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Ismaع - Listen: Executive Summary

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Isma - Listen: National consultations on elimination prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians


Dr William Jonas AM, the acting Race Discrimination
Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (the
Commission), launched the Ismaع
project in March 2003. The project was a response to increasing concerns
expressed by Arab and Muslim organisations about the rise in anti-Arab
and anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia.

These concerns were expressed against the backdrop
of the September 11 2001 attacks in the United States and the Bali bombings
of October 2002, as well as national and local events such as the growing
numbers of asylum seekers from the Middle-East and Muslim countries and
the trial, conviction and sentencing of gang rapists in Sydney in 2001-2002.

While the number of formal complaints of racial
discrimination and racial hatred received by the Commission did not increase,
in 2002 the Commission heard mounting anecdotal evidence from a range
of Arab and Muslim community members and organisations about a rise in
anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia. The
project was launched with a view to understanding and accounting for this

The aim of the Ismaع
project was to explore whether Arab and Muslim Australians were experiencing
discrimination and vilification post-September 11. If so, what was the
nature of these experiences and what were their impacts? How were Arab
and Muslim Australians responding to such experiences and why weren't
they reporting them through official complaint channels?

The Commission was also interested in finding
out what was being done to address underlying prejudice towards and discrimination
and vilification of Arab and Muslim Australians and what else Arab and
Muslim Australians thought should be done in this area. The project involved
three main components:

1. National consultations with Arab and Muslim Australians. A total of 1,423 people participated
in 69 consultations in all states and territories around Australia between
April and November 2003. Consultations involved group discussions on
the following broad questions: Have you (or the community group you
represent) experienced discrimination and vilification? If so, what
are those experiences? What is being done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim
prejudice and discrimination? What more could be done to fight anti-Arab
and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination?

2. Empirical and qualitative research conducted by the researchers at the University of Western Sydney using
questionnaires and follow-up interviews to learn more about Arab and
Muslim Australians' responses to racism and abuse and their experiences
and understanding of complaints processes. 1,475 self-complete questionnaires
were distributed in New South Wales and Victoria between August and
November 2003. The 25 multiple-choice and open-ended questions asked
about people's experiences and responses to racism, abuse and violence.
186 people returned questionnaires. 34 of these agreed to take part
in open-ended semi-structured interviews where participants were asked
to expand on survey questions. The UWS research report is available
on the Commission's website at:

3. An audit of strategies and initiatives that seeks to address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice, discrimination
and vilification.The Commission contacted over 100 local, state and
federal government agencies and community groups and had over 50 meetings
with representatives from these organisations to provide an overview
of existing strategies and identify gaps. Information received from
these organisations is summarised in Chapter 4 and is set out more extensively
on the Commission's website at:

This summary of the Ismaع
project is comprised of five chapters.

Chapter 1: provides background
information about the Ismaع
project, the role of the Commission, the demography and history of Arab
and Muslim Australians, federal and state anti-discrimination law, and
the Commission's previous research and findings relating to religious
discrimination and vilification and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

Chapter 2: summarises the
experiences of Arab and Muslim Australians since September 11 who participated
in the Ismaع

Chapter 3: describes how
Arab and Muslim Australians have been affected by and responded to these

Chapter 4: examines current
strategies that seek to address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

Chapter 5: explores future
strategies to help eliminate prejudice and discrimination against Muslim
and Arab Australians.

It is important to note that the experiences
outlined in this summary present the different perspectives of Arab and
Muslim Australians who participated in the Ismaع
project. While participants used terms like discrimination and vilification
to describe their experiences, this does not necessarily amount to unlawful
discrimination or vilification as defined in federal or state and territory
anti-discrimination legislation. Nor was it the purpose of this project
to verify every allegation of violence, discrimination or vilification.
Rather, it was the Commission's aim to listen to Arab and Muslim Australians
describe how they perceived and experienced prejudice, discrimination
and vilification in order to gain insight into their understanding of
the nature, causes and solutions to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

Summary of information provided by participants

The following summary is based on information
drawn from the three major components of the Ismaع

1. The majority of participants in the Ismaع
project reported experiencing various forms of prejudice because of
their race or religion. These experiences increased after international
incidents such as the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the October 2002
Bali bombings, and were exacerbated by particular national and local
events such as public debates over asylum seekers and the trial, conviction
and sentencing of gang-rapists in Sydney in 2001-2002.

