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Beware of cover for making bigotry respectable

Race Race Discrimination

Islam isn't a race. It's a religion. Therefore, abusing Muslims isn't racist. The real racism is that we're not allowed to criticise Islam.

This is the logic of many who are expressing hostility towards Muslims and Islam. Many have written to me directly, often in language unfit for public repetition. They say that they are concerned with the beliefs and practices of Muslims. They say they are entitled to be scornful of Islam, which they fear is taking over Australia.

The distinction between race and religion is a complex one. But it shouldn't be used to provide cover for making bigotry respectable.

Let's be clear about a few things. In a liberal democracy we should be free to have robust debates about culture, religion and belief. Yet debate doesn't mean abuse. Criticism doesn't mean vilification. We may disagree, but we should do so with civility. There is little to commend about militant hostility towards faith, of all kinds.

As for race and religion, the two can overlap. For example, we consider anti-Semitism to involve a form of racism, even though Jewishness involves a religious identity. This is because Jewishness also has an ethnic character; Jews consider themselves to be a people. More generally, religion can itself act as a racial marker.

The history of racism demonstrates this. Scholars highlight that the prototypical forms of modern racism can be found in the treatment of conversos, Jewish converts to Christianity in 15th and 16th century Spain. These converts were identified and discriminated against because some Spanish Christians believed the impurity of their blood made them incapable of experiencing a true conversion. Here we see the essential condition of racism: the idea that differences between racial or cultural groups are permanent and ineradicable.

In the case of contemporary anti-Muslim feeling, there are frequently racialised elements. Religion can be used as a surrogate for race. When we see verbal and other attacks against Muslim Australians, it is often accompanied by a nastiness that resembles racial hatred.

Anti-Muslim sentiment can be based on negative racial stereotypes about people from the Middle East. Take, for example, some of the recent commentary about the suburb of Lakemba, home to some of Sydney's Muslim communities. One newspaper in August featured a two-page spread about the suburb titled, "Inside Sydney's Muslim Land", in which the correspondent spent 24 hours in a place "where a pervasive monoculture has erased the traditional Aussie way of life". In the piece itself, the correspondent would observe that the suburb had an ethnic mix "similar to what you'd find in any Arabic city".

In the space of a few sentences, then, we see the conflation of Muslim and Arab – of religion quickly expanding into something more cultural, ethnic, and arguably racial.

It is in these respects that anti-Muslim sentiment can involve racialised cultural hostility. Anyone who may look like a Muslim will be presumed to bear a culture that is incompatible with Australian culture. But what determines whether someone looks like they are Muslim, if not race and ethnicity?

As with all bigotry, anti-Muslim feeling can express itself insidiously. Its currency is distortion and misrepresentation.

Take recent social media campaigns that have been waged against halal certification. Anti-halal campaigners have been targeting various food businesses that comply with Islamic dietary standards. Among other things, campaigners claim that fees paid for halal certification are being used to fund terrorism.

When it comes to halal, ongoing campaigns against it are little more than anti-Islamic bullying. Bullying that aims to stimulate fear and divide Australians.

Any suggestion that certification fees are proceeds to terrorism is unfounded. Australia has laws that forbid people and organisations from funding illegal activity such as terrorism. Organisations that provide halal certification services are not immune from such laws.

Halal slaughter in Australia is also consistent with standards of animal welfare. According to the RSPCA, most halal slaughter in Australia complies with the national standard requiring that all animals be stunned unconscious prior to slaughter. In this respect, halal practices in Australia differ from halal slaughter in many other countries.

As for the certification process itself, this has no negative bearing on the ability of non-Muslims to consume different food products. Halal may be grounded in religion, but the process of halal labelling is primarily focused on hygiene and ingredients – on ensuring, for instance, that ingredients are free from pork and that machinery involved in making food has not been cleaned with alcohol. The Australian Food and Grocery Council explains that the exercise can be best compared to vegan or gluten-free labelling.

All things considered, there is a basic value we should affirm. Every person should be free to live their lives, without being harassed or intimidated because of their religion – or because of what they look like. Most Muslim Australians are law-abiding and loyal Australian citizens who shouldn't be tarred by the brush of prejudice.

Let's remember: bigotry diminishes not only the lives of those who are on the receiving end. It diminishes us all.

Tim Soutphommasane is Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner.

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald