By Rabia Siddique
13 October 2017
Terrorised, persecuted, stateless,
homeless, and, until recently, without real international support – this is the
plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community being forced out of
At the hands of the Myanmar military, more
than 80 villages have been burnt, leaving ten thousands of Rohingyas fleeing
daily and attempting to cross into a flooded Bangladesh.
Amid perennial media coverage linking Islam
to terrorism and radicalisation, little has been known in the west of the
persecution of Muslim minority communities like the Rohingya.
Like many displaced Muslims, the vulnerable
Rohingya may face fear and resentment when they settle in new communities.
If by chance some of the Rohingya find
refuge in our lucky country, there’s a strong possibility they will be on the
receiving end of the relentless Islamophobia experienced by Muslims, in
particular since 11 September 2001.
But just how serious a problem is
Islamophobia in Australia?
As an Australian-born, modern, educated,
uncovered Muslim woman, I am acutely aware I come to this issue from a position
of privilege, but sadly, also some experience.
As a child of a migrant growing up in 1970s
Australia, when the White Australia policy was still the policy of the day and
“assimilation” was the buzzword, I, like many of my Italian, Greek, Asian and
Aboriginal friends, tried to fit in, to become invisible to avoid the verbal
and sometimes physical attacks that came mostly from the white kids at school.
While being called racist names was hurtful and offensive, most of us shrugged
it off and grew into reasonably confident, productive and, eventually, accepted
members of the Australian community. Largely, it was thanks to the hard work
and sacrifice of our parents.
In those days little was known about Islam
or Muslims, and our community was relatively small, so we were lumped into the
“Johnny foreigner” category until we proved ourselves worthy of respect and
acceptance, but we were not specifically targeted by politicians, populists or
nationalists like Muslims today.
Several independent reports show that while
Islamophobia has risen since 2001, the majority of incidents have been directed
at Muslim women and their children.
In 2004, a report to the Human Rights and
Equal Opportunity Commission by the Centre for Cultural Research at the
University of Western Sydney to investigate Australian Arabs’ and Muslims’
experiences of post-September 11 racism, found sharply increased incidents of
racism, abuse or violence against Arab and Muslim Australians. While 93% of
respondents reported an increase in racism, abuse and violence against their
community; one of the most notable findings was that women experienced
significantly more abuse than men.
A 2015 report “Islamophobia, social
distance and fear of terrorism in Australia” by professors Riaz Hassan and Bill
Martin from the University of South Australia found 10% of Australians describe
themselves as highly Islamophobic, 20% as undecided and 70% as less
Islamophobic. Focusing education and awareness efforts on those who consider
themselves less Islamophobic holds the key to changing negative attitudes
towards peace-loving Muslims, says Hassan.
The Islamophobia Register Australia, set up
by Mariam Veiszadeh in 2014, provided a platform to report, record and analyse
Islamophobic incidents. Veiszadeh observed that while extensive research and
resourcing had gone into understanding radicalisation (particularly Islamic
radicalisation) and addressing it as a security and a social problem,
Islamophobia was under-researched, under-documented and not widely accepted as
a serious issue affecting social harmony. This was despite evidence suggesting
it is one of the largest contributors to radicalisation among Muslims.
The pressing need to tackle Islamophobia is
evident in a combined Charles Sturt University and University of Western
Australia report Islamophobia in Australia.It shows Muslim women, particularly
hijab-wearing women and their children, bear the brunt of most Islamophobic
attacks. Some 79.6% of victims are women and 47.7% of their children are direct
or indirect targets. Most perpetrators are men, and the location makes little
difference. Islamophobia doesn’t recognise the heterogeneous nature of Muslim
communities and the disempowering impact these attacks have on Muslim women and
children over other forms of racism. This disempowerment is often related to me
by my hijab-wearing friends.
One friend’s daughter was deeply
traumatised while walking home. A car of young white men slowed down alongside
her, shouted abuse, pulled out toy guns and pretended to shoot her. She arrived
home pale and shaken, vowing never to leave the house alone again.
In one of many other incidents, a friend’s
four-year-old son told her he didn’t think he would grow up to become a father,
because he was sure he would be killed before he got older. When asked why, he
referred to a letter delivered to their home earlier that week. The anonymous
letter (which he had overheard his parents talking about) was a death threat.
Anecdotal evidence, the experience of
friends and the findings of reports dating back to 2003 all highlight a mutual
normalisation of Islamophobia in Australia that must stop.
The Islamophobia in Australia report finds
that victims are reluctant to report the all-too-regular crimes committed
against them due to the inadequate response from authorities. And witnesses,
who are more likely to report these attacks, still rarely intervene to stop the
harm being inflicted.
Muslims, particularly Muslim women, expect
Islamophobic attacks as something they must endure to be a part of Australian
society. Non-Muslims often accept Islamophobia as an inevitable, if regrettable
Our leaders must take primary
responsibility for reversing this normalisation. But we all have a role to
play. An example of how we benefit can be seen in the support I had from
professionals around the country to host a careers event for Muslim students
who were allegedly asked to leave a Perth careers expo because some people felt
uncomfortable by their presence. The resultant event showed students and
teachers that they belong here and that everyone has a responsibility to speak against
For me, it was another reminder of the
importance of committing to living a life in harmony with the values most of us
hold dear – the values that make Australia, all of our Australia, great.
• Rabia Siddique is an
international humanitarian, professional speaker and author