Islamophobia is still raising its ugly head in Australia

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Muslim women were particular targets of abuse.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

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 it’s full n burn the joint down. Filthy scumbags.

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 report.

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 Muslims.

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 society.

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.

The ConversationIgnoring Islamophobia will only entrench the problem more deeply.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turks Threaten to Kill Priest over Swiss Minaret Decision

Slap to religious freedom in Switzerland leads to threat over church bell tower in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.

Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.

“If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too,” one of the men told Akbulut.

The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.

The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.

There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.

Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.

“He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards,” he said. “I talked with him two days ago, and he said, ‘It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.’”

Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.

Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church’s Internet site, he said.

“We’re kind of used to that,” Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.”

Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah “who like to flex their muscles.”

“We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that,” Mattix said. “But the local police are taking great strides to protect us.”

Mattix said he also has “divine confidence” in God’s protection.

The European Syriac Union’s Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.

“When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there,” he said.

The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as “Islamophobia.” One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.

In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either “should not” or “absolutely should not” be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.

The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.

This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were “massacred” along with Armenians in 1915 killings.

In Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone recently dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.

At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.

“These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level,” Aygur stated in a press release. “Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs’ existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions.”

Report from Compass Direct News