Susan Carland on Islam and authenticity

Speaker Key:

SC              Susan Carland

AL              Andrew Leigh


SC              For me, it was very much like, I remember there were a couple of friends that really didn’t want to know me after I became Muslim. And I remember feeling sad, thinking, if this were you, if the roles were reversed and you came to me with something else, I would want to stand by you. And so that was quite sad to me.

                   But then it was also, I saw it as a good separating of the chaff from the grain. Maybe our friendships weren’t what I thought they were and so be it. I think that’s also when you know you really want to do something sincerely and with absolute conviction, is when you realise things might go badly after this and I still want to do it.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Susan Carland grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Forest Hill, where she practiced ballet, excelled in school and attended her local Uniting Church. In her late teenage years, she decided to explore different religions. At age 19, Susan switched Abrahamic religions from Christianity to Islam.

                   As well as being Australia’s best-known Muslim convert. Susan is a lecturer at Monash University’s National Centre on Australian Studies, a commentator on gender, sociology and religion and co-presenter of SBS’s Salam Cafe. Her second book, published this year, is on Islam and feminism and carries the punchy title, Fighting Hislam. Susan, welcome to the podcast.

SC              Thanks for having me.

AL               So what made you examine the religion of your upbringing? Most people don’t do that.

SC              Well, it was when I was 17. I just started to wonder why I believed what I did. I wondered, do I believe this because I think it’s true or is it just what I’ve been raised to believe? So I was very happy in my church, I had an incredibly positive church experience, it honestly couldn’t have been better. The people in my church were, they are what every Christian would want for their children to experience in the church, just an absolute dream. But I just, I started to have questions about, well, what do I actually believe?

                   So I decided to look into other religions. I had no interest in Islam whatsoever but I kept stumbling across it. And to my surprise, when I actually read what Islam said about itself, as opposed to what I saw in sensationalist media and Hollywood and that sort of thing. Or also, I suppose, what I saw certain Muslims saying in the name of Islam. When I went back to the classic orthodox texts, I realised, to my surprise, this makes a lot of sense to me.

                   But it took me a while to convert, I didn’t convert till I was 19 because obviously, it’s a big step. And I was also really worried about how my family and friends were going to react. I do think it’s, and I see it now also, when I look at students who are around 18 or 19. I think it’s really the age as well. It’s a very idealistic age, it’s the age where you are very conscious of how the world should be but how it’s not and making a difference.

                   And I noticed it was around that age that a lot of my friends at university would get involved in student politics. They’d join the Socialist Alliance or the Young Liberals, they’d become vegan. It is a very idealistic age. So I guess other people joined the Young Labor Party, and I became Muslim.

AL               So, it reminds me of that lovely bit in the Life of Pi where he decides that he will simultaneously study multiple religions, which all works out fine until suddenly there’s a moment in the book where his priest and rabbi and imam all come together and are horrified that this child would study multiple religions. What else did you explore before you came to Islam? Did you look into Judaism, for example? Buddhism?

SC              Yes. I didn’t look as much into Buddhism. I’ve certainly actually looked more into Buddhism now that I’m Muslim. I think being friends with Meshel Laurie, she’s a famous comedian but also a very practicing and sincere Buddhist and she’s a friend of mine. She’s written some great books on Buddhism.

                   And it’s funny actually, I did a book launch event for her after reading one of her books called Buddhism for Breakups. And I said to her, it is remarkable because I’m not Buddhist and I’m not in a breakup. I’m not breaking up in my relationship, but I got so much out of this book. And I guess there is, obviously, I believe, inherent truth and wisdom in every religion.

                   But anyway, I did look at other religions as well. Obviously, I knew a lot about and loved Christianity, I was particularly impressed with Judaism. But I guess there was something about Islam, I guess, that just hooked me, as I said, to my surprise.

AL               What was it that you appreciated?

SC              Well, I think, again, to my surprise and probably to the surprise of other people listening, it actually appealed to my mind before it appealed to me spiritually. When I actually looked at the teachings, the philosophies, the laws, I realised all of this, intellectually, makes a lot of sense to me. And then it was later that the spiritual attachment followed.

                   I think people generally just assume that I converted to get married. That’s just the given and I think that says a lot because I think most people couldn’t conceive that a free Western woman would ever choose Islam. There is just that assumption that, oh, well, maybe those women are Muslim because they’ve been raised and they don’t know any better, poor things. But no woman would choose it.

