If only you were an adult … or had an IQ over 70.
If you had half the intellect of Waleed you’d be able to see what an ignoramus you are, instead of being a Xenophobic Alt Right alternative facts type.
Waleed Aly: why all the haters?
The “sinister” obsession with Waleed Aly
The Australian12:00AM April 23, 2016
One of the more revealing moments of my time with Waleed Aly comes after our formal interview.
He seems uncomfortable – the only time I see him anything other than relaxed. “I’d like to ask you a question. Why do you think all the media want to ask me about being a Muslim? I find it intriguing,” he says, genuinely curious. It’s never an issue when he’s stopped in the street, he says, or when he chats to the live audience on The Project, Ten’s current affairs show, which he co-hosts. “No one raises it. But when I’m interviewed it always comes up. I don’t know what it reflects – I’m trying to figure it out sociologically.”
I point out that his segment for The Project about Islamic State in the aftermath of the Paris attacks has had more than 30 million confirmed views, so media interest is inevitable. He counters that his earlier videos on domestic violence, asylum seekers and footballer Adam Goodes also made a big impact. So I turn the question around: Why does he think the media wants to ask him about being a Muslim? “If I had to guess right now it would be that audiences are more cosmopolitan and more comfortable with a really broad range of people than journalists are. Journalists find it much more a point of interest because it’s not part of their world and the media is lacking in diversity.”
Later, in a video interview, he goes further, revealing frustration with the way some critics twist his views through a narrow Muslim filter. “I’m aware that there are people out there, although they wouldn’t admit this, who are on the fringes of discourse who have a very weird and I think probably quite sinister obsession with me,” he says.
Certainly, Waleed Aly gets plenty of attention: hardly a week goes by without controversy over what he has – or hasn’t – said. For some he is the calm voice of reason who distils complex issues into accessible soundbites. For others, he’s the man they love to hate: an apologist for extreme Islamic ideology who uses his massive public reach to talk down the threat of Islamic State.
“He divides people, clearly,” says radio broadcaster Steve Price, who appears regularly on The Project. “Waleed is poison to my radio audience but gold to Channel Ten’s audience.”
Aly himself seems exasperated by it all. “These days everyone seems to be outraged all the time,” he says. “Now we demonstrate our virtue by outrage. Even when I don’t feel I am expressing outrage, it is reported that way. It’s only interesting if someone is outraged.”
In just four years Aly has floated above the controversy to become one of the hottest personalities in Australian media. Ratings for The Project are up three per cent since he joined and it is now the second-highest rating program at 7pm in the crucial 16-39 demographic. (Overall it usually rates between 500,000 and 600,000 nightly – higher than breakfast shows Today and Sunrise, lower than A Current Affair.)
But television is just one of his gigs. He also co-hosts a weekly Radio National ethics program, The Minefield, writes fortnightly columns for Fairfax, lectures in politics at Monash University (where he works primarily in the Global Terrorism Research Centre), sits on the Australia Council and plays guitar in a rock band, Robot Child, which performs around Melbourne. He’s won a Walkley award and he’s just been nominated for a Gold Logie in a decision that has stoked unprecedented controversy over whether he deserves the accolade. Lots of people can’t stand Waleed Aly, but just as many can’t get enough of him.
In our first phone call Aly says something that strikes fear into me – “When we get off the phone I’ll text you the number of my agent.” His agent? I’ve done profiles of all sorts of people but have never heard anybody, especially an academic, talk about an agent. But then again Aly is not your typical academic, nor, for that matter, your typical television star. After separate negotiations with his full-time agent Jacinta Waters, his Ten publicist Anthony McCarthy and his ABC producer Melanie Christiansen, I manage to secure access to begin the journey into Waleed’s World, which is centred in Melbourne.
The first time I see him he is walking – more like floating – across the road outside the ABC’s offices, checking his phone. I am struck by how slight he is. After our greeting his demeanour is the same as on air – friendly, warm but with a certain reservation. As we walk up the ABC stairs one text message after another beeps on his phone and people rush up to say hello, one telling him a story she thinks he should do for The Project. Such cross-media co-operation is rare.
I tell him that being on air must bring some relief from the endless text messages. “They keep coming,” he says. (After recording The Minefield, he shows me the 20 or so messages that have arrived during that half-hour). As we walk into the café opposite the ABC afterwards, a murmur goes through the room and heads turn. In Melbourne, at least, he commands celebrity status.
