Sometimes small slips in understanding can be revealing.
In reporting the recent arrests of Australian terrorist suspects, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that one of those arrested had come under the influence of Sheik Faiz Mohammad, who “reportedly told a meeting of 1,000 people at Bankstown Town Hall in March that non-Muslim victims of rape had ‘no one to blame but herself’”.
In fact, the sheik did not single out non-Muslim women, but women in skimpy clothing: "She displayed her beauty to the entire world. She degraded herself by being an object of sexual desire and thus becoming vulnerable to a man who looks at her for gratification of his sexual urge."
I hasten to add that it is no less toxic to justify rape on the grounds of dress than on the grounds of religion. The significance of the sheik’s original remarks is that he did not exempt Muslim women from his invective, if they were not “properly” dressed. And this points to a wider misconception: the commonly held assumption that extremist Islam is directed primarily at non-Muslims, and that Muslims somehow get a free pass.
The Sydney Morning Herald journalist was not the only person to understand the sheik’s comments as being directed only at non-Muslim women. In personal conversations, several people have told me that the sheik “said that it was acceptable to rape non-Muslim women”. In the popular imagination, "Strapless, backless, sleeveless, nothing but satanic skirts, slit skirts, translucent blouses, miniskirts, tight jeans” does not describe the wardrobe of a Muslim woman. But many Muslim women do not wear hijab - and those who do are likely to have beloved sisters, daughters, and friends who do not. I know many Muslim women who actively practice their religion and who also wear short skirts and sleeveless shirts, if not to mosque, then certainly to parties. As far as the sheik is concerned, such women have made themselves legitimate prey as surely as their non-Muslim sisters.
It should be noted that the imaginary connection between short skirts and rape is not confined to Muslims. I have heard similar sentiments expressed by non-religious Australian undergraduates, albeit in somewhat more measured terms. Until the introduction of rape shield laws, it was a connection regularly made by defense lawyers in rape trials. Even today, insinuations that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it” by her dress manage to find their way into courtrooms and media reports. The definition of "immodest dress" in these cases is probably less sweeping than in the sheik's description, but the violation of the principle that a woman should not be blamed for a crime committed against her is identical. As is so often is the case, an incident that appears to illustrate the “clash of civilisations” turns out to be a rather more complex issue.
Internationally, many more Muslims than Westerners have died at the hands of Islamic extremists. The first victim of the London bombings to be buried was a young Muslim woman, Shahara Islam, described by her family as “an East Ender, Londoner and British, but above all a true Muslim and proud to be so”. Her killer must have known that he would almost certainly kill Muslims alongside non-Muslims with the bomb. He probably noticed her and must have known by her ethnicity that she was likely to be Muslim. But she didn’t cover, so she didn’t count. Even if she had, it would almost certainly have made no difference - if she was a “good” Muslim, she shouldn’t have minded dying for the cause.
So I am somewhat impatient with the belief (held by a few Muslims as well as many non-Muslims) that Islamist violence is somehow less of a threat for us than for other Australians. For Islamic extremists, to be the “wrong” kind of Muslim - and most of the Muslim population is the “wrong” kind of Muslim - is worse than not to be Muslim at all.
The fact that moderate Muslims are at equal if not greater risk has led some commentators to say that we should support the anti-terrorism legislation. But the majority of moderate Muslims have grave misgivings about the legislation not because they support terrorism, but because they do not believe that it provides any extra safeguard against a terrorist attack. It also risks increasing the attraction of extremist groups because the reduction in civil liberties will be disproportionately felt by Muslims, heightening disaffection and alienation.
Similarly, while most Muslims were revolted by the sheik’s statement blaming rape victims for their own trauma, they are also insulted by statements from politicians such as Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopolous claiming that the hijab is somehow threatening, un-Australian, and “defiant”. Certainly, the current public mood is enough to induce “defiance”. When I get dressed in the morning, I’m torn between wearing a headscarf in defiance of Bishop, or a pair of tight jeans in defiance of the sheik. Sometimes I settle for both.
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