ODVV interview: Islamophobic populism certainly...
Whether it takes the form of vandalizing mosques, assaulting women wearing hijab walking down the streets, painting graffiti with hateful messages on the walls of a Muslim teacher's house or bullying the Syrian child at school, Islamophobia is raising its ugly head across the world and seems to be more powerful than ever. The coming to power of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom and the inability of the international community to address the global refugee crisis have only exacerbated anti-Muslim prejudice and paved the way for more hate crimes to happen here and there.
More than before, the world is in need of inter-faith dialogue and people need education to be able to distinguish the truth from among hundreds of newspapers, news websites and TV and radio stations that bombard them with news stories and analysis about Muslims, their lifestyle and their faith.
A noted Australian social worker and human rights activist told the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence that figures and data on the anti-Muslim hate crimes in Australia are worrying and a robust action is needed to stop Muslim Australians from being demonized and assaulted by the racists.
"A 2015/2017 survey conducted by the Challenging Racism Project at Western Sydney University found that 27.6 per cent of respondents indicated they would be 'extremely' or 'very concerned' if a relative were to marry a Muslim. In total, 63 per cent of respondents expressed some degree, ranging from slightly to extremely, of intolerance and discomfort with Muslim Australians," said Prof. Linda Briskman, a Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work at Western Sydney University.
Prof. Briskman told ODVV that she believes Islamophobic populism wins newspapers and media greater popularity. She said the recurring theme in the mainstream media's coverage of Muslims is that Islam is a violent religion and Muslims should continuously distance themselves from terrorists: "Repetitive anti-Muslim stories imply that Islam is a religion of hate and violence. The media joins government in asking Islamic organisations to condemn terrorism but no matter how much this occurs, it is never enough."
In an interview with ODVV, Prof. Linda Briskman shared her views about the growth of Islamophobia in the world and especially in Australia. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Is Islamophobia considered a global concern? Do the international organizations such as the United Nations and major world governments have a clear and robust plan to fight Islamophobia?
A: Islamophobia is most certainly a global concern. In many western countries, we see its rise at a variety of levels including state, media and community. Unfortunately there do not seem to be effective, comprehensive plans by the United Nations and nation states to combat the phenomenon.
In 2017 UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres called for tolerance and respect and the importance of recognizing diversity. In so doing, he combined racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, rather than singling out Islamophobia as a separate category.
Contrary to combatting Islamophobia, many countries fuel anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions through inflammatory statements about Muslims, particularly about 'Islamic terrorism'. With the failure to develop robust national or international approaches, it is civil society anti-racist groups, such as Hope Not Hate in the UK and All Together Now in Australia, faith organisations and some academics that have stood together with Muslims to challenge Islamophobia. Because of the conflation of terrorism and Islam which now has global hold, it is an uphill battle to turn around harmful anti-Muslim rhetoric and civil liberty-denying measures that follow, including in Australia, where the 'terrorism card' is readily played. The few voices that do speak out are largely ignored through the strength of narratives that proclaim that Muslims are a threat to national security and national values.
Q: What do you think about the impacts of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the U.S. President Donald Trump on the growth of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination worldwide?
A: Donald Trump’s outbursts and policies provide confidence to Islamophobes. Trump has legitimised Islamophobia and contributed to its flourishing. His so-called 'Muslim ban' is one example whereby in 2017 he signed an Executive Order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the U.S. The recent re-imposition of sanctions against Iran is another example, where he has re-invented George Bush’s 'axis of evil' concept by withdrawing unilaterally from the 2015 nuclear agreement, despite there being clear evidence that the Islamic Republic has complied with the agreement.
Other countries have developed their own rhetoric, which would have occurred with or without Trump. We see many countries closing their borders to irregular immigrants, both Muslim and non-Muslim. But as a significant world power and influencer in the west, there is the danger that Trump enhances anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric and actions throughout the world. His views, although often discarded as extreme and absurd, do resonate with right wing proponents in other countries. In a globalised world where news, including fake news, is instantly communicated, we cannot discount Trump’s influence.
Q: Does anti-Muslim and Islamophobic discourse win popularity and bigger audiences for the mainstream media, including Australian media?
A: Islamophobic populism certainly sells newspapers. Good news stories about Muslims rarely reach the headlines. Opinion pieces about Muslims have been sustained for a long period of time, with their accuracy rarely challenged in the mainstream. One example is a reputable newspaper, which in 2015 ran what it described as an 'open-minded but unflinching series of articles analyzing Muslim Australia'. Such articles continue up to the present day, revealing how largely unregulated media is able to write Muslim-critical pieces that would be condemned if similar attributions were applied to other religions or ethnicities.
