“Don’t Call Me Moderate”: Speaking with Waleed Aly

Aparna Balakumar spoke with Waleed Aly.

On a sunny Melbourne day earlier this year, I jumped on a plane— notebook and best friend in hand— to interview The Project host Waleed Aly. As a woman of colour, Indian Australian and journalist-in-training, I was writing a feature on minority media representation.

In the wake of a string of attacks perpetrated by Islamic State last week, Muslim academic and journalist Waleed has garnered praise for his message of unity and tolerance. Today, I have already read five separate headlines calling Waleed the “face of moderate Islam” (a term he absolutely despises, by the way). It seems as good a time as any to publish my full transcript with him.


On being a Person of Colour on primetime Australian TV show ‘The Project’

You’re right; it is a big platform in a way. It’s not one that non-white people have had in Australia…I can think of one, maybe two. Beneath it all though it’s a job and I need to do it as well as I need to do it. So I don’t get up thinking ‘how brown can I be’ today. I’m thinking about how well can I do the job that I need to be.

But I am aware something significant is happening. It sort of pops up at the moment, like when you emailed me or someone stops me on the street. I get the sense that for a lot of non-white people this is a really big thing, or it feels that way. That’s what they tell me. So I guess I feel a little bit of that burden, but only ever in hindsight. Never in the moment. When you’re in studio and on air you just can’t afford to.

If, when they come to write the history of how it’s changed, my name is in there, I’ll be flattered but it’s not in my head. So if you watch the show tonight there are not moments where I’ll be going, “Alright, what does The Representative of all Brown People Everywhere say about this”. To be honest, you can’t broadcast that way. You just end up not being able to finish a sentence. You’re just constantly checking yourself and your sentence becomes so full of dependent clauses that you just can’t say anything and you become insufferable to listen to. The thing that makes broadcast difficult is you’re constantly striking this balance between removing the filter and having the filter there. I’m more likely to be thinking about what’s going to get us sued than I am the fact that I’m not a white guy.

I’m comfortable with the idea that there is a social significance to it. I’m not hiding from it but I don’t want people to think this is my reason for getting up and for doing my job.


On being asked to speak out against terrorism

Terrorism is a bit different because my academic work is in terrorism. What frustrates me though is that whenever I’m involved in that conversation I will be relentlessly understood as being the Muslim talking about terrorism rather than a terrorism academic talking about it. That annoys me. And there’s not much I can do about it. But that’s also why I get all this backlash from the blogosphere cause they misconceive my role as far as I’m concerned. They see me as some sort of community representative whose job it is to go out there and condemn everything. Its like actually I’ve done all that and if I was a community representative I would do all that. But I’m not a community representative. I have no mandate to be. I’m not elected to anymore. All of that was in the past and I resigned from that and if I was speaking as a community representative then I would take on that community representative role.

But if I’m doing analysis my job is to do analysis and that’s what I will do. And often what I will say is aligned with what most analysts in the area are saying about it. But for some reason it’s different when it comes from me because I’m meant to undergo some self-adulation ritual first or something. That’s what frustrates me. You’re just trying to box me into a corner I’m not in, and I’m not pretending to be. If you want to disagree with me on the substance of something that’s fine, but it’s not a criticism of me that I didn’t say something that you wanted me to say that is beside the point I am making. So, that frustrates me. But that aside, to be honest, it’s happening less and less because the stuff I write about and the stuff I broadcast about is now so much broader than that.

Last year I wrote maybe 25 columns. How many of them were about Muslim affairs? Depends how you would define it. I wouldn’t call writing about terrorism the same thing as writing about Muslim affairs because there’s overlap but they’re not the same thing. But even if you include that, I wrote a handful of things about terrorism and things about repelling 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and asylum seekers, and Federal politics and international politics stuff. I’m not writing about this thing called Muslim affairs whatever that is. So when it gets described that way, and it happens in the media, instead of being a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, that becomes the thing. It’s been years and years since that was the dominant thing so I find that a bit annoying but it sticks and I guess that’s because when you’re a Muslim in mainstream media you’re a real novelty and it’s the only way people seem to be able to understand your existence.


