Death threats in the virtual world meant I had to worry about my safety in the real one

The death threats in the virtual world meant that I had to worry about my safety in the real one.

A suspicious package was delivered with your name on it, I was told.

I received the call whilst sitting at my desk at work. My local Police Detective, with whom I’m regularly in contact, and whom I’m sure must be sick to death of hearing from me so frequently, said that the tenants living in my old apartment, who had been forewarned about possible threats, received a suspicious package.

The Bomb Squad was apparently contacted. The package was carefully opened – it had a rather unique odour, I am told.

In it, was bacon — yes, bacon — meticulously wrapped in Gladwrap. The tenants had been away on holidays and returned home only to be greeted with bacon in the mail. Oh, how they must have cursed me in that moment.

I sunk back into my seat at work, a sudden feeling of nausea came over me, the feeling you get just before you want to throw up. Everything around me, the noise, my colleagues, my computer screen faded into the distance. It suddenly went quiet – it dawned on me then. These guys weren’t just keyboard warriors. These were not mere empty threats.

Some imbecile had summoned up enough energy to wrap bacon in Gladwrap and send it in the mail. I mean, WHO does that, seriously?

mariam veiszadehBigoted, Neo-Nazi and white supremacists groups have been trolling Mariam – on and off – for years.

Weeks before it, there had been internet chatter on right-wing websites – bigots based in the US and across the globe were discussing how they could mail bacon to my home address without getting caught (luckily they were under the impression that I still lived in my old unit).

But why, you ask?

Bigoted, and more recently Neo-Nazi and white supremacist, groups have been trolling me — on and off — for years. There’s been periods in which they closely monitor my online movements. They often take screenshots of what I say and some have even produced a YouTube video over-analysing my tweets (I’m honoured folks, really, you shouldn’t have). I’ve had at least five imposter accounts set up on Twitter and 2 on Facebook in the last year – each account would use almost identical versions of my name and photo.

The worst of the online cyber-bullying started after I weighed into the public debate about the notorious Woolworths T-shirt – which had an Australian flag and ‘Love it or Leave’ splashed across it.

mariam veiszadeh
The Woolworths shirt that sparked national controversy.

Whilst I received some stock-standard vitriol following those series of tweets, the barrage of abuse really ramped up once the Australian Defence League (ADL) singled me out on their Facebook page, some three months later. They mischievously cropped a screenshot of my tweets suggesting that I was somehow against the Australian flag. Talk about delayed reaction or opportunistic fear mongering.

Cutting a long story short, the ADL post opened the floodgates to a torrent of online abuse. This was in fact a turning point. Hate, well and truly, begets hate.

A 22-year-old Queensland woman, seeing the inciting ADL post, sent me an absolute barrage of abuse.

 

mariam1EDITEDAfter a lengthy police investigation, she was charged for using a ‘carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence’. She was sentenced in May to 180 hours community service. The sentence was considered to be groundbreaking. I have since lodged a compliant via the Australian Human Rights Commission, which is currently on foot, and have considered other legal options.

And so the saga continued, when the media attention generated by her case, then somehow made its way to a Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists group based in the US called the Daily Stormer.

They published an article, falsely claiming that I got a woman ‘arrested’ for ‘hurting my feelings’. They unashamedly urge their alleged ‘5000’+ strong followers to “flood” my twitter account with as “much racial and religious abuse as they possibly can.”

They have also published a great deal of my personal details online –prompting abusive phone calls, SMS, mail, emails and social media vitriol.

mariam veiszadeh
Joshua Ryne Goldberg posed as Neo-Nazi blogger “Michael Slay” and ISIS jihadist “Australi Witness”, among other personas.

I didn’t know then what I know now – that the man behind the vile Daily Stormer campaign was allegedly US-based, Jewish-American troll named Joshua Ryne Goldberg. Goldberg was recently arrested by the FBI for distributing information relating to explosives and destructive devices to facilitate a possible terrorist act in the United States. He had been allegedly masquerading as a Neo-Nazi blogger called “Michael Slay” on the Daily Stormer site, publishing an incredibly vile and abhorrent piece on me.