                   So people assume that I converted to marry Waleed, which is not true at all. And in fact, Waleed loves telling this story, that after I became Muslim, I had a couple of friends say, you and Waleed would be really good together. Why don’t you get together and see what you think?

                   And Waleed being the very chivalrous, upright man that he was, he got in touch with me on the phone and said, I’d really like to get to know you for more serious purposes. And I said, listen, I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on Earth. And that was the end of that. So yes, it wasn’t for him. Obviously, we did get together later. But it was very much something that I wanted to do for myself.

AL               What would you recommend to somebody who’s interested in Islam? I haven’t read the Qur'an cover to cover but the bits that I have read struck me as hard going. Do you explore the Hadiths or is there some introductory text that would be interesting for someone who’s curious about Islam?

SC              Well, first of all, I would say, be really careful about the English translations of the Qur'an you pick up. There are some good ones and there are some horrendous ones that I would never recommend. So I suppose like with any religious text, you can get accessible interpretations and some just God awful ones.

                   What I actually would recommend would be, there’s a couple of really good books I recommend. One is a really great book written by a woman called Carla Power. She’s not Muslim. And she wrote a book called If the Oceans Were Ink, and it’s all about her correspondence with an imam and just her asking questions and it’s beautifully laid out. It’s really written in such a beautiful way.

                   She raises all the standard concerns and questions that the average questioning non-Muslim might have and you read the imam’s answers and it’s a lovely book to read. And I like to recommend it because I think often if I recommend other books, people, especially if they’re by Muslim authors, people think, well there’s an agenda there. As if somehow Muslims are subjective but non-Muslims are objective.

                   But leaving that aside, this is just a lovely book. It’s very accessible. Often I think the questions or issues that people have about Islam or Muslims today, they’re pretty heavy going. And they often require nuanced, detailed answers, which can be impenetrable to the average punter. This is a pretty accessible book. So it’s a good one that I recommend, If the Oceans Were Ink is a good place to start.

AL               And when I go along to local services at the local mosque or that the local Muslim community puts on, I do, I particularly love the camaraderie between the men there and the way in which, if I take along one of my sons, he’s immediately engaged. At the same time, the process of religious observance in which the sexes are separated makes me a little uncomfortable. How do you find that? Do you appreciate worship where you’re simply surrounded by women in that context? Does that bring a particular joy?

SC              There is a niceness to it. I think it’s also important to know, though, that traditionally, in the first and earlier mosque, there was no barrier between men and women. The women weren’t in a separate room, they weren’t behind a curtain. This is a very modern innovation, actually.

                   Men and women would pray in their own sections because when we pray, we’re very physically squashed in together. And in traditional Muslim communities there is a, I guess, a modesty between men and women. But for example, if you go to one of the biggest mosques in Indonesia called the Istiqlal Mosque, you just have men on one side and women on another and there’s a little, there’s the corridor or the walkway in the middle of the path, in the middle. But there’s no physical barrier. Men and women are in the same space.

                   When you go on Hajj, the pilgrimage, we don’t even have separate sections. It’s everyone’s just packed in together. And it’s interesting, when I did my PhD, which has then turned into the book that you mentioned in the introduction. So, I was interviewing women, Muslim women who are passionate about their faith but also passionate about fighting sexism. And one of the women I interviewed, her thing was really women’s access to the mosque. And she was very fired up about it. She was this amazing African American woman.

                   And she felt really passionately and strongly about the way women just didn’t have good access to the mosque. They couldn’t see, they couldn’t hear, they weren’t treated as equal citizens. And she felt, religiously, really affronted by this because, as I said, this wasn’t how it was meant to be. This wasn’t the traditional setup, this is a new, modern, in quote, unquotes, twist.

                   And so she decided that her and her friends were just going to go one day to the mosque and pray in the men’s section as they had the right to do. They said, I have the religious right to do this. So they went to the mosque, they were dressed very conservatively, they even went and prayed behind the men. So it’s not even like they were joining in the men’s lines or anything. And the men of the mosque called the police on them and had them arrested and she’s not allowed to go back to that mosque anymore.

                   And what was interesting was, she was pretty jovial about this. She was laughing when she told me, even though it’s a pretty horrendous thing. But I think it’s important also for people to know that women are pushing back against this as well.

                   And because, I think, particularly for women who are Muslim and feel strongly about their faith, they see that as a religious affront, like they have a religious duty to try to change this. Because not only is it making women feel excluded but then also, so often, when women go to the mosque, they take their children with them. So then the kids feel excluded and then the mosque becomes a boys’ club. That’s not what the house of God is supposed to be. So there is agitation on that front.