2. These experiences ranged from offensive
remarks about race or religion to physical violence.

3. Most experiences described by participants
were unprovoked,'one off' incidents from strangers on the street, on
public transport, in shops and shopping centres or on the roads. However,
participants also reported experiencing different forms of prejudice
from people known to them in the workplace, at school, universities
or colleges and from neighbours. Discrimination in the provision of
some government services, particularly police services, was also reported.

4. Participants felt that those most at risk
were readily identifiable as Arab or Muslim because of their dress,
physical appearance or name. For example, Muslim women who wear traditional
Islamic dress were especially afraid of being abused or attacked. Many
have restricted their movements and reported becoming more isolated
since September 11. Arab and Muslim youth felt that they were particularly
at risk of harassment which has led to feelings of frustration, alienation
and a loss of confidence in themselves and trust in authority. Many
newly arrived Arab or Muslim migrants and refugees have reported that
their experiences of prejudice have made it harder for them to negotiate
the already difficult process of settling into a new country.

5. These experiences are having a profound
impact on Arab and Muslim Australians. The biggest impacts are a substantial
increase in fear, a growing sense of alienation from the wider community
and an increasing distrust of authority.

6. Participants indicated that they were
more likely to complain about these experiences to their families, friends
or their local ethnic or religious community organisations than to police
or government organisations. The reluctance to complain to police or
government organisations was due to: fear of victimisation; lack of
trust in authority; lack of knowledge about the law and complaints processes;
the perceived difficulty in making a complaint and the perception that
outcomes were unsatisfactory.

7. The absence of consistent legal protection
from religious discrimination and vilification across the country was
of concern to participants. The lack of protection under NSW anti-discrimination
law was of particular concern to Muslims in NSW, where the majority
of Australian Muslims live.

8. Participants identified lack of knowledge
and misinformation about their history, culture and faith as the major
underlying cause for the rise in prejudice against them and that this
lack of knowledge and misinformation has been exacerbated by terrorism
and an international climate of political tension between the Arab and
Muslim world and western nations, including Australia.

9. Participants also felt that biased and
inaccurate reporting of issues relating to Arabs and Muslims is commonplace
amongst some sections of the media and is extremely damaging. Survey
respondents and interviewees also felt that increases in anti-Arab and
anti-Muslim prejudice, discrimination and violence were linked to negative
media portrayals of Arab and Muslims, especially on commercial television,
talkback radio and in the tabloid press.

10. Governments and community organisations
have undertaken a range of both short-term crisis responses to eliminate
discrimination and vilification of Arab and Muslim Australians and longer
term strategies to address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.


A major goal of the Ismaع
project was to engage members of Arab and Muslim communities, government
and non-government organisations in constructive discussion about future
strategies to eliminate anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination.
While much has been done by community and government organisations to
allay prejudice and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians,
participants in the
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
developed more specific recommendations from these broad areas following
investigation of the kinds of initiatives which were already in place
at a local, state and federal level across Australia. A full discussion
of the issues raised below can be found in Chapter 5.

1. Legal protection

Ensuring that both Arab and Muslim Australians
have adequate legal protection from discrimination and vilification is
vital. Current legal protections against discrimination on the ground
of religion or belief, at federal, state and territory level, lack consistency
and uniformity with the result that whether someone can seek redress under
anti-discrimination laws for religious discrimination or vilification
depends on where the conduct complained of occurred in Australia.