Whenever a criminal act involving Muslims occurs in one part of the world, the impact on national media outlets is profound with rapacious reporting in print media, television and radio outlets. Opinion pieces and editorial comment is ramped up and this serves to manufacture community fear.
Just recently in Australia, on 9 November 2018, a Muslim man of Somali origins, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, blew up his car and attacked pedestrians in the centre of Melbourne, killing one person. He was quickly labelled a terrorist and links to his Mosque and other activities, such as allegedly attempting to visit Syria were recounted through media reports. He was shot dead by police so is unable to provide his own testimony. At the same time this incident occurred, a court case was being held into the death of six people by motorist James Gargasoulas, who drove his vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians in the same street of Melbourne in 2017. No-one called that crime a terrorist attack and Christians were not collectively blamed.
Media, government, politicians and right-wing groups feed one upon the other. Free speech advocates resist minimisation of this 'right', which is seen by many as an absolute. Repetitive anti-Muslim stories imply that Islam is a religion of hate and violence. The media joins government in asking Islamic organisations to condemn terrorism but no matter how much this occurs, it is never enough. The frustration of Muslim leaders came to the forefront this November when a group shunned the Prime Minister’s invitation to attend a meeting. The leaders had taken particular offence at demands for them to call out terrorism.
Q: Has Australia been a welcoming destination for refugees and immigrants, especially those coming from the Middle East and North Africa, trying to build new lives away from war and unrest?
A: The answer is both yes and no. For refugees who come in an 'orderly' fashion through Australia’s humanitarian program, Australia is largely welcoming. These immigrants receive support services to enhance the settlement process. But for asylum seekers who arrive directly to Australia, particularly those who come by boat, there is no welcome.
Mandatory immigration detention for asylum seekers boat arrivals has been in place since 1992 and in the last decade or more a series of measures have been put in place to deter unwelcome arrivals.
The most disturbing has been what is known as 'offshore detention' where arriving asylum seekers are sent to the countries of Nauru or Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and told they will never be settled in Australia. With many asylum seekers now being in these sites for five years, their wellbeing is almost totally diminished and children on Nauru have been suffering mental health disorders. This has led to pressure from the medical profession, which are largely successful, and some legal intervention to bring families to Australia for medical and psychiatric treatment. Although it now appears that all family groups will be sent to Australia, the Migration Act prohibits permanent settlement in Australia of asylum seeker boat arrivals after 2013. The policies and practices have been allowed to fester through fear injected into the wider population and through Islamophobia, even though not all asylum seekers are Muslims. The belief in the need for controlled migration reinforces perceptions of irregular migrants as 'queue jumpers' and 'economic migrants'.
Although I have presented a binary between humanitarian entrants and asylum seeker boat arrivals, there are times when settlement refugees also face racism. This has been particularly evident in Melbourne, where there has been increasing government and media hyperbole about African crime, particularly people from South Sudan.
Q: Australia is a diverse and multicultural country. However, there are politicians and political groups that are opposed to the empowerment of Muslims and against the granting of social and religious rights to them. Do you think Australia is at odds with its Muslim minority?
A: Yes Australia has been a successful multicultural and pluralistic nation and in many ways harmonious and safe. The national census reveals that almost half of Australians have either been born overseas or have one or both parents born overseas. And from a diverse range of countries. We also need to keep in mind that Australia’s nearest neighbour is the largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia.
Islamophobia and other forms of racism may seem paradoxical but a quick scan of Australia’s racist past provides some explanation. Australia was built from British colonial process, initially as a convict settlement and later aimed at creating a white nation. These measures largely displaced Indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land since time immemorial. ‘Modern Australia’ emerged from keeping out unwanted migrants. In 1901 when Australia became a federation, what is commonly known as the White Australia Policy was introduced. Chinese inhabitants who had settled in Australia, many following the 19th century goldrush, were deported or shunned, and later migration to build the nation was favoured from Britain and Western Europe. It was only in the 1970s that the last vestiges of white Australia vanished, but this does not mean that the underpinnings have been vanquished. There continues to be 'othering' of people with a rhetoric of value clashes that are played out in attempts to tighten citizenship requirements to exclude those who are seen not to subscribe to somewhat ill-defined Australian values. This can be further illustrated by the anti-terrorism measures that have been uncritically enshrined in legislation since 2001, as in other countries. In Australia, they are increasing in scope and scale with plans to introduce more into the federal parliament in coming weeks.
Polling conducted in Australia unfortunately reveal that significant sections of the population are against Muslim immigration, a view that is propagated by not only right wing extremist groups but by some fringe mainstream politicians and political groupings. Anti-Muslim sentiment also extends to Muslims living within Australian society. A 2015/2017 survey conducted by the Challenging Racism Project at Western Sydney University found that 27.6 per cent of respondents indicated they would be 'extremely' or 'very concerned' if a relative were to marry a Muslim. In total, 63 per cent of respondents expressed some degree, ranging from slightly to extremely, of intolerance and discomfort with Muslim Australians.
