It is an enduring personal tragedy that I can never think of 'zinger' responses to hurled insults until having ruminated and turned them over in my mind for some time. It is, perhaps, the effect of living the intellectual, academic life that I must cogitate on a statement before I feel ready to supply a well-reasoned reply.
Unfortunately for me, the white male hoon in his 20-year-old unroadworthy car has long-since roared away from the traffic lights after shouting out some unremarkable and unoriginal statement: 'Go back to where you came from you [expletive] terrorist Arab.' Kilometres later I'm ready to shout out: 'I would, but Doncaster East is becoming way too pricey for the likes of me.'
But how come an ordinary white Aussie sheila with some five- or six-generations worth of Anglo and Celtic colonial settler heritage on both sides might be subject to such racist barbs in 21st century Australia? A delicately-pinned scarf and a long dress signal to every testosterone-overloaded yobbo that I'm a Muslim. And to an unsophisticated racist, all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs are terrorists.
If I took off my headscarf it would be problem solved; I'm back to being a perfectly acceptable white Australian woman, unless I reveal my religious identity in other ways — in the food I do and don't consume or the prayers I perform every day even when I'm away from home.
Most other Muslims don't have that luxury. Skin colour, names, accents, and other embodiments of belonging to historically-Muslim racial groups indelibly mark them as Other.
Prejudice is a power relationship that places one group of individuals at the top of a hierarchy of privileges against which all other groups are negatively compared to varying degrees. Thus, disability, skin colour, ancestral heritage, education-level, gender, sexual-orientation, religious adherence, socioeconomic status, refugee status and more are all barriers that hinder a person's access to privilege. Imagine being a poor, black, African, disabled Muslim lesbian refugee!
This is why racism is not only for those at the top of the hierarchy — historically, the WASP male. To challenge the prejudices of those lower down in the privilege hierarchy through, say, education or socioeconomic status, via mechanisms like affirmative action, is to endanger the level of privilege they tenuously possess. Which brings me back to Islamophobia.
Islamophobic racism is a blunt weapon. It is aimed just as devastatingly at non-Muslims who look a bit too Muslim: brown Sikhs and Hindus wearing turbans, hirsute Greek Orthodox priests, and Arab Christians.
"While Richard Dawkins is correct when he points out that Islam is a religion not a race, in the real world Islamophobic racism indiscriminately trawls and catches those merely appearing to be Muslim."
Earlier this year, a woman sitting in her American Airlines plane seat next to a bearded man became worried about the strange scribbles he was jotting down and called the flight attendant to complain of feeling sick. After she was taken off the plane, she revealed she was not sick, but worried the man might be a terrorist.
It turned out he was an Italian University of Pennsylvania economics professor who was solving differential equations for a paper on menu costs. He was taken off the plane for investigation, but authorities later allowed him back on. Still, even the appearance of writing Arabic and giving a cold-shoulder response to a nosey seatmate was enough to trigger an Islamophobic response in this woman.
This is why Islamophobia overlaps on many levels with racism, because while Richard Dawkins is correct when he points out that Islam is a religion not a race, in the real world Islamophobic racism indiscriminately trawls and catches those merely appearing to be Muslim. It is not the classical racism of the Ku Klux Klan, in the 'your skin colour makes you inherently inferior to me' sense of the word. The newer forms of racism work more subtly.
If your genome puts you in a group that is historically Muslim-majority — and here we are talking mostly Arabs, Africans and Asians, albeit some Europeans too — or even if you look like you might belong to one of those groups, Islamophobic racism encodes you as belonging to an inferior culture, which leads to experiences of discrimination, vilification and at the pointy end, violent hate-crimes.
What is the solution? I am convinced racism (whether Islamophobic, anti-Semitic or in any other form) is a type of mind virus, a disordered way of thinking. The long-term cure is education, but in the short term, with a worldwide pandemic enflamed by the current political landscape, we must each of us take strong measures to protect ourselves and others. To challenge the virus whenever and wherever it presents itself: on the playground, in the workplace, in letters to media, among our family and friends, and especially whether or not it immediately affects ourselves, because as Pastor Martin Niemöller might write today: 'First they came for the Muslims ... '
Dr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.