On being called a ‘Moderate Muslim’

In 2007 I published a book and there’s a whole chapter in there called ‘don’t call me moderate’ because it’s a term I hate. I don’t know what it contributes. I don’t like what it implies, and so if people are calling me a moderate Muslim it annoys me. But in the case of that kind of attack, the purpose is pretty clear and that is to position me and everything I say through some sort of Muslim lens or prism. So that everything I do is discredited or reconstructed as dangerous activism. But who is listening to it? People who want to think that anyway. I mean it hasn’t destroyed my career. It hasn’t destroyed my friendships or my family or made my life more miserable and it doesn’t change what I say. So in what way is it relevant except to some other audience, you know what I mean? I’ve always taken the approach that so long as I can stand by what I’m saying intellectually that’s all that matters.


On recognising his strengths

You will naturally bring things to the table that other people won’t. That’s true of any job and so I will bring either an interest or a knowledge base, or an angle, particularly if there’s some issue that’s racial or whatever. I’ll bring an angle to that because I can. And I can say things that other people can’t…you’re always aware of that, and so a major part of broadcasting is being aware of what things sound like when they come from you as opposed to someone else. And that’s true for everything, not just true for me. It’s true for Carrie and Pete too. That’s what broadcast is; that’s why there are certain things only Pete can get away with saying.


On speaking out about racial issues

I can probably be a bit punchier and a bit irreverent on racial issues. You have that licence. They’ve [co-hosts Carrie and Pete] got to be a bit more careful because they’ll be accused of being racist before I will [laughs]. Like we did this thing last night about how international students from India keep pointing out I look like Bollywood star Abishek Bachan. And I was like really? I don’t think I do. But we had to put some thought into who raises it on the show and how they do. It can’t really be me bringing it because then it’s me talking about myself, which is weird. But then when Pete brings it you got to be really careful because you don’t want it to look like a white guy saying all brown people look the same. Do you know what I mean? So you’ve always got to give it that level of thought. That’s not just true of racial issues, it’s true of any issues.


On being a ‘representative’ of minorities

Part of what is understood when someone speaks is who is speaking. That’s why when the Prime Minister says something it’s a completely different thing to when somebody else says exactly the same thing. I think that’s an inevitable part of human communication.

So when you’re on air it’s no different. I think it gets annoying when things are put on you. So I might come up with a response to a news issue or a question that I want to ask, however coming from me it looks like there is an ‘agenda’ involved. I am alive to that happening and it is frustrating when it doesn’t actually reflect reality but you’ve got to just live with it. That’s inescapable as that’s what broadcasting and public communication is. There’s a contextually to messages and the messenger is part of that contextually so what can you do, you know?

I think the biggest difference between being a white broadcaster and a non-white broadcaster, especially a Muslim one, is that people decide you’re the face of everything. Other broadcasters don’t have that problem. That’s what happens when you have normal defined in a particular way in a society. The whole thing with normality is that it’s invisible, which is why I wrote a column about that, about how whiteness is invisible, how it’s the norm. That invisibility is a real privilege, so I get that and in some ways I am frustrated I don’t have that. But in other ways there are other benefits I get, there are things I get to say that other people can’t.


On Andrew Bolt/ the haters

That kind of criticism that you’re taking about, they almost have no relevance to me because they fundamentally misconstrue who I am and what I’m doing. I believe they do so with malintent. I believe there is nothing I can do about it, and I believe they have limited impact. So I may be wrong about any or all of those things but that’s how I feel, so I just tend to plow on. I’ve always seen myself as such a small and insignificant part of it. So it’s never occurred to me that it would be worth getting fired up about. That’s the thing that astonishes me the most is that it seems like there are some people out there who are just obsessed with me and wanting to destroy something in me and apart from beyond whether or not that’s hurtful, it’s just weird. Why? Why put your time and effort into that? I’ve never understood that class of commentator or columnist or broadcaster for who 90% of your output is convincing everyone else who to hate. I don’t actually get it, why that’s a worthwhile endeavour.