One contradiction in Waleed’s World is that in the fiercely competitive media field he eschews the tools to promote his “brand”. He regularly lights up social media but doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter himself. In fact, he’s implacably opposed to it. “I object to social media on the grounds that it is not an adjunct to social interaction but a displacement of richer forms of social interaction and therefore, an impoverishment of the social elements of our lives,” he says. “It has this nasty habit of transforming the minutiae of our lives into performance so that we end up existing in a kind of perpetual public space where we are constantly performing our identities and our public politics and our senses of self for other people to acknowledge and then approve or disapprove. I don’t think it’s any surprise or coincidence that the rise of these forms of media have coincided with the rise of an increasingly shrieky, trench-warfare-like public discourse.”
Perhaps ignoring social media also affords him a level of protection from the vitriol thrown at him. Craig Campbell, executive producer of The Project, agrees that it gives Aly a type of freedom. “He will blissfully go out and say what he needs to say without worrying what it will do to his standing on social media,” he says.
Probably no figure has been so savagely attacked for a Gold Logie nomination as Aly. When his co-host on The Project, Carrie Bickmore, was nominated for the same award last year – which she won – there was barely a murmur but Aly’s nomination provoked a stream of racist and abusive comments online: “Looks a bit like a dark version of the Count on Sesame Street,” one person posted; “He scored the job on The Project because in an age of tensions between Muslims and the Western World, it is seen as politically correct to have the token Muslim-Arab on mainstream television,” wrote another.
Steve Price is on the Right on most issues and regularly disagrees with Aly. I ask him why he thinks people attack Aly. “Because he’s different,” he says. “He’s a Muslim TV presenter with a high profile at a time when there’s a lot of division in Australia and everywhere else over how to deal with issues like Muslim immigration. In the current climate Waleed is an easy target – people in Brussels or Paris who are Islamic fanatics stir up people’s emotions and someone who, whether he likes it or not, is a public face of Islam in Australia will become a lightning rod.”
Carrie Bickmore believes a vocal minority don’t like having a Muslim host: “There will be a pocket of our audience that don’t want to see that on their TV… but my concern is always more for Waleed, what the experience is like for him. I’m always very conscious and very aware that I cannot begin to understand the complexities of hosting a prime time TV show for him, being a Muslim, especially in the current climate, and what that might mean for his day to day life, his family, for everything.”
Aly rejects any notion that he is the public face of Islam and responds to criticism with a flatline response: “I really just focus on trying to do my job properly. I never wake up and go into work thinking how can I be Muslim about this or how can I be non-aligned about this. I think a lot of people assume that but you’ve got to understand that where I’m standing I can’t see me; all I see is cameras and floor managers and crew…”
He does concede, however, that some people wouldn’t like to see a “Muslim swanning into mainstream media with something other than a ‘Death to America’ message”. Aly’s wife, academic Susan Carland, points out the significance of having a non-white face on commercial TV. “I think a lot of people forget that – he’s the first non-white on prime time commercial TV. That’s huge,” she says, later sending me a text to correct herself: “PS, Waleed told me apparently Ernie Dingo hosted something on commercial TV back in the day.”
For Aly, his Muslim identity sometimes surfaces unexpectedly. Recently The Project ran a clip of an MP at an army base juggling a grenade as he stood next to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, prompting Aly to quip: “If that was me I’d be in Guantanamo Bay right now!”
Waleed Aly was born to Egyptian parents in Melbourne on August 15, 1978. His parents came to Australia separately in the 1960s, pursuing education, and met in Melbourne. His father, Abdel-Moneim, who died two years ago, was a school teacher and civil engineer while his mother, Salwa, taught Australian history and English. He has a brother, Ahmad, a surgeon, who is ten years older.
Today, Aly is particularly proud of his mother’s achievements. “If I asked you to nominate the most unlikely profession for an Egyptian woman coming to Australia, then Australian history and English would probably be up there,” he says, recounting how she would send him text messages correcting his grammar when he presented the Drive program on Radio National.
Aly’s childhood was very Australian. Educated at Wesley College, an elite private school in Melbourne, he played cricket and Australian rules football and even filled in for a friend as the tiger mascot of the Richmond Football Club (one time, in front of 40,000 people, he wrestled the Bulldogs mascot, pulling off his head to the delight of the Richmond fans.)