Amongst his many online personas, he had also posed as “Australi Witness”, a fake ISIS-affiliated jihadist from Australia, who tried to claim a friendship with me, later admitting that he intended only to smear my reputation.

The death threats in the virtual world then meant that I had to worry about my safety in the real one. During the height of the social media vitriol and the ‘international’ cyber bullying campaign, I had police patrolling outside my house overnight – they were taking the death threats that I had received very seriously.

I didn’t know how to take the threats. The rational version of me, thought (rather unconvincingly) that these were just threats from ‘keyboard warriors’ – but the irrational, slightly deranged version of me was worried sick. I kept thinking, has my volunteer advocacy work put my family at risk? Needless to say, I cried myself to sleep that first night.

mariam veiszadeh
The Reclaim Australia group have been vocal in harassing Mariam.

And the memes – my Lord, the memes have been creative!

Bigots-R-Us have created and posted memes of me on several anti-Muslim hate pages, including Reclaim Australia pages. It seems that I had become the Islamophobes’ favourite poster child.

Whether it was the images of me cuddling a decapitated pig’s head, with a message that they’d behead my mother and I and bury us all with pigs, or the one that depicted me being stoned to death, along with a cropped image of me lying dead on the floor, with rocks surrounding me and photo-shopped blood dripping down my cheeks, they were utterly sickening

Following the rise of the Reclaim Australia movement, my name, images and tweets were increasingly being used as propaganda. Suddenly I had becomes the unwilling sacrificial lamb (halal of course) of the anti-Islamic movement and the epitomic symbol of the Australian Muslim.

In the lead up to the second round of Reclaim Australia rallies across the country, a self declared Reclaim Australia supporter sent me death threats. By now, I had become accustomed to death threats (many of which would come from untraceable accounts).

 

mariam veiszadehThe Police took out an AVO against her and she recently charged with using a carriage service to harass, menace and cause offence and also fined $1000. At the time, I had broken the story to a trusted journalist but I had insisted that the identify of the offender be not disclosed.

The 37-year-old woman, who clearly was not very tech-savvy, had some images of her children on her social media accounts and they were all publicly accessible. A simple Google search would have exposed her and her young, innocent, children to public scrutiny and my conscience couldn’t allow that.

My reasons for publicising the story was two-fold. 1) I felt that it served as an important deterrent for those who thought they could hide behind a veil of anonymity when it came to sending vicious threats and vitriol over social media (the more sophisticated trolls still do unfortunately) and 2) I wanted it to serve as an inspiration to others facing similar situations to speak out and take action and hold their perpetrators to account. Many still are unaware of their legal rights, albeit they are somewhat limited, when it comes to cyber-bullying offences.

This whole ordeal has been honestly exhausting. I know that I am stronger than the sum of all of the hate directed at me. I know this because I am my mother’s daughter – resilient, tenacious and strong. I am also human, vulnerable, sensitive and not immune to the physiological effects and mental strain that cyber-bullying has placed on me.

mariam veiszadeh
Image via Twitter.

During the peak of the craziness, the experience was extremely harrowing and all consuming – the impact had extended to my family, my friends and on my work.

I suffered from prolonged anxiety, forcing me to take time off work. I had periods of dizziness and vertigo, which all in all, last about six weeks. In that period, I went to 5 different Doctors, including a neurologist. I had my ears test, my heart tested and my brain tested and in the end – it seemed the cause of my physical illness was ultimately anxiety.

Reflecting back on it now, it was by and large one of the most difficult experiences that I’ve had to endure. It’s difficult for me to reflect back on that period, without bursting into tears.

This ordeal has tested me in ways I never thought possible, but it has also strengthened my resolve to keep advocating for a more just world.
Originally published here: http://www.mamamia.com.au/lifestyle/the-online-abuse-mariam-endured-became-so-horrific-police-had-to-guard-her-home/#YmH5yrwBx5CTj6r9.99

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Religion and the Racial Discrimination Act: Don’t Muslims Also Deserve Protection?

A decade-long national study conducted by the University of Western Sydney found that nearly half of Australians describe themselves as having anti-Muslim attitudes.