A person who believes they have been discriminated
against solely because of their religion has no legally enforceable rights
if the alleged discrimination happened in NSW or South Australia. A person
who believes they have been vilified because of their religion has no
legally enforceable rights if the alleged vilification happened in the
ACT, NSW, South Australia, Western Australia or the Northern Territory.
The current lack of enforceable legal protection from acts of discrimination
or vilification based solely on religion in NSW is particularly problematic
as the majority of Muslim Australians live in that state (see appendix
3 for detailed data on Australian Muslims summarised from the 2001 national

At the federal level, the Commission has the
power to inquire into and attempt to conciliate complaints that a person
has been discriminated against on the basis of their religion in their
employment or occupation, or if their human rights in relation to religious
belief have been breached by the Commonwealth. However, these complaints
do not give rise to any enforceable right or remedy.

The Commission has previously considered the
lack of enforceable remedies at a federal level in its 1998 report Article
18: Freedom of Religion and Belief
(Article 18 report). In the Article
18 report, the Commission expressed the view that Australia currently
falls short of the internationally recognised human rights standards in
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination
Based on Religion or Belief.

The Commission is of the view that the enactment
of federal legislation that makes discrimination and vilification on the
basis of religion unlawful, would provide greater consistency and uniformity
in this area and would assist in Australia satisfying its international
obligations in this regard.


That a federal law be introduced making unlawful:

  • discrimination on the ground of religion or belief Appropriate exemptions, such as those set out in the Article 18 report
    relating to the inherent requirements of the job and employment by
    religious institutions, should be considered and
  • vilification on the ground of religion or belief It is acknowledged that the proposed legislation must make
    allowances for fair speech and fair reporting to ensure a balance
    between the competing rights of freedom of expression and the right
    to be free from vilification on the basis of religion or belief. Appropriate
    exemptions, such as those set out in the Article 18 report, should
    be considered.

It is also important for the Commission and
other state and territory antidiscrimination agencies to continue working
with Arab and Muslim communities to increase their knowledge about existing
anti-discrimination laws and complaints processes. Informing Arab and
Muslim communities about provisions which allow organisations to make
complaints on behalf of individuals under a number of state and territory
anti-discrimination laws is especially important.

2. Education

Confronting negative stereotyping and misinformation
about Arabs and Muslims through education is an important long-term solution
to overcoming anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and intolerance. Consultation
participants stressed the need for more broad based public education and
for more targeted education campaigns aimed at specific groups such as
young people, employers and service providers to help dispel myths and
negative stereotypes about Arab and Muslim Australians.

In relation to the education of young people,
while each state and territory education department develops and implements
specific anti-racism policies and programs in accordance with broad national
guidelines, such as the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for
Schooling in the Twenty-First Century
, the implementation of these
policies and programs is the responsibility of individual schools. Concerns
were raised by several consultation participants that there is a lack
of consistency in how racism is tackled in different schools.

In light of this, collaboration between federal,
state and territory education authorities to promote more consistent implementation
of anti-racism policies in schools could be fostered through the federal
Ministerial Council on Education, Employment,Training and Youth Affairs
(MCEETYA). MCEETYA is comprised of State, Territory, Australian Government
and New Zealand Ministers with responsibility for the portfolios of education,
employment, training and youth affairs. It is supported by a number of
taskforces convened as needed to meet particular goals such as improving
Indigenous education employment and training. Information provided by
the MCEETYA Secretariat indicated that issues relating to anti-racism
and cultural diversity in schools could be addressed by existing MCEETYA
taskforces such as the Student Learning and Support Services Taskforce
or the Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership Taskforce (or whatever
the new configuration of these taskforces may be after a review currently
being undertaken by MCEETYA).


That MCEETYA consider referring these
issues to the relevant taskforce for advice on best practice in implementing
anti-racist education policies in schools with a view to ensuring schooling
is free from discrimination based on culture, ethnicity, religion or race,
and for an action plan to implement that best practice.