AL               So, as a Muslim feminist, do you feel as though you’ve got a lot of work still to do?

SC              Well, I think, just as a feminist, there’s a lot of work to do, isn’t there everywhere? Obviously, I have an academic and, I suppose, personal interest in what’s happening in the Muslim community. And certainly, absolutely, there’s work to be done. My whole book and PhD was a testament to that fact.

                   But it’s also, the reality is that, sadly, sexism exists within every community in society around the world because it’s a human condition. And so it is, as a sociologist, it is no surprise to me that sexism exists within our religious institutions in the same way it exists within our political institutions or our legal institutions. Because it’s made up of humans. And unfortunately, humans have a tendency to be sexist.

                   And so my goal is to, in the most effective and all-embracing way possible, to try to break that. And whether that’s through people opening the door or us having to break it down, I think that’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got to all be in this together, this isn’t a women’s problem. This is an everyone problem.

AL               So, think about the moment at which you announced your conversion. How did your parents take it?

SC              It was such hard. Geez, it was hard. It was so hard. I still feel sad when I look back on that, actually, just because I knew how upset they would be. And I don’t think it was particularly that they were sad that I was leaving Christianity per se. I think they were really worried about me becoming Muslim. At that time, this was before September 11. So really, the only thing anyone knew about Islam was that film, Not Without My Daughter. I don’t know if you ever saw it. Awful, sad film based on a true story, horrendous. And that was really all anyone knew about Islam.

                   So I think my mum probably saw it coming because she could see what I was reading and what I was interested in but she wasn’t happy. She gave me a hug and everything but she was crying. And it was a difficult journey for both of us, I think. And it was, I think she had to be convinced that Islam wasn’t what she thought it was. But I also needed to not be the 19-year-old zealot that I was.

                   At that age, we can be very strident in our beliefs. Whether, like I said, it’s about being vegan or socialist or whatever it is. We’re very much, this is the way it has to be and either accommodate me or get stuffed. And I needed to get out of that way as well. And now, many years on, about 20 years on, everything is wonderful there.

AL               How much of their reaction was your decision to begin wearing a hijab straightaway?

SC              Yes. That was, I think, a huge part of it. I think if I’d decided to become Muslim but never put on the headscarf, I think it would have been a very different beast. But I pretty much put the headscarf on straightaway. And in some ways, I’m probably glad that I did in the context of family reaction just because it got everything out of the way all at once. I think if I’d become Muslim and then five years later, I said I’m putting on the hijab, it just would have reopened everything.

AL               Yes.

SC              So we got all those horrendously difficult conversations out of the way upfront. I think my mum, I think, like a lot of women and certainly even Muslim women, majority of Muslim women, certainly in Australia, don’t cover their hair. And some because maybe they’re frightened about reaction but some don’t want to or don’t think they have to or come from countries where it was enforced. And they feel really angry and resistant to that. And I totally get that.

                   So I think my mum’s one of those women who, she was a feminist in the 60s and grew up with that approach to feminism and women’s rights. And she doesn’t love the hijab but she loves me, I guess, and can accept that I make different choices about how I want to present myself.

                   And it’s the same issues that I now face with my 14-year-old daughter, sometimes she might wear something or dress a certain way or do her hair a certain way and I’ll think, ooh. But then I think, it’s your body, dude. Do what you want. And it’s kind of what you’re meant to do, I suppose, when you’re a teenager as well, is wear things that make our parents wonder what’s going on.

AL               How did you help your parents through that transition? And your friends too.

SC              Yes.

AL               How did you engender acceptance and a recognition that you were still Susan?

SC              Well, I just tried to still be me, tried to still crack the same dumb jokes and be the same person. And in many ways, I was still and am still that same person. But in other ways, obviously, taking on a new religion, things come with that as well. And also, I was 19.

                   No offense to any 19-year-olds out there, but we can be really full of ourselves and also quite lacking in wisdom and grace in dealing with other people. I like to think I was and I really tried to be understanding and accommodating but I’m sure I could have done a better job as well. Sorry, anyone out there who knew me when I was 19.

AL               Your friend, Maithri, has spoken about how your conversion provided him comfort when a few years later, he came out as a gay man.

SC              Yes.

AL               What lessons do you think there are from your journey for others who are making a big transition, quitting a job, ending a relationship?

SC              Yes.

AL               Coming out.