These findings could hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the sheer amount of blatant Islamophobia that is reported through the Islamophobia Register Australia.

I myself have struggled tremendously, both physically and mentally, after being singled out by the Australian Defence League, and finding myself on the receiving end of death threats and near-constant online bile.

This is part and parcel of being a visible Muslim in Australia today, who quickly become the target of social media vitriol, verbal abuse and physical assaults every time someone or something even remotely associated with Muslims or Islam is thrust involuntarily into the media spotlight.

The word “Islamophobia” was coined because there was a new reality that needed naming – namely, anti-Muslim prejudice. Just to be clear, this is not a matter of theological debate and disagreement, much less criticism of Islamic teachings and practices. This is about bigotry, discrimination, abuse and, I will argue, racism.

Is Islam an ethno-religion?

The category of an ethno-religious group was created to cope with anti- Semitism as a special form of racism. This was the right move, in my view. This grouping was created because this particular group of vulnerable people went through a process of “racialisation” over time.

But it is time that we understood the ethnicised and racialised nature of Islam in Western countries, and recognise Islamophobia as a form of racism akin to anti-Semitism.

What exactly is racialisation? It is defined as the process by which groups are categorised and accorded certain phenotypic features that stems from their way of living. Ultimately, racialisation results in essentialism – it reduces people to one aspect of their identity and thereby presents a homogeneous, undifferentiated, and static view of an ethno-religious community.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, who has explored at length the various forms Islamophobia takes in countries like Australia, challenges the claim that Muslims cannot be the victims of racism because they are not a race. This claim, she argues, is based on an impoverished understanding of the history of race, racial formation and racism. She argues that the body-fixated theory that sustains a demarcation between race and religion ignores the enormous scholarship carried out that demonstrates the falsity of claiming that religious affiliations are never to do with the body, and that “race” is only to do with the body. She argues:

“that racial marking and racialisation do not depend on so-called biological attributes. Essentialising people on the basis of their outward appearance – whether it be skin colour, facial features, a headscarf, beard, an accent – is precisely how the process of racialisation works.”

While it is certainly true that being a Muslim is voluntary and not a biological trait per se – in the way that “African American” or “South Asian” or “European” is – as Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood point out, originally, neither was being “Jewish.” They argue that it was took a long, non-linear process of racialisation to turn an ethno-religious group into a race.

I am mindful that some may be insulted by any comparison of Islamophobia with anti-Semitism, on the grounds of the exceptionalism of the history of Jewish hatred in the West. I am, of course, not seeking to downplay the long history of persecution suffered by the Jewish communities.

The real issue, however, is the apparent double-standard, the anomalies and contradictions that are embedded in anti-discrimination legislation, which lead to unjust but legally compliant decisions whereby, for a complaint against comparable offences when religion is not a protected attribute, a Jewish person can obtain reparation while a Muslim cannot.

A prime example of such a double-standard is the 2002 case of a Muslim prisoner in New South Wales who filed a case when he was denied his request for Halal food in a private prison, knowing full well that his Jewish inmate obtained his Kosher meal when requested. The court stated that, since Halal food is of a religious element and religion is not covered under the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act (1977), therefore the case should be dismissed.

Such inconsistencies in the application of the law – whereby a religious dietary requirement was obtained by one religious group but denied to another – are highly problematic and demand some redress.

But, as Mariam Farida rightly argues, even if Muslims were considered an ethno-religious group, they may not be protected from religious discrimination under the law. Making reference to specific cases, she concludes that even if a party belonged to an acknowledged ethno-religious group, the court may only consider it a breach if the vilification was both on the grounds of ethnicity and religion, and not purely based on religion alone.

We thus need to consider whether having Islam categorised as an ethno-religion would actually achieve the intendedobjective.

The Racial Discrimination Act and religion

This leads inexorably to the question of whether the Racial Discrimination Act be amended so as to extend to religious vilification. Quite apart from the obvious body of opposition to such a proposition, I suspect that the likes of Andrew Bolt would have a hernia. He’d have to acquaint himself quite intimately with what it means to write something in “good faith”!

