantamount to persecution. Muslim women, who have been hauled into the spotlight to be treated as dehumanized bits of territory upon which Western politicians can control and use to exert their political agendas, as tools to be used in the harassment of a whole community.

The degradation and attempt to control women in such a way is nothing short of misogyny, and in this context, it is tied to racism. There are those who try to play the but-Islam-isn’t-a-race card to excuse bigotry, but the racialization of Muslims to the point that one can be mistaken as one on account of appearance, tells a different story. Muslim women, non-Western women, women of colour, stand at what Kimberlé Crenshaw described as intersectionality in her groundbreaking work: at the convergence of racism and sexism. The kind of bigotry that Muslim women are currently the targets of is a sexism with a racist character: it is nothing short of racialised misogyny.

That is why this week the irony struck me when the headlines were awash with news of Emma Watson’s speech on gender equality. Emma Watson, the rich, famous white actress, who together with her personification of the hegemonic Eurocentric beauty ideal and pure, clean-cut media figure, is what white supremacy’s very ideation of femininity is. I couldn’t escape how in the same week that feminism and gender equality supposedly became a global sensation, misogyny was still able to be deployed as a political weapon here at home. That the media that was salivating over Watson and her feminist speech was the very media that was churning out Islamophobia and racialised misogyny against Muslim women. That the same people fawning over Watson didn’t so much as flinch at the racialised misogyny running rampant in front of their eyes and used in the demonization of an entire community.

In order for misogyny to be able to be used as a political weapon the same week that feminism is a global sensation, that feminism must only apply to one type of woman, and so must misogyny. The misogyny directed at and unique to certain women must not be recognized as misogyny. And where the bounds of feminism and misogyny are narrow, it is because so is the definition of femininity. It is for the same reason that the fascistic ADL who have been terrorizing Muslim women, and the man who intruded on a Muslim school with a knife and threatened students will never be subject to terror raids. The extraordinary ironies, contradictions, and double-standards that we have seen this week can only be stitched together, upheld, and legitimised by the grotesque and barbaric system of structural racism and white supremacy.