SC              I think being completely honest with yourself, which is a difficult thing to do, especially if you’re worried about how other people will react. And just realising, I think it got to the stage for me. And probably it was similar with Maithri, where we realised, I cannot live this way anymore to keep other people happy. This is who I am, this is what I believe. And obviously, I don’t want to hurt other people and I hope that I don’t. But if I am wanting to be a person of integrity and live a life of authenticity, then I need to own that.

                   And some people might not like it and some relationships might fall by the wayside and that is sad. Obviously, I don’t want that. But for me, it was very much like, I remember, there were a couple of friends that really didn’t want to know me after I became Muslim. And I remember feeling sad, thinking, if this were you, if the roles were reversed and you came to me with something else, I would want to stand by you. And so that was quite sad to me.

                   But then it was also, I kind of saw it as a good separating of the chaff from the grain. Maybe our friendships weren’t what I thought they were and so be it, which is, it can be a difficult one. But I think that’s also when you know you really want to do something sincerely and with absolute conviction, is when you realise things might go badly after this and I still want to do it.

AL               I’m curious about the role that faith plays in a good life for you. I assume you pray five times a day. What do you pray about?

SC              Well, there’s actually two types of prayer in Islam. So, there’s the ritualistic prayers we do five times a day, which have set movements, we say set things, set Arabic terms. And it’s quite prescriptive. And then we also have another type of prayer which is more similar to the Christian type of prayer. It’s called du’a and it just basically is the kind of prayer you say in any language, whatever you want, wherever you want, driving a car, whatever, sitting outside. Whatever it is, pushing the shopping trolley at the supermarket.

                   And that’s, often it’s those prayers where you ask God for things or ask for help or protection or guidance or thank you or whatever it is. So there are those two types of prayers that we do. And there is a loveliness and a serenity to both types that is really pleasant. And with the five times a day prayer, people will think, oh, my gosh, that’s so much. But it’s actually a really nice realignment. It’s like checking your moral compass five times a day and saying, where am I going? Am I still the person I want to be? Do I need to realign myself? Reminding us of what’s important.

                   And certainly, there can be times in a horrendously busy day where those prayers may not be as conscious as I would like, and it is easy to I fall into that almost robotic, okay, I’ve just got to do this. And that is a time where I have to force myself to come back to the present moment and be in this moment and think about what I need. It’s a real moment of, I guess, remembering my humanity and my fragility and reliance on a higher power.

AL               I spent three years of my childhood growing up in Indonesia and I still love the call to prayer when I’m in a Muslim country, just the way it echoes across. If you’re getting ready for a morning run, there’s nothing like being reminded that you should get out of bed there.

SC              Yes.

AL               And one of the other things I particularly appreciated. I remember traveling through Morocco. The norm of when you walk into a public place as a male, you walk in the door, you say, assalamualaikum.

SC              Women should do that too.

AL               Okay, that’s interesting.

SC              Just so you know, yes. Yes.

AL               Yes, I didn’t see many women doing it. But it’s that general notion that I don’t just slink into a café, I greet the people in the café as I arrive.

SC              Yes. And greet them with peace. That’s what assalamualaikum means, peace be upon you. So it’s about, they’re meant to be this constant reminder of peace. And I feel like, I know, just for myself in the frantic busyness of life, peace is elusive. So it’s nice to permanently have that ingrained reminder.

AL               The other hugely challenging part of Islam is the fasting, spending a month not only not eating but also not drinking, which, when we were in Achar [?], I was particularly struck by people who would work in the fields and unable to drink during the day. What do you feel the fasting does for you?

SC              Yes, it is a massive spiritual discipline. Undoubtedly. And I know, there are obviously traditions of fasting in, really, I think, all the major world religions, so I guess it’s there. It’s that sign that many of the great spiritual masters saw religious or spiritual benefit and growth in this. In Jesus, when he was in the desert. I know my Jewish friends have their 25-hour fast. I know other traditions obviously have it as well.

                   It is hard, there is no denying that it is physically difficult. But for me, it’s about when I fast. When I withhold food from my body, food and drink from my body, nourishment from my body and focus more on my soul, I realise how I’ve actually been starving my soul for the other 11 months of the year and feeding my body. So Ramadan is that flip.

                   And I see how my soul’s been starved. So it is a really important reminder in that way. And also, I think the spiritual discipline act of it is really important. We live in an instant gratification society where I have a headache, I take a pill. I’m thirsty, I just get a drink straightaway. There is no delayed gratification. And delayed gratification is a really important, mature skill to have.

