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HREOC Website: Isma - Listen

Reality of Anti-Muslim Prejudice in Australia

Forum Hosted by the University of Western Sydney

Omeima Sukkarieh Community Liaison Officer Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Bankstown 21 May 2004

So what is the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, (the Commission or HREOC as I may refer to it from now on)?

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was established in 1986. The Commission's goal is to foster greater understanding and protection of human rights in Australia and to address the human rights concerns of a broad range of individuals and groups. We have a particular focus on race, sex and disability discrimination, as well as the rights of Indigenous Australians. It is an independent statutory organisation and reports to the federal Parliament through the Attorney-General.

The Commission's responsibilities include education and public awareness, handling of discrimination and human rights complaints, human rights compliance and policy and legislative development. It is responsible for administering the Racial Discrimination Act, Sex Discrimination Act, Disability Discrimination Act and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act (HREOC Act).

Is it against the law to discriminate against someone based on their race or religion?

Under both federal and all state anti-discrimination laws, it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of their race, descent or national or ethnic origin. It is also against the law under both federal and most state laws to express racial hatred (what is more commonly known as vilification), towards a person because of their race or national or ethnic origin (except for the Northern Territory. Western Australia deals with this issue under its criminal laws and not under anti-discrimination laws).

It is against the law to discriminate against someone because of their religion in the ACT, Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria. Therefore, a person discriminated against because of their religion has no legally enforceable rights if the alleged discrimination happened in NSW or South Australia. It is only against the law to vilify a person based on their religion in Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria but not in the ACT, NSW, South Australia, Western Australia or the Northern Territory. Under federal law, it is not against the law to discriminate against someone, or vilify them, solely because of their religion. However, if a person believes that they have been discriminated against on the basis of their religion in their employment or occupation, or if they believe their human rights in relation to religious belief have been breached by the Commonwealth, then under the HREOC Act, the President, on behalf of the Commission, has the power to inquire into and attempt to conciliate such a complaint. If the complaint cannot be resolved, and the President finds that the complaint is substantiated, he must then provide a report to the federal Attorney-General concerning his findings, reasons and any recommendations. This report must be tabled in the federal Parliament. The findings of the President are not legally enforceable and the respondent can ignore them if it wishes to do so.

There are clearly gaps in the coverage that both federal and state anti-discrimination laws provide and these gaps take on greater significance in particular times of crisis. Since 11 September 2001in particular, Muslims and Arabs around Australia have reported increased levels of prejudice, discrimination and vilification and community leaders say these attitudes have caused fear, isolation and uncertainty within their communities. The Commission has considered related issues in the past.

For example, in 1989-90, the Race Discrimination Commissioner convened a National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia. The Inquiry looked broadly at the incidence of racist violence against individuals and organisations and the current government strategies to deal with it. A wide range of individuals and groups gave evidence and made submissions to the Inquiry, including Arab and Muslim Australians. In 1991, the Commission's Report of the 'National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia' described upsurges in violence towards Arab and Muslim Australians during the Gulf War. But the Gulf War was simply the trigger for violence - not the sole cause. The report pointed to deeper, long-term underlying tensions as the root cause of discrimination and vilification and there are many other sources which alert us to the fact that war can exacerbate racial tensions, not cause them. And in the current climate of war, one need only look at a survey conducted last year on racist attitudes in Australia conducted by geographer Kevin Dunn, to understand that the level of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice was high among the general Australian public even before the outbreak of the war on Iraq.

In 1997, The Commission launched a national inquiry into religious freedom in Australia. The inquiry received over 250 submissions from a range of individuals and organisations including representatives of the Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Coptic, Lutheran and Muslim faiths. In 1998, the Commission recommended in its report 'Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief' that both discrimination and vilification on the ground of belief should be made unlawful under federal law, with appropriate exemptions. This recommendation has not yet been taken up by the Government.