At the age of about 20 he took a trip to Egypt, years later telling Andrew Denton on his program Enough Rope that he arrived at a new level of “religious consciousness” after that trip and had something of a flirtation with Islamic fundamentalism. “I came back to Australia looking for religious things and when I looked around all I saw… was a brand of Islam that I think really did inculcate a kind of fundamentalist outlook, a kind of thing that was about purity to the exclusion of everyone else who is by definition then impure. And it’s at that phase that I sort of started doing all the things that people who follow a similar kind of path do and it’s actually kind of a form of youth rebellion in a lot of cases.”
Stressing that he was never involved in anything remotely violent, Aly told Denton that his activities included preaching, yelling at people and constructing “a kind of globalised identity” through a heightened political consciousness of the plight of Muslims overseas. “We just kind of figured that we could go out there and yell at people and then they’d suddenly see the light and think, ‘Wow, you guys are great’,’’ he said, before adding that this phase wore off. Today Aly is a practising Sunni Muslim who reads and writes Arabic to a certain level.
Radio broadcaster Steve Price says there’s no doubt Aly’s attitudes have moderated. “In terms of his views, maybe he’s just grown up or maybe the reality of earning an income in the media has made him moderate his views,” he says.
After studying law and engineering at Melbourne University, Aly worked in the Family Court and then law firm Maddocks, specialising in commercial law. His foray into media began with articles for newspapers including The Australian and The Age. He was a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, and many early columns dealt with related issues. “And then politics started to creep in and then I was writing sport and then the odd entertainment based thing,” he recalls.
If people are interested in Aly’s Muslim identity, many are even more interested in his wife’s. Aly was 16 and living at home with his parents when there was a knock on the door. It was Susan Carland, another 16-year-old with whom he’d spent hours on the phone but had never met. “I decided I really wanted to meet this guy,” she recalls today. With “that 16-year-old lack of reason” she took a bus to Aly’s home. He opened the door with a guitar over his shoulder. “I think he was a bit shocked,” Carland recalls.
But it wasn’t – at that point at least – happily ever after. They liked each other but went their separate ways, he to Melbourne University, she to Monash (where she now works as an academic, her research and teaching specialties focusing on “gender, sociology, contemporary Australia, terrorism, and Islam in the modern world”.)
It has been claimed, incorrectly Carland says, that she converted to Islam – or “tented up”, as Quadrant Online put it – because of Aly. Carland was raised in a Christian household but says when she was 17 she decided to explore other religions “to try to find my own way and get answers to questions that I didn’t think I was getting answers to.” She initially shied away from Islam, assuming it to be a “sexist, barbaric, outdated religion.” Her mother concurred, reportedly once telling her she’d rather her daughter marry a drug dealer than a Muslim.
“To my surprise, I ended up at Islam,’’ Carland says now. “I had no prior interest. I thought it was what every stereotype says about it.” So why did she choose it? “It appealed to me intellectually before I had any spiritual connection to it,” she tells me. “I know that will sound bizarre to many people, as sadly the way Islam is discussed today is totally stripped of its rich scholarly tradition, but it’s true. I read some thoughtful, deep texts from Muslim scholars and I found it very compelling. The spiritual, and thus ‘belief’ aspect, followed after that.”
After her conversion at about age 19, she reconnected with Aly. “I decided I wanted to be Muslim and it was then that people started saying to me, ‘You and Waleed would be great together’ and I said ‘Please, never!’ I was quite adamant that I wasn’t interested in him. Then maybe a year or so later I realised, ‘No, actually he is the one for me.” (They’ve now been married for 14 years and have two children, Aisha, 12, and Zayd, nine; they live in a rented home in Richmond. “We’d like to buy around here,’’ Carland says, “but everything’s so expensive.”)
Islam is “a bedrock issue for us as a couple”, Carland explains. “We perform daily prayers and it doesn’t need to be something like, ‘Now’s family discussing Islam time’ but it’s always there, it’s always this undercurrent, and we’ll often chat about it, often if we’re trying to nut out a philosophical or modern political or moral issue.”
One thing you quickly realise when you talk to Aly about his beliefs is that his logic is part lawyer, part academic. I saw it when I asked him about asylum seekers. “It’s only the fact that I’m interested in social, political and I suppose moral theory that enabled me to start thinking why are we applying this kind of coldly utilitarian logic to this case when we don’t apply it to anything else… we don’t force people to donate their organs even though that would save lives. One of the reasons we don’t is that we believe in a liberal conception of the human being, such that just going in and taking organs that would save someone is a violation of something too sacred.
