Muslim women scared to go outdoors in climate of hate

“I’m afraid of leaving my house with my young children because I don’t know how to protect both if them if someone attacked us.” So says a friend of mine – an otherwise confident mother of two.

“It wasn’t the physical altercation that hurt me, it was those words.” That’s another friend who was physically attacked by a man in Sydney’s CBD. He called her a “f—ing terrorist!” among other expletives.

“I just got spat on by some random freak.” And that’s yet another friend who was recently abused while walking in Central Station.

These are the experiences of Australian Muslim women who happen to wear their faith publicly.
In the past few weeks, visible Muslims have been the target of social media vitriol, verbal abuse and physical assaults. Even children are not spared: an Islamic school was targeted by a knife-wielding man.

Incidents of Islamophobia are plainly on the rise but the authorities would tell you otherwise.
Having recently set up Islamophobia Register Australia to collate reports of anti-Muslim sentiments, I have had dealings with members of the NSW Police Force.

A number of officers who have dealt with what the force labels “bias-motivated crimes” have expressed to me their deep frustration and utter dissatisfaction about the lack of funding and the lack of seriousness shown by their superiors in relation to efforts to monitor, report and combat threats and attacks against Australian Muslims. At present there is only one full-time officer working on bias-motivated crimes, along with a policy officer.

This is particularly alarming when bigoted groups such as Australian Defence League, Southern Cross Hammerskins, Blood and Honour Australia and Combat 18, alleged members of which were arrested for shooting at a mosque with a rifle in 2010, are on the rise and increasingly exploiting recent anti-Islamic sentiment.

One officer said he shared my concerns that the existing climate had the potential to lead to another Cronulla-style race riot. He even told me that he was worried that he might one day be summoned before a commission of inquiry to explain why he did not act on his concerns and do more to stop such a riot.

A number of officers have also confirmed what we in the community have been hearing anecdotally: a significant rise in the cases of verbal and physical abuse against Australian Muslims. These officers are genuinely trying to tackle Islamophobia but, with scarce resources, their hands are somewhat tied.

To my knowledge, a large proportion of Islamophobic incidents are unreported due to an alarming level of distrust towards the police among many in the Muslim community.

There also seems to be a strong hesitation by the police to publicly describe attacks against Australian Muslim for what they are: religiously motivated crimes. While it’s understandable that police don’t want to fan the flames of an already tense situation, the same caution and prudence is not shown in either the actions or the rhetoric surrounding suspected cases of terrorism.

The police raids played out like an episode of CSI on our TV screens. We were told that more than 800 officers were required to carry out Operation Appleby, which resulted in only two men being charged. Senator Scott Ludlam on the ABC’s Q&A eloquently asked us to “consider the silence around asylum seekers and the theatre around the terrorism raids”.

Let me make it very clear that I am as concerned as any other sound-minded citizen about an alleged plot to behead a member of the Australian public. After all, I could just as easily fall victim to a group who appear to be attacking anyone who does not pledge allegiance to their twisted ideology.
It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure that we live in a safe and harmonious society, but the approach and the political rhetoric must be proportionate. It’s about time that our politicians realised that they run the risk of playing directly into the hands of those whose activities they wish to curb by perpetuating and feeding the very isolation that feeds radicalisation.
Tony Abbott’s continual use of two or three-word slogans and analogies is an insult to our national intelligence. To borrow his sporting analogy of “Team Australia”: when a captain of a team exhibits poor conduct out on the field, he effectively implicitly sanctions bad behaviour by the rest of his “team”.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Prime Minister Abbott is deliberately peddling xenophobic views to garner electoral support. Consider his mischievous attempt to connect the abandoning of the s18C Racial Discrimination Act changes to the Muslim community, his “Team Australia” rhetoric, his indirectly labelling Australian Muslims as “migrants”, (as a side note, nearly 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born here), his calling Muslim leaders “foolish” and “petty” for refusing to meet him, his responding to reports of protesters by saying that people came to this country because “they wanted to join us, not to change us” and the recent “burqa box” blunder.

Pulling out the race card and engaging in chest beating about national security has worked wonders for previous governments who have faced an uphill battle in the polls.

This is not to suggest that there is not a real threat, or that our authorities shouldn’t seek to take a strong stance against threats of terrorism. But the response needs to be proportionate and cannot come at the cost of us forgoing basic civil and human rights and demonising an entire faith group. This will inevitably lead to the social cohesion of this nation being irreparably damaged.
In times of crisis, we need to remind ourselves that we are all part of “Team Humanity”.

Despite visibly Muslim women bearing the brunt of rampant Islamophobia, the #WISH (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis) social media campaign (which seeks to counter these anti-Muslim sentiments by encouraging Aussie women to don a hijab as a gesture of solidarity) has reminded us that for every Senator Brandis-endorsed “bigot”, there are countless good Samaritans who offer us all a glimmer of hope.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, Welcome to Australia ambassador and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia and the #WISH social media campaign.

Originally published: October 11 2014, Sydney Morning Herald

It’s a niqab not a burqa ban

As an Australian Muslim woman, I have a few issues regarding the idea of “banning the burqa” in parliament house.

Firstly, why are we not using the correct terminology? It’s called a niqab not a burqa. A burqa is worn in Afghanistan.

It’s incredibly irresponsible to reignite this debate at a time when community tensions are already heightened all over this country. Australian Muslim women, are it seems once again being used as political pawns to further the Abbott Government’s political agenda.

The hysteria is not based on any evidence – Tony Abbott himself has admitted that no one in a full face covering has sought entry into Parliament House. It’s very disappointing to see he has given credibility to the likes of Senator Jacqui Lambie and Senator Cory Bernardi instead of showing leadership on this issue; but perhaps he sees that there are some extra votes to be gained in that.