On how he got into journalism:

I don’t even call myself a journalist. I feel uncomfortable with that term because to me journalists are reporters. I see myself as a broadcaster. And also coming from an academic background, the most offensive title you can get is ‘journalist’. It’s just one of those petty rivalries. I’ve never thought of myself as a journalist. I’ve just started using the term a bit more because I can’t think of a different word to use and it seems the most appropriate. It started because I started writing opinion piece and they started getting picked up in the press. I started with the written word and started having some success with that. Part of it was that at that time I was an elected muslim community representative, and then post bali and London and Madrid and 911 so there was a reason for my voice and they probably didn’t have access to another voice that fulfilled that function. So there was that. Even then I felt I was just writing commentary. It’s just I had this opportunity to do it. Then I started writing more broadly. I started writing in the broadsheet pages. That’s when I got really excited cause I loved newspapers. I’d grown up with The Age, sitting at home with this newspaper that was bigger than me and I just loved it. So the idea that my name would one day be in The Age was just the most exciting thing ever. And that’s all I ever wanted to do.

The thing about media is the media is often a big conversation about the media. So if you’re in media you’re important and if you’re important you’re in the media, which is ridiculous but that’s the way it seems to work. So once I started writing then people in broadcast would ask me to do things. So I think John Faine on 774 on the ABC noticed me and called me to be a co host with him on the conversation hour which he does every day. I did that a few times and it became a regular thing and I began to fill in with him.

I like to think the reason I have the range of jobs I have is cause I can do them and I demonstrated that, but as for how I got the opportunity in the first place, it was all an accident. If I had to develop a theory on it, it was that I did things in a way differently to how everyone else does it. Therefore, when I was writing for example I was the only person with my voice. It wasn’t anything to do with my ability. I was just a unique voice in the landscape, so that gets noticed. When I was doing broadcast work, I wasn’t someone who came from the press gallery in Canberra. I came from an academic background so I thought about things in a different sort of way and I would ask questions the day after the budget not about how you would administer this, but ‘as a philosophical matter, what is the purpose of welfare?’ It was different and it was a different conversation. I just did it because I had to think of something and that’s what I thought of. And so what it means is that suddenly I’m approaching the budget in quite a different way. And I think that sets you up really well for things like radio but also things like The Project. The whole point of that show is that it’s off beat. It does what its not expected to do necessarily. The thing I love most about the show is that it’s honest about the fact that it’s a show that lifts the veil occasionally. My favourite thing to do on set is when somebody stuffs something up and I’m talking to Carrie about what’s on the autocue because who on TV talks about the autocue but that’s what we can do. That’s what makes it fun. We just completely own the fact this is all artificial. I love that.

Broadcast is always part entertainment and I’ve always seen it that way. I’ve never thought, ooh I’m doing this big intellectual program. I just never really saw it that way. There were moments where you had to have some sort of intellectual rigor but that was only ever part of the deal. You’re immediately in simplification territory, so just admit that. Switching to The Project for me, it’s the same thing. You’re already simplifying. You’re dealing with a subject people are going to spend 40 years studying in 2 and a half minutes. That’s what’s happening. If you make it 2.5 minutes or 10 minutes its still an over simplification. So it’s the same deal. I don’t actually feel like it’s a monstrous gear change. So when I’m doing broadcast I like to have fun. I like diversity of topics. In my radio show that’s what we did. We did one minute you’re doing some quite obscure point about superannuation policy and the next minute ‘oh The Simpsons are bringing on a new character! Who is it going to be?’ I like that. I like all the gear changes. The Project is similar in that way. Its general interest and as a broadcaster that’s what I like. I am less interested in specialisation as a broadcaster than I am as a person, which might seem a weird dichotomy. But as a person I’m interested in specialisation and that’s the academic side taking, and I think I will always have that. I think that’s why I’ve kept my job at Monash. I still want to teach and I still want to write and do those things. It means I don’t feel like I have to turn every segment on the project into a PHD cause if I did I would go mad.


