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The Lesson From The Latest ‘Q&A’ Controversy Is ‘Don’t Be A Muslim With Opinions’

Now The Australian and One Nation have launched attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

First it was Dunan Storrar, the Geelong truck driver who had the audacity to question a government minister on Q&A. Now the conservative media and their political mates have launched another Q&A-instigated attack and this time their target is Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a 25-year-old Muslim woman who committed the sin of schooling Jacqui Lambie after she expressed bigoted and factually incorrect views on Islam.

This morning The Australian published a very strange front-page story, attacking Abdel-Magied for travelling to the Middle East on a federal government-funded tour to promote Australia.

yassmin

The front page of today’s The Australian.

Then in parliament this afternoon One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts referred to Abdel-Magied as an “Islamist activist” and asked the Attorney-General, George Brandis, to confirm if her travel to the Middle East was funded by the government. Roberts also brought up Abdel-Magied’s comments on Q&A and asked the government if they supported them, for some reason.

Before discussing just how completely absurd this has all gotten, let’s recap what actually happened on Q&A on Monday night.

Calling Out Jacqui Lambie’s Bigotry Shouldn’t Be A Big Deal

In response to a question on migration policy, Lambie stated that “anybody who supports sharia law in this country should be deported.” Given sharia law includes the basic tenets of Islam that Muslims subscribe to, it could have been interpreted as a proposal to deport all Muslims.

Abdel-Magied pointed this out and a heated argument ensued between someone who actually knew what they were talking about and a very poorly-informed Tasmanian senator. The argument led to raised voices, but given the wider political context where Muslims are regularly demonised and stereotyped it’s understandable that Abdel-Magied felt personally attacked and felt the need to defend her religion.

Lambie later posted a video on Facebook where she admitted she wasn’t an expert on sharia law, but went on to talk about it anyway. Meanwhile, Abdel-Magied produced a video for Junkee patiently explaining the concept of sharia.

On Tuesday, a group of Muslim Australians launched an open letter calling on the ABC to apologise for failing to provide “a safe environment where people can respectfully discuss their differences”. The ABC dismissed the petition, and it looked like that was the end of the matter.

Then The Australian decided to weigh in.

“You Mean We Can Attack Muslims And The ABC? Let’s Do It!” – The Australian (Pretty Much) 

It’s really hard to figure out what point today’s article on Abdel-Magied in The Australian is trying to make.

According to the government, she travelled throughout the Middle East “to promote Australia as an open, innovative, democratic and diverse nation. She met youth representatives, scientists, entrepreneurs, women’s groups and others.” The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade regularly funds these kinds of activities, there’s nothing particularly unique about Abdel-Magied’s trip.

But The Australian tried really, really hard to link the repressive policies of countries like Saudi Arabia to Abdel-Magied, trying to imply she was a hypocrite for travelling there while opposing those policies.

The article also helpfully summarised the social policies of each country Abdel-Magied visited, and included this comment about Qatar: “The men, too, wear traditional dress, such as white cotton robes and either red or white head scarves, of the type rarely seen on the ABC’s Q&A.”

Okay? Cool? What does the kind of clothing worn on Q&A have to do with… anything?

It really felt like a desperate attempt to generate the same kind of controversy that swirled around Duncan Storrar, but with even less credibility. It was so incoherent it probably would’ve sunk without a trace if it wasn’t for One Nation, who were more than happy to use to the story to attack Muslims and Islam more generally.

Malcolm Roberts Ruins Everything

During question time, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts tried to use The Australian story to claim the federal government supported repressive social policies implemented by governments in the Middle East. Or something. Again, it’s super unclear what exactly is going on. It’s like both The Australian and One Nation saw media coverage involving Muslims and the public broadcaster and started babbling incoherently.

Brandis, to his credit, played the issue with a straight bat, defending Abdel-Magied’s trip and pointed out it was partly focused on improving female participation in the engineering industry (Abdel-Magied is a mechanical engineer).

But Roberts still wasn’t happy and asked Brandis a follow-up question about whether any “Christian or Jewish authors” had gone on trips to promote “love and peace”, accusing the government of siding with one religious ideology (Islam) over every other.

Brandis then pointed out that Greg Sheridan (a columnist at The Australian)Reverend John Henderson and Professor Ian Fraser had all gone on similar trips. It feels weird siding with Brandis, but watching him put Roberts back in his place was pretty satisfying.

This Whole Thing Has Gotten Very Dumb

So a 25-year-old woman goes on a panel show, gets fired up about some silly and bigoted comments from an elected politician and becomes the focus of a miserable hatchet job in a national newspaper and in the senate.

Doesn’t that sound absurd?

Here’s the thing: even if you completely disagree with what Abdel-Magied said on Q&A, why does that warrant a beat-up in The Australian and a follow-up personal attack in parliament? It doesn’t make any sense, and it suggests the problem people have is less about what she said, and more about what she represents.

As ABC journalist Rafael Epstein pointed out on Twitter, it’s very strange to see conservatives — who so often demand moderate Muslims voices speak up — choosing to target Abdel-Magied.

Conservatives seem convinced that Abdel-Magied was somehow defending sexism, when her comments on Q&A were about the exact opposite.

It’s not clear what they are trying to achieve here other than just piling on someone because they’re Muslim, and implying that this means they support repressive social policies — even though Abdel-Magied repeatedly put forward eloquent and articulate arguments about the complexities of feminism in religion vs broader culture.

Unfortunately, the likely takeaway from this saga will be that if you’re a young Muslim who wants to defend their religion, or even just participate in political and social debates, you should sit down and remember your place or face the wrath of conservative media and politicians.

The debate between Abdel-Magied and Lambie could have remained just that, a debate between people on a panel show that revolves around conflict and disagreement. But in the current political environment, where Muslims are used as punching bags by an ascendant far-right, it became a reminder that regardless of how “moderate” or “Australian” a Muslim is, they’re still a Muslim.

And in the eyes of The Australian and One Nation, that makes them fair game. Regardless how baseless their attacks are.