Australia originally appeared to me in the form of a boyfriend. A fellow student brought him home one evening without explanation except that he was a mechanic and it was love. Unspoken was the Australian part. An affront to our all-ladies rental, he was everything Nevil Shute had captured about being Australian – at 6ft 6”, barely contained by our small British house he was at best unwieldy, at worst intimidating, oscillating between grunts of an indeterminate nature or interminable silence, punctuated by an occasional hiss as he opened a can of Foster’s. He smelled more than remotely of diesel, forever removing oil from his stained hands with chemicals in the same kitchen where we struggled to master pavlovas and coronation chicken. Mesmerized by his terrifying masculinity, with a mixture of fear and fascination we were all too glad when the impulsive student married him poste haste and they decamped for Perth. As I looked at a map, I wondered if indeed theirs would be a town like Alice.
A decade on I found Australians my unflappable and unfailingly good-natured colleagues in Riyadh where I practiced critical care medicine. Actually happy in spite of Wahabiism, and smiling to boot, they nursed my Saudi patients, ran the intensive care units where I practiced and provided much needed relief from the smoldering fury of 1999 Riyadh. While the rest of us avoided sunlight like vampires, the Saudi sun didn’t bother the Australians. After I fell riding at stables in Malaaz, studying my shattered arm, my Australian nurse manager advised ‘Doc, you gotta learn to tuck and roll, mate’ – repeating himself three times, before finally, in response to my dull incomprehension, demonstrating the tuck and the roll right there in the intensive care unit.
All these memories rushed to the fore as I prepared speeches to deliver in Australia this month. Taking advantage of the long business class ride from New York, a little light reading was in order. Digging out my long awaited copy of Freedom of Speech and Islam, I leafed through an academic anthology of blasphemy, apostasy and heresy. The orange cover was a photograph of a massive Muslim crowd protesting the Danish cartoon series and a large placard ‘Prophet Mohammed – The Father of Good Manners’ which confusingly looked like the title of the book.
Like any Muslim in the post 9/11 world, reading about political Islam, or any kind of Islam at 35,000 feet, makes one feel strangely nervous and inexplicably guilty. Deflecting quizzical looks from fellow passengers, I sank deeper into my duvet, hoping no one would talk to me but knowing after seeing the title of this book (easily spied across an aisle) people were even less likely to talk to me about where I was headed and if Australia was a vacation, or merely the path to my martyrdom. As I do so often now, I looked at myself in the third person, through an Orwellian lens, exactly the view of an inscrutable, visored, counterterrorism officer. Why indeed was this female Muslim, a doctor of medicine, reading such incendiary content? And on an American commercial jet from the States? At a time when the country of her final destination was facing the greatest crisis among western nations of foreign fighters joining ISIS in jihad. And, on top of this, hadn’t she just been in Ramallah?
I agreed with my Orwellian alter ego – it didn’t look too good – and worried that my explanation wasn’t much better. I was heading to Australia to support Project Rozana, a charity founded by Hadassah Australia (the local chapter of Hadassah, one of Israel’s preeminent hospitals in Jerusalem) to create a $10 million endowment devoted to training Palestinian doctors in the West Bank in Israel’s Hadassah hospital. With over 27 engagements scheduled I had been asked to place the cross-cultural, interfaith program within the context of Islamism as it battles for supremacy over the narrative with Islam. It was a very exciting idea, one that had captured me for over a year, but suddenly from our current cruising altitude maybe it didn’t look too kosher. Every counter terrorism officer knew ‘Helping the Palestinians’ was a risk factor! On the other hand, perhaps I was an Israeli agent, a Zionist instrument in the ‘guise of a Muslim’.
Disembarking at Sydney I found myself reliant on signs and hand gestures. Airport officials were of a dizzying array of ethnicities. Where were the Australians? Not one person had the decency to look anything like Paul Hogan. Their accents were unintelligible. Between a broad Australian twang and indecipherable background heritage I became an irritable and effectively deaf woman: repeatedly I asked for instructions but stared dumbly at the kindly proferred explanation. Passport control had none of the tension or intimidation of entering the United States, even when one is a US resident. I didn’t see a single Alsatian dog anywhere. I don’t remember a Cyclops cyber-camera capturing my retina or anyone fingerprinting anyone. No guns whatsoever. ‘Someone call security!’ I felt like saying. What’s wrong with you, Australia? The lady stamping my passport – violating every rule of border security – actually smiled, undeterred by my dozens of stamps in the Gulf Arab world, my four Muslim names, and my security risk designation by Israeli immigration officials. Surely this wasn’t good counter terrorism? Dumbfounded, I hurried on.