I personally find the sight of Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers “confronting” but I would defend his right to wear them. Given he admits there is no record of the burqa ever being worn into the building, he cautioned against making a “mountain over a molehill”. Yet the government is doing precisely that, conflating the issue by choosing to echo John Howard’s sentiments at a time where the social cohesion of this country is already at serious risk of being irreparably damaged.

In a free and open democracy, people are entitled to their opinions, however unsavoury they may be, but our leaders who occupy positions of power and responsibility must rise above divisive rhetoric. Instead Abbott seems content to peddle xenophobic views rather than challenge them. He has failed in this regard on numerous occasions – the infamous “Team Australia” rhetoric is one such recent example. In a free and open society, women should be entitled to dress as they please.

There’s a distinct irony in the suggestion that women who are allegedly forced to wear a face covering should be forced not to wear it. If the issue is in fact about identification, then women could be asked to remove the face covering momentarily for identification purposes. But equating the face covering to extremism and violence in the discourse of national security is disingenuous and suggests that it is not about identification.

A ban is potentially unconstitutional and possibly in breach of section 116 of the constitution which states “The Commonwealth shall not make any law …for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”.

A ban of the face covering in Parliament will no doubt lead to it being banned in public – what kind of a secular democracy dictates to women what they should and shouldn’t wear? Given the current climate, Australian Muslim women are already bearing the brunt of Islamophobia. There has been an escalation of both the frequency of incidents of racism against Muslims and the level of violence with a 26-year-old Australian Muslim woman being bashed and pushed from a train, in a vicious and cowardly attack in Melbourne last week.

Everyone in Australian society has an important part to play in ensuring that we do not cause irreparable damage to social cohesion by engaging in divisive rhetoric and inciting hysteria. That includes parliamentarians.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, Welcome to Australia ambassador and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia.

Originally published: October 1 2014, Sydney Morning Herald

Why bigotry is not OK, Mr Brandis

Whether it’s in their treatment of asylum seekers, their policy of secrecy or their intention to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, it seems that the Abbott government is intent on destroying Australia’s moral compass.

Attorney-General, George Brandis, defending the Government’s intention to repeal s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, told the Senate Monday that “people have the right to be bigots”. It appears that in George Brandis’s world view, bigots are the persecuted minority whose rights need to be staunchly defended.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to do an act that “is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” on racial or ethnic grounds.” It is followed by s18D (which is conveniently ignored by many conservative commentators) which seeks to balance the objectives of s18C with the need to protect justifiable freedoms of speech and expression.

The provisions seek to offer legislative protection to the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society – our indigenous population, culturally and ethnically diverse communities and religious minority groups.

Whilst in the past politicians, particularly in the lead up to an election, have sought to indirectly play on the public’s fears, Senator Brandis’s comments have taken it to a whole new level. This is the first time that I can recall, where a Senior Minister has directly endorsed (and thereby encouraged) having bigoted views. There’s no reading between the lines here – Brandis has specifically said that “people have the right to be bigots, you know.” This is somewhat unprecedented.

What’s concerning is that these remarks are not coming from some rogue back bencher (such as Senator Cory Bernardi), but rather from our nation’s top law maker.

As Western nations, we pride ourselves on emerging out of the darkness of our tainted histories, it seems however with its recent track record, the Abbott Government is hell bent on pulling us back into the dark era.

Whilst Abbott and Brandis keep reiterating that people have a right to make comments that upset or offend people, it is important to consider the position of the individual who makes the comments in question. Central to the debate is the fact that there is almost always a power imbalance between the person(s) who make the offending remarks and those whom the remarks are aimed at. This is clear when you take a look at the groups of people who have sought protection under s18C. They mostly come from marginalised, minority communities and they do not, under any stretch of the imagination, stand on an equal footing with their perpetrators.

The simple, perhaps controversial truth is this – white middle aged men in powerful positions are not the ones who are at the top of the list of people who regularly face discrimination. So why is it then that the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act seek to protect this category of people?

History has shown us that where racial vilification is publicly sanctioned by those in high office, mere words can have a powerful ability to incite hatred and violence.
As with any democratic right, freedom of speech should be tempered with responsibility and it is counter productive if those who continously spew hateful and misleading vitriol are the very individuals who continue to thrive from the protection that freedom of speech offers.
We should be very afraid when our top law maker seems more passionate about protecting the rights of bigots than the rights of the most marginalised members of our society.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and Welcome to Australia ambassador.

Originally published: 25 March 2014, Sydney Morning Herald

There’s nothing un-Australian about taking an oath on the Qur’an

The Guardian 3 July 2013

Ed Husic made history this week by being the first Australian Muslim to be appointed as a front bencher in Australian parliament. Husic was appointed as a parliamentary secretary to the prime minister and a parliamentary secretary for broadband.

Whilst many celebrated his appointment as a momentous occasion – none more so than our own governor general Quentin Bryce, who said that “this is a wonderful day for multiculturalism and everything it stands for in our country” – others used it as an opportunity to unleash vitriol on Husic’s Facebook page, focusing particularly on his decision to be sworn into his parliamentary role by making an oath on a hard copy of the Qur’an.

The bigotry extended far beyond Facebook. Some went so far as suggesting that the “governor general should be dismissed for acting unconstitutionally in allowing a parliamentary officer to swear allegiance to racist Arab supremacy – rather than the Australian people and our laws”. Many, in return, expressed shock and outrage at how vile some comments aimed at Husic were. But whilst the bigoted commentary was truly despicable were they shocking? I, for one, was sadly not surprised.

