Susan Carland and Waleed Aly are exactly the type of people you’d want at your dinner party: intelligent, outspoken, engaging, charming, funny. Add Australian accents to that package and you’ve won me over in a second.
Independently of each other, married couple Carland and Aly often serve as the public faces of Islam in Australia. Aly, 35, is a broadcaster who hosts multiple shows on both radio and TV, covering news events ranging from politics to entertainment to sports. Carland, 34, is often called on by the media to write articles or give interviews discussing her academic work on the intersection of feminism and Islam. The duo’s friends jokingly refer to them as the “Muslim Brangelina,” and it’s easy to see why. They are young, good-looking, fashionably-dressed and charitable. Like Brangelina, except sans Hollywood and plus two upcoming Ph.Ds.
Similar to what happened in the United States after 9/11, Muslims in Australia were treated to intense scrutiny, suspicion and racism. “We went through a real period of feeling quite under attack,” says Carland. She felt an expectation that Muslims were supposed to start managing themselves to make sure a September 11 didn’t happen in Australia, too. A year after 9/11, the Bali bombings killed 88 Australians, followed by the 2004 Madrid bombings and the 2005 London bombings, all Islamist attacks.
”That whole era right through to about 2007 was just intense. It really was this feeling of constantly being surveilled by whoever was manning the moral barricades of society,” says Aly. But Muslims in Australia are coming out of that period now, both Carland and Aly say — and they’re becoming much more creative. “We have hit a point of real evolution,” says Aly. Artists, comedians, novelists, athletes and academics are all starting to flourish, particularly in the Melbourne Muslim community the couple calls home.
While Aly has reached a point in his career where he is a media host who just happens to be Muslim, Carland more often speaks publicly about Islam, often on editor Scott Stephens’ website, Religion and Ethics for ABC Online. Stephens explains that Aly expresses his spirituality “by bringing his faith invisibly to bear on politics, ethics and matters of public interest.” He says the couple embody the “two great traditions within Islam; the “hardnosed, intellectual, critical” side, as well as the “deeply prayerful and hospitable” side.
“He’s simply one of the sharpest minds in the public sphere,” says Stephens, noting Aly’s sharp political analysis and “forensic” interview style. “He is just uncommonly intelligent.” Stephens says Aly is “idolized” by young Muslim academics because “he gives them faith that it’s possible to be a Muslim in public without always being subject to suspicion.”
Still, they are both subjected to a particular brand of scrutiny in the public eye. Aly and Carland have been targets of backlash from within the Muslim community for not accurately representing the variety of experiences among Muslims in Australia. Aly actually stepped down from the Islamic Council of Victoria before his book came out in order to avoid seeming like he was representing others, yet while neither of them claim to represent all Muslims, they still receive hate mail from those who disagree with their opinions. Non-Muslims have lobbed criticism as well. Recently columnist Andrew Bolt expressed disdain for Aly, saying he’s used by the leftist media to persuade Australians not to fear Muslim groups at home and abroad.
Carland’s own perception of Islam took a unique journey. Her ancestors were on the first fleet of (non-indigenous) people who founded Australia, and Carland herself was born and raised in Melbourne as a Christian. She initially started looking into Islam out of “polite interest.” She recalls, “After getting past my knee-jerk reaction of ‘Oh no, no, evil, sexist, disgusting religion,’ the more I read, the more I felt: ‘There’s something there.’” She converted to Islam at age 19, despite her mother’s vehement objections.
Today Carland is finishing a Ph.D. looking at the way Muslim women fight sexism by using their religion in defense of feminism rather than as a hindrance to it. She is currently on leave from teaching gender studies, politics and sociology, with a focus on Muslim women and Muslims in Australia, at Monash University.
“She’s able to take stories of women in the Qur’an and make them applicable to men and women today,” says Saara Sabbagh, the creator of the Muslim women organization Benevolence Australia, who has been friends with Carland for twenty years. “She’s able to revive female scholarship in a way that hasn’t been done. Muslim women have not felt safe within their own faith in the sense that it has been interpreted by men for so long … Susan brings a reconnection to the divine for the modern Muslim woman. I believe she is going to be one of the most influential women in Australia.”