First: the missing passport.
I was traveling out of Australia for the very first time back in 2010, visiting Seattle in the USA to stay with some friends. I’d spent ten wonderful days in the USA and had gotten the train from Seattle to LA in preparation for flying home. We had just crossed the border into California when I realized, with more than a little horror, that my passport was missing. Gone.I tore apart my luggage, my bed, my clothes. Nothing.
In a horrendous panic, I called back to my friends in Seattle. My passport had fallen out of its wallet and was still in my friend’s bedroom, where I’d been staying. They took it to the post office to send it by courier overnight (bless them), but learned at the office that you’re not allowed to mail passports to private addresses. Passports have to be sent to the Australian Embassy and picked up from the office.
The train arrived in LA at night, and I stayed in a cheap hotel on Sepulveda Blvd near the airport, panicking for the entire night. My flight was in the morning: If I got out first-thing, I had a two hour window to pick up my passport before I had to get back to the airport.
At eight in the morning, I managed to get my hands on a map. None of the hotel staff knew how to get to the Embassy by public transport, but they were sympathetic. I had no mobile phone, no Google Maps, and no money for a taxi: I was young, inexperienced, carrying far more luggage than I needed, and alone in a city five times the size of Melbourne, the only city I knew. I had no experience with the kind of density that this city had and no idea how its public transport worked.
Resolute, I marched to the bus stop and tried to figure out my route. I was turning the map around, trying to make sense of LA’s incredibly convoluted bus system, when a tall black guy with a scraggly beard in baggy jeans, red scarf and red basketball jersey swaggers up to me and snatches the map out of my hands.
He turned it around, and handed it back. “Hey man, you look at it this way ’round.”
25-year old me was scared and extremely defensive at being approached so brazenly by a strange man, and worse, being touched. It freaked me the fuck out. “Uhh… thanks.”
“No worries. You’re looking pretty upset. Where you going?”
I ended up explaining what the matter was to this man, Muhammad. When I told him that I was racing the clock to get my passport and get to my plane, he patted me on the back and told me not to worry about a thing: he’d take me to the embassy. And he did. He paid for my fare (I didn’t have the right coins for the machine), waved away the notes I tried to give him, and literally walked me from the airport to the other side of the city and back again, giving up an hour and a half of his time. And while he was doing that, we talked, and he told me his story.
Muhammad wasn’t born in the USA: he was a Sudanese refugee who had been able to get a green card. He and his entire extended family left the country and ended up split across the world. Some of them lived in the Midwest, he lived in LA, some of his cousins lived in Germany, his fiance in Scandinavia. He worked as a cleaner at night and studied computer science full time in the day (“I haven’t slept for 36 hours, for real!”). He wanted to create educational programs for schools, and make enough money to bring his fiance to America.
We ate jelly beans on the bus on the way to the embassy. I asked him about the red colors: he said that he could only afford to live in a part of LA where there were a lot of gangs. He wasn’t actually in a gang despite his getup, but he told me that when he wore his preferred clothes, people hassled him. He dressed like his neighbors did, and people stopped hassling him for being visibly Muslim. It was easier to pass as a gangbanger.
At the embassy, Muhammad insisted on coming up with me because he wanted to meet the Australian Ambassador. He shook her hand with great excitement. When I asked him if I could give him something for his time, he refused twice (which told me he meant it), but he finally accepted the rest of the jellybeans. He wished me a good flight. I wished him all the best with his lady love and his course, and thanked him profusely for his help. I will never forget his expression of genuine pleasure at having been able to help me, a flagrantly queer, pierced transman, an admitted Atheist, find an obscure office in Los Angeles after his underpaid night shift on a hot and unpleasant day.
We lost touch after that, but I have never forgotten this man’s generosity, his words, or his humility.
We did talk about religion during that trip. He was an extremely devout, observant Muslim, and was excited for Ramadan. He didn’t care that I wasn’t when we started talking about beliefs. I told him that I thought all creation is important and meaningful in its own right, without necessitating a god, and Muhammad said that he believed the same thing, only there was a god who had created it all to begin with.
Thanks to this stranger, I got my passport back on time, got on my plane, and flew home safe.
