Solidarity must be a formulated strategy that those of the left develop and implement, if we are to avoid being conquered through our division. Unfortunately, this Australia Day the left has missed a very public opportunity to demonstrate solidarity between the two groups that are currently most maligned by the far-right: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Muslim communities.
Whilst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always been oppressed by White Australia, in our post-911 world, Muslims have also become increasingly ‘othered’ and feared by the nation, and indeed much of the Western world.
Australia Day has increasingly become a lightning rod for patriotism and so January 26 is not only a date by which to mark the invasion and subsequent subjugation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but also for chest-thumping patriarchal racist nationalism.
It is with the goal of nationalism that the Victorian Government and outdoor media company QMS put up a billboard with a scrolling set of images to advertise Australia Day events. It is with a misguided sense of rejecting xenophobic nationalism that the inclusion of people from ‘various cultural backgrounds’ was undertaken, including an image depicting two young girls in hijab with the Australian flag. Displayed in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, the billboards sent the far-right into frenzy with QMS allegedly receiving threats and complaints of such a serious nature that they subsequently pulled the billboard.
That the far-right bullied their way to getting the billboard removed is a horrific injustice and the innocence of the featured girls should not be called in to question. However, the subsequent campaign by Advertising Creative Director Dee Madigan, who in consultation with Muslim leaders took it upon herself to #PutThemBackUp, is an affront to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who view Australia Day as celebrating invasion and genocide.
Nationalism by any other name – Aussie spirit, celebrating Australia – is still nationalism and Australia Day is still part of the kind of nationalism that seeks to exclude non-Whites. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know this inherently. We know that changing the date will lessen the hurt of commemorating invasion, but will still allow for the exercise of chest-thumping nationalism to continue. We know that an image of two young girls in hijab, smiling with the Australian flag, is not meant to cause intentional offense, but symbolises the indoctrination of new migrants in to the national project.
In this way, these kinds of celebrations of diversity are a futile exercise when they continue to endorse the kind of Australia that thinks celebrating the date of invasion is okay. Meat and Livestock Australia’s annual Australia Day lamb ad is a perfect example of this kind of cognitive dissonance.
Whilst the ad may make no mention of Australia Day this year, it is still an Australia Day ad for all intents and purposes and it shockingly whitewashes what happened at the point of invasion.
If there is one take away lesson from all of this, it is that perhaps real inclusion should not be sold to us through marketing campaigns. If this kind of multiculturalism reinforces the institution of nationalism, surely billboards and lamb ads reinforce the tools of capitalism. As artist and academic Tania Cañas writes, “Diversity is restricted to aesthetic presentation, rather than a meaningful, committed, resourced, long-term process of shifting existing power-dynamics.” Billboard campaigns and lamb ads show us the aesthetic presentation of multiculturalism whilst simultaneously reinforcing Australia’s existing power structures.
The #PutThemBackUp initiative featured a crowdfunding campaign to fund a host of media and billboard advertisements featuring the young girls. In mere hours, the crowdfunder had reached its goal of $50,000 and people flocked to the campaign to show their support for the girls in a way that sits in stark contrast to many crowdfunders for Indigenous causes.
An Austrarlia Day protest on January 26, 2006
Of course, it is counterproductive to create a competition for resources in the struggle for social justice, but #PutThemBackUp has unintentionally exposed the contradictions of mostly-white progressive liberals; those who consistently support causes such as the Recognise campaign that reinforce the very systems that privilege them. Ultimately, whilst the young girls and their family should feel bolstered that they have the support of thousands of Australians, this individual support will never change the kind of Australia that will undoubtedly alienate them in the future. The popularity of Australia’s refugee policy, the re-rise of Pauline Hanson, the Liberal Government’s re-election in 2016 all indicate that Islamophobia will march on in this country, all to the beat of the drums of nationalism.
With support for #PutThemBackUp swift and extensive, campaign organisers extended the goal to $100,000 and now to $200,000. In all of this, a growing disquiet not only amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but also amongst Muslim communities began to be heard. A Facebook page Muslims Say No To Australia Day – Invasion Day – Billboard was started and its initial post in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was shared widely across social media.
Muslim comedian Aamer Rahman posted against the nationalism represented in the billboards as did Arrente social commentator and writer Celeste Liddle. In a move that can only be described as an afterthought, the campaign was not updated but it was communicated through Islamophobia Register Australia founder Mariam Veiszadeh (who has been involved in the campaign since the beginning) that the new billboards and advertisements would “deliberately not reference January 26”. As a further afterthought, leftover funds were originally to be donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, but three days after campaigning began the ASRC asked for funds to be donated to Aboriginal organisations IndigenousX and Children’s Ground.
That Dee Madigan herself has not publicly acknowledged Indigenous affront to Australia Day is very telling. To this end, the only acknowledgement she has made to Indigenous opinion on the issue is to retweet support for a Facebook post by Indigenous playwright and actor Nakkiah Lui in which Lui states that seeing a young Muslim woman holding the Australian flag “changes what the Australian flag is for me”. Mariam Veiszadeh also shared Lui’s post as an indication of widespread Indigenous support for the campaign, yet neither Madigan nor Veiszadeh had the inclination to donate leftover funds to Aboriginal organisations – that sense of goodwill and understanding was left to Kon Karapanagiotidis from the ASRC.
Now the revised billboards are starting to be put up and print media ads have also started. To say that the new billboards are more offensive than the original is an understatement, with ‘Happy Australia Day’ emblazoned across the image of the two young women. Whilst the promises made through Veiszadeh were not straight lies, as technically the billboards do “not reference January 26”, many advocates for Indigenous rights feel betrayed by the sleight of hand, jarred at the sight of Australia Day so fervently celebrated.
Is this kind of offense the result that Muslim and Indigenous leaders wanted when they endorsed the campaign? I sincerely doubt this was their intention, but nonetheless this campaign, that will now be seen nationally (the billboard was originally only ever intended for Victoria, but Madigan has taken the revised ads national), promotes a brand of nationalist ideology that does not help Muslims as much as it does not help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Most certainly, this media campaign does nothing to promote solidarity between the two groups, who now, more than ever, need to unite in the fight against far-right ideology. This is why the work of groups like RISE Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees is so important in understanding the way that Australian racism works to deny Indigenous sovereignty and promote the closure of borders to non-White people.
Ultimately, it is the very same racism that has been used as justification for the invasion and oppression of Indigenous people that is now used as a template for Islamophobia in this country. You cannot separate the work for Indigenous rights from anti-Islamophobia organising as Islamophobia will never end whilst we continue to maintain the oppression of Indigenous peoples. In order to achieve the realisation of Indigenous rights as well as in the fight against Islamophobia, we must recognise that the goals are linked and work in solidarity together.