Yesterday, a 16-hour hostage standoff ended as Australian authorities stormed Sydney's Lindt Chocolate Cafe, killing gunman Man Haron Monis. Monis was described as a self-styled Muslim cleric, though he'd been rejected by both Shia and Sunni communities in Australia on the grounds of his violent criminal history and mental instability. All reports indicate that Monis' attack was not an attempted jihad, but that of a "deranged, deluded" and ego-driven man. The fact that Monis was a Muslim led many to assume the attack was an act of religious extremism, adding fuel to the prejudiced fire about Muslims around the world. In response, some Sydney residents took a stand against this bigotry. Just hours after the siege ended, the hashtag #illridewithyou began to trend on Twitter, encouraging Australians to stand in solidarity with Muslim citizens.
It began with teacher Rachael Jacobs, who tweeted about seeing a Muslim woman remove her hijab on the train, apparently in fear of attack by fellow passengers. "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," she wrote. Reporter Michael James shared a screenshot of her tweets, and TV editor Tessa Kum took it from there, suggesting others spread the message on a hashtag.
#Illridewithyou remains one of the top trending terms on Twitter this morning, and it seems many Australians have taken the message beyond social media. Volunteers are handing out #illridewithyou stickers at train and bus stops so commuters can make themselves visible to Muslims who might want someone to ride with. The New Yorker's Amy Davidson called this an example of social media working "the way one always hopes it will."
But, where there is popularity, backlash will follow. Some conservative Australians called the hashtag "smug" and "self-serving." Others took the opportunity to vent their opinions about Islam. Says blogger Carter Mobely, "So yes, #IllRideWithYou, you who live under the threat of enforced patriarchal religion, and we will defeat the terrorism that enslaves you." Despite its sincere origins, the hashtag also became a refuge for not-so-veiled anti-Islamic sentiments.
This morning's news of the horrific attack on a Pakistan school brought out flagrant hatred which was shared using the hashtag: "#illridewithyou 126 kids killed in a school by MUSLIMS yesterday, would you ride with them? I know POOR misunderstood Taliban," tweeted one man. "Terrorists strike in Peshawar. Dolts still wanna trend #illridewithyou? These scumbags deserves no sympathy," added another.
If anything, a polarizing hashtag like this makes the issue of bigotry more visible. Though we'd rather assume that everyone is as good-hearted as Rachael Jacobs and the thousands of Australians who followed her lead, ignoring prejudice does nothing to stop it. In this way, #illridewithyou has served an even greater purpose than initially intended. Reporting on the attacks in Peshawar, Independent journalist Bina Shah calls this hashtag, "a simple but elegant display of humanity, that today in Pakistan we need more than ever."