Last Saturday’s protest was one of the most violent Sydney had seen in a long while, with six officers and 17 civilians injured and eight arrests. The protest was intended to be a peaceful demonstration against anti-Islamic short film, Innocence of Muslims, which portrays the Islamic Prophet Mohammed as a sexed-up womaniser with tendencies towards paedophilia and homosexuality. The protest began near the US Consulate on Martin Place, moving towards Hyde Park mid-afternoon, when tension between police and protesters began to escalate.
The ensuing riot has been well documented but what remains little spoken about is the effect the film and subsequent protest has and will continue to have on the Muslim community.
The Office of The Mufti of Australia and the Islamic Council of NSW have both released statements condemning Saturday’s violence, saying the protest was not sanctioned or authorised by any Islamic organisation and calling on Muslims to exemplify the spirit of Islam by exercising wisdom and patience.
On campus, there are a diversity of views around the protests and the film. Hajar Rafiq is an executive of the Sydney University Muslim Student Association (SUMSA) and sees the film as a symptom of a more pervasive problem.
“[This film] was a denigration and vilification of Islam,” says Ms Rafiq. “We have a history of similar attacks and there is a rising trend of Islamophobia in the West. Politicians and media personalities jump on the sensationalist bandwagon of mocking Islam. This is the context in which both the production of the film and the reaction of the protesters have to be placed.”
Ms Rafiq doesn’t make a judgement on the actions of the protestors or police, nor does she give much credence to the widely publicised posters, some of which read, “behead those who insult the Prophet” and “Our dead are in paradise. Your [sic] dead are in hell”.
“While there may have been vitriolic messages on two or three placards out of a congregation of hundreds of protesters, those placards can’t possibly be given centre stage in this discussion. We’re not interested in symptomatic analysis, we want to go to the root of the problem.”
Elika Bahramrad is one of the founders of the MuJew Alliance, a campus group that aims to promote discussion between Muslim and Jewish students. She is worried about how this conflict will affect Muslim-Jewish relations in Sydney.
Specifically, she’s concerned about rumours in the Muslim community that the director was an Israeli or Jewish and was receiving funding from Jewish donors. These rumours have now been falsified as a marketing stunt by the filmmakers.
“But imagine if that was accepted as fact by the majority,” Ms Bahramrad said. “What would be the ramifications? It’s disgusting that someone attempted to exploit the tension between Muslims and Jews for their own purposes.”
The full effect of Saturday’s protest on the public’s perception of Islam and Muslim people is yet to be seen, but Ms Bahramrad warns against projecting the actions of a few to the beliefs and values of the whole group or culture.
“There are over two billion of us in the world, and it would be insensible to generalise us based on what’s been happening,” she said. “The different responses we have seen all over the world have shown that Muslims don’t all think and respond in the same way.”