To ensure that teaching professionals are well
prepared to administer anti-racism policies and programs and help promote
respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, teachers should receive
diversity training as part of their ongoing professional development.
While in some states and territories induction programs for new teachers
includes diversity awareness and anti-racism training, there appears to
be no compulsory on-going training for established teachers. The MCEETYA
taskforce on Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership (or its new configuration)
could develop standards for anti-racism and diversity training aimed at
improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools.


That MCEETYA consider referring the issue of diversity
training of teachers to the relevant taskforce for advice on an action
plan for implementation, as part of its commitment to enhancing teacher

3. Public language

a) Media

During the course of consultations and the
independent research carried out by UWS, concerns were consistently raised
by the participants about the reporting of issues relating to Arabs and
Muslims. This issue has been the subject of vigorous public debate and
analysis. Participants felt that biased and inaccurate reporting of issues
relating to Arabs and Muslims is commonplace among some sections of the
media and is extremely damaging.

Consultation participants saw the development
and implementation of strategies to challenge stereotyping in the media
as essential to achieving the broader goal of eliminating prejudice and
discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians. Suggestions for addressing
these concerns included:

i) Targeted information campaigns on
media standards and complaint processes

Some consultation participants felt that there
were few, if any, constraints or checks on the media in relation to reporting
of issues relating to race and religion. However, the media are bound
by the racial hatred provisions of the RDA and by racial and religious
vilification laws in the states and territories where they exist. In addition
to this, each of the media sectors has its own form of self-regulation
which allows members of the public to make complaints to the relevant
industry body. This includes industry codes of practice developed in accordance
with the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) and registered with
the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the Australian Press Council's
Statement of Principles and reporting guidelines, and the Australian Journalists'
Association Code of Ethics which binds members of the Australian Journalists'
Association of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Few consultation participants were aware of
these bodies or avenues of complaint and it appears that raising awareness
of the existence of these bodies and complaints processes would be an
important step towards enforcing industry standards. Providing communities
with better information about the relevant regulatory standards and avenues
of complaint may be more appropriately handled by organisations responsible
for administering these standards.


That the relevant industry groups,
the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Press Council
consider undertaking information campaigns in relevant community languages
and in a variety of formats to inform Arab and Muslim organisations and
community members about their standards and complaint processes.

ii) Constructive engagement between
media and community representatives

Forging good relations between media and Arab
and Muslim communities is vital to addressing concerns raised by participants
about stereotyping and misinformation. Participants expressed a strong
desire to see more varied and positive images of Arab and Muslim Australians
in the Australian media and many felt that communities themselves should
be more pro-active about providing media with positive stories and photo
opportunities which show Arab and Muslim Australians contributing in positive
ways to Australia. In addition, participants wanted more dialogue with
media to allow them to explain the impacts of media reporting and commentary
on their communities. In some cases, attempts made by community organisations
alone to foster this dialogue have not succeeded. Instances where a third
party, such as a government agency, has intervened and acted as intermediary
between media and community organisations have been more successful in
building relations and trust.


That government agencies responsible
for promoting multiculturalism consider facilitating consultation between
media organisations and ethnic and religious community organisations,
including Arab and Muslim groups, to improve mutual understanding.

iii) Training for community leaders
and journalists

Identifying and training community spokespeople
was seen by many consultation participants as vital to challenging stereotypes.
Participants stressed that it is important for community representatives
to learn to speak up and participate more effectively in public debate
- not just in specific discussions about religion or world politics, but
in matters of general public interest like health care and education.
The need for women as spokespersons was particularly acute. Some participants
argued that the absence or rarity of female spokespersons for Arab and
Muslim communities helped to reinforce negative stereotypes about Arab
and Muslim women.