As much as I despise playing the “victim card” and harping on about the ongoing religious and racial vilification faced by Muslims in Australia, there is no doubt in my mind that the real root cause of the vitriol aimed at Husic, is a far deeper social malice – Islamophobia.

Sadly, whether it’s Muslim minarets or the notion of Islamic banking, any concept even remotely connected to Islam and Muslims seems to elicit a completely irrational fear.

Husic’s historical promotion should have served as a reminder that we live in a nation where equal opportunity is afforded to all. It should have served as a reminder that a fundamental strength of our democracy is freedom of religion, and that our parliament is slowly but surely on its way to becoming truly representative of all Australians – although I note that women and ethnic minorities are still underrepresented.

Sadly though, the discourse was hijacked by keyboard warriors who so ignorantly tried to suggest that “Australia is a Christian nation” and that Mr Husic’s actions were “unconstitutional”. They clearly lack a basic understanding of the rights afforded to all of us under Australia’s constitution.

Australian parliamentarians are free to use whichever holy text, or none at all, to be sworn into their positions. In fact, our politicians have been given the option since Federation in 1901. Our previous prime minister, Julia Gillard, made an affirmation of allegiance instead of swearing her oath of office on a holy text. Australian Jewish MPs Josh Frydenberg and Michael Danby were sworn in on the Torah in 2010. I do not recall any such fuss being made then.

So where does this social malice stem from? For over a decade, Australian Muslims have had to live through a climate of mistrust and hostility. Although I’d be the first to admit that there have been significant improvements, we still have a long way to go. Islamophobia has been one of the most challenging impediments to social and community cohesion in Australia.

Australian Muslims who, despite being mostly born, raised and educated in Australia, still feel like their identity is being constantly questioned. If the sentiments on social media are any sort of indication, then I personally feel this on a very regular basis. Whether it’s being called a “rag head”, told to “go back to my own country” or people wishing that “my refugee boat had sank at sea” (I came by plane, by the way), the vitriol is unrelenting and deeply hurtful.

It was only yesterday that I was asked about how many “genuine non-Muslim friends I have or associate with”. And hours before that, I was criticised for supposedly being afforded an education opportunity before “our own” and that it “was the public purse that enabled [my educational] opportunities”. Little do they know that like everyone else, I had to work tirelessly (including studying full time and working full time at one stage), to make my way through my combined law and economics degree.

Is it not “un-Australian” to continuously question other peoples’ levels of “Australianness”? Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but being a good Australian and a good Muslim are not mutually exclusive concepts. What becomes further apparent in this sad saga is the utter irony of the criticisms often thrown at Australian Muslims; that they don’t assimilate or contribute to our society.

I try to counteract the disproportionate attention afforded to Muslims and the often negative portrayals of Australian Muslims in the media by highlighting the many positive contributions of Australian Muslims. Whether it’s Husic’s ascent and success in federal politics, Australian Post CEO’s Ahmed Fahour’s business achievements or Hazem El Masri’s sporting achievements, as well as countless others, Australian Muslims are very much an integral part of our society. Is it not about time that we all started to play our part in changing the narrative?

Originally published in The Guardian 3 July 2013

Inescapable racism: Reflections of a ‘Proud Refugee’

In the wake of the latest racist tirade on a Melbourne train and the tragic loss of life when a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off the coast of Indonesia, I copped some unprovoked abuse on Twitter on Friday evening: “Wish your refugee boat had sunk at sea, bitch.”

Once I had recovered somewhat from the shock of receiving the tweet, I checked the @GregJessop1 Twitter profile which, among other things, indicated that he was an Engineer based in Queensland and worked for Rio Tinto (although his profile did bear the standard Twitter disclaimer, “Opinions mine, do not reflect views of Rio Tinto”). Determined not to stoop to his level, my immediate response to him was, “Lucky for you, I came by plane.”

It was perhaps ironic that, only hours earlier, I had tweeted: “If you witness a racist rant on public transport, don’t remain silent. Speak up if it’s safe to do so. Silence condones #racist behaviour.” I was deeply moved by the actions of Mahmood Reza, an Australian Muslim man who stood up to a drunken woman who was racially abusing a packed Melbourne train last week. I found the incident, which was captured on a passenger’s phone and reported to media, deeply disturbing. How many similar incidents occur on public transport throughout Australia, but go unreported?

Not long after receiving the tweet, I (along with many others) tried to contact Rio Tinto by means of Twitter to bring this matter to their attention. Whether the Twitter profile of @GregJessop1 was fictitious or he did in fact work for Rio Tinto was almost irrelevant – surely he couldn’t get away with making such hateful, vile, almost threatening comments and still have references to Rio Tinto in his profile.

There have been countless victims of social media abuse, Charlotte Dawson being a notable example. Dawson’s online tormentors drove her to become suicidal. In many cases, these unidentifiable Twitter trolls are never held to account because they are untraceable. In my case, @GregJessop1 volunteered information about Rio Tinto in his Twitter profile and I used this information as a legitimate means to hold him, and people like him, to account.

@GregJessop1 was clearly rattled by all the attention his offending tweet had generated. He deleted the tweet and then tried to suggest that I photoshoped the screen shot of the offending tweet. But what baffled me most was his response to someone who questioned how Rio Tinto would feel about his hateful tweets: “at work, I’m on work time and $. If they want me to be respectful, so be it. On my time, i’ll do as I please.”