Q: Why do the mainstream media take immediate action to vilify the Muslims who commit crimes and break the law but choose to remain silent about the Islamophobic hate crimes, attacks on the mosques and Islamic centers or are extremely slow and ineffective in covering and responding to such incidents?
A: This is an important question. There is very little concerted attention given to hate crimes or attacks on Muslim sites. On the other hand, as you suggest, Muslims are readily vilified. We have seen countless examples of hate crimes against Muslims including attacks on Mosques and attacks on people, particularly women wearing hijab. Even halal food is seen by right wing groups as a threat to national security.
Right-wing groups are often considered to be benign and unpopular. I think it’s fair to say that most of the Australian population does not identify with such groups that are largely uneducated and focus their energies on public demonstrations that are of no interest to the majority of the community. Although police are generally present at demonstrations, alt right groups usually operate under the radar of the law with most of their activities not deemed as law-breaking. It is troubling how some of the views of these groups – anti-Mosque, anti-immigration – have seeped into the political mainstream where statements can be made with no recourse under what is known as parliamentary privilege.
Q: Can you provide us with some details about the status and frequency of Islamophobic hate crimes in Australia in the public spaces such as shopping centers, trains and train stations, schools and universities? Do the police take these crimes seriously or do they ignore them?
A: It is not easy to provide information on frequency as there is under-reporting. Even when people report they may be more comfortable to do so in ways that do not involve police. A 2017 account of Islamophobia in Australia reported 2014-2015 incidents lodged with Islamophobia Register Australia. The Register was founded in 2014 in response to increasing anecdotal reports about rising incidents of Islamophobia. For the time period of data collection, 243 incidents were reported. Most were incidents involving women as victims and often in public places. It is likely that women are primarily targeted because of their visibility. Because of concern about women on public transport, a spontaneous I’ll Ride With You campaign began in Australia, begun by non-Muslims who wanted to help protect Muslim women from vilification.
In other countries, there has also been data collection that reinforces concern about Islamophobic incidents. In the UK, the monitoring group, Tell Mama, noted an increase of incidents in 2017, a total of 1,201 verified reports. The organisation speculated that the rise was due to the growth of the far right as well as such events as terrorist attacks that prompted anti-Muslim hatred. Police in the UK were criticised for failings in the way hate crimes were dealt with.
Some of the most difficult forms of individual Islamophobia to discern is through social media that provides opportunities for people to show bigotry without repercussions. Reluctance to report incidents, whatever their nature, to police is not surprising in the wake of general fears of surveillance and lack of trust of authorities. When civil liberties are eroded, silence can ensue. Until there is more confidence in reporting incidents, the extent of incidents and police responses remains unknown.
Q: How can education raise the citizens' awareness about the Muslims? What should be done so that the Australian people come to realize that Muslims are not a threat to them and peaceful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims is encouraged?
A: Education has to begin early and schools are an obvious site. Responsibility should rest with non-Muslims to join with Muslims in proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace and terms such as Sharia and Jihad are inappropriately and ignorantly used as examples of Islamic extremism. The clash of civilisations discourse that proclaims that Muslim and western values are irreconcilable, has re-emerged in popular discourse and needs to be tackled through education. Some schools do create understandings such as exchange visits between Muslim, Jewish and Christian schools. But in reality, until government takes leadership and the media takes responsibility, education programs are unlikely to be successful.
Unfortunately programs such as Countering Violent Extremism, which have taken global hold, are designed to perpetuate the image of the 'dangerous Muslim'. One example is money poured into professional education in Australia to ask members to identify would-be terrorists in the name of de-radicalisation.
The ‘dangerous Muslim’ rhetoric is reproduced in other ways such as asking Muslims to undertake surveillance and reporting in their own communities. No other group is asked to do this. Such tactics manufacture fear of Muslims in the wider community. There are generally excellent relationships between Islamic organisations and government authorities but this is rarely presented in the media, which instead speaks of lack of integration in society. This is despite the fact that Muslim community organisations join with mainstream society in events, charitable pursuits and educational activities.
There are also influential people on a global scale who dupe the public into believing that Muslims are a threat. These include anti-Muslim ex-Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali who speaks of the threat of Islam and propagates the trope of the oppressed Muslim woman. She has been described as a 'cheerleader for Muslim annihilation'. Her power, resources and influence are counter-productive to educating the community.
I end on a somewhat pessimistic note. Islamophobia has been difficult to dislodge globally and nationally. There have been inadequate strategies to eliminate this scourge. It is my view that until governments and media act responsibly by calling out Islamophobia and ceasing to disseminate fear, the problem will continue to fester.
By: Kourosh Ziabari