On December 15 in Martin Place, Sydney, a man with a gun took 17 people hostage and tried to claim it in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Beyond the immediate tragedy of the deaths of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson, and the harrowing experiences of the other hostages, this attack on the Lindt Cafe had the potential to deepen racial divisions in Australian society and even perhaps lead to violence. What happened instead was totally unexpected. The #illridewithyou hashtag has taken social media by storm as a symbol of solidarity between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians, and effectively silenced voices calling for reprisal attacks.
The hostage-taker, Man Haron Monis, had no connection to ISIL, or to any other terrorist group. Iranian-born Monis was out on bail for being an accessory to the brutal murder of his ex-wife and facing more than 50 sexual and indecent assault charges. His former lawyer said that “he was on the fringe of the fringe. No community had accepted him, not the Iranians, not the Muslims.” Monis converted from Shia to Sunni Islam just weeks before the attack, and evidently did not have the time or forethought to procure a real ISIL flag. Instead he used a Shahada flag, with white Arabic text on a black background inscribing an affirmation of Islamic faith, “There is no God but God.”
From the moment the flag appeared in the window it tapped into deep racial tensions in Australian society. It was nine years almost to the day since Sydney’s Cronulla riots — the biggest race riots in Australia’s history — and yet as the hostage crisis unfolded their shadow loomed large over the frenetic discussion on social media. On Twitter the Australian Defence League, a far right-wing and anti-Islamic group, called for “all Australians to converge … tonight” on Lakemba, a Sydney suburb famous for its Muslim community, if the hostages were harmed. A similar message circulated via text message was the spark which set off the Cronulla riots in 2005.
Just as racist comments were gaining steam, however, they were suddenly eclipsed by the explosion of the #illridewithyou hashtag. Beginning as one woman’s offer to ride on public transport with anyone wearing religious attire who was afraid of reprisals, #illridewithyou generated 90,000 tweets in just the first three hours. As an outpouring of goodwill and symbol of solidarity between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians, #illridewithyou made headlines worldwide, and sent a swift and unequivocal message to those calling for violence.
In the days since the attack, #illridewithyou has faced a number of valid and insightful criticisms — for example that it perpetuates simplistic dichotomies between “good” and “bad” Muslims. This is where it becomes important to distinguish between short and long-term strategies of resistance to racism.
Social media is a place of extremes. Everything is either “the literal worst” or will “restore your faith in humanity.” Twitter’s 140 characters leave no room for nuance; there can be no considered exploration of the issues, no shades of grey. Social media is also a place where things happen fast, especially when combined with breaking news stories. Twelve hours after Monis walked into the Lindt Cafe, the hashtag #sydneysiege was generating more than 260 tweets per minute. This was a discussion that allowed neither time nor space for subtlety. Combating calls for reprisal attacks demanded an immediate and uncomplicated message which mainstream Australia could get behind. Whether by chance or design, #illridewithyou provided just that.
In the aftermath of the attack on the Lindt Cafe it is appropriate that we interrogate the undertones and inherent assumptions of #illridewithyou. At the same time, however, there is no denying that it provided a powerful boost to national solidarity at a time when it was sorely needed. The #illridewithyou hashtag should be celebrated for what it was — a blunt instrument with which to repel rising calls for racist violence in the heat of the moment — and recognized for what it is not: a nuanced and insightful long-term strategy to unpick racial narratives.