I acknowledge that there is a deep-seated resistance to include religion among the grounds covered by anti-discrimination laws. Interestingly, despite the fact that some Christian groups oppose religious vilification laws, the Australian Christian Lobby in its 2012 submission in relation to the Consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws proposed that religion be a protected attribute against discrimination, in order to remedy a substantial omission in the Commonwealth legislation.

In Australia, the states that cover religious discrimination in their legislations are Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory. I note that New South Wales contains Australia’s largest Muslim population, and yet they are not protected from religious vilification. Interestingly, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act (1977) was amended in 1994 to add a reference to “ethno-religious.” The then NSW Attorney-General, John Hannaford, explained that “the effect of the amendment is to clarify that ethno-religious groups, such as Jewish people, Muslims and Sikhs, have access to the racial vilification and discrimination provisions of the Act.” The stated intention was, in fact, to cover Australian Muslims – but this never materialised.

One of the objections often raised against making religion a protected attribute under the Racial Discrimination Act is that religion is deemed strictly personal and tends to be chosen. This is true. Though it is important to point out that in circumstances where a person finds herself born to a Muslim family, with Muslim stereotypes and characteristics, then it could be argued that it is not a matter of choice anymore.

When examining this objection from a purely practical perspective, one does not choose the name they are given or the family into which they are born. One doesn’t choose to be named Mohamed Abdulla, for example. Yet, even if there were no other identifying features, this name alone is enough to identify a man as being a Muslim and therefore make him prone to being the subject of religiously motivated abuse.

Furthermore, researchers have made the point that one does not choose to be born a Muslim in a society where identifying as Muslim makes you the subject of suspicion and interrogation. If choice is the factor that precludes a Muslim from being seen as a victim of racism, then isn’t the logical conclusion to be drawn that such a choice is a bad one? If a Muslim is the victim of a hate crime but cannot seek legal recourse because the attribute that attracted the abuse is “chosen,” isn’t the clear message that concealing this choice – that is, being less Muslim – would go a long way towards preventing the abuse?

Sure, I’d cop far less abuse if I chose not to wear a hijab – but why should I be forced to make such a choice? One cannot help but feel that the victim is here being blamed or made to feel as though they are inviting the abuse. This line of moral and legal reasoning is deeply flawed, and is comparable to someone blaming a woman’s dress sense for her being the victim of sexual harassment.

The impact of Islamophobia

Where religious groups or individual believers are subject to vilification, it can have deeply hurtful effects and create considerable fear within religious communities. It also feeds into a vicious cycle. Islamophobia, if left unchecked, may serve to erect barriers to Muslim inclusion in Australia, increasing alienation, especially among young Muslims. Not only would such a situation do grave damage to our social cohesion, it would simultaneously expand the pool of recruits for future radicalisation. This factor is often ignored or overlooked.

Let me conclude by citing an article by my dear friend, Randa Abdel-Fattah:

“Do you want to know how it feels to be an Australian Muslim in the Australia of today?

“Then turn on the television, open a newspaper. There will be a feature article analysing, deconstructing, theorising about Islam and Muslims in which your fellow Australians will be offered the chance to make sense of this phenomenon called ‘the Muslim’.

“This is what it means to be an Australian Muslim today. It is to try to live against the perception that one represents a synonym for terrorism and extremism.

“It is to see the faith you embrace with such conviction defiled and defamed because acts that defy Islamic law and doctrine are still prefixed by the media with the word ‘Islamic’. It is to have the reasonable, peaceful statements of your leaders ignored and the ignorant ravings of the minority splashed across the headlines. It is to be the topic of talkback radio rant and raves.

“It is to come to accept that although atrocities are committed in the name of all religions around the world, it is Islam alone that will be judged by the actions of those who purport to be its followers. It is to refuse to lay blame for the behaviour of so-called Christians at the feet of Christ because you respect the intent of Christ’s words and actions and because you know that even those acting in his name are misguided.

“So what it means to be an Australian Muslim today is that you will often sit alone, in the silence of your hurt and fury, and wonder why it is so