Jessica Rohan

Compelling critiques on the #illridewithyou hashtag that trended on Twitter after the Sydney cafe siege have flooded the internet over the past few days. The tag began as an offer from Australians on public transportation to ride alongside and support Muslims, who (justifiably) feared backlash due to hostage-taker Man Haron Monis’ religious affiliation.

Eugenia Flynn draws attention to the clicktivist nature of #illridewithyou in her article for Vice: “[D]o we really need a hashtag to tell us to prevent and intervene in an Islamophobic attack, or should that just be the norm?” she asks, concluding that “what we need is more than a hashtag.”

Obviously, not attacking someone for their religious beliefs should be a basic societal expectation, but the threat to Muslims in Australia and worldwide is also extremely real. A longitudinal study published in 2011 found that almost half of Australians surveyed expressed anti-Muslim sentiment. 

Mainstream media has focused on Australians’ virtuous response to Islamophobia, but the fact that #illridewithyou was deemed necessary in the first place points to the gravity of racism in Australia. This racism extends to openly xenophobic government policy, as exemplified in the now-infamous poster campaign featuring a foreboding shot of the open ocean and the words “No Way - You Will Not Make Australia Home”, with versions in 17 different languages meant to discourage undocumented immigrants.

In this context, initiatives like #illridewithyou become practical and comforting - if limited - efforts by ordinary citizens in the face of massive social forces. People living in Western democracies are conditioned to think of minority protection as something that the government provides for, enshrined in legal frameworks and backed by reliable judicial authority. In the US, recent events in Ferguson and New York provide ample evidence that the state is not a reliable, or even desirable, arbiter of race relations. The grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown sparked its own hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, which was amplified after a similarly unacceptable outcome in the Eric Garner case. 

That hashtag started a national conversation that struck at the heart of white America’s racial ignorance (“Why just black lives? Why can’t it be ‘all lives matter?’”), becoming a mantra at protests and an entry point for discussions in schools. Ceremonial state gestures, like the latest appointment of the Ambassador of Religious Freedom by the US State Department, will never achieve the same impact.

To make reliance on the government for social harmony even more dubious, the state has a long history of the systemic oppression of minorities, even while paying lip service to tolerance. Just days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush gave a speech urging citizens to embrace Muslims as fellow Americans, before proceeding to wage wars that used the public’s ignorance of the Middle East and implicit visual cues of the dangerous Muslim other to garner support. History is riddled with examples of state-sanctioned violence against minorities, including the genocide of American Indians in the US and Aboriginals in Australia.

An alternately latent and overt culture of Islamophobia has existed in Western culture for hundreds of years. #illridewithyou may be clicktivism, but it’s also helping to create a culture to counter that history. There have always been individuals willing to stand against widespread intolerance, but on social media, those people can create a louder presence than they otherwise could by connecting with sympathizers and fellow activists.

Egyptian Christians protect Muslims

Muslim Woman Covers the Yellow Star of Her Jewish Neighbor with Her Veil on the Streets of Sarajevo in 1941.

This kind of collective pushback has already caused a sea change. Australian media coverage during the Sydney siege was noteworthy for its overall careful reporting and unusual hesitance to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions (Daily Telegraph’s “Death Cult CBD Attack” headline being the exception), including whether the attack was connected to a larger political organization. The new approach was in part a result of repeated public backlash against the hysterical fear-mongering common to media coverage of apparent terrorist attacks.

Most people using #illridewithyou probably never acted on it, but the worldwide trend encouraged activists and future activists to continue their work, connected like-minded individuals and perhaps provided a degree of solace to Muslim Australians who were genuinely afraid to return to their homes that night. Building a culture of tolerance and mutual support will prove much more durable than political mandates.

Do we need more than a hashtag? Absolutely. Changing oppressive systems will require a massive, sustained social movement. But to dismiss the role of social media is to ignore the importance of connection and solidarity at the heart of social movements.

Jessica Rohan is Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is a freelance writer and researcher based in Philadelphia. She received a BA in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied sociology, anthropology and global studies with concentrations in the Middle East and North Africa and conflict/conflict resolution. She is interested in global media and the role of public art in social movements. Twitter @jessica_rohan