                   And so Ramadan is actually a really good way that forces me, probably in a way that I never would in any other circumstance in my life, sit with discomfort and realise it is okay. I can sit with this. And what does this mean? There is a lot of growth in it.

                   Ramadan is like a mirror, it puts a mirror up to us. And I realise how much I use food and drink and particularly caffeine as a crutch. We all know that term of being hangry. When you’re hungry and you’re angry and you become a bit feral. When you’re angry, or you haven’t had your coffee or whatever. And when like I’m that in Ramadan, I realise, when all my crutches are stripped away, this is my real self. And that’s kind of pleasant.

                   I like to think of myself as a nice, relatable, warm person. But in Ramadan, especially in the beginning, when you’re adjusting or acclimatising. I realise that, actually, I’m a pretty cranky person. And that’s something that I need to work on.

AL               That’s a very stoic response there, the notion of inflicting suffering on yourself to find the crystalline essence. Work out you are.

SC              Yes. And I guess it’s also like, I also see it as, you’re a marathon runner. It’s like, you know how some athletes will sometimes do high altitude training to build up the oxygen in their blood or boxers will sometimes box with weights in their gloves. So when you go back down to normal sea level or when you take the weights out of your gloves, you’re flying. It’s so easy.

                   Because in Ramadan, obviously, for Muslims, we’re never meant to lie or backstab or swear or anything like that. But doing those things in Ramadan is even more serious. We are meant to be so conscious of ourselves.

                   And so there’s this awareness that if I can fast and not be grumpy and not yell at people and not backbite about my colleagues and not swear and lie. If I can do it when I’m fasting and I feel it’s difficult, how much easier should it be the other 11 months of the year? I know I can do it. I don’t have any excuse now. So it is a spiritual training. It’s a spiritual work.

AL               Ramadan is altitude training.

SC              Yes.

AL               I like it.

                   So, then there’s how much of the Western world views Islam. Did you realise when you converted to Islam, you’d be taking on personal responsibility for the wrongdoing of each one of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims?

SC              Yes, I’m very busy with my correspondence, answering for that Muslim lady that put her bins out on the wrong night and that Muslim that cut you off in traffic. I am sorry about that as well. But in all seriousness, no. I became Muslim before September 11 and obviously, a lot changed then. And before then there was certainly animosity towards Islam and an ignorance but nothing like it is now. How it is now is, I can say, honestly, the worst it’s ever been. And it is the most difficult political climate I’ve experienced.

                   And it’s not just me saying that. Having spoken to other Muslims who are active and engaged in community service or media, there is a weariness and a sadness and a sense of despondency about how things are going, which is a challenge.

AL               How do you deal with that? Both in terms of creating a positive public conversation about the religion that you love but also in terms of dealing with the personal attacks without becoming hardened.

SC              For me, it comes down to the idea that, because there are certainly times when I’m like, this is too hard. And also what is difficult is the feeling now that it actually doesn’t matter what I say or do. it doesn’t change anything. And that’s a really difficult realisation to come to, that it doesn’t matter how many facts people seem to be given. No matter how many times ABC Fact Check shows people, no, halal doesn’t fund jihad, we can tell you that, here is all the evidence, it doesn’t matter. Those facts are irrelevant.

                   And I guess I thought as an academic, once people know the truth, that will change their minds. And it is a sad thing when you realise that, well, the truth actually doesn’t matter in this conversation. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with. And so there are times when I just think, this is too hard, nothing will change. I’m just going to stay in my cave and never go anywhere.

                   But then I realise that all of us, we have two choices. We can choose despair or we can choose hope. That is literally what it comes down to for any of us. And I don’t want to live a life of despair. So then I have to choose a life of hope and everything that goes with that.

                   And part of publishing my PhD as a book, I was actually really reluctant to. A lot of me just wanted it to stay on the shelves, the dusty shelves in the library and never be read by anyone other than my examiners. But then I thought, I don’t have the right to get angry or frustrated about the public conversation about Muslim women, either in the Muslim community or outside the Muslim community, and do nothing about it. I don’t have that right. Especially when I’m sitting on this goldmine of stories and information and evidence and all these things from these women that I interviewed. I feel this is an important contribution.

