Report from Charles Sturt University: “Islamophobia in Australia”

Report from Charles Sturt University: “Islamophobia in Australia”

The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation at Charles Sturt University has released its latest report, “Islamophobia in Australia.” The report captures and critically analyses data collected by the Islamophobia Register of Australia reflecting Australian Muslims’ lived Islamophobic experiences. The report also analyses the manifestations of Islamophobia within the historical, political and cultural context and examines the interplay of Islamophobia within the religious plane, the political sphere, media reporting, right-wing organizations and the field of criminology. This report is especially timely as there is a continuing debate over the existence and the scale of Islamophobia in Australia. The text of the report’s Executive Summary is below:

This report focuses on the critical analysis of Islamophobia and its various manifestations in Australia since 2014. Leaving aside terminology and historical Islamophobia within Western (e.g. Orientalism, colonialism, neo-conservatism) and Australian (e.g. dispossession of Indigenous Australians and racism towards different ethnic groups) settings, this report documents and analyses the present manifestations of Islamophobia. Grounded within a theoretical and empirical framework, the report explores the individual and institutional aspects of Islamophobia and the relationships between the two. While analysing diverse manifestations, the report does not claim to capture all forms of Islamophobia inclusively.

The report is organised in two sections. Section I describes the theological, political and cultural aspects of Islamophobia as reflected in various institutions. Section I also examines the interplay of Islamophobia within the religious plane, the political sphere, media reporting of Islam and Muslims, right-wing organisations and in the field of criminology.

Section II presents and analyses data gathered via the Islamophobia Register Australia reflecting Australian Muslims’ Islamophobic experiences. The report captures and critically analyses 243 verified incidents reported between September 2014 and December 2015. While these incidents do not reflect all local experiences of Islamophobia in Australia, they shed light on many aspects of its manifestations, nuances and complexities. The report findings signify the circumstances under which anti-Muslim hate incidents exist, operate and affect Australian Muslims, and illustrate specific characteristics of Islamophobia.

IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

Sections I and II demonstrate the disturbing amount of Islamophobia present in Australia. Islamophobia can be institutional or personal. While Australian society is officially pluralist and its culture is predominantly inclusive, there is an exclusivist minority of individuals and political entities that see Australia as a Christian country with no place for Muslims in its society. Furthermore, Islamophobia is turning into a normalised political rhetoric as the anti-Islamic far-right groups become louder in the political arena. Yet, the Islamophobic tendencies are not limited to a handful of religiously motivated exclusivist minority groups and political parties. Secular forms of Islamophobia can be observed in politics, media and social media, as addressed under Section I and II as institutional and individual Islamophobia.

Analysis of media discourse and an overview of Australian criminological history in Section I shows, while media have been quick to criminalise Muslims for all manner of alleged deviance, they have been slow to notice, detect and punish anti-Muslim perpetrators. Furthermore, the potential danger of hard right-wing organisations is minimised while the government, police, media and community largely focus on violent extremist threat within the Muslim camp. In fact, the analysis of online Islamophobia in Section II reveals that 51.4% of the online harassments were found to be of a violent nature – expressing, encouraging and facilitating violence. These findings indicate that far right groups of various persuasions as well as their spread of hatred through social media need to be taken more seriously.

Another important implication is the role of the media. Analysis of how selected events reported in the mainstream Australian media over the two-year period between 2014 and 2015 – ranging from the police raids in Sydney and Brisbane in September 2014, the Sydney siege later that year, to the Parramatta shooting in October 2015 and the Paris attacks – show that media reports about Islam and Muslims increased significantly in response to terror-related incidents locally and overseas.

Associated with this increase was a corresponding rise in the number of articles that were pejorative and disparaging of Muslims and the Islamic faith, thereby exacerbating the image of a menacing ‘other.’

Documentation of an observable coincidence between spikes of vilification reported to the Islamophobia Register and terror attacks, anti-terror legislation and negative media coverage of high profile Muslim leaders demonstrates the lack of a clear distinction between terrorists and ordinary Muslims in public discourse. There needs to be more accountability with regard to the media. However, not all media coverage is negative when it comes to depiction of events relating to Muslims; as described in the first section, mainstream media is not monolithic in its facilitation of the Islamophobic discourse.