Participants also suggested that media themselves
be educated to understand cultural and inter-racial issues as well as
reporting standards established by antidiscrimination laws. Some participants
suggested that anti-racism induction programs and ongoing staff training
be made compulsory in all media organisations and in university journalism
and media courses.

b) Police

All state and territory police services, with
the exception of NSW Police, use the following four categories to describe
alleged criminals, offenders, suspects, victims and missing persons by
reference to their race:'Aboriginal appearance', 'Caucasian appearance',
'Asian appearance' and 'Other appearance (to be specified)'. These four
categories were recommended for use among all Australian police services
in 1997 by the former National Police Ethnic Advisory Bureau (now called
the Australasian Police Multicultural Advice Bureau (APMAB)).

The NSW Police did not adopt the recommended
four descriptors, choosing instead to review their entire policy on descriptions
of persons issued by police to the media in consultation with internal
and external stakeholders. The review resulted in a revised policy, which
includes use of only the following ethnicity-based descriptors: 'Asian
appearance', 'Aboriginal appearance', 'Black/African appearance', 'White/European
appearance', 'Indian/Pakistani appearance', 'Pacific Islander appearance',
'South American appearance' and 'Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean appearance'.
In developing these descriptors, the NSW Police consulted with representatives
from the then Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Ethnic Communities Council
of NSW and various community groups in 1999. They also established policy
guidelines to regulate the use of ethnicity based descriptors.

Many consultation participants felt that a
significant cause of heightened prejudice occurred as a result of the
description of criminal suspects and offenders by reference to their presumed
ethnicity or ethnic appearance. The main objection to the use of ethnic
descriptors raised by consultation participants was that they were seen
as inflaming prejudice against whole communities making them accountable
for the actions of individuals. In most examples cited by participants,
it was the use of descriptors like 'Middle Eastern' by media and political
commentators which aroused most concerns. The NSW Police cannot control
how the media or politicians use ethnic labels to report and comment on
crime. However, some participants have argued that by legitimising the
public use of ethnic descriptors like 'Middle Eastern' for one purpose
(catching alleged criminals), these terms become more acceptable in broader
public debates about ethnicity and crime. These broader debates can inflame
prejudice by suggesting there is a link between criminal behaviour and
the ethnicity of offenders.

At a national level, APMAB has monitored the
use of the four ethnic descriptors it recommends police use nationally.
In 2003, APMAB conducted a scoping exercise to understand more about current
practice in the use of descriptors in all police jurisdictions, to compare
and contrast this practice with international practice and to make recommendations
which will further support police work. The research found that many police
were experiencing difficulties in ensuring the accurate use of descriptors
and in managing the media's use of descriptors.

As one respondent noted, 'it is often the media
themselves who take the information and present it in a manner that may
be offensive.' Police also reported that the use of descriptors often
elicits significant community concern and that, 'when used inappropriately,
ethnic terms can offend members of the public adversely and affect the
relationship between police and the community.' The report recommended
development of a national and Australasian set of standards in training
police to use descriptors in a consistent and culturally informed manner.

The Commission supports this recommendation
and encourages the undertaking of further research on the issue of descriptors
in order to provide a better understanding and a firm basis for the development
of a national set of standards. Given the concerns raised by consultation
participants in New South Wales about the specific use of the descriptor
'Middle Eastern', it may be appropriate to include in this research a
specific review of the NSW policy of eight ethnicity based descriptors.

This research could be conducted either by
NSW Police, APMAB, or an independent body. Importantly, it should involve
representatives from affected communities, including Arab and Muslim communities,
to provide a balanced analysis of the efficacy of descriptors to police,
in terms of apprehension and conviction rates, alongside the perspectives
of affected communities.


That in any development of national
standards concerning the use of descriptors by police, consideration be
given to a review of the use of the ethnic descriptor 'Middle Eastern'
which takes into account perspectives of affected communities.

