Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl (Episode 4): Now Australian

By Mohamad Tabbaa | 24 Jul 14
Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl

TV review by Mohamad Tabbaa

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl | SBS

What does it mean to be Australian?

In this final episode of what has been a fascinating documentary series, we continue to observe a journey of violence: from the tit-for-tat attacks of the Cronulla riots through to the ugly scenes of the Sydney protests, and the ensuing scramble of the Muslim leadership eager to distance themselves from embarrassment. Importantly, we end on a promising note, a coming together between the Muslim community and their white neighbours, and — perhaps it’s the fluffy music at the end — one cannot avoid feeling the fulfilling sense of arrival and completion as the documentary comes to a close.

It begs the question; what have we arrived at exactly?

Some years on from the events of Cronulla, there is a growing dissatisfaction among many (particularly youthful) Muslims at what is seen as a consistent selling out by their leadership. This anger was especially strong in the aftermath of the Sydney protests (seen by many as a turning point in Muslim politics) with a public backlash evident, among other places, here and here. Anybody familiar with the internal politics of the Muslim community will be aware that such a conversation is getting tired, and I have no intention of repeating it here. Suffice to say that there is a new movement of fresh (and frustrated) voices emerging onto the scene; a far cry from the utopian vision presented at the end of this episode.

Some of this anger has been directed towards Dr. Jamal Rifi, particularly after his commentary on the Sydney protests in episode four. The position of Rifi throughout the four episodes has consistently left me scratching my head. I am tempted in every review to bring in his commentary and yet each time I struggle to locate an appropriate space for him in my articles; there is always something amiss. That he exhibits a calm, level-headed demeanor and approach towards his community seems obvious enough. I also found myself impressed with his insight into the topic of gang violence, and the impossible bind that Muslims often find themselves in when confronting these issues.

Where were these same roadblocks protecting Lakemba, its mosque and inhabitants when threatened by those who had already demonstrated their capacity for violence?

Here Rifi identifies with precision the difficult position of a Muslim in such scenarios, caught as they are in a web that leaves a limited number of undesirable options. Genuine attempts to address the violence of criminal gangs pushing drugs and wreaking havoc are compounded rather than helped by the presence of sensationalist media eager to stoke the flames of racism, politicians just as eager to capitalise on this racism for cheap political point scoring, and a police force more intent on policing Arabs than helping them. The desire to raise awareness of this problem must be gauged against the very likely threat of further demonisation of Arabs/Muslims through the media, exploitative public remarks by certain politicians and the always-looming potential for the expansion of police powers on the back of such complaints. When a move in any direction leaves us vulnerable, what options do we have?

Nonetheless, I find myself struggling to understand how exactly Rifi reconciles these thoughtful insights with the many contradictory stances he takes throughout the documentary. How does he identify police as part of the problem only to later appeal to them as a solution? How does he rightly describe Arab life in Australia as a thirty-year pressure cooker and then so proudly denounce Sydney’s protesters, dismissing all the underlying context of their grievance? How does it make sense to identify a pervasive societal racism underpinning troubled relationships between Anglo and Muslim Australians, only to suggest that Muslims could overcome this by being nicer to their neighbours?

The moment of truth strikes me as I, dismayed and disturbed, watch the crowds of thousands milling outside of Lakemba mosque. They are there, we are told, to protect the mosque from the threats of violence, including arson, made against it by unidentified Cronulla rioters. Commentators inform us — with self-satisfied smiles — that many of those present are not Muslims but migrants from different backgrounds: “Greeks, Italians, different types of Europeans”, Police Officer Danny Mikati tells us. Their solidarity suggests that they know well the feeling of being a minority under siege.

And it’s then that it hits me: where are all the police?

Only hours earlier, on the night before, we are shown legions of police setting up roadblocks around the perimeter of Cronulla beach, designed to protect the inhabitants from the retaliation by Lebanese youth. Where were these same roadblocks protecting Lakemba, its mosque and inhabitants when threatened by those who had already demonstrated their capacity for violence? It seems they were left largely to fend for themselves.

The truth is there was a roadblock, one that would help explain why I had felt such unease viewing this scene. The roads around the mosque were indeed blocked, and twenty police vehicles also surrounded the mosque. It would be a mistake to assume that the perimeter was secured in the same way as Cronulla, in order to protect the inhabitants. The commentary from the documentary tells a vastly different story.

Cronulla beach is protected against the invasion of Lebanese violence via a police roadblock. A similar police roadblock then protects against Lebanese violence in Lakemba by preventing their exit from the area.

Officer Mikati, heading to the mosque early morning “to keep an eye on the tension”, offers the first clue. The news reporter hovering above the mosque in a helicopter is more direct, describing the crowd that had congregated to protect against the threat of violence as “being of some concern to police”. The narrator of the documentary then gives it away, sympathising with police “as they struggle to contain the rage of the dispersing crowd”. Far from being offered the same sort of protection as Cronulla, it is in fact the mosque itself that is under siege by the police, along with the violent population that had emerged to protect it. The threat of violence here is located not in those who actually made the threat against the mosque (who happen to be white) but in those who responded to that threat and turned out in protection of the mosque (who, of course, are not so white). Flowing from this logic, violence is not averted when those threatening to burn the mosque down fail to show, but rather when the violent Muslims sooth their rage with the serenity of prayer. Now society is safe.

It is easy enough to think of this as a simple double standard or even an oversight. There is, however, more at play here. If we look closely at the sequence of events we uncover a disturbing underside, a pervasive and intriguing locus driving these events according to the same logic. Let us consider the notion of protection being demonstrated in these scenes. Cronulla beach is protected against the invasion of Lebanese violence via a police roadblock. A similar police roadblock then protects against Lebanese violence in Lakemba by preventing their exit from the area. In Lakemba also, a police officer protects a photographer against the threat of Lebanese violence, only to be protected in turn by the mosque committee against, you guessed it, the same Lebanese violence. At this point Officer Mikati hears police sirens, “the most beautiful sounds in the world”, “coming in from everywhere” to prevent the threat of Lebanese violence.

The underlying logic is the same: violence is always Lebanese. It resides in Lebanese bodies, even when it is they who are subject to threats of violence by Anglo Australians. It follows naturally that these same bodies need the constant policing and management. Police are there in force to protect against the entry of Lebanese into Cronulla, and then again in force to protect against the exit of Lebanese from Punchbowl.

The most telling part, and the part that links us back to the issue of Muslim leaders, is the urgent appeal to the police and New South Wales Premier the following day. Their fear of Lebanese violence draws Muslim leaders to demand urgent action, not on the first day of Cronulla when their community was targeted, nor on the day their mosque was threatened, but precisely on the day when Lebanese violence looms. Now we have an emergency. Now it’s time for an emergency parliamentary sitting, the passing of emergency lockdown laws, hundreds of police vehicles deployed to block access to the Sutherland Shire beaches in the biggest police operation since the Sydney Olympics. Now we have a crisis.

But there is no crisis, at least according to the ending in the documentary. This is true, if only for Muslim leaders who proudly speak of employing this same logic in response to the Sydney protests. In fact, what better way to follow this logic to its conclusion than to suggest that the solution to the complex problems existing between minority and dominant communities is for minorities to take their rightful, submissive place in Australian society, at the service of white Australia. Fully uniformed, professionally trained, what better way to achieve this than to have Muslims head out and physically fulfill this duty of protecting white life; serving as lifesavers on Cronulla beach?

Now, Rifi tells us with a proud sense of achievement coming out of the Sydney protest “we have proved that we are as Australian as anyone else”. Unfortunately so.