I was also subsequently advised by others on Twitter that I should have the phrase “proud Aussie” in my Twitter profile, rather than “proud Refugee.” I use this phrase in my profile, not because I am an ungrateful Aussie, but because I want to demonstrate that refugees are educated and active participants in our community. Ultimately, I want to help change perceptions. Moreover, if my actions don’t demonstrate my gratitude, how would a label somehow do the trick? And why must I assert my level of Australianness every minute of the day? Excessive pride and racial hate speech should be viewed in the same manner – both are entirely unnecessary, really.

Since Friday, I’ve been overwhelmed by messages of support and compassion, and indeed by offers from strangers to help me. For every instance of abuse, there are many expressions of compassion and solidarity. Perhaps the one that has meant the most to me was from former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser: “I am deeply sorry you had to experience that, some people are so insensitive and stupid, try not to let worry you.” Mr Fraser, of course has been especially vocal in recent times and spoken out about the plight of asylum seekers – if only some of our incumbent politicians shared and expressed his same convictions!

Yesterday afternoon, I received a response from Rio Tinto, as well as a call from their media representative, who assured me that they had commenced their investigations on Friday evening. It is comforting to know that an organisation like Rio Tinto would never condone such behaviour.

Irrespective of whether he is a mere Twitter troll or an actual Rio Tinto employee, the attitude of @GregJessop1 is indicative of a deeper malaise in this wonderful country of ours: a high level of low level racism, a form of racism Waleed Aly has described as “subterranean racism.” I used to think that on social media people were more inclined to make irrational and utterly vile comments under the cover of false identities than they would in person, in real situations. But the recent racial rants on public transport which has been reported in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and even Canberra disprove this theory.

But this begs the question: what is the root cause of this type of hateful bigotry? Wherever this bigotry stems from, there is little doubt that the current and thoroughly toxic political debate which wilfully demonises asylum seekers is fuelling it. There have been hundreds of op-eds written by advocates across the political spectrum criticising the character of political debate about asylum seekers, and there is nothing I can recount here that hasn’t been written many times before: that, compared to other refugee-hosting countries, Australia receives a very small number of asylum applications and we are in no danger of being “swamped”; or that we are a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and are in breach of Article 31 every time we load men, women and children onto a bus at Christmas Island and then transport and “detain” them for an indefinite period of time; or that the countless health-care professionals have advised that indefinite detention leads to irreparable mental damage and ultimately, in some cases, to suicide. But we have all heard that before.

Australia’s refugee policy is symptomatic of a political preparedness to pander to short-term electoral interest over tenable long-term planning, much less humanitarian concern. With a federal election looming and an incumbent government needing to pull a political rabbit out the hat, it is hard to see how things could improve – indeed, the likelihood is that the politicking at the expense of asylum seekers will only get worse.

But our politicians’ nonsensical and frequently inhumane remarks about asylum seeker policy are partly, if not largely, based on what they believe Australians want. If the brutal logic of deterrence, of “stopping the boats,” wasn’t a vote-winner and didn’t represent an advantage in the opinion polls, surely the political discourse would be different. We, my friends, are part of the problem. It’s time to become part of the solution.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, writer and Welcome to Australia ambassador.

Originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics Online

Opinion Pieces

There’s nothing un-Australian about taking an oath on the Qur’an

The Guardian

3 July 2013

Inescapable racism: Reflections of a ‘proud refugee’

ABC Religion and Ethics

16 April 2013

Abbott’s pandering betrayal: Why the Racial Discrimination Act is worth defending

ABC Religion and Ethics Online

13 August 2012

A lack of Insight

Sultana’s Dream Online Magazine

August Edition

Cultural diversity now on the menu

The Daily Telegraph

7 July 2012

It’s time to leave Afghanistan

The Daily Life Fairfax

27 March 2012

Legitimising a fear of difference – major impediment to social cohesion

FECCA Mosaic Magazine

29 December 2011

Is Sydney a city of enclaves? The Question

The Sydney Morning Herald

12 November 2011

Ad campaign shows the real Islam

The Sydney Morning Herald

2 November 2011

Hoodlums who happen to be Muslim have no respect for Islam

The Daily Telegraph

15 August 2011

If Breivik was a Muslim he would have been branded a terrorist long ago

The Sydney Morning Herald

29 July 2011

Everyone loses if hatred prevails

The Daily Telegraph

6 May 2011

Finally, an articulate, highly educated Imam appearing on TV

Image

The Twittersphere was alight during and after ABC’s airing of QandA on Monday night. To my surprise, the words ‘Imam’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Religion’ were trending on Twitter. The interfaith panel comprising of Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge; Imam, Dr Mohamad Abdalla; Buddhist nun, The Venerable Robina Courtin; Comedian and atheist, Josh Thomas and Jewish/Atheist singer songwriter Deborah Conway stimulated rigorous debate on social media.

One panelist in particular however, seemed to have captivated the entire audience: Imam Mohamad Abdalla.

It was incredibly refreshing to see (finally) an articulate, well spoken, highly educated religious cleric representing Islam and Muslims in Australia. He spoke with dignity and exhibited a calming and peaceful demeanour which resonated with many. He was rational and genuine – a breath of fresh air.

He explained key Islamic concepts in a manner which sadly, had rarely been done on Australian mainstream media before, offering much needed insight and understanding. In that regard, his appearance on QandA was therefore historic.

I was particularly impressed by the fact that he made sure to distinguish between ‘Islamic extremism’ versus ‘Muslim extremists’. He also explained that there are a host of reasons for why young people feel disenfranchised and turn to violent acts of terrorism, including feelings of isolation and questions of identity and belonging. He articulately explained that religions do not posses a monopoly when it comes to human values, a comment which was met with hearty applause. In every aspect of his discussion, the key theme was finding common ground.