On ‘objective journalism’ 

Objective journalism does not exist. When we talk about the representation of all views what we really mean is the representation of certain sanctioned views. I mean, I’ve had conversations with the senior producers of Q&A about this need to represent all views and how impossible it is. I’m interested in who gets a seat on the table once you’ve covered off all the major parties, and the minority parties, and a commentator from here or there.

I’ve never seen a Trotskyist given a platform for example. I’m not saying I would particularly want to hear from them but I’m just using that as an illustration of a point that there are certain views that are just not even on there. Is that objective? Not really. It’s kind of a subjectivity upon which subjectivity is gathered. But it’s not objective.


On the need to box everyone into ‘the right’ or ‘the left’ 

One of the things that’s really annoyed me about the public debate around balance and objectivity and all that stuff is that it’s become the domain, become defined by, some of the most partisan voices that we have in the landscape. So what happens is they sit there, and in our context they’re typically from what we call imperfectly ‘the right’, who will mostly attack and dismiss anybody who doesn’t agree with them as being ‘of the left’. Which is an absurd way to define politics, as what it does is position everything to be ‘on the left’. And what you do then is you say well there’s left wing bias, well of course there is because everyone but you is left. So when you have the extremes of the debate defining what the terms of our political wings are then arguing for balance within those terms, what you actually have is a completely skewed understanding of what constitutes the Australian political landscape. It’s entirely subjective. It’s entirely unbalanced. But I’m not going to argue there’s some other point that is the mystical balance. There is no mystical balance. Societies work because an emerging consensus gathers around a position and it’s never perfect and it’s always fuzzy and there is dissent but what counts as the sensible centre in Australia does not count as the sensible centre in France. It depends on the issue. So I’m completely tired of the whole debate on balance and objectivity.


On that whole Nazeem Hussain mix-up

It’s definitely reflective of something deeper in that Nazeem and I are good friends. And for ages we’ve been mistaken for each other and it’s hilarious but it’s been like this for years. I’ve had people, well known well respected broadcasters, ask me ‘how’s your stand up going?’ and he was saying just after it was announced I was doing The Project, he was out doing vox pops and people were coming up asking him “congrats on the job”, “I really like your columns” and he goes “I really just write from the heart” which is really not what I would say at all. So when that happened I found it funny not because it happened but because it’s been happening for years.

You’ve got to have fun with it. I mean it was funny. We had a great time. I wasn’t mortally offended or anything. But, I’ve spoken to Nazeem about this; it had a very long life. People kept talking about it, I think they still are on Twitter or whatever, and I feel like it’s gone on a bit too long and there are some people having a bit too much fun with it in the wrong way. These things are always fraught.


On trying to change the world

I don’t have a desire to change the world. I’m not one of those people. I think people think I do but I don’t and I never have. And part of the reason for that is I don’t feel I have the ability to but also I wouldn’t trust myself to. I’m happy for the world to change but I think if it’s me trying to change it or trying to save it then it’s in deep trouble. I’m genuinely and generally sceptical of people who want to save the world because I feel like history is full of examples of people who have tried to save the world and made it irreparably worse, so I’m just sceptical of that whole enterprise. I don’t see my work through that prism. I like to make a contribution and the nicest thing anyone can say about anything I do is that it’s enhanced their understanding of something or it’s made them think differently about an issue. Not necessarily that it’s changed their minds of whatever but just that it’s added something to their internal monologue on an issue. That I find is flattering, but I don’t want to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and redesign the universe. That’s not what I want to do.