Australia only became more good-natured as time went on. I found the hundreds of Australians whom I did meet, in town halls, hospitals, private homes, press lunches, hotels, restaurants, synagogues, schools, and museums, uniformly engaged internationally – a stark difference from the average New Yorker. Australians know more about Indonesia, and South East Asia, than any American I have known does about Canada or Mexico. While Australia may be an island continent, Australians are not an Island race.
Even so, everywhere I found the same shock. Australians, while sophisticated in their knowledge of political Islamism – the totalitarian ideology which inspires Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamat Al Nusra, Hezbat Al Tahrir and many other movements, each masquerading as foundationally Islamic while in fact expressly imposters of Islam – were uniformly thunderstruck by the discovery that Islamists were operating on Australian soil and their ideas were gaining traction in Sydney in particular. Australian media, while intensely interested in Islamism, were alien to their American counterparts. Television segments were 7. 5 minutes long, answers in paragraphs welcomed, and the search for the meaningless soundbite left aside in the midst of sincere attempts to learn and understand.
Yet throughout, I couldn’t help feeling: where have you been the last decade and a half Australia? On 9/11, as I watched from Riyadh, the rest of the world – Muslim and non Muslim alike – experienced a brutal rupture while the island continent was left behind. Whether in Sydney’s wildly exclusive Vaucluse, Melbourne’s moneyed Toorak or everyman’s St Kilda, it was the 1980s – not in terms of the very upscale fashions, interior décor, or business endeavors – but the prevailing sentiments. It was September 12th all over again.
Despite the 83 Australian lives lost in Bali in 2002, Islamist terrorism has only just made its sinister personal introductions into the Australian home. Elsewhere, the rest of us, at least in America, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – places which I have all called home – have long beheld the wild-eyed and very unwanted Islamist bedfellow invading either our secular pluralistic democracies, Muslim ‘democracies’ or Islamic theocracies up-close and way too personal. I found Australia’s dissipating innocence at once a surprising, albeit brief relief from the realities of the ‘No Place to Hide’ world which we all now inhabit; while also a perplexing puzzle. How did an entire continent escape the global darknesses of today? Muslims in Australia were just as puzzled, though I met only two in my whole stay. Dr Tanveer Ahmed, my Australian counterpart (but no relative) – a physician, Muslim and media commentator explained Islamism in Australia could be considered the preferred ‘militancy de jour’ for Australian Muslim youth leading to fantasies acted out in a desire to join ISIS.
Intrigued, I needed to confer with someone else when conveniently another Muslim authority surfaced – the Iraqi hairdresser around the corner. A post conflict asylee, he had settled in Australia after the fall of Saddam. Now a successful business owner, he prowled around his sinks and hair driers in pricey dark-washed jeans, his carefully shaved head accentuated by an interrupted left eyebrow, a telling counterculture nod to hip hop gang chic. He looked like he knew a thing or two about Muslim youth.
‘The problem is the Mosques,’ he began authoritatively, ‘not the four or five big mosques in Sydney – those are good, those are clean,’ he explained, ‘but those mosques, hundreds’ he emphasized, raising a shaved eyebrow in my direction, ‘those where ‘they’ buy houses, and fill them with people and call them mosques – they are the problem. Inside them the people giving the khotbah’ (he struggled to find the English word ‘sermon’) ‘in the khotbah, they preach the wrong Islam.’ I nodded gravely, wondering how he knew, and who the preachers were. ‘You can’t imagine what they do,’ he went on, ‘they come to your house, your front door, and knock on the door and when you answer the door they tell you to pray in the mosque!’
We both looked at each other, eyebrows elevated in unified shock: the Mutawaeen – the religious police – were here in Australia. We were silenced for a moment as his Korean partner snipped away at a diminishing wisp of hair on a polite Australian.
‘They came to my house,’ added the Muslim hairdressing mogul, still indignant, ‘I said, I am not praying at your mosque! One of my friends – he has put a sign on his front door, ‘No visitors allowed. Do not knock’.
I nodded. ‘You can pray in your house, or in here,’ I volunteered, pointing to the Muslim’s personal mosque – one’s heart. ‘That’s right,’ he agreed, knitting his one and a half eyebrows together in solidarity.
Soon my own unveiled head of hair was perfectly coiffed by the silent Korean. Bidding salaams to the Iraqi Australian and goodbye to the Korean Australian, I walked out onto College Street mulling over the conversation. The afternoon breeze was unexpectedly blustery, rapidly transforming my hair into an ungroomed mess. Seeking to restore order to my mane, as I hurried to the hotel I thought of other tempests gaining strength. Across Australia, far from their origins, the shamal winds of Islamism are blowing strong and hot, stirring Australians reluctantly out of their long, uninterrupted post 9/11 slumber. I had learned at least one reality during my whirlwind trip to Australia: Islamism and its ills are well and truly Down Under.
Qanta A. Ahmed is a prominent physician, academic, author and journalist. @MissDiagnosis