Many (mostly non-Muslims) praised him over social media:

Penny Gordon @PrettyPennyLane11h :#QandA “It’s a shame this cleric isn’t the spokesperson for Islam in Australia, he is a voice of reason”

james norman @jamescnorman12h

#QandA “the cleric is doing a great job at explaining in simple language what Islam is really about – we don’t hear that clarity often enough

Sean Scullion @seanifool11h

Very Impressed with the insights and wisdom being shared by this Islamic cleric sharing truth with Muslim & non-Muslim Australians on #QandA

In short, Imam Abdalla spoke a lot of sense. I watched on with pride. As did many other Muslims.

He is by far, one of the best things to happen to the Muslim community in Australia for a while – an under-utilized talent. Don’t get me wrong, we have many articulate and very capable Muslim spokespersons that have previously spoken in the media about a whole host of issues. And we also have many knowledgeable and pious scholars – the issue at hand is – not many of these scholars are equipped with the necessary skills and demeanour to address national media. The Muslim community has been grappling with this issue for decades now.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) now known as ‘Muslims Australia’ claimed to represent Muslims in Australia but failed miserably. Caught up in scandals, many in the community feel a sense of distrust and antagonism towards AFIC and its leadership team – both past and present.

Imam Abdalla’s impressive performance on QandA prompted social media posts suggesting that Imam Abdalla should be considered for the role of the next Mufti of Australia. This is a view I wholeheartedly agree with and encourage. Perhaps as a community we need to come together and demand more from our leaders.

Abbott’s pandering betrayal: Why the Racial Discrimination Act is worth defending

Freedom of speech and expression is inevitably a double edged sword. While it is very much the cornerstone of our democratic rights and freedoms, those who spew hateful and misleading vitriol ultimately thrive from the protection it offers. This is precisely why our Federal anti-discrimination laws need to be reviewed with an aim to strengthen, not diminish, legislative protections.

Tony Abbott’s address to the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) last week was unsurprisingly a crowd pleaser, as he attempted to appease his supporters at the IPA, score points with News Limited executives and staunchly defend his comrade Andrew Bolt. It was section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) that Bolt had been found to have contravened for publishing deceptive and offensive material about our already marginalised Indigenous population.

So rather predictably Abbott launched his attack on this very section which, he implied, ought to be deemed as little more than a ”hurt feelings” test. Whether his intention to repeal section 18C of the RDA and revert to common law offences of incitement is an “aspiration” or a commitment is yet to be determined (although, as long as the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, such sweeping amendments may never see the light of day, even under an Abbott-led government).

Section 18C makes it unlawful to do an act that ”is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” on racial or ethnic grounds.” Section 18C is not about “hurt feelings,” or an impediment to discussing “alternatives” in the public sphere, nor is it about limiting freedom of speech. It is about offering legislative protection to the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society – our indigenous population, along with culturally and ethnically diverse communities and religious minority groups.

Moreover, eliminating such legislative protections and relying instead on common law offences of incitement would not provide guaranteed protections, and would ultimately represent an appalling abrogation of responsibility for the most vulnerable.

Perhaps Mr Abbott and his speech writers should pay closer to attention to the exceptions set out in the section immediately following s18C. Section 18D of the RDA specifically exempts conduct which has been done reasonably and in good faith for particular specified purposes, including the making of a fair comment in a newspaper. It is a provision which, broadly speaking, seeks to balance the objectives of s18C with the need to protect justifiable freedoms of expression.

In the case of Bolt, Federal Court Judge Bromberg wasn’t satisfied that the offensive conduct was exempt under this section because of the manner in which the “articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language.”

Interestingly, an edited extract of Abbott’s speech published in The Australian prior to his actual address at the IPA stated that he would “be prepared to maintain a prohibition on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups.” This part was deleted from the address that he delivered later that day. Mr Abbott should clarify his intentions and explain which specific groups he feels are worthy of legislative protection.

The behaviour of the likes of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones helps fuel racist sentiments and ultimately creates the sort of climate in which Cronulla-style riots and individual acts of racially motivated violence can flourish. (Recall that, in 2009, Australian Communications and Media Authority ruled that Jones’ broadcast material in the days before the Cronulla riots was ”likely to encourage violence or brutality.” As a result, Jones and 2GB were found by a court to have vilified Lebanese and Middle Easterners and were ordered to pay $10,000 in damages.)

In a grudging admission that our current anti-discrimination laws are imperfect and in desperate need of an overhaul, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon last year launched public discussion paper to seek community views on consolidating Commonwealth anti-discrimination law as part of Australia’s Human Rights Framework. In its submission, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia specifically raised the issue around the notable lack of expressed recognition of “religion” as a protected attribute under the Federal Discrimination laws.

Currently, discrimination on the grounds of religion is unlawful in the ACT, Queensland, Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, with South Australia not providing any protection at all. In NSW, only discrimination on “ethno-religious” as opposed to “religious” grounds is deemed unlawful, and even then the ethno-religious categorization only extends to groups of people who are recognised as both ethnic and religious group. At present this only serves to protect members of the Jewish and Sikh faiths.

Despite statistics documented by a number of research institutions that all point towards an increase in Islamophobia in the West, Muslims and other faith groups which consist of ethnically diverse members are not afforded such protections under Federal laws as they do not fit into the “ethno-religious” category, even though religion is often used as a pretext for what is, in reality, race discrimination.

The only national law protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of their religion applies only in the context of employment and, disappointingly, isn’t actually enforceable in court.