The Commission has also considered whether Muslims are protected by the federal Racial Discrimination Act (the RDA). The RDA makes it unlawful to discriminate and vilify on the basis of race, colour, descent, national origin or ethnic origin - but not on the basis of religion. Courts in the UK and Australia have found that Jewish people and Sikhs fall within the meaning of ethnic origin. In Australian law, this means that they are covered by the RDA. However, Australian courts have yet to decide whether Muslims share a common 'ethnic origin' as well as a religion. If federal legislation is not enacted to make religious discrimination unlawful, whether or not Muslims can seek the protection of the RDA will depend on whether courts accept evidence that Australian Muslims see themselves and are seen by others as sharing an ethnic origin. The interpretation of the term 'ethnic origin' is outlined in a HREOC paper on 'Islam and the RDA' which is currently on the Commission's website as part of E-Race, a web forum on race discrimination issues where people are invited to comment on this paper. What these on-line voices have told us is that the conflation of Arab with Muslim has resulted in an especially strong form of prejudice and discrimination. These on-line voices have also told us that intolerance towards particular groups encourages discrimination against other minorities - including Sikhs, Jews, Christina Arabs and non-Arab Muslims and that attacking the very principle of respect for diversity has an alarming ripple effect.
How did the Isma- project come about?

Heated public debate surrounding specific national and local events such as the trial, conviction and sentencing of gang-rapists in Sydney in 2001and 2002 and growing numbers of asylum seekers from the Middle-East and Muslim countries reflected increasing hostility towards diverse communities of Arab and Muslim Australians. September 11 and the Bali bombings were tragic events which left us grappling with a maelstrom of horror, grief, confusion and anger. These emotions quickly translated into fear and mistrust. Since then, Arab and Muslim Australians have told us that they have felt a rising wave of prejudice driven by the fear of difference and a need to find 'someone' - someone 'different' - to blame. And while the number of formal complaints of racial discrimination received by the Commission did not increase, in 2002 the Commission heard mounting anecdotal evidence from a range of Arab and Muslim community organisations about a rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia. The Isma- project, which is Arabic for 'listen', was launched with a view to understanding and accounting for this discrepancy.

The project was launched in March 2003, in a time of uncertainty, yet, undeniably in a time of great necessity. It had three major components:

  • consultations with Arab and Muslim Australians
  • an empirical survey carried out by the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, using questionnaires and interviews to learn more about Arab and Muslim Australians' responses to racism and abuse and their experiences and understanding of complaints processes
  • documentation of government and non-government strategies that address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

As a Community Liaison Officer, I could not promise that the consultations undertaken during the life of the project answered the question as to why such prejudice exists, however the project gave us a chance to understand how Arab and Muslim Australians have experienced religious and racial discrimination in recent times and the project did attempt to find answers as to how to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians, by listening to what strategies they believe would help combat harassment and vilification.

A group of experts and representatives formed the Isma- project reference group and included people from across Australia from equal opportunity agencies, community and religious leaders, a youth representative, and representatives from areas such as police, education and media. The group played a crucial role in the project providing the Isma- team with advice and constructive feedback as well as contacts and referrals.

The consultation process was extensive. We consulted with over 1400 people from all states and territories across Australia and 69 consultations were conducted between April and November 2003. 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.

One of the most common misconceptions is that all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arabs. While Muslims are usually the majority in their countries of origin, Arab Australians are predominantly Christian. For example, 55% of Lebanese-born Australians are Christian while 41% are Muslim. While they share a common religion, Australian Muslims are a culturally and linguistically diverse group where less than 20% of Australian Muslims were born in Middle Eastern or Arab countries. A significant number come from Asia, Europe and Africa. Just over one-quarter of a million Muslims (281,578) live in Australia and are a very young population with almost 50% aged 24 and under (compared to 35% of non-Muslim Australians). 162,283 Australians were born in the 22 Arab League nations. Another 120,000 Australian-born people have at least one parent born in an Arab country. Around 200,000 Australians speak Arabic.

