In the years since 9/11 and the height of the war on terror, there has been ongoing tension within the Australian Muslim community about how we should be represented.
The glaring eye of media and government – and the intensifying and violent Islamophobia that proliferated in Australia – demanded a response, but there was division that continues to this day over what that response might look like.
On the one hand, there was a sense we needed to placate; to dilute ourselves, to sand down what differences we had to mainstream Australia. On the other hand was the demand to be accepted, to have our sense of identity and values respected, to be proud of who we are without feeling insecure about how we might be perceived.
Into that tension walks The Swap, a three-part SBS show which finishes this Wednesday. In what is touted as a “bold social experiment to break down barriers and build bridges between families and cultures”, six high school students from years 9 and 10 at the Islamic College of Brisbane (ICB) are “swapped” with three pairs of students from Catholic and public schools.
Across a couple of months, the children attend each other’s schools and extracurricular activities, and even go to camp together, in what the series hopes will be a “transformative” experience. But ultimately the show presents the politics of the social experiment as gospel, while infantalising the complexities of race relations by putting them in the hands of children. And while the more offensive moments are at best comically racist, at worst it has real consequences, both for the children and in the way it others Muslims.
We’re introduced to the children via reality TV-style interviews, with the non-Muslim students given space to voice all of their misgivings about Islam – from fears of violence to concerns about sexism, and the “stereotypical culture” of Muslims. The Muslim kids also share their own stereotypes of non-Muslims, with one concerned they might “walk barefoot in Woolies” or “probably vape”. (The show emphasises that this latter group do not have non-Muslim friends.)
At the core of the series – and the experiment – is ICB principal Ali Kadri, a self-styled “community spokesman”, who argues that Muslims in Brisbane emerge from Islamic schools ill-equipped to deal with living in Australia, and believes this experiment – if adopted more broadly – could address that. Before the show was aired, Kadri told Guardian Australia he had pitched the idea to the producers, saying a lack of interaction between communities had created “disharmony”.
Kadri describes the Muslim community as existing in “silos”, adding that the subsequent division is a result of a lack of interaction. A “silo” is perhaps a crude way to define it, but the word reveals much about the thinking underpinning Kadri’s experiment: it puts the blame on Muslims for insulating themselves, instead of asking why they might feel the need to – as a way of protecting themselves and their culture, for instance, or preserving their religion. Outside of a few choice quotes from non-Muslim kids (who may regret participating, sometimes captured laughing at or mocking Islamic beliefs), the wider issue of systemic Islamophobia, and the violence of it, barely warrants a mention.
Instead, the Muslim children are forced to explain and defend complex ideas on national TV, including Islamic prophecy, what does and doesn’t make something halal, how the religion feels about homosexuality, and life after death. The non-Muslim kids, meanwhile, have to process these complex ideas in real time, with their naivety and curiosity often used to create tension and emphasise differences between the communities.
During the experiment, the children were provided guidance in the form of an imam who leads religious sessions with the group, with Kadri at times offering his own explanations for various rituals and beliefs.
He told Guardian Australia he provided the children with support himself, and the school system also offered the students the necessary guidance.
“There at multiple occasions where they’ve come into my room to discuss things with me. They also spoke with their homeroom teacher, so they had support and guidance,” he said.
“It wasn’t just that they were thrown out there on their own, because they’re too young to be put in that situation without any guidance. We also did this experiment in schools, which by nature have adults around, especially in classrooms.”
The motive, of course, is to bridge a divide – or, at the very least, give these 12 children tools by which they can respectfully disagree with someone and advocate for their position. But in practice, what the viewer sees – in a large chunk of the show – is Muslim kids taking overtly homophobic positions, sometimes even in defiance of their parents, and often in crude terms, as the non-Muslim kids react with shock and offence.
Should children who have an understandably narrow comprehension of their religion and culture really be representing it on the national stage? Should they be tasked with publicly unpacking difficult questions the community itself is still grappling with? And what will the consequences be for both of these groups of children later on?
At least one of the non-Muslim children isn’t straight, and has a bisexual mother and “still deciding” father. But the revelation of his sexuality is treated like an emotional climax later in the show – exposing the child to some homophobic comments from other children, who are unaware of the stake he has in the conversations. The Muslim children seem to be at risk too, encountering racism when they go to the other schools – being stared at, mocked and asked if they speak English in moments the show refers to as “confronting”.
Its intent may be noble, but The Swap ends up trafficking in reductive or flippant takes on complex topics, in part due to the limitations of its format. It squishes the multicultural community into one homogenous blob, erasing the complex relationships between ethnic communities and Islam and speaking for all those communities at once. Above all, it doesn’t interrogate why Muslim communities might insulate themselves in the first place.
Kadri explained his thinking behind the experiment thus: “If you’re just going to stay in our silos and throw stones at each other – and say ‘you are racist’, or ‘you are Islamophobic’ or ‘you are an extremist’ and ‘you are a fundamentalist’ – without actually trying to engage in a meaningful conversation, we will never solve this problem.
“What we will do is divide the country. And it is, at the end, a detriment to all of us because progress will only happen if we unite.”
It took more than 12 months for Kadri to convince parents to allow their kids to participate, he says. He is often filmed fielding calls from the community, defending the project, assuaging their fears of the risk these children are taking. The show seems oblivious to what this says about the idea itself, and the assumptions underpinning it: that the Muslim community needs to change to fit in; that it needs to explain itself or alter its self-perception; that on a certain level, it should be ashamed.
That The Swap was commissioned says much about the state of race politics in Australia right now. We don’t need a show that lectures to migrant communities on how to exist, but one that seeks to respect their existence.
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