In the aftermath of the Sydney terrorist attack on a Lindt chocolate café by an Islamic terrorist, the hashtag #Illridewithyou trended worldwide on Twitter. The hashtag was dedicated to the notion that Muslims in Australia were in some sort of grave danger from the surrounding population, and required protection from good-hearted non-Muslims to feel comfortable.
The woman whose tweets launched the hashtag, Rachael Jacobs, is a lecturer at Australia Catholic University. She posted on Facebook that after the news broke, she saw a Muslim woman sitting on her train, unpinning her headscarf with tears in her eyes. “I ran after her at the train station,” Jacobs explained. “I said, ‘put it back on, I’ll walk with you.’ She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute, then walked off alone.”
Jacobs then refused all media interviews, supposedly because she didn’t want to capitalize on her own saintliness. But sympathetic Aussies picked up on the story and pushed the hashtag trend to the top of Twitter.
Now, Jacobs admits that she made up the story, magnified her own heroism, and didn’t even know if the woman with the headscarf was Muslim:
At this point I saw a woman on the train start to fiddle with her headscarf.
Confession time. In my Facebook status, I editorialised. She wasn’t sitting next to me. She was a bit away, towards the other end of the carriage. Like most people she had been looking at her phone, then slowly started to unpin her scarf.
Tears sprang to my eyes and I was struck by feelings of anger, sadness and bitterness. It was in this mindset that I punched the first status update into my phone, hoping my friends would take a moment to think about the victims of the siege who were not in the cafe.
I spent the rest of the journey staring—rudely—at the back of her uncovered head. I wanted to talk to her, but had no idea what to say. Anything that came to mind seemed tokenistic and patronising. She might not even be Muslim or she could have just been warm! Besides, I was in the “quiet carriage” where even conversation is banned.
By sheer fluke, we got off at the same station, and some part of me decided saying something would be a good thing. Rather than quiz her about her choice of clothing, I thought if I simply offered to walk her to her destination, it might help.
It’s hard to describe the moment when humans, and complete strangers, have a conversation with no words. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for so many things—for overstepping the mark, for making assumptions about a complete stranger and for belonging to a culture where racism was part of her everyday experience.
But none of those words came out, and our near silent encounter was over in a moment.
In other words, the entire story was essentially a figment of Jacobs’ imagination. But that imaginary event became the conversation in the West, rather than an Islamist taking over a café and murdering two people.
Hilariously, Jacobs says that she is “a teacher and lecturer” and has “a responsibility to represent my profession and institution.” She did so beautifully: the professoriate is happy to make up the facts when the facts are insufficient to fit the narrative of the West as a cruel, inhumane place.