With regard to individual Islamophobia that targets Muslims and Islam in a real life scenario (offline) or in the online space, Section II demonstrates that many non-Muslim witnesses were active reporters. In some cases (e.g. in Part 2.2), non-Muslim witnesses tried to distract the perpetrator to support the victim (also see Part 2.3 where some segments of the wider community have assumed responsibility to address Islamophobia). However, as noted in Part 2.1, many people did not intervene at the time of the incident. This is problematic, especially given that a number of reported incidents took place in the presence of young children or when the victim was pregnant and alone. While we can understand the fear of the reporter being targeted, the result is Australian Muslims are often left to fend for themselves, specifically Muslim women. Islamophobia is a societal problem – it is up to all members of society to ‘step up’ to combat it. If Islamophobia is widely recognised and openly discussed as a problem, this will empower the wider society to see countering Islamophobia as an even more pertinent social and civic responsibility.

Victims’ reports in Section II illustrate the profoundly destructive effect of Islamophobic incidents on the victims. That destruction limits daily routines of some victims, as Section II illustrates that Islamophobic incidents take place within indoor and outdoor areas. Indeed, more severe incidents were observed in indoor areas while the victim was amongst a crowd. The hot spots of Islamophobia included frequently visited places such as shopping centres, trains and train stations, schools and school surroundings. Extension of Islamophobia to frequently visited places deprives victims and potential targets of the sense of security in their daily lives, while it leads to normalisation of Islamophobia for people from all walks of life in Australia.

Only 11% of insults were related to terrorism, showing that anger and hatred expressed in Islamophobic attacks are not necessarily associated with terrorism and instead appear to be largely about a hatred of Islam and Muslims. Analysis of the findings leads us to conclude that Islamophobia is not necessarily associated with the public’s reaction to terrorism per se, but perhaps the very existence and visibility of Muslims and Islam. Women, especially those with Islamic head covering (79.6% of the female victims), have been the main targets of Islamophobia. In 56.6% of the cases, religious clothing was mentioned by the perpetrator. The severity level increased when dishonouring those visibly Muslim women with misogynistic remarks (such as calling the victim as a “bitch,” “whore,” etc.), followed by ‘insults targeting religion,’ ‘xenophobic insults’ and ‘association with terrorism.’ In contrast, association with terrorism directed mostly at men was observed in less severe offline incidents. Likewise, content analysis of insults revealed that only 11% (N=74) of insults were related to terrorism. Intolerance to Muslims’ presence constituted 23.4% (N=155) and insults targeting religion constituted 23.8% (N= 158). Even within the death threats, which are considered the most intense level of hatred, beheading related death threats constituted only half of the death threats associated with “halal killing” or “halal slaughtering.” These findings highlight the consequences of targeting a religion and/or people on the basis of their religion.

This can be curbed by reinforcing the ethics of journalism, political and public discourse to preserve the human dignity and public security of Muslims.

It is rather concerning that a quite significant number of reported incidents take place in the presence of young children. In most cases, mothers were accompanied by more than one child. Even if only a single child is counted for each case, the number of children exposed to Islamophobia is still concerning as it reaches 47.7% (N=63 out of 132) within the range of offline cases. Most of the perpetrators faced no social or legal repercussions and parents remained helpless, as observed in their inability to defend themselves or their children. This was also evident in the cases of harassed teenagers in schools. The significant number of incidents that took place in the presence of children and the feeling of helplessness experienced by their parents leave minors without adequate protection.

The report similarly found, Muslim women are frequent targets of Islamophobia because of their visibility with the Islamic headscarf. They are particularly vulnerable when unaccompanied, with children or pregnant at the time of the incident. The social and psychological impact of Islamophobia, especially on women and children, needs to be acknowledged and further researched.

Islamophobia has broad and far-ranging implications and is ultimately a threat for Australian multiculturalism, Western civic liberties and universal humanistic values. It is vital, then, that all the relevant Australian bodies at governmental, societal and communal levels prioritise and develop strategies to counter Islamophobia as an international, regional and national threat.

Countering all forms of bigotry, including Islamophobia, is a collective social responsibility at the individual and institutional level. Fostering a genuinely pluralistic and inclusive culture should continue to be promoted across the whole Australian society. Valuing diversity, human dignity and acceptance of difference in faith and culture will only improve Australian liberal democracy and multicultural society.

The PDF of the full report can be accessed here.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Bridge Initiative or Georgetown University. The content may have been edited for style and clarity.