4. Law enforcement

Much of the behaviour reported during the consultations
and empirical research went beyond discrimination and vilification. Participants
also described potentially criminal behaviour including stalking, assaults,property
damage and threats of violence. However, many participants reported a
general reluctance to seek police assistance. A number of reasons were
given for this reluctance including scepticism about obtaining a useful
outcome. Some of those who had reported incidents to police were dissatisfied
with the police response and felt that police had not taken reported hate
offences seriously.

To ensure that criminal behaviour with a racial
or religious motivation is treated seriously and appropriately, the motivation
for the offence and its significance to the victim needs to be acknowledged.
There is inconsistency across the state and territory police services
as to how, or if, they collect information about incidents that may have
an element of racial or religious prejudice.

Sharing information about hate crimes across
the state and territories has been identified as a priority by the Australasian
Police Minister's Council (APMC). In December 2003, the APMC tasked the
Australasian Police Multicultural Advisory Bureau (APMAB) to report on
the development of mechanisms 'to improve police-police and police-community
information sharing on the issue of racist violence'. The Commission suggests
that establishing greater consistency in the collection of information
about racially or religiously motivated incidents by police services across
Australia is vital to improving information sharing between police and
communities about racist violence.


That APMAB, together with all state
and territory police services, consider reviewing current systems for
recording incidents motivated by racial or religious prejudice with a
view to ensuring greater consistency in the collection of data across

Consultation participants whose complaints
to police were dismissed because they did not meet the threshold for investigation
under criminal law often felt unsupported and unsure of where else to
turn for assistance. Better communication between police, community organisations
and anti-discrimination agencies who may be able to assist when an incident
of discrimination or vilification is not a criminal offence may be a solution.
Providing more effective information sharing between these organisations
could help support Arab and Muslim Australians who have experienced discrimination
or vilification and increase the chances that a satisfactory outcome will
result from reporting an incident.


That officers of all police services
have the necessary information to enable appropriate referral of victims
of racial or religious discrimination or vilification to appropriate community
or anti-discrimination agencies in the event their complaints do not meet
the threshold for investigation under criminal law.

5. Community action

Initiatives to eliminate prejudice and discrimination
against Arab and Muslim Australians cannot be effective without community
involvement in the development and implementation of such strategies.
Governments should ensure that community organisations are properly consulted
and adequately resourced to enable their participation in development
and implementation of strategies to tackle anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.
The issue of adequate resources is especially vital. Currently, many community
organisations are struggling to meet their core social welfare or religious
functions while helping members of their communities cope with the extra
burden of discrimination and vilification.

In addition, consultation participants expressed
strong views about the need for more effective community action by the
Arab and Muslim community to tackle anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice
and discrimination. Participants called for stronger community leadership,
improved networking between community groups and better education within
communities as well as to the broader public about issues affecting Arab
and Muslim Australians. Providing greater support for individuals who
were seen to be particularly at risk of discrimination or vilification,
(such as women, young people and newly arrived migrants and refugees)
was also identified as a priority.


That Muslim and Arab community leaders
continue to promote harmony within their communities, build closer links
to other religious and ethnic communities in Australia to foster mutual
respect and tackle racism and work in partnership with government agencies
and other non-government organisations to educate members of their communities
about laws and complaint processes which provide access to services and
protect against racial or religious discrimination.

6. Public support

Strong, clear messages of support and solidarity
from a range of national, state and local political and community leaders
were seen as crucial to overcoming the sense of alienation and isolation
identified by so many participants. Messages of support and inclusiveness
should be delivered regularly by the most senior federal and state politicians,
particularly during times of crisis, to protect Arab and Muslim Australians
from any potential backlash. Participants felt that such messages should
not single out Arab or Muslim Australians for 'special' treatment, but
rather, should emphasise the importance and values of multiculturalism
to Australian society.


That political and community leaders
at a federal, state and territory and local level, encourage Australians
to uphold the principles of multiculturalism including respect for the
right of all Australians to express their own culture and beliefs and
responsibility to support the basic structures and principles of Australian
society that guarantee freedom and equality for all.