Some are mounting the argument that increasing levels of Islamophobia in Australia has sped up a process of “ethnicization” of the Muslim Australian community and that, perhaps on this basis, Muslims should be seen to fit into an “ethno-religious” category. In any event, as the then-acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr William Jonas pointed out in 2003, “it may seem anomalous that anti-Semitism is outlawed” – and rightly so, I’d add – “but Islamophobia is not.”

As Abbott himself has admitted, “Freedom of speech can’t be absolute.” All freedoms and rights are coupled with responsibility. It is a sad state of affairs when our politicians feel the need to score political points at the expense of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, writer and community rights advocate.

Originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics Online 

A Lack of Insight

Let’s play a word association game. What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘Islamic’? What about the term ‘Sharia’? Does it conjure up images of brutality and send a shiver down your spine? Hardly surprising, considering the persistent and negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media.

Whilst the Anti-Muslim rhetoric has quietened down a little following the post September 11 hysteria, western media still seems mesmerised by Islam and Muslims. Whether it’s a tabloid TV show trying to convince us that Muslims are on an agenda to recruit and convert every Tom, Dick or Harry or an unimaginatively named documentary series trying to go ‘Behind/Beneath’ or to ‘Uncover the Veil’, the media attention is just as relentless as it is disproportionate.

Given that Muslims make up only 2.2% of Australia’s total population, the percentage of media attention is certainly not relative to our size in the general population. Given this climate is it so unreasonable that we, as a Muslim community, refuse to participate in some media interviews, where it is clearly not in our community’s best interests to do so?

In April this year, the producers of the SBS current affairs program Insight contacted various members of the Muslim community to seek their input and participation in an upcoming program on plural relationships and polygamy. This sparked an internal discussion in some circles, where the merits of appearing on Insight were debated.

After a few emails were sent back and forth, and after some debate on social media forums, a number of community leaders, advocates and organisations agreed that they would draft a collective statement toInsight’s producers. The statement would be a unified response, outlining our concerns about the direction Insight was taking from an editorial point of view. This was particularly worrying following on from the sensationalist depiction of Muslims in the infamous ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs aired in 2010 which apparently enjoyed significantly higher than average ratings.

In our statement, we questioned the newsworthiness of Insight’s focus on polygamy and ultimately sought clarification from the producers on a number of points. We then invited the producers to engage with us, as representatives of various Muslim community organisations, to discuss our concerns and seek our feedback.

The producers responded promptly to our request and as a result, a healthy and protracted discussion took place between Shakira Hussain and myself (representing the signatories to the original statement) andInsight’s producers, including Insight‘s Executive Producer. At a later stage, we also engaged SBS CEO and Managing Director Michael Ebeid.

We raised a number of issues, including the fact that previous Insightprograms, (particularly those which focused on the burqa, niqab and Islamophobia) did not do these topics any real justice. Far from addressing the issues, Muslims were effectively put on trial and forced to address criticisms levelled at them. Such criticisms were often raised by right-wing commentators and played on the fear of Muslims as the ‘other’.

What was also problematic with these shows was the manner in whichInsight’s producers carefully selected Muslim guests. It was clear that the choices were made to produce ‘sexy TV’ and to manufacture on-air confrontation, rather than having an informed discussion on the issues. Whilst we welcomed the idea of showing the diversity of Muslim views, we thought the approach taken by SBS would only engender more tensions towards our community. In the end, the result was not a further understanding of Islamic principles or the promotion of Muslim diversity, but rather, further negative perceptions and alienation of Muslims.

In light of the manner in which Muslims had been portrayed on previous programs, we were of the view that Insight’s recent focus on polygamy didn’t seem to have any real underlying rationale that served the public interest. We couldn’t help but feel that it was an attempt to sensationalise, and ultimately manufacture, a controversy in a bid to increase ratings rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.

We raised our concerns, and in turn listened to SBS clarify their position but, in the end, we remained unconvinced on the merits of appearing on the show. We then issued a second statement to Insightreiterating our arguments and ultimately highlighting our refusal to participate in such a program. On both occasions, extensive community consultations took place and approval was sought from all twenty-two signatories.

I recall receiving an email from one of our supporters, congratulating us on our collective efforts. What took me by surprise was the observation below:

‘If we step back and appreciate what’s just happened, this is perhaps one of the first times we’ve been able to coordinate and act as one so quickly, and have great impact on an issue of concern and complexity.’

Finally it dawned on me then. ‘We’ had achieved what once seemed unachievable. We’d coordinated a unified media response; we’d engaged far and wide, crossing racial, ethnic, community and sectarian lines. We were unified in theory and in practice—believe me, this was no small feat! In hindsight it was by no means a perfect campaign; I would have liked to involve many others, but given the circumstances, it was a stepping-stone to bigger and better media engagement projects.

Being sought for media interviews purely based on one’s religious background defines the Muslim participant purely on their ‘faith’, devoid of any other capacity and skill set, a tendency that is symptomatic of tabloid media tactics.

Why doesn’t the media quit with its obsession of having Muslim-related content  televised under the guise of understanding and/or demystifying issues which are clearly not newsworthy, but only serve to boost their ratings.

We are trying desperately as a community to influence how we are portrayed in mainstream media. The only way we can make this a successful campaign and have commercial TV networks take our concerns seriously is to show that we stand together as one, that we are not a ‘push over’, and that we’re united in our efforts to ensure that Muslims get a fairer hearing in the media.