Since then, I have experienced this same generosity and humility from Muslim people – Arab and Kurd, Iranian and Turk, Indonesian and Chinese – many, many times. It’s often in small ways: the pleasure expressed when I become a regular at a small business, the extra generous helpings at a kebab stand in Berlin when I complimented the vendor’s meat, the extra piece of lokum at my local Turkish restaurant when I admitted being a writer working on my book, the quiet worldliness of an Iranian man I met at a writer’s group in Cork, who wanted to talk to me about Indigenous Australian culture – these are the Muslims I know in my day to day life. I am made physically sick when I think of these people being massacred, being spat on, being bombed and hurt and turned away from safe lands because a fractional percentage of their countrymen are violent, marauding thugs.
For fuck’s sake, people. Put it in perspective. The combined forces of Daesh/ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda make up 0.003% of the Muslim population of the entire world, maybe. Most of them are the Daesh rabble occupying the ruins of the Central Middle East right now. A good proportion of them are non-combatants.
The vast majority of terrorist attacks by these extremist groups are exacted on their countrymen: usually the moderate and helpless. While Daesh and the others would undoubtedly love to wade through a river of American and Australian blood, we white folks are hiding behind a dense human shield of mostly Shia Muslims, and people like the Yazidi, who have their own syncretic religion (the worship of Malek Taus, the Peacock Angel, and an Islamic-Gnostic concept of divinity). I fear these motherfuckers more than most – any member of Daesh would probably rape me with a sword and throw me off a roof for being transgender and queer – but fuck if I’m going to judge the people on the front lines of their savagery.
The gay men they threw off roofs and stoned to death? They were Muslim. The girls they enslave? The people of Beirut and Iraq? What faith are they?
Besides that, less than 2% of terrorist attacks in the EU have been motivated by Islam. Do you know what most of them were motivated by? Nationalism, the same bullshit that has made a sudden and enormous resurge after the Paris attacks. The vast majority of terrorist attacks in E.U. countries have for years been perpetrated by separatist nationalist organizations.
As for Australia, the worst mass shooting in our history was perpetrated by a white Australian: the Port Arthur massacre. The worst act of terror in recent times in Europe is arguably the 2011 rampage by Anders Behring Brevik, a white supremacist and nationalist.
I remember when a gang of Lebanese guys were going around raping girls in Sydney, back in the early 00’s. There was massive anti-Lebanese and anti-Muslim furor back then, with the Cronulla riots and everything. Recently, a gang of four white guys brutally raped a 14-year old girl in a park in Geelong. Two of them were British tourists. Where’s the riots telling Whitey to go back home?
There are 1.6 BILLION Muslims in the world. If they really wanted to destroy Western civilization – if they were as hostile and scary as some people seem to think – do you really think we’d be able to stop them? 1.6 billion, on every continent on Earth. There’s 1.3 million people in the US military. If there was some united purpose among Muslims everywhere, don’t you think we’d know by now?
Daesh are going to sneak operatives into the refugees fleeing them and their fascist government. They are. But for every fuckwit, there are thousands of perfectly normal people fleeing the kind of loss we cannot even imagine. People separated from their fiances by entire continents. People who have lost their children. A museum curator tortured to death for not revealing the location of priceless antiquities. Muslim security guards and bystanders in Paris and Beirut who stopped suicide bombers, sometimes with their own bodies and lives, to prevent the deaths of hundreds.
And yet, every one of my online channels is suddenly full of hate for Muslims (who are often equated with ‘Arabs’ by many). Some of the people who were posting ‘Black Lives Matter!’ on Facebook every day earlier this year are suddenly cheering on Alabama and other states for refusing to accept Syrian refugees. Black lives apparently only matter some of the time now.
With every border refusal, the West creeps closer to the same Fascist ideology that bought about the Syrian civil war in the first place. Because make no mistake: the Syrians aren’t fleeing a religious war. They’re fleeing an oppressive right-wing dictator who responded to the protests of his people by massacring them. Their religion is incidental: Asaad has routed Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Yazidi, Zoroastrian and Christian alike.
Fascism is oozing its way back into the popular way of thinking. But I remember the Muslim people who have been kind and gentle and generous, and I feel tired. My stomach is full of glass every time I read the news. The hatred and ignorance makes me sick.