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HREOC Website: Isma - Listen

Launch of report of Isma- project - National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians

Sydney, 16 June 2004

Dr William Jonas
Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners and custodians of the land where we meet today.

I would also like to thank all of you for coming today to participate in the official launch of the Commission's report of the Isma- project. This a culmination of the work carried out not only by the Commission, but by all of those individuals and organisations who worked with the Commission in relation to each aspect of the project.

In March 2003, I launched the Isma- project to find out whether Arab and Muslim Australians had become targets of increased hostility since September 11 2001. During 2002, the Commission heard mounting anecdotal evidence from a range of Arab and Muslim community members and organisations about a rise of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia.

As many of you know, Isma- means 'listen' in Arabic and the aim of the project was to listen to Arab and Muslim Australians to better understand the nature and impact of the prejudice that many people said they were experiencing. Another aim was to try and understand and account for the discrepancy between what we had heard about peoples' experiences and formal complaint numbers which did not increase in any substantial way. The Commission was also interested in finding out what was currently being done to address prejudice towards Arab and Muslim Australians, as well as what else Arab and Muslim Australians thought should be done in this area.

A group of experts and representatives formed the Isma- project reference group and included people from across Australia and included community and religious leaders, a youth representative, a state equal opportunity commissioner and representatives from areas such as police, education and media. The names of the reference group members are set out in the report and in the media kits. The reference group played a crucial role in the project and provided the Commission with invaluable advice and constructive feedback as well as contacts and referrals. I would like to thank those members of the reference group who are here today for sharing their time, assistance and expertise with the Commission on this important project.

The consultation process was extensive. Members of my staff travelled across the country and between April and November 2003 conducted 69 consultations and heard from over 1,400 people. We consulted with as wide a cross section as possible of Arab and Muslim Australians, as well as with other federal, state and territory government agencies and non-government agencies across the nation. The most complex and difficult aspect of planning the consultations was to capture opinions that reflected the broad ethnic and religious diversity of Arab and Muslim Australians, including Arabs of diverse religious backgrounds and Muslims of diverse ethnic backgrounds and ancestries including Coptic Egyptians, Lebanese Christians, and Muslim Lebanese, Turkish, Afghan, Bosnian, Pakistani, Indonesian, Indian, Iraqi, Bangladeshi, Iranian and Fijian.

What did we hear?

What the Commission heard throughout the Isma- project is that a significant number of Arab and Muslim Australians are feeling fearful, isolated and vulnerable. We have been told that prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians has happened and continues to happen. It takes place on the street, in shopping centres, in the media, in schools, on public transport, in government and non-government services, at airports, hospitals and so on.

We listened to stories of women, mostly Muslim women wearing the hijab, anxious to walk their children to school in fear of being spat on, abused or ridiculed. Listened to the stories of people who felt they had been refused employment because their name was Mohammed, their resume said they spoke Arabic or because they were wearing the hijab. We listened to the stories of young men who felt that they were being targeted by police and to the stories of women and girls who said they had been abused, had objects thrown at them from moving cars, sometimes causing injury. We listened to people sick of having to justify their religion or cultural background, upset by what they felt was a wave of hatred from talkback radio and a barrage of television images. We listened to the stories of seventh generation Australians being told to go back to their own country.

Many of the stories and information provided by participants is contained in the report of the project which is available to you today. We have included the language of the participants themselves, which really speaks for itself.

We also listened to many positive examples of respect. We listened to stories of neighbours inviting a Muslim family over for a halal barbeque in a time when they needed support and of teachers demonstrating leadership in standing against any form of racism.

It is, however, important to also bear in mind that it was not the purpose of the project to verify every allegation of violence or prejudice that was described. Nor were the group consultations an appropriate forum for taking details of specific allegations. Rather, as the name suggests, the purpose of the Isma- project was to listen to Arab and Muslim Australians to better understand the nature, causes and solutions to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

The second major aspect of the project involved the work done by the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney. We commissioned the Centre for Cultural Research to carry out empirical and qualitative research to learn more about Arab and Muslim Australians' responses to prejudice and their experiences and understanding of complaints processes.

In addition to asking people about their experiences, we also asked them about the strategies currently being used to counter anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in communities across Australia and what more could be done to help eliminate this prejudice. This formed the third aspect of the project.

The Commission contacted over 100 local, state and federal government agencies and community groups and had over 50 meetings with representatives from these organisations from all over the country to find out what initiatives and programs are already in existence to deal with issues of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice. The extent of the work already being carried out across the country by community organisations and government agencies, and often by these groups working together, certainly surprised me - we have identified over 100 projects that aim to tackle these issues in a variety of ways around Australia. Projects and initiatives such as racism hotlines and registers, department of education 'racism no-way' education campaigns, mosque open days and cross-cultural awareness training are happening all over the country. There have also been numerous interfaith dialogues and events, conferences and anti-racism forums. Victoria Police have recently designed a hijab as part of their uniform and reviewed their guidelines and policies to accommodate for the first Muslim woman in hijab to join the police force anywhere in Australia.

So, while that's more than 100 good reasons to recognise that there is a problem, I believe it also shows the positive advances that have been made and need to continue being made in order to address these issues in a cohesive way. The Commission has compiled a list of these strategies and initiatives and we hope that this will be a useful resource for people.

But what more can be done? While much has been done by community and government organisations, participants in the Isma- project identified a number of key areas for improvement and future action. These included improving legal protections; education; media; police; encouraging effective action within Arab and Muslim communities themselves; and fostering public support and solidarity with Arab and Muslim communities. The Commission has made a number of recommendations in these areas and these are set out in the report which is also available to you today. These recommendations were developed by the Commission in consultation with a wide range of people including reference group members, state and territory equal opportunity commissioners, as well as stakeholders to whom recommendations were directed (such as NSW police, the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, and the Australasian Police Multicultural Advisory Bureau).

In broad terms, we can do more to counter anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice through education programs that promote positive awareness of cultural and religious diversity among Australians. We can also challenge negative stereotyping by encouraging better communication between government, non-government and media organisations and Arab and Muslim communities and assisting communities to challenge negative stereotyping. Supporting and strengthening Arab and Muslim community organisations to develop and participate in projects which address discrimination and vilification is essential. Ensuring that both Arab and Muslim Australians have adequate legal protection from discrimination and vilification is also vital. Currently, there is no federal law which makes discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion unlawful and only piecemeal coverage of religious discrimination and vilification across the states and territories. A federal law would ensure there is a national 'safety net' protecting everyone around the country from religious discrimination and vilification.

In making these recommendations, we hope the report has the result pointing the way forward rather than seeking to lay blame. We hope that their implementation will benefit Arab and Muslim Australians as well as people of other religions.

The Commission has also produced an audio CD in English and Arabic which describes the Isma- project and includes comments from the community consultations. I would like to thank all of the consultation participants who allowed us to use their stories for the CD, all of those community members who assisted in providing their voices for the CD, many of which I understand are here today, and our narrators Mr John Doyle for the English version and Mr Saleh Saqqaf for the Arabic version. The CD will be distributed to Arab and Muslim groups, local councils and for distribution to secondary schools across Australia. A copy of the CD will also be available for people to listen to on the Commission's website.

In conclusion, it's clear that education and strong leadership are the keys to long-term change in the way that Arabs and Muslims are viewed in Australia. Strong and effective leadership at a local, state, federal and at a community level is essential in providing support to the community. There is a role for everybody, including the Commission and state anti-discrimination agencies, government institutions, media, service providers and Arab and Muslim community organisations and individuals to work together in eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians.

We need to confront fears and uncertainties that translate into prejudice and intolerance, not just towards Arab and Muslim Australians, but also against other culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Increased hostility towards particular groups produces a dynamic of exclusion that encompasses a range of vulnerable groups - attacking the very principle of respect for diversity can have wide-reaching effects.

29 October 2004