On Monday, Houria Bouteldja, a visiting French activist, presented a lecture on the Indigènes de la République (Indigenous of the Republic) as part of La Trobe University's European Studies seminar series. As peculiar as it may seem to an Australian audience, Bouteldja spoke about how members of this French political party, mostly comprised of French-born grassroots activists of Muslim North African origin, have reappropriated the term 'indigenous' to describe their position in French society.
By calling themselves indigenous, she said, they draw a direct parallel with the colonial period when Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian subjects of the French empire were assigned an inferior status to white French colonists. Their insistence that they are indigenous to France directly challenges the dominant perception in France that they are immigrants despite the fact that they were born in France, and the countries of their parents' or grandparents' birth were indeed part of the French Republic.
To be indigenous in France today is to be the focus of national 'psychodramas' over schoolgirls' headscarves and the object of talk about whether or not 'they' are managing to integrate. It means facing discrimination in the housing and job market, and harassment by the police. It means to always be thought of as rightfully belonging somewhere else. It is an experience that is neatly captured, Bouteldja said, in the images of the young rioters in Paris in 2005 brandishing their identity cards before the television cameras, saying, 'these are useless to us'.
Being indigenous in France, it would seem, is in many ways not terribly different from being Muslim in Australia. Although less spectacularly violent than the Paris riots, the weekend's protests in Sydney could be considered more a vocalisation of a diminished experience of citizenship than a comment on a particular film. This interpretation of the events is further bolstered by the political demands made in both contexts: i.e. none.
It's been widely accepted that the protests across the world are not about the film per se, which few protesters appear to have seen. If burning a car in Paris or waving a placard about beheadings in Sydney is intended to be understood as a demand for action on the part of the state or the wider community, it is difficult to say exactly what is being articulated.
Some might interpret the 'Osama, Osama, Osama' placard that was defiantly waved at the TV cameras in Sydney as a reference to Al Qaeda's political goals of ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine and ejecting the US from the Middle East. More likely, however, the motivation was to simply flip the metaphoric bird not just at the Australian public, but also at the processes of public reasoning through which questions concerning Muslim citizens are addressed in the West.
As an academic, the issues I am currently looking at in my own work include the failings of these processes in relation to the banning of headscarves and burqas in France. A couple of weeks ago, I also presented a paper, along with my co-author Raphael Trantoul, at La Trobe's European Studies seminar series. We spoke about the French parliamentary inquiry into the burqa which sought testimonies from a wide variety of 'experts' on the significance of the burqa. Except, that is, that tiny number of French women who actually wear it.
We argued that the almost 700 page report on the evils of a garment worn by only a few hundred women was more a case of a paranoid nation wringing its hands over increasing cultural diversity than any documented problem suffered by or caused by those women. Or that is what we were trying to argue; we were evacuated twice during the seminar because a student protest in the same building had turned so rowdy that the police were periodically shutting people out to control the situation.
While many people were upset over the alleged behaviour of the La Trobe students, it was quite clear what they were demanding of their university administration. As such, they were unquestionably part of a political process. The Muslims who took to the streets over the weekend, however, acted in ways which suggest they believe they are in a sense excluded from the political process. The important question becomes, why do they feel that way?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that they have seen, as Mohammed Tabbaa points out, their community leaders obsess over portraying a 'correct' image of Islam. 'Instead of protecting them from what are seen as some of the harshest anti-terrorism laws in the world,' he writes, 'they see their leaders thanking police for raiding Muslim homes; they see their leaders as siding against them, rather than with them; they feel betrayed.' But what else can community leaders do? When they speak out against anti-terrorism laws or question the raids the wider community believes them to be siding with the Islamists.
For me, the deeper issue at hand here was neatly illustrated by a sausage sizzle La Trobe's Muslim association was hosting just before Houria Bouteldja's seminar on Monday. As I took a halal sausage, one of the students handed me a small paper bag with a smile. In it were a couple of sweets and a brochure about the rights of women in Islam. 'See?,' he may as well have said, 'we're not as terrible as you think we are'.