                   I don’t know if it’ll necessarily change anyone’s minds. But I think it can at least bring some nuance to our conversation about Muslim women and sexism. So it is that thing about, well, either do something or don’t complain. So I do something. And I don’t know if anything will change. I don’t actually know, maybe I will die whenever, at 60, 80. Tomorrow, none of us know. But if nothing else, then at least I can hope that I can die and say, I tried. I tried to do something.

AL               And in terms of the criticism directed towards you, you have an unusual strategy, I understand, for dealing with Twitter abuse.

SC              Yes.

AL               Is it right that you give a dollar to UNICEF?

SC              I do.

AL               For every instance of personal abuse?

SC              I do. That is correct.

AL               And how much has UNICEF received so far?

SC              We’re now at $5,200. And I actually need to put in a bit more. I do it in chunks. But yes, there has been a bit more lately. And the reason that started was because I found that I get a lot of abuse on Twitter because I’m a Muslim woman. I actually can’t think of an instance of abuse that wasn’t about specifically that. And I realised that it didn’t actually matter what I did, how I interacted or didn’t interact with these people.

                   If I patiently tried to engage and have a polite dialogue, if I was sarcastic or smarmy, if I was angry and argumentative. If I blocked them or muted them, ignored them. None of it made a difference. None of it changed anything, just this tidal wave of sludge kept coming my way. And I thought, well, they are putting all this negativity out into the world, and this darkness. I can’t stop them and I can’t control them and I don’t even want my behaviour to be dictated by theirs. I want my behaviour to be dictated on the moral values that I think are important.

                   So I thought, well, how can I just put out some light and goodness into the world just to counteract their hate. So I thought, what if I, every hate tweet I get, I just donate a dollar to UNICEF. And so I just started doing that. It was never as a campaign or to try to start a movement or anything like that. It was just, it was me trying to live authentically what I believed. And so I started doing that. And what was the loveliest thing about it was that people who found out I was doing it wanted to help me.

                   So strangers, I had this woman I’ve never met send me an email and say, I heard about what you’re doing, I will sponsor the next 1,000 hate tweets on your behalf and send $1,000 to UNICEF. I had two people do that, actually. And other people get in touch, I’ve donated $5 or $10. And that was lovely.

                   The sad thing is, I think, we hear a lot about, in conversations today, about the state of the world. We feel sad about a lack of moral leadership. And I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be a moral leader in any way. But I think it’s human nature that when we see people doing good in a way that we hadn’t thought of, we want to be a part of that. And so I guess that’s why other people thought, well, that’s what I want to do, too. I want to participate in that too.

AL               That’s a beautiful response, in some sense, to wrap your own silver lining around each of these clouds.

SC              Yes.

AL               Presumably, you haven’t yet got any evidence that UNICEF staff are getting on as Twitter trolls and deliberately attacking you to raise donations for their organisation.

SC              Yes. Well, it’s funny, sometimes people would send me tweets going, I really like you but I’m going to say something mean so you have to donate a dollar to UNICEF. And I’m like, you know, you could just donate a dollar to UNICEF yourself. You don’t need to come and give me a fake insult for this. That’s not how this has to work, but so be it.

AL               Yours is a harder and a fuller life than if you’d followed a safer course. Do you have any regrets about the path that you’ve followed?

SC              My life would definitely be easier if I weren’t Muslim. I’ve often thought about that. But I guess that is the sad and beautiful reality is, the problem is I actually believe this. That’s the thing. And so if I sincerely believe this, what choice do I have? It is what it is, that I want to be Muslim. I sincerely believe this. And so then this is the life, I guess.

AL               So, Susan, just to wrap up.

SC              Let me cough, sorry, so that you can say that again. Sorry. Carry on.

AL               Just to conclude, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

SC              I would tell her, don’t worry so much about what other people think, either the negative or the positive. So don’t worry about the people that seem to hate you and don’t worry about the people seem to love you.

                   And I’m not saying just go and be your own weird Sherpa in the hills somewhere. And also, I think it’s dangerous if we’re like, I don’t care what anybody thinks. And then you can just go on being a jerk and not listening when other people are trying to tell you, actually, you’re a jerk. But what I would say is find some people whose opinions you really trust, have them as your guides that can tell you one way or another if you are on the right path, if you’re doing the right thing or conducting yourself in a good way and then tune out the rest of the noise.

