By Mehmet Ozalp
July 10, 2017
The existence and scale of Islamophobia in
Australia has been hotly debated. While Muslims insist it is real and of
significant scale, it has been either denied or downplayed in wider circles.
The main reason why Islamophobia has not
been taken seriously could be due to the lack of quality data on the issue.
Most research to date focused on surveys conducted on the negative sentiments
of non-Muslims. But our new study reports on actual Islamophobic incidents, and
stands to change how Islamophobia is viewed in Australia.
The report is based on 243 cases of
verified Islamophobic incidents collected over 14 months in 2014-15. In this
respect, this is the first study of its kind anywhere in the world.
Acquiring data on Islamophobic incidents
has been notoriously difficult, as Muslims are generally averse to reporting
and there were no safe avenues to turn to until the Islamophobia Register of
Australia was established in 2014. In the first two weeks of the register, 33
incidents were reported. It is safe to assume that the 243 reports are only the
tip of the iceberg.
The simplest definition of Islamophobia is
the special form of racism revealing “indiscriminate negative attitudes or
emotions directed at Islam and Muslims”. An Islamophobic incident is any act
comprising of abusive hatred, vilification and violence inflicted on Muslims
going about their daily lives.
The report verified incidents by contacting
people involved and checking facts and analysed and classified them as online
or offline, levels of severity, where and how they happened, the vulnerability
of victims, nature of the abuse, and its impact on victims.
Key Findings of the Report
Women, especially those with Islamic head
covering (79.6% of the female victims), have been the main targets of
Islamophobia. One-in-three female victims had their children with them at the
time of the reported incident.
One woman said:
Her voice got louder so I’m not sure if
they started to follow me on foot, but once I entered the medical centre on
Pitt Street, I didn’t hear or see anything else from them. I am 19 weeks
pregnant and have never felt so afraid/vulnerable in my life … I thought they
were going to physically try harming my daughter and I. There were lots of
passers-by who didn’t come to my aid …
Of the perpetrators, 98% were identified by
those who reported it as ethnically Anglo-Celtic. Perpetrators were three times
more likely to be male. While lone males were more likely to be the
perpetrator, lone Muslim women tended to be the victims.
After verbal threats and assaults, physical
harassment was the second highest category of incidents (29.6%). Most reported
physical assaults occurred in New South Wales (60%) and Victoria (26.7%).
Queensland was notably high considering the relative small population of
Muslims in that state.
Of the in-person Islamophobic attacks, 48%
occurred in crowded spaces that were frequented daily – shopping centres and
train stations were the most common.
I was walking with my head down and a group
of young males yelled out “ISIS BITCH”, “go back to where you came from” and
snickered and said “shh or she’ll behead you”. And followed me down the street.
None of the train staff helped me out or stopped them.
This is expected, as Muslims are more
likely to encounter Islamophobes in crowded public places. What is worrying is
that the attacks occur in front of children and large number of bystanders,
risking the normalisation of Islamophobia.
Further, nobody intervened in 75% of the
reported incidents, even though half the incidents occurred in crowded public
places. Encouragingly, though, one-in-four public incidents received
intervention by non-Muslims, and interestingly non-Muslims constituted about
25% of the witness reporters. Said one witness:
Today I witnessed two males around late 40s
or so verbally abusing a group of around six ladies wearing headscarves, with
their children … one of the men was yelling at them “it’s your own fucking
fault, you’re not wanted here” … I asked the women if they were OK, a couple of
them nodded at me and smiled shyly.
Online incidents were characterised by
severe expression of hatred and vilification and wanting to harm Muslims. Of
the 132 online incidents, 37% targeted individuals by name, and in 51.4%
threatened to harm the target.
In one case, a perpetrator wrote about a
Muslim childcare in Perth:
Wait till its full n burn the joint down.
There was a correlation between a rise of
Islamophobic incidents with public protests, debate on legislation affecting
Muslims, sieges and terror attacks, irrespective of whether they occurred in
Australia or abroad. Significantly, terrorism was explicitly referred to in
only 11% of incidents.
Responding To the Report
There are three possible responses to the
The first is to explain Islamophobia as the
unfortunate outcome of international conflicts, threat of terrorism, and
radicalisation. While this approach may seem to explain the rise of
Islamophobia, it shifts the blame to victims: innocent ordinary Australian
The reality is that victims have nothing to
do with international conflicts, terrorism or radicalisation. They are simply
at the receiving end of the anger and rage caused by the Islamophobic
generalisation that something is inherently wrong with Muslims and Islam.
Significantly, evidence presented in the
report suggests that Islamophobia is not rooted in Islamic terrorism as
previously thought but rooted in Muslims’ presence in Australia.
The second possible response is to
whitewash the report with the fear that recognition of Islamophobia could be
interpreted as an admission of something inherently wrong with Australian
Muslims have been raising the issue of
Islamophobia consistently, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion
of Afghanistan and Iraq. The reaction has often been the attitude – Australians
always pick on the latest arrivals, it seems it is the Muslims’ turn; it will
soon go away as it did for others in the past. The problem is it is not going
away: it is increasing.
Recognition of Islamophobia does not
diminish the achievements of Australian society and the success of its
multiculturalism. It will merely highlight a social problem that cannot be
ignored or downplayed any longer.
The third response is the proper democratic
one – take the findings of this report seriously and invest in further research
and policy development. The report is an opportunity to openly discuss
Islamophobia so that strategies could be developed to counter it as a national
threat and societal problem.
An important aspect of Australian liberal
democracy is the protection of its minorities. Minorities do not always have a
voice in politics or media, and can often find themselves overwhelmed by
negative perceptions and antagonism.
Ignoring Islamophobia will only entrench
the problem more deeply.