More Yassmin than Revolution

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the activist, author and former Australian resident, recently made a pest of herself during the celebrations for the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. In a move that was always likely to annoy a few Brits, Abdel-Magied sent out an unmannerly social media post in which she whined about the “waking nightmare” of seeing so many Union Jacks lining London’s streets.

Australian media, which would have covered such a Twitter outburst a few years ago with a good deal of vim, remained unbothered this time around. That was a shame, I thought: it would have been nice to give everyone a chance to resume their dislike of Abdel-Magied and her brand of petulant activism. The incident may also have given wider support to the view that her departure from our shores has been—sorry, UK readers—a jolly bit of luck for Australia.

This review appears in January’s Quadrant.
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Her latest book, a collection of new and previously published essays, Talking About a Revolution, offers further proof that she is yet to undergo anything like an outbreak of common sense. Apparently, and as the title suggests, the events of the last few years have had a radicalising effect on the former Young Queenslander of the Year. Unlike her memoir Yassmin’s Story, which she put off writing until the age of twenty-four, this new book is marked by a distinctive absence of cheer. She writes: “I talk of revolution because that is all I know now, it is all I can think of. It is what we have left.”

It was another untimely social media post that set Abdel-Magied on the path of revolutionary consciousness. On Anzac Day 2017, she reworked the phrase “Lest we forget” into a spruiking of the voguish political causes of the day—Palestine and whatnot. To put it mildly, many Australians were unimpressed with her Facebook solecism and government figures and columnists lined up to chide her for her lack of respect.

I take a different perspective on that fateful event. I’ve long argued that, while it is a competitive field, Abdel-Magied’s most damaging public blunder occurred a bit earlier. In fact, she sort of agrees with me in spirit when she writes: “One could plausibly venture, as I have occasionally done myself, it was my departure from the opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival eight months earlier that fatally loosened the guillotine’s blade.”

This is a reference to the 2016 keynote address by Lionel Shriver, in which the American author poked fun at the tantrum over cultural appropriation, one of the many fatuous social-justice causes still with us, unfortunately. Shriver argued against a censorial movement attempting to limit the range of an author’s choices in fiction. For the cultural appropriation finger-waggers, only indigenous writers should be permitted to write indigenous characters; no queer antagonists for cis-gender straight authors, thank you very much; disabled black trans lesbians are reserved for, well, you probably get the idea.

Shriver made the sensible point that if such a movement were to get its way, it would be the death of free literary expression. Of course, the recipient of the Young Voltaire Award for Free Speech took the side of the wannabe censors. Abdel-Magied trotted out in a huff as Shriver was just clearing her throat and then dashed off a Guardian article about a speech she hadn’t heard.

Abdel-Magied, however, is unembarrassed by the piece’s inclusion in this book, which is baffling, at least at first glance. I mean, it’s mostly a longish description of the manner in which she exited a room, where “the stench of privilege hung heavy in the air”. Her style combines that kind of self-pitying cringe with just a touch of hyperbole, as she goes on to accuse Shriver of being on board with “the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide”.

For these shenanigans, she understandably became the target of a public campaign of derision, a preview of what was to come. In an author’s note, she adds that the piece marks “the beginning of the end of my age of innocence”. True enough, yeah; but it was also suggestive of a budding windbag likely to beclown herself at any given moment. And as readers may recall, we didn’t have to wait long.

On an infamous episode of the ABC’s Q&A, Abdel-Magied got into a dust-up with Senator Jacqui Lambie over sharia law, which ended with the Young Muslim Queenslander of the Year spluttering: “Excuse me, Islam to me is the most feminist religion.” These remarks occasioned a bit of amused backlash in both the Ultimo studio and the follow-up commentary, as Muslim-majority societies are perhaps better known for the barbarisms they commit against women and girls. (It’s true—you can look it up.)

Her retrospective essay on the furore serves—and this is a recurring theme—as a kind of clean-up job on this particular public humiliation. She enlists Frantz Fanon to her cause and bangs on for a while about Western imperialism and how Islam, when looked at from a certain angle, is actually anti-patriarchal. She implies that the groaning audience was made up of bigots and then complains that her “very essence was metaphorically lynched”.

It was no wonder, then, that by the time Anzac Day rolled around, the public had just about had enough of these hissy fits, and she soon began packing for London. With her reputation in permanent disrepute, employment drying up, and her illusions shattered, the former engineer and social advocate became Yassmin Abdel-Magied the woke revolutionary.

Well, sort of. It does make for a nice story, I guess. Heartless bastard that I am, I was unmoved by the 2018 speech collected here, solemnly titled “Eulogy for My Career”. After all, it was a well-received, tear-inspiring address at the Melbourne Writers Festival, which suggested that loose talk of professional setbacks shouldn’t be so readily believed. Moreover, Abdel-Magied wastes little time letting the reader know that the new essays for this volume were written while on a residency at the Cité International Des Arts in Paris, funded by—quelle surprise—the Australia Council for the Arts, of course.