So while most consultations were conducted in English, several were entirely in Arabic. Eritrean, Dari, Farsi, Pashtu, Bosnian, Bahasa Indonesia and Albanian interpreters were also used in select consultations. With permission from the consultation participants', where granted, we taped each consultation and detailed notes were also taken by Commission staff. These notes, together with transcripts of tapes (where available), were used to produce summaries of consultations which are published on the Commission's website.

So, what we set out to do was listen and we journeyed across all states and territories in Australia to do so. What did we hear? What the Commission heard throughout the Isma- project is that a significant number of Arab and Muslim Australians are feeling 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 our schools, on public transport, in government and non-government services, at airports, hospitals, and so on.

We listened to the stories of women, mostly Muslim women wearing the hijab, anxious to walk their children to school in the fear of being spat on, abused or ridiculed. Listened to the stories of children wondering why their friends won't play with them anymore. Listened to the stories of men and women being singled out at airports and feeling that they had been refused employment because their name was Mohamad, 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 targeted by police, and sadly, listened to the stories of women and girls who had been physically abused, had objects been thrown at them, being run over by cars whilst walking on the footpath, all causing injury. We listened to the voices sick of having to justify their religion or cultural background, upset by what they felt was a wave of hatred perpetrated by talkback radio, mail drops and a barrage of TV images. We listened to the stories of seventh generation Australians being told to 'go back to their own country'.

We also listened to positive examples of respect. We listened to stories of neighbours inviting a Muslim family over for a halal BBQ in a time where they needed support; of teachers demonstrating leadership in standing against any form of racism.
But many Australians simply shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs. We were told by many participants that the impacts of such inaction from bystanders were more so than the impact of the act of discrimination or abuse itself. Scared, isolated, increasingly distrustful of authority, not feeling welcome, alienated and disheartened were only some of things that participants expressed feeling.
The purpose of the second component of the Isma- project, the empirical research, was to get a more comprehensive picture of the nature and extent of incidents of prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians and the reasons why Arab and Muslim Australians do or do not complain about such incidents.

The rationale for commissioning the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney to conduct this research was to give participants greater freedom to be critical of complaint processes and complaint handling agencies including HREOC.

The research focused on Arab and Muslim Australians in two states: New South Wales and Victoria, specifically Sydney and Melbourne.
The research had two main parts: self-complete questionnaire surveys and semi-structured interviews.

1,475 self-complete questionnaires (in Arabic and English) were distributed to individuals, community organisations and mosques between August and November 2003. 25 multiple-choice and open-ended questions asked about people's experiences and responses to racism, abuse and violence. Respondents were also invited to participate in follow-up interviews to explore their responses in more depth. 186 people returned questionnaires and 34 open-ended interviews were conducted with a representative cross-section of survey respondents, with roughly half from each state.

So what did the research find? Much of what the research found echoed the findings from the consultations.

66% of survey respondents reported they had personally experienced more racism, abuse or violence since 11 September 2001. 92% of respondents believed their community had experienced more racism, abuse or violence since 11 September 2001. 79% of respondents were more worried or afraid that something bad was going to happen to them because of their race, culture or religion since 11 September 2001.

The most common places where respondents experienced racism, abuse or violence were on the street, in the media, while driving, in a shop or shopping centre, at school, college or university and at work. 71% felt that they were targets because of their religion. Almost 50% of survey respondents believed that wearing the hijab made them targets. 18% felt they had been targeted because of their ethnicity - most felt that their 'Arab' or 'Middle Eastern' appearance made them targets, a smaller proportion identified language use as the trigger for racism, abuse or violence and a smaller proportion of respondents felt that ignorance, media stereotyping or fear of terrorism were the main causes.

