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

Islamophobia is still raising its ugly head in Australia

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.

Ignoring Islamophobia will only entrench the problem more deeply.

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