Mariam Veiszadeh
mariamveiszadeh.com

 

Originally published in Sultana’s Dream Online Magazine

PETITIONS – Edited extracts

7 May 2012
Statement on behalf of the Signatories from the Islamic Community
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer, SBS Insight

We understand that you have contacted various individuals andcommunity organisations within the Muslim community about participating or assisting with your research for an upcoming Insightprogram regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

A number of the individuals and community organisations that you have contacted have come together to discuss this upcoming Insightprogram, in light of previous Insight programs involving Muslims in Australia.

For all of the reasons detailed below, the signatories of this letter wish to inform you that not only do we wish not to take part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural marriages/relationships but that we are concerned about the direction that Insight is taking from an editorial point of view and the adverse implications this has for the Muslim community in Australia.

We are struggling to understand why Insight has shifted its attention to the issue of polygamy. In the scheme of things, this topic is not, by any stretch of the imagination, deemed an important topic that requires rigorous discussion and debate worth national public attention at present.

As far as we are concerned, polygamy or plural relationships are hardly practiced within the Muslim community in Australia.

We note that recently Insight focused on the issue of ‘Forced Marriages’ interviewing amongst other members from various communities, a young Muslim woman. Arguably this show may have been justified because at a Federal level the Australian government was looking to introduce legislation on the issue. Insight’s focus on polygamy however, doesn’t appear to have any real underlying rationale which serves the public interest.

We cannot help but feel that this is an attempt by Insight to sensationalise what seems a non-issue in a bid to increase ratings, rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.

Previous Insight Programs

Whilst we can appreciate that our stance may come as a surprise and perhaps be viewed as a drastic move to Insight’s producers, we remind you that our sentiments and feelings regarding Insight and its depiction of Muslims have been seriously concerning for a while.

… Insight’s programs … have focused on Muslims in Australia and as you may have noticed already, some Muslim community organisations have either shown reluctance to actively participate inInsight’s programs or have treaded with great caution when agreeing to participate.

Previous Insight programs, including those which focused on the burqa and niqab and on Islamophobia have not done either of these topics any real justice. Instead, Insight’s producers have carefully selected guests from the Muslim community that they can pitch against one another in an attempt to show a diversity of opinions. While we welcome representations that acknowledge the diversity of opinion among Muslims, Insight’s producers have manipulated this diversity to create an environment that produces on-air conflict among Muslim guests. The end result is not audience appreciation of Muslim diversity, but rather further misunderstanding, negative perceptions and alienation of Muslim communities in Australia.

Against that background, Insight’s invitation to members of the Muslim community to participate in a program about polygamy is therefore received with much reluctance. The topic which Insighthas chosen to focus on has served to strengthen our view that the producers of Insight are not strictly adhering to the objectives that SBS as a multicultural broadcaster prides itself on – promoting social cohesion and harmony and seeking to broaden cultural understanding.

Impact on the Muslim Community and Social Cohesion

We feel that Insight‘s focus on the Muslim community is disproportionate. Irrespective of Insight‘s stated good intentions, the end result is further alienation of the Muslim community….

Signatories of this letter firmly believe in engaging with media, so to take an action like this highlights the seriousness of our concerns….

In the long run we recognise that it is not feasible for Muslim community organisations to have a blanket boycott of Insight. We wish to develop a more constructive relationship with Insight‘s producers and researchers. However, at present and with the current editorial line adopted by Insight, we have come to the conclusion that it is not constructive for the signatories of this letter to take part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

We are happy to meet with representatives from SBS and discuss the issues outlined in this letter in further detail …

Kind regards,
Statement on behalf of the below Signatories from the Islamic Community
7 May 2012
Signed:

Mariam Veiszadeh, Australian Islamic Voice
Maha Abdo, United Muslim Women’s Association
Samier Dandan, Lebanese Muslim Association
Tasneem Chopra, Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights
Imam Haisam Farache, Minister of Religion
Mehmet Saral, Affinity Intercultural Foundation
Sherene Hassan, Islamic Council of Victoria
Mehmet Ozalp, ISRA Australia
Hameed Attai, Shias in Australia
Shakira Hussein, National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies,University of Melbourne
Hany Amer, Islamic Egyptian Society of NSW
Kuranda Seyit, FAIR
Hanan Dover, Mission of Hope
Sara Saleh, Australian Youth Forum Chair 2012
Mal Mac Rae, Islamophobia Watch Group
Maria Bhatti, Lawyer & Community Advocate
Nora Amath, Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity
Lisa Worthington, Academic UWS
Silma Ihram, Australian Muslim Women’s Association
Khaled Sukkarieh, Islamic Council of NSW
Malikeh Michels, Local Government Councillor
Dr Louay Abdulbaki, Hikmah Institute
Siddiq Buckley, Australian Islamic Mission

***

17 May 2012
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer and Angus Llewellyn, Executive
 
Producer, SBS Insight

Following on from our Statement dated 7 May 2012 and the subsequent meeting between our representatives… we would like to clarify our position with respect to the upcoming Insight program regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

We would like to begin by extending our deepest gratitude and appreciation to Meggie and Angus for making time to listen to our concerns and engage in an open dialogue. We were very pleased with the outcome of the meeting and felt that it was a mutually beneficial and constructive discussion.

We have discussed the issues raised in the meeting with the rest of the signatories and in response we would like to clarify and reiterate our position.

Participation in Upcoming Program on Polygamy

We wish to reiterate that polygamy is not widely practised amongst Muslims and in our view, not deemed an important topic that requires meticulous discussion and debate worth national public attention at present. The technical aspects of polygamy are complicated and are not able to be properly explained in sound bytes. A poor or inadequate explanation of such principles leads to confusion and ultimately misrepresentation… This in turn will lead to mistrust and increasing levels of Islamophobia being displayed in the Australian community.