“Suddenly, when it comes to asylum seekers, we’re quite prepared to ditch that liberal mode of reasoning; it applies everywhere else, but it doesn’t apply to them. It’s coldly utilitarian. Yes, we’ve destroyed this many lives but we’ve saved that many and this number is bigger than that.”
What should the policy be then? “We should think more about why they get on the boat.”
OK, I say, but if they have arrived we can still think about it but what should we do with them? Aly: “If we think about why they get on the boat we can think about how to stop it.”
When I press him further on this issue, he says: “I’m not saying we can take them all but in the arguments against them it becomes arguments like our roads will be too clogged and our hospitals will be overwhelmed and there will be cultural change… I don’t mind if we’re honest about those assessments but what I’m interested in is that we don’t ever get to the point of having a real debate because of all these other things.”
One reason Aly evokes strong reactions is that he doesn’t take a step back – and when he fixes his gaze down the barrel of that camera he can pack a punch. He might float like a butterfly above controversy and social media but he can, when he picks a target, sting like a bee.
The segment he wrote with producer Tom Whitty for The Project last November after the terrorist attacks in Paris dramatically raised his profile. “My research area is in terrorism studies so when a terrorist attack like that [Paris] happens I feel like there’s a lot of analytical stuff I could draw on,” Aly says. He insists the fact he is Muslim was irrelevant to the video, but concedes: “I understand that to the audience it almost certainly will [seem relevant] and I can’t escape that.”
Peter Helliar, who co-hosts The Project, says the video was not easy for Aly. “He knows on Australian TV in this extremely white landscape that when he weighs in it’s going to have more eyes and ears than if it had been presented by Carrie or one of our guest hosts,” he says, adding that after the video’s success there were suggestions from inside the network that Aly should follow it up the next night. “He [Waleed] said no on the basis that when we do these things it should be for a reason, not just to capitalise on numbers,” says Helliar.
Few segments have reverberated the way that one did; according to Ten, the video has “reached” more than 100 million people on Facebook, with more than 30 million views. After this the Right escalated their attacks against Aly, claiming that because of his religion he plays down the Islamist role in terrorism, a confounding assessment given he couldn’t have been clearer on who was to blame for the attacks. “There’s no doubt that this was an Islamist terrorist attack, probably executed under ISIL’s flag,” he said in the video. “ISIL don’t want you to know they would quickly be crushed if they ever faced a proper army on a real battlefield.” Aly says now he was concerned that the ISIS video became so big. “It started to become about me and what I saw and there are bigger issues at play here.”
Susan Carland says commercial TV was never part of Aly’s plan – “there is no plan” – but the idea did not daunt him: “He has a big brain and can handle a lot of situations and he’s also very willing to have a go; he thinks, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen hosting a live TV show for the first time, I’ll give that a go!’”
Peter Helliar adds that Aly is “bemused” by his new-found fame, describing a recent Channel Ten function where Aly was surrounded by “a semi-circle of 18-year-old girls hanging off his every word, like a rock star. The parents of one of the girls were standing by and they said, ‘Do you know how good it feels as parents knowing our daughter wanted to come here tonight and the one person she wanted to meet was Waleed Aly and not someone from The Bachelor’.”
Aly says the way The Project spans the entertainment-news divide is unique. Recently he had to segue from a video of a woman crushing a watermelon between her thighs to a story about orphans in Syria. “It was one of the biggest U-turns I’ve had to make but it’s a show full of U-turns,” he says. Carland calls this “intellectual whiplash”, adding: “There are not a lot of low-brow things he loves, not because he’s a snob, he just doesn’t seem to have an interest in anything trashy… He would never watch the Kardashians or anything like that.” When I point out he talks about celebrities each evening, she replies: “Well, that’s the contract, isn’t it!”
So what next for Waleed Aly? Of the future, Carland says: “I said to Waleed, ‘You’d take two free tickets to the Japanese nuclear reactor if somebody offered them to you’, only because he would take any opportunity that presented itself to him no matter how crazy or inappropriate.”
Some reckon he’s cut out for a political career, but Aly insists he has no interest in that. “It’s not the kind of thing I do – develop policy proposals and then try to smash them through the crude machinery of state,” he says. “I don’t believe in my capacity to change the world and I don’t really have a desire to do that.”