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

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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