Against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty following the hostage taking in Sydney, thousands of ordinary Australians turned to social media to spread a message of unprecedented tolerance and solidarity.
Trending worldwide, the #illridewithyou hashtag was a response to a number of Muslim listeners who called Australian radio stations to say they were scared to travel in public as the siege unfolded.
Users offered to ride on public transport with anyone feeling intimidated. They posted their travel plans and invited others to get in touch if they were going the same way and wanted a companion.
Police stormed the Lindt cafe in the central business district, bringing an end to a day-long standoff with gunman Man Haron Monis. There is still uncertainty about his motive for taking up to 30 people prisoner.
But the sight of hostages being forced to hold a black flag bearing the shahada, the basic Islamic creed – “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” – in the window of the cafe seemed enough to make innocent people concerned about a backlash if they wore Muslim dress in public.
There is little wonder that Australian Muslims are scared. As research has shown, terrorist attacks and events seen to be “the fault of Muslims” have been shown to catalyse a sharp increase in the number of Islamophobic attacks perpetrated against Muslims going about their everyday lives.
Likewise, in Australia, the number of attacks against Muslims have increased. These follow a series of events including a photo appearing on Twitter of the son of Australian jihadist Khaled Sharrouf holding a severed head, a young Muslim being shot dead after he stabbed two police officers in Victoria, and more than 800 police officers being involved in the country’s largest anti-terror raids in relation to a plot to behead members of the public.
All this might make the popularity of the #illridewithyou hashtag surprising. But what really underpins this social media phenomenon is the fact that ordinary people are not only aware but are prepared to do something about the Islamophobia that ordinary Muslims face in the current climate.
Some continue to question whether Islamophobia is really a phenomenon, either by arguing that no single definition yet exists for it – which placates all of Islam’s most vehement critics – or by constantly calling for more “proof” that attacks are happening, despite there being an ever growing and substantive body of evidence that they are. The #illridewithyou hashtag shows is that Islamaphobia is a very real concern to both Muslims and non-Muslims who want to fight intolerance.
It also shows that Islamaphobia deniers are losing the battle. Their voices of question and contestation will have been drowned out by this unequivocal show of solidarity and support for people who suddenly found themselves feeling vulnerable to discrimination, bigotry and hate.
In many ways, #illridewithyou sends out the message that you should not be scared to be Muslim but you should be scared to be a bigot.
It is also worth noting that this unequivocal show of solidarity and support has grown out of social media. This is a medium that harbours some of the most virulent and cruel expressions of Islamophobia. Social media is also where many young Muslims first encounter extremist messages and run the risk of being radicalised.
A key aspect of many of those ideologies is the belief that Muslims cannot and will not ever truly be accepted into contemporary Western societies. They seek to enshrine the “Islam versus the West” to keep Muslims from feeling integrated.
So while the #illridewithyou hashtag challenges the view that it’s fine to be discriminatory, bigoted or hateful towards Muslims, it also challenges the extremist narrative by sending out a very clear message that in fact, Muslims are already a part of Western societies.
The events in Sydney will leave us with much to think about but we can only hope that the message and ethos of the #illridewithyou phenomenon live on to ensure that any who seek to capitalise on the siege – irrespective of their ideology – will find that they are in a minority and that their destructive voice will be lost within a critical mass of tolerance, support and solidarity.