Aiiia Maasarwe – a name most people in Australia and around the world have heard this week. There have been endless facebook posts and articles published online that have created much room for discussion. Most of these highlight the need for Australia to shift attitudes and policies regarding violence against women.
From this recent devastating event, another important discussion infiltrating people’s attitudes and beliefs has surged. The best term to start this discussion with is ‘xenophobia‘. Simply, xenophobia is a dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries (Oxford Dictionary). So, why is this term relevant?
Among the hundreds of respectful comments on facebook passing on condolences to Aiia’s family, there are more than a few that contain blatant racism.
A photo of the man who has been arrested for Aiia’s murder was released. The sudden reaction/s to his darker skin…
“We all see how the Muslims stick together, they all just defend this horrible religion” —–“He’s aboriginal, not Muslim” —–“We can clearly see his Middle Eastern??”
There is a lot of inaccuracy and erroneous information in this comment thread. First of all, the common mistake in the West of conflating Muslims, Arabs + Middle Eastern together as one. Not all people living in the Middle East are Muslim. Therefore, not all Muslims live in the Middle East. We could even go into the etymology of the term “Middle East” – created by an American naval officer… let us stay on track.
Where does xenophobia come from? How has it evolved into such a prominent term in modern day society? Once we discuss globalisation, we can see many parallels.
Globalisation is the contemporary world we live in today. The multifaceted nature of it creates different effects on different people. For nationalists, it can undermine their national identity (Ariely 545). Therefore leading to a xenophobic attitude of feeling superior to migrants or people belonging to another culture (Ariely 545). Despite current society moving at a fast transnational pace, not all groups of people are comfortable with it. The fear of globalisation is a ‘potent new force in new racial conflict’ (Vorster).
The fear of not understanding ones religion or culture leads to curiosity. This curiosity can generate an uneducated understanding of the other. “Culture” by Michael Cooperson, tells the story of Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah. In basic terms Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim traveler in the early 920s, discovered ‘a group of tall, red-haired people he call[ed] the Rusiyyah’. The Rusiyyah people acted very differently to Ibn Fadlan and his people. Ibn Fadlan was shocked by the differences in practice and culture that led to a curiosity due to a powerful sense of strangeness. Before he immersed himself in the culture he came to his own conclusion about the Rusiyyah people – “the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures”. Strikingly, after witnessing the culture first hand – Ibn was able to accept the idea that from ‘the Rusiyyah’s point of view, their customs made sense, whereas his own did not‘.
Even in this progressive globalised and interconnected world, people are not submersing themselves in different cultures. Therefore, creating their own sense of judgement based on an unknown fear and curiosity. As for the nationalist, it is a lot easier to disagree and verbally attack other nations interests to benefit their own. Stereotypes are distinctively propagated through a framing narrative. This framing narrative is not done through assertion and ‘raw content’ – rather this stereotype is framed by ‘otherness, belonging, fear and threat’ (Khair 141).
“If she stayed in her own country this wouldn’t have happened”
Another comment posted on a news video of Aiia’s passing – this in itself is a great example of what I have just discussed. How does Aiia’s national identity, religion and heritage link to her tragic death? Why has xenophobia suddenly submerged into this tragedy concerned with the safety of women in the West?
Suddenly attitudes towards Palestinian Arab women come into play. Although the Palestinian Arab was the helpless victim – attacks on her culture and identity have suddenly infiltrated the discussion. This is not a new concept and can be understood through the study of Orientalism. This famous style of thought became a worldwide phenomenon in 1979 when Edward Said wrote a book exploring its implications. The ‘hegemonic discourse of imperialism’ formed a distorted lens that the West look through to view, and in turn, analyse the Middle East (Irwin 3). Orientalism refers to ‘anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient’ (Said 2). Edward Said’s work has surpassed much criticism however, his dissection and critique of history is pragmatic, not idealistic. As we can see from the above comments, this idea of Western superiority and Oriental inferiority is still thriving. Pragmatism is crucial in understanding and overcoming xenophobic attitudes that is driven mostly by fuelled emotion.
In a world where people are fearful, their first reaction is to protect their own nationalism and attack the ‘other’. It does not help the lay person who reads and hears the daily news that fuels xenophobic attitudes. It blindly influences their idle thoughts.
When a tragedy like Aiia’s murder occurs, involving someone of a ‘different identity’- the sudden protection of ones national interest is created based on a threatening illusion.
Ariely, Gal. “Globalization, immigration and national identity: How the level of globalisation affects the relations between nationalism, constructive patriotism and attitudes towards immigrants?” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 15, no. 4 (2011): 539-557.
Vorster, J.M. “Racism, Xenophobia and Human Rights.” The Ecumenical Review 54, no. 3 (2002).
Elias, Jamal J. Key themes for the study of Islam. London, England: Oneworld, 2014.
Khair, Tabish. The New Xenophobia. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge – Orientalism and its discontents. Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2006.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.