As for her claim of new fervour for revolution, she doesn’t exactly show the spirit of a soixante-huitard. Che Guevara, before heading off to continue the struggle in the Congo, told his children that “the Revolution is what is important and that each one of us, on our own, is worthless”. Thankfully, the social-justice foot soldiers of our moment never quite measure up to their forebears. The new Abdel-Magied is very much like the old one, but perhaps slightly more annoying and in possession of a wider vocabulary. (Whiteness, heterosexism and structural racism get quite a workout in the book’s second half.) Her fondness for identity politics is now an obsession, but that’s not a great leap forward. One essay is a mildly interesting defence of her hobby—knitting beanies—which she calls “a desire for self-worth outside the neoliberal framework”. Not exactly revolución o muerte, Comrade Yas.

All right, I shall try to be fair. There is one piece in the book with a bit of utopian spark, and it even had me cheering her on. It begins with great promise: “I fantasise about giving up my Australian passport.” While she concedes that her citizenship does confer a few benefits such as ease of travel (and generous, taxpayer-funded residencies in France), that may not be enough, if she is to remain true to the revolutionary spirit.

Things escalate quickly, as what really irks Abdel-Magied is the entire Westphalian system of nation-states, and she looks forward to its abolition and replacement (suggestions welcome, apparently, as none are offered). Throwing away the passport, you see, is not only a middle finger to Australia, but a rejection of the very concepts of borders, migrant controls and even citizenship itself.

She arrives at such a radical position via the impossibility of non-indigenous belonging in Australia, anyway. Our shameful colonial sins—inexpiable, I guess—make our presence here forever illegitimate: “Why, if I had the choice, would I bind myself, legally and psychologically, to a nation-state founded on the dispossession of the oldest continuous living civilisation on Earth?”

Here, she channels the fashionable lamenting about living on unceded land and whatnot, the mark of our progressive, correctly educated elite. It all has a touch of performative insincerity about it, though; there’s something about their acknowledgments of country every five minutes that’s hard to take seriously. What I finally like about Abdel-Magied, as she fires up about the “blood-drenched soil in so-called Australia”, is that she has the courage of her woke convictions and takes such thinking to its logical but unsatisfying conclusion: she drops by the Department of Home Affairs website to inquire about the process for renouncing citizenship (not as easy as she hoped, it turns out).

Still, a few points for effort, I suppose. In the end, Yassmin Abdel-Magied isn’t much of a theoretician of the revolution, as her main talent is for yapping on about Yassmin Abdel-Magied. I haven’t offered too many good words for this book, so let me finish by adding that the most cheering thing about Talking About a Revolution is its plaintive tone, a recognition that the attempt to remake the world isn’t going particularly well, and there is, as ever, still so much work to be done.

Not to worry, though. While the neoliberal order remains not yet overthrown, she has books to sell and literary festivals to attend, where everyone can have a nice chat about the need for more conversations about the upcoming revolution. Thankfully, for now at least, that’s all it is: talk.

Talking About a Revolution
by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Penguin Random House, 2022, 288 pages, $35

Timothy Cootes lives in Sydney and contributes frequently to Quadrant Online. He reviewed Noah Rothman’s The Rise of the New Puritans in the September issue.


11 thoughts on “More Yassmin than Revolution

  • brandee says:

    Indebted we are to Timothy Cootes for the update on Yassmin Abdel-Magied who shows a tumultuous personality not unlike that recorded of her Sudanese born mother. Since she thinks that Mohammedanism is “the most feminist religion” she should commit to save the girls of Afghanistan from the enforced ignorance, violence, and the patriarchy of the state/mosque alliance.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Yassmin Dunning-Kruger.


    “I fantasise about giving up my Australian passport.” Stop fantasising Yassmin. Go to Saudi, hand your Australian passport in at the Australian Embassy, relinquish your Australian citizenship and don’t come back.

  • brandee says:

    Yassmin could stand by her sisters in Iran and cast off her headscarf with them to test if she should continue to refer to Mohammedanism as ‘the most feminine religion’. At present she seems to be the only wife of her new husband but he may take another 3 along with concubines according to the rules established by the founder one of whose wives was a girl 9 year of age.
    If she and her husband would convert to Christianity they would be bound by that founders ideal of one wife for one husband, both being equal. That is surely the most feminine religion!

  • Sanchismo says:

    Being a revolutionary activist in these days of identity politics etc is essentially a performing art. I suppose this justifies funding by the Australia Council for the Arts.

  • padmmdpat says:

    I am glad that Yassmi wants to change the world and make it a better place. And will this task she has set for herself include changing herself first?

  • Jackson says:

    Excellent review, Mr Cootes.
    We dips our lid to you for performing the self-sacrificial service of actually wading through YAM’s book – so that we don’t have to.

  • hwka says:

    “I fantasise about giving up my Australian passport.”

    I fantasise about being the first to help the perpetually aggrieved Yassmin across the line –
    before a great swarm of Aussies are even aware of this wonderful nation-building opportunity.

  • Quilter says:

    My Grandma used to tell all her grandchildren – 21 of us – that we should keep quite rather than open our mouths and prove we were stupid. Yassmin should have had a grandma like her. But I am seriously offended by the waste of taxpayers’ money that is the Australia Council. Why does that YAM hypocrite apply for money from us and even worse why does she get it when she does not live here anymore?

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