Australians Stand up to Anti-Muslim Bias with a Hashtag

After a siege in a Sydney, Australia cafe by a self-described Islamic cleric, Australian Muslims feared a backlash.  But Australians of all backgrounds responded instead with an act of solidarity through Twitter. Students learn about the news and the response, and consider how they might stand up for someone being targeted.


Ask students: What do you know about what happened recently in a café in Sydney, Australia?

Elicit and explain that on December 14,  2014, an armed man took 17 customers and staff hostage in a café in downtown Sydney, Australia.   The man was a self-described Islamic cleric.  He had a criminal record and called himself Sheikh Haron.  He was thought to be operating alone.  

When entering the café, he had with him a black flag with white Arabic script, similar to those used by Islamic militants on other continents.   The flag was displayed in a cafe window at some point during the siege.  After 16 hours, heavily armed police charged the café to try to free the hostages.  In the process, the captor and two of the hostages were killed.  Four others were wounded. 

Check Agenda and Objectives

A Climate of Hate

In October, an article by a lawyer named Mariam Veiszadeh appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Ask a volunteer to read what it said:

"I'm afraid of leaving my house with my young children because I don't know how to protect both of them if someone attacked us." So says a friend of mine - an otherwise confident mother of two.

"It wasn't the physical altercation that hurt me, it was those words." That's another friend who was physically attacked by a man in Sydney's CBD [Central Business District]. He called her a "f---ing terrorist!" among other expletives....

In the past few weeks, visible Muslims have been the target of social media vitriol, verbal abuse and physical assaults. Even children are not spared: an Islamic school was targeted by a knife-wielding man. 

Incident[s] of Islamophobia are plainly on the rise ...

After students have read the excerpt, ask:

  • How do you think the Muslims mentioned in this excerpt are feeling?
  • What are their feelings based on?
  • What is Islamophobia?

According to the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley, the term "Islamophobia" was first introduced as a concept in a 1991, based on the wider concept of "xenophobia."  (Xenophobia, according to Merriam-Webster, is the "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.")

The definition of "Islamaphobia," according to UC Berkeley, is:

"unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims"

Ask students:

  • What does the excerpt say about Islamophobia in Australia?
  • How do you feel about prejudice and stereotypes of this kind?
  • How is this the same/different from how Muslims are viewed and treated in the U.S.?
  • Can you think of other groups that are treated this way in society?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about that?

Next ask students to go back to the siege in Sydney, Australia, and discuss:

  • Given what we just read in the excerpt from the Sydney Herald about the climate in Sydney before the siege, how do you think the news of the siege may have affected the Muslim communities living in Sydney and beyond?  
  • How do you think Muslim people might they have felt hearing the news?  Why?


Standing up against bias

Many Australian Muslims were understandably anxious when the hostage taker in the downtown café in Sydney was identified as Muslim.  They were afraid of a backlash against the Muslim community and retribution. 

Instead, bystanders - Australians from many backgrounds -  stepped up to support their fellow countrymen and women.  Using the Twitter hashtag #IllRideWithYou, Australians offered support and solidarity to Muslims who were afraid of being targeted on public transportation.  In so doing they became allies. 

Ask students to break into small groups, and give students the handout at the bottom of this lesson.  After students have read the handout, ask them to discuss some or all of the following questions in their small groups:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the #illridewithyou hashtag?  Explain.
  • What might have happened if the hashtag had not been created and fellow Australians had stayed quiet?
  • How have we in the U.S. responded to violent incidents involving Muslims in the past? 

Back in the large group ask a volunteer from each group to share the key points in their discussion.



Ask students to turn to a partner and think of a way in which they can be an ally to people who are being targeted unfairly; whether in their class, in the school as a whole or in the community beyond the school.  Ask a few volunteers to share their thoughts.


Handout 1

According to World.Mic, the #IllRideWithYou hashtag "started simply, with an act of compassion."   

A woman named Rachael Jacobs posted a message on Facebook saying that she had seen a woman she presumed was Muslim silently removing her hijab while sitting next to her on the train.  Wrote Jacobs: "I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u.' She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone."  (See this BBC report for more.) 

Then TV reporter Michael James featured the post, under the following heading:  "This, this is what good people do."

Tessa Kum, a writer living in Sydney, told Guardian Australia that she acted after seeing Michael James’ tweet:

Sir Tessa @sirtessa
If you reg take the #373 bus b/w Coogee/MartinPl, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule.
12:28 AM - 15 Dec 2014

Sir Tessa @sirtessa
Maybe start a hashtag? What’s in #illridewithyou?
12:29 AM - 15 Dec 2014


And things only grew from there:

Sharna Bremner @sharnatweets
If you wear religious attire, & need to get from #Adelaide's west suburbs to the city on Tues but don't want to travel alone #illridewithyou

Ben Clark @scouse_roar
Anybody concerned for their safety going to work in Brisbane tomorrow morning from the Northside, #illridewithyou

Cate Bolt @catebolt
If you're a Muslim person feeling threatened on public transport in Aus pls check #illridewithyou for people in your area willing to support

Lisa Donaldson APD @Lise_Simpson
#illridewithyou radiates the beauty of Australian mateship. We are many, but together we are one.

FatherBob @FatherBob
Let's not be clicktivists only but #illridewithyou activists....this may well be our finest communitarian hour.

Thousands of Australians have added their voices to #illridewithyou.