The Big Issue : Edition 514
THE BIG ISSUE 17 – 30 JUNE 2016 11 MY WORD IN 1994, I arrived in Melbourne – a refugee from Bosnia. I thought I had won the lottery. After my arrival I enrolled in English classes paid for by the government. I got a part-time job, bought a car, rented a two-bedroom flat and started studying. In 1995, I shared my flat with a Northern Irish backpacker called Sean who hoped to stay in Australia. Before then, I hadn’t met anyone in Australia who better understood my predicament. I could hear in Sean’s voice the traces of mental scars that years of religious and ethno-nationalist war had left. This conflict had been going on in Northern Ireland for decades. The stoic Irish called those times The Troubles. This was a couple of years before the historic Belfast Good Friday Agreement was signed. Sean told me a joke about a tourist who came to visit Northern Ireland during The Troubles and was stopped at a barricade somewhere in Belfast. The men with weapons asked him whether he was Catholic or Protestant. The tourist – wanting to avoid any dramas – replied that he was an atheist. The man with a machine gun replied, “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” The division in Northern Ireland is still deep, although the whole area is slowly healing. The same goes for Bosnia – albeit at a snail’s pace. But for the country that adopted me with open arms in the mid-1990s, the cracks in our society are just starting to appear. For Muslims in Australia the question today goes like this: “Are you a moderate or a radical?” No other religion is being questioned like this. Nor are members of other religions being asked to denounce the criminal elements in their ranks. Sean had an accent and it was immediately obvious to anyone that he wasn’t born in Australia. The same is true for me. To this day my accent, although heavily influenced by the Australian version of English, isn’t immediately recognisable. People have guessed I was from Sweden, Holland, South Africa and, on one memorable occasion, a drunk Scotsman once asked me which part of Aberdeen I hailed from. Although I am bald now, I had blond hair once. I still have blue eyes and fetta-cheese-white skin that quickly burns in the harsh Aussie sun. My point is, when someone looks at me they don’t see a “threat”. Recently, though, when I tell people I am from Bosnia, they take a step back. Most know there is a 50 per cent chance I am a Muslim. I’m sure if I did the same to a “true-blue” Aussie and asked about their identity, background and religion there would be outrage. But this is the point we have reached as a society. As Maria Vamvakinou, the Federal Labor Member for Calwell, said during the launch of a book called What a Muslim Woman Looks Like: “On September 10, Muslims in Australia went to bed as migrants and woke up as Muslims.” Australia now handpicks refugees based on religion, and how they arrived. Australia has agreed to accept 12,000 additional Syrian refugees as long as they aren’t Muslims and haven’t already sought asylum here by boat, and this is only because of public pressure. Canada has agreed to accept 25,000 refugees under an accelerated program and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first 163, something I don’t see happening on our soil. The Muslim in Australia is no longer a migrant or a refugee. The Muslim in Australia is not even a person, but a would-be terrorist, convicted by public perception. I have now spent more of my life in here than in the country of my birth. I think of myself as Australian. But this is not the Australia that gave me refuge, that accepted me as one of its own, that guaranteed my daughter’s future. I wish for an Australia full of people like Sean, who never once asked me about my religion. » Fikret Pajalic’s fiction has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Southerly, Westerly, Sleepers and in the US in Hotel Amerika, Minnesota Review, Nashville Review, Wisconsin Review and elsewhere. AUSTRALIA IS NO LONGER THE PLACE THAT FIKRET PAJALIC CAME TO AS A REFUGEE MORE THAN TWO DECADES AGO. No Country for Muslim Men ??????