                   Because I look back at my teenage self and I see how easily I wavered under the approval or disapproval of my peers or even strangers. And I am frustrated with my younger self. And I realise now, I wonder how much more I could have done or even just how much more secure or happier I could have been if I had just thought, what you think is irrelevant. And I know who I am and what is important and I’m going to keep going in this direction.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

SC              Well, this is a sad one to reflect on. And it goes back to what I was saying earlier. I used to genuinely believe that if we had facts, that that would change things. And it’s been a sad realisation that the truth doesn’t matter. Maybe as an academic, I thought, of course we just did evidence. But I was talking to Rebecca Huntley, who’s a social researcher, recently. We were at a writers’ festival together. And in her social research she does a lot of interviews and focus groups with people about lots of issues do with Australia, values, multiculturalism, whatever.

                   And one of the questions she will often ask people is, what percentage of Australia do you think is Muslim? And she said, the most common answer is 35%, which, we’re not one third of the country. But it’s interesting that that’s what people think. The actual fact is, were 2.6%, if we agree with the latest census. And why wouldn’t we agree with those details?

                   But what was interesting is when they say, I think it’s 35% and then she would say, well, okay, did you know it’s actually 2.6%? Here is the evidence, and she would show them the data. And they would look at it and go, no, I still think it’s 35%. And that is a terrifying reality because, how do we reason our way out of that? What is our meeting point? Where is the meeting point of the minds when we cannot even agree on hard facts like statistics? That is one that I’m grappling with a lot at the moment and I don’t really know my way through that.

AL               Don’t you take, suffer from looking at the long view? Most of us used to believe that the sun rotated around the Earth, most of us used to believe that smoking wouldn’t kill you. Most of us used to believe that humans weren’t causing climate change. Most of us used to believe that left-handers were evil.

SC              Yes.

AL               Isn’t the march of ideas and progress forward over the long term, even if it can be backwards over the short term?

SC              Yes, I have to hope. I have to hope that’s the case. And like I was saying, it is about having hope. I can’t see 100 years into the future. I sincerely hope that is the case. And I do get some comfort when I look at, say, the animosity that used to exist towards Catholics in this country.

                   I think I remember actually, Bill Shorten once saying that his mum or his grandma couldn’t get a job once because she was Catholic. So, hearing that. Obviously, I don’t mean this awfully towards Catholics but it is nice to hear, simply because now, people would hear that and just think, what the heck? Why would we not give someone a job because they were Catholic? Why would we think that way?

                   So I do have to hope that that will change. That being said, when you are right in the middle of that storm. And there are protests literally just streets from my house from Reclaim Australia saying they don’t want people like us in this country. And I go past with my kids. And they’re like, what does that mean? When you are in the middle of it, it is difficult to get air.

AL               Yes.

SC              When you’re in there. So it’s a challenge.

AL               When are you most happy?

SC              Happiness for me is, there’s this great quote, I can’t remember who said it, where it said, if you try to chase happiness, it will always elude you. But if you just do your thing, you’ll find that happiness comes and alights on your shoulder like a butterfly. And I feel like it’s like that for me. The other day, I took my son and his friend to the local park to play soccer. And as I was taking them, I’m like, oh, God, I don’t have time for this. So many things I need to do.

                   And then just as I was sitting there in the sun and it was cold but it was sunny and I could hear the birds. I was just watching the ants on the trees. And I thought, I don’t remember the last time I sat quietly by myself in nature. And this is so lovely. And it was just one of those moments of happiness sneaking up on me.

                   And that’s generally how it seems to be. We can plan for happiness. Oh, when I go on this holiday, it’s going to be amazing. Or this concert, it’s going to be so great. But I actually think it’s happiness comes and finds us, often in unremarkable situations. It just seeks us out. And I guess our job is just to pay attention.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

SC              I go to the gym. And that is a really important one for me mentally. I’m much less of a deeply unpleasant person when I go to the gym. It’s just like a stress release valve for me. And it’s actually a really good bellwether indication for me, I think, that if I look back and realise, gee, I haven’t been to the gym. Because I try to go four or five times a week. And if I suddenly look back and go, I haven’t been to the gym for two weeks, I know everything’s out of control. My life’s out of control.

                   Like now, for example, I haven’t been to the gym for two weeks. My life is ridiculous. It’s a hurricane. And I know that my lack of gym attendance is showing me there’s a problem. You need to get your life in order. This is not a healthy way to be.

AL               What do you do at the gym?

SC              Mindless cardio, so run on the treadmill, I love running so fast that your lungs feel like they’re on fire. I love that feeling. I love it. Or I get on the exercise bike and just do 20km or whatever. The elliptical is good. I often get injuries when I run. I obviously have horrendous running technique. I should actually get tips from you. But I obviously have terrible running technique, injure my knees, my back everything. I don’t know what I’m doing.

