Much has been made of the 'good' that could possibly come out of the tragic siege in Sydney that ended with three dead, including the alleged gunman himself. Social media is abuzz with the hashtag #illridewithyou where people let Muslims know that they will travel with them on public transport if they are dressed in Islamic clothing. It is a galvanizing response from a social media community that is fearful of islamophobic attacks, as payback for the fact the gunman was a Muslim, now seeking to exert some measure of control amongst the gathering hysteria.
Whilst filled with good intentions, this kind of public performance of activism and solidarity should be taken with a grain of salt. In the age of social media, it seems many question: if a good deed is done without posting it to social media, does it really ever happen at all?
The use of social media in generating solidarity and engagement in social movements has become fairly well known. Deploying hashtags to get ideas and movements 'trending' on social media, in order to gain more engagement and publicity, is widely accepted and #illridewithyou is a great example of this. Many Muslim women, as easy target of racists and sexists alike, have been moved by the sentiment and expressed happiness and gratitude. As #illridewithyou gains momentum it is heartening to realize that there are non-Muslims who are not swept up and taken in by anti-Muslim sentiment.
However, without any real substance behind it, many in the Muslim community are also rightly skeptical about the use of the hashtag. There will be those who want to publicize their solidarity on social media, but are likely to never convert this to real life action. For them, it is easy to join a movement by typing on a keyboard or clicking a mouse, but how many of those who are hashtagging will ever have the opportunity to make their thoughts a reality? Further, do we really need a hashtag to tell us to prevent and intervene in an islamophobic attack, or should that just be the norm?
As the world becomes more and more involved in conflict, social polarization has seen a rise in racist and islamophobic attacks (on public transport in particular) and also a rise in those joining the ranks of the liberal left—on social media at least. In Australia, we have seen the "Women in Solidarity with Hijabis" movement, also known as "WISH," in the wake of a spike in Islamophobic attacks on women wearing Hijab as a result of anti-terror arrests earlier this year. Again with the best of intentions, this movement that encouraged non-Muslim women to post hijab-clad selfies to social media, was eventually critiqued for being silencing and patronizing.
Whilst not the same as the WISH campaign, in that #illridewithyou seeks to stand alongside Muslims instead of for them, the fact remains that without more solid measures to back it up, this social media movement will do little beyond giving us all the warm and fuzzies. Hashtags and calls for peace/tolerance/love/compassion are just that, hashtags and calls for warm and fuzzy feelings. As a strategy to create change in society, a hashtag without solid work behind it will inevitably have a short shelf life as a flashpoint for good feelings. While that is a nice starting point, without further action and a serious high level strategy behind it, it does not stretch to the positive conclusion we all want - a better society without fear, hate and conflict.
In the coming days, as we learn more about what happened in that café in Sydney's CBD and as the fear-mongers and hate-peddlers seek to segregate our community along ideological lines, we will want the warm and fuzzy and that is okay. It is important to find comfort and solace in solidarity and togetherness in times of such public violence, divisiveness and hate. However, what we also need is to ensure that real change is enacted in our institutions and our society.
Moving beyond a hashtag is going to be the real test for a world in which conflicts and polarising ideologies seem to have become the norm. As a starting point, #illridewithyou will be sure to raise awareness, but what actions are being taken to really create a society without discrimination, racism and islamophobia? Why do we sit on our hands as Australia enters in to conflicts overseas that only seem to spur polarisation in the world? Why do we support a justice system that allows a man like Man Haron Manis out on bail after being charged with sexually assaulting women and being accessory to the murder of his ex-wife? Why do we allow society to be indifferent to the plight of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers in detention? What we need right now is real action to create change in our society and its institutions - governments, police force, media and more - what we need is more than a hashtag.
Eugenia Flynn is a Teo Chew Chinese, Tiwi, Larrakia and Muslim woman living and working in Melbourne. She works with Indigenous, refugee, asylum seeker and migrant communities through arts and culture to create change and is a Writer of literary non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found on her blog Black Thoughts Live Here.