Siege mentality?

In a department store yesterday, a sales assistant was helping me with a product; he needed to check the price and when he got back to me, he went to ring through the transaction. In the interim, a woman had gone to the counter, products on hand ready to buy.

Technically I was there first and because of that, I was served first. Surprisingly, she didn’t move a single inch at the small counter, making the transaction extremely difficult. I finally asked her, politely, if she could please move a bit so that I could complete my purchase.

Heavily and slowly, she moved, but not without giving me what I can only term a look of pure and utter hatred. I was a little surprised and, although I felt slightly sick from her look, not being an overly shy type I was about to ask her what the problem was. But I didn’t. I thought it may create unnecessary fuss, and really, part of me didn’t want to know. If it escalated, it would ruin my mood and my day.

Instead, I finished the transaction and shook off the incident immediately. Past experience has taught me it’s the only way to not let it weigh on my mind.

But I didn’t completely forget it.

The issue? I wear hijab. I did feel at the time that the woman’s aggressive look was, at least in part, due to my appearance. I have no way of knowing for sure beyond my own instinct if that was indeed at the heart of it. But I’m definitely not an advocate for the victim mentality. I don’t think everyone is out to get me, nor do I think every instance of rudeness or aggression can be put down to prejudice. So I give myself enough credit to know my feelings weren’t of the knee jerk victimhood kind.

But the incident brought to mind an article (“Under siege: Muslims blame the media”, 3/5/07) I had read in The Sydney Morning Herald’s “The Face of Islam” series, which suggested Sydney’s Muslims feel more antagonised than other Australian Muslim residents, and blame it on saturated negative coverage in the media. I agree that media has been less than fair in many instances. I also believe this lack of fairness has its consequences in terms of community perceptions about Muslims.

But not for the first time I considered how much of this antagonism Sydney Muslims speak of is real and how much of it is perceived. The fact is, it happens; that’s not in question. But how much of it is, well, real? I’ve read endless stories of discrimination in the workplace and on the street. Yet, for every negative tale, I have heard more positive ones.

In the workplace, many of my friends who wear the hijab have excelled in their chosen careers, finding suitable jobs where they fit in comfortably without their religious practice suffering. And in general, those I know are similarly positive in their outlook in terms of everyday living. Smile and you’ll get a smile back.

But there are certainly instances of prejudice. For example, I didn’t imagine the time a garbage man yelled “Taliban” at me over and over as I left home for work one morning. I also didn’t imagine it when I was called an obscene term at Town Hall station nor when a bus driver looked at me as I stepped on and exclaimed in disgust, “Oh my God”, also neglecting to stop the bus at my stop and telling me I didn’t press the button (I certainly had).

My friends aren’t victimising themselves when they tell me they’ve been told, very creatively, to go home when driving, nor is the mother of two lying when she says her car’s side view mirror was smashed by another driver, who threatened it would be worse the next time.

But ultimately, we move beyond these incidents. Why? Because they’re not indicative of our overall lifestyles and interaction. We have non-Muslim friends, we’re not hidden indoors, we shop at the same shopping centres and most importantly, we all, in essence, want the same for ourselves and our families in life. We’ve been brought up in Sydney, and have an affection for that upbringing and Sydney that is rarely given airtime.

So, is it as bad as the mood suggests? And is this really Sydney’s problem? I’d be interested to know what people think, and how they perceive the situation to be for Muslims elsewhere.