                   So the elliptical is a good alternative. But it’s just, I often go and I feel myself so tightly wound up when I get to the gym. Often my chest hurts because I’m so stressed about everything. And then I just have a big session at the gym. And then it’s just like, I’m okay now, right. Okay, everything’s better. So it’s very much a mental thing first and then a physical thing later. It’s like a pressure release.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

SC              I drink a lot of coffee. I’m Muslim. We don’t drink. We don’t smoke. I don’t know nearly enough strange men. But I drink a lot of coffee, like ten cups a day. And I bloody love it. So that’s my guilty pleasure.

AL               All espressos?

SC              No, I have milk in them.

AL               Okay.

SC              I’m a lady. No, yes, I do. I have, yes. Just no sugar but milky coffee.

AL               And finally, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

SC              That’s a really good question. I think there is this one profound moment in the book and also the musical. I don’t know if you’ve ever read… Or are you a musical fan?

AL               Somewhat. I love Hamilton. Hamilton is going off in our house at the moment.

SC              Did you see it in America?

AL               No, no, no.

SC              Oh, you just got the soundtrack.

AL               The soundtrack basically plays nonstop when my kids are in the car.

SC              I have to get that.

AL               And Non-Stop is, of course, one of their favourite songs.

SC              Well, I love the musical, Les Mis, and the book as well. And there is this amazing scene in the book and the play, musical, where the main character, he’s a criminal, had a terrible life of crime. Anyway, one night, he finds himself in a priest’s home and the priest said, that’s fine, come and stay. He saw him in the garden or something, saying, come and stay tonight, that’s fine. And during the night, the criminal decides to steal some silverware from the priest and sneak out before anyone wakes up.

                   And so after he’s snuck out, he’s arrested by two police officers who bring him back to the priest and say to the priest, we found this man, he looks like he’s stolen your things. What would you like to say to him? And in that moment, the priest says to him, you forgot those candlesticks I gave you as well. So in that moment, he not only forgave him and protected him but gave him more.

                   So, to the astonishment of the criminal, the priest says, oh, here, don’t forget these candlesticks. There was so much more, you forgot them, please take them. And anytime you want to come back, come back. And the other people of the priest’s house are looking at him like, what on earth you’re doing? And the criminal can’t believe it. But it was that moment of audacious grace that changed that man’s life.

                   And in that moment, the priest didn’t know that. For all he knew he could be radically graceful and this guy could live a terrible life, could come back and kill him for all he knows. But that’s what he chose to do in that moment. And it had such a profound impact on me that I’ve never forgotten it. And I certainly very rarely live up to that standard but it is the standard to which I aspire, of audacious grace.

AL               Did this moment come before your conversion?

SC              After.

AL               After.

SC              Yes, after. I don’t even think I’d seen Les Mis or read it until after, but it was just, yes, this amazing priest.

AL               Susan Carland, thanks so much for being a guest [overtalking].

SC              Oh, I forgot, I have a present for you. Actually, you’re a very healthy guy. You probably don’t want this. Anyway, listeners.

AL               I'm always open to gifts.

SC              A bit of backstory because this is the strangest gift, actually, now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t be giving it to you. So, the subject I teach is Introduction to Contemporary Australia. And it’s got about 200 students in it and most of them are from overseas. They’re exchange students who are studying in Australia for a semester. Often, they’re from Europe, the UK, America.

                   So every week in my tutorial, I like to bring them in a traditional Australian lolly because first of all, I remember when I was a student, free food is as good as it gets. I ate a lot of plates of 50 cent dhal when I was a student. But also, it’s a nice way of experiencing Australia. So one week I bring in Tim Tams, another week I bring in, I don’t know, Fantales.

                   This week was the crack cocaine of Australian lollies, the ones I’m sure your kids, if you’re allowed sugar in your house, would have in all their lolly bags, which is the Wizz Fizz. I just finished my class. We had three Wizz Fizz leftover and I said, I know who I’m going to give those to.

AL               Wow.

SC              So I’m giving three Wizz Fizz.

AL               Three bags of Wizz Fizz. Can you just rattle them just in front of the microphone?

SC              Who doesn’t love Wizz Fizz?

AL               And Sebastian, Theodore and Zachary will be extraordinarily grateful for the sugar hit of sherbet.

                   Susan, thanks so much for being on The Good Life podcast.

SC              Thank you for having me. Thank you.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.