Our participation in the upcoming Insight program would inadvertently and incorrectly imply that polygamy is high on our list of priorities and practices when it is not ….

Against that background we would like to exercise our right not to participate and provide an opinion on this topic as we do not feel that it is in the interests of our community to do so.

Whilst we appreciate that Insight is designed to be an ideas forum where debate is encouraged, we sincerely hope that the upcoming  program does not disintegrate into a visual spectacle of conflict and turn into a debacle as was the result when the ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs were aired as this would lead to further  polarisation and ultimately alienation of the Muslim community.

Participation in Future Insight Programs

… our position with respect to the upcoming show does not imply a blanket boycott against all future Insight programs and was not intended to create an impression that Insight has any ill intentions or has an anti-Islamic agenda. We understand that Insight’s producers are exercising their best endeavours to remain true to the SBS Charter and promote social cohesion and community harmony by providing a platform for Australians of all backgrounds to voice their opinions.

We believe that the best way to engage the Muslim community in the future is to extend an invitation to them to participate in an individual capacity as Australian citizens discussing topics that impact all Australians rather than be asked to participate solely because they are Muslim and being asked to comment on Islamic principles and practices as community leaders.

Whilst we wouldn’t be participating in the upcoming program about polygamy, we would carefully consider participating in future Insightprograms which better served the interests of our community.

Kind regards,
17 May 2012
Signed: [Twenty-two signatories as before]

 

Cultural diversity now on the menu

With the notion of multiculturalism being kicked around like a political football, the diversity being showcased on reality TV shows such as MasterChef Australia is a testament to the fact that the infamous M-word is here to stay – and not just in the form of Chinese dumplings and Turkish kebabs.

The MasterChef 2012 contestants this year included not only people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds but also from several religious backgrounds too.

Georgian-born schoolteacher Alice Zaslavsky has a Jewish background, which she says has influenced her cooking style. Public servant Dalvinder Dhami said early on in the show that she had virtually no experience in cooking with beef due to her Hindu faith.

And paediatric nurse Amina Elshafei is a devout Muslim. Her impressive culinary skills, bubbly nature and infectious smile made her an early favourite on the show.

Woman’s Day described her as the “contestant the whole country has fallen head over heels for”.

Despite early predictions that she could take out the title, Amina narrowly missed out on a top 10 placing in a double elimination on Thursday night.

Her surprise departure sent shock waves through the social media world, with her fans on Twitter expressing outrage at how some contestants were able to make their way into the top 10 over Amina. Truth be told, I was one of them.

But in any event, the MasterChef set this year seems to be far more inclusive and diverse than ever before.

The effect of showcasing such diversity on prime-time TV means the mere presence of an effervescent character and visibly Muslim person such as Amina has played a significant role in breaking down commonly held cultural and religious stereotypes.

With national studies concluding that anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia sits at just under 50 per cent, real, positive coverage of Muslim women is to be welcomed. The results of a parliamentary inquiry, due in August, will investigate Australia’s acceptance of people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

It will conclude that one of the largest issues facing our nation is the acceptance of – you guessed it – Muslims.

Sadly, Muslim women such as Amina who choose to wear the hijab (head scarf) have often borne the brunt of animosity, racism and discrimination.

But fortunately the situation has improved, particularly compared to the hostility Muslims faced in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

Many Muslims will tell you that the increased levels of enmity directed at them during that period have instilled in them a strong sense of identity and a desire to proactively engage with the media and the public to demystify their faith. This is certainly true for me.

Given this climate, it’s incredibly refreshing to see someone like Amina on TV not being defined by her religion or her hijab alone. Amina is a shining beacon of hope who has helped to create a positive image of Muslims just by being herself, instead of trying to represent an entire faith of 1.5 billion people.

She has been judged purely on her cooking ability, on her own merits, not favoured nor discriminated against due to her faith. That is great progress.

What’s more impressive and heartening is how Australia has come to embrace Amina. Fans have inundated her Facebook page. Logie award-winner Chrissie Swan tweeted: “Whenever I look at Amina, or hear her speak, I get a rush of what can only be described as love. Warm, fuzzy, sunny love.”

Many, including Chrissie, admitted to being moved to tears when she was eliminated on Thursday night’s episode.

Amina’s mixed family heritage is a beautiful example of the diversity of the Muslim community in Australia. It negates the assumption that all Muslims are Arabs.

Largely defined by our religion, we are often seen and treated as some sort of homogenous blob, ignoring the fact Muslims are ethnically and culturally diverse.

Amina’s father is Egyptian and her mother South Korean. She is the only woman in her immediate family who has chosen to wear the hijab. It’s a personal choice which some women choose to embrace and others don’t.

It is a fact that one of the best ways to tackle racism, discrimination and eliminate the fear of the “other” is to interact and engage in inter-faith, inter-cultural and inter-community dialogue.

No one is born racist. Racism is taught, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and it can be untaught.

The so-called “fear” of Islam often arises because of the lack of interaction between those who hold this “fear” with your everyday, garden-variety Muslims.

Amina gave viewers a valuable insight into Muslim Australia, brightening the slightly battered image we have.

This is no small achievement.

So, why I am pointing out what may seem to some to be the bleeding obvious?

To applaud those in the media world who are getting the depiction of Muslims and other minority groups right for a change, irrespective of whether they are doing it overtly or inadvertently.

And, to encourage others to adopt a similar approach.

What’s apparent is that there is a gradual and welcoming shift in attitudes. Dare I say that Muslim women are moving beyond being merely tolerated.

Perhaps we are even being celebrated.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a Muslim lawyer and advocate.

Originally published in The Daily Telegraph 7 July 2012