Most survey respondents did not formally complain about their experiences of racism, abuse or violence and of those who did complain around 20% spoke directly to the person who had abused or discriminated against them and only 8% and under complained to their school, college or university, to the police, to a community organisation or to their employer.

The most common reason why survey respondents did not report incidents of racism, abuse or violence was that they did not think complaining would result in a useful outcome. Other reasons included that they did not want to make trouble, draw attention to themselves, their family or community, did not know who to report to, were afraid of backlash or the incident was not covered by law or was not important enough.

After asking participants if they had experienced discrimination or vilification and if so, what did they experience, we also asked about the strategies being used to counter anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in communities across Australia and what more could be done to help eliminate prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians.

This formed the basis of the third component of the Isma- project, which had the aim of setting out existing strategies, identify gaps and shortcomings and make suggestions for strengthening the community and government responses in the future. An audit of strategies and initiatives was conducted and many projects and initiatives were brought to the Commission's attention through the consultation process by individual participants or host organisations and reference group members. The Commission also contacted relevant federal, state and local government agencies and non-government community organisations requesting information about existing projects and initiatives that specifically address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

The Commission is by no means the only agency aware of an increase in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and committed to taking action to combat it. Government, non-government and community organisations have initiated programs and strategies to address the causes of prejudice and to support people affected. The consultations told us that things are being done. Projects and initiatives such as racism hotlines and registers, department of education 'racism no-way' education campaign, mosque open days and cross-cultural awareness training are all happening across the country. There have also been numerous interfaith dialogues and events, conferences, education resource kits, anti-racism forums. Victoria Police last year 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 service anywhere in Australia.

But what more can be done? While much has been done by community and government organisations to allay prejudice and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians, participants in the Isma- project identified six key areas for improvement and future action: improving legal protections; promoting positive public awareness through education; addressing stereotypes and misinformation in public debate; ensuring community safety through law enforcement; empowering communities and fostering public support and solidarity with Arab and Muslim Australians. The Commission has worked on developing more specific recommendations from these broad areas followed investigation of the kinds of initiatives which were already in place at a local, state and federal level across Australia outlined previously.

Departmental policy change, educative forums, legislative changes in anti-discrimination laws, positive community education campaigns and greater understanding are only some of the strategies that have been suggested in the consultations. Strategies that can be implemented in partnership with communities and government agencies that will help eliminate discrimination and vilification against Arab and Muslim Australians. Participants felt that there was a role for everyone to play, including the Arab and Muslim community itself in educating their own community as well as the broader community about their rights and obligations under anti-discrimination laws and about their own culture, history and religion.

For many the path to equality in Australia was felt to be fast becoming the road less travelled, however in times such as these, we must all see education as a priority. It certainly is for the Commission. One of our goals is to help people to understand their rights as well as their obligation to respect the rights of others. To understand that the assertion of rights is not an attempt to take something away from those that 'have', but rather, it is a way to extend to those who 'have not' something that is theirs. And that this will benefit the whole community.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The project, I believe, is one step closer to eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, through both listening and understanding.

So where to from here? The Commission is intending to launch the summary report of the project in mid - June this year. This will include a summary report of the consultations as well as the recommendations developed by the Commission that have been identified as ways forward in eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians. An audio CD has also been produced which is aimed to be an educative and informative brief summary of the Isma- project. In addition to all the summaries of consultations currently on the website, as well as fact sheets and statistics on Arab and Muslim Australians, and all the Isma- newsletters, a copy of the empirical research findings and report of the research will be posted on the website. A copy of the CD will also be available for people to listen to on the website, as well as the list of all the strategies and initiatives undertaken post September 11, at a national, state and local level that specifically address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

The Isma- team has already begun a long journey, and I urge you all to continue to support this important project, to remain vigilant in action, to raise your voices, and to listen. The Commission urges all Australians to no longer ignore difference or scorn identity, but to embrace the diversity and individuality that exists within our society.

Thank you again for coming this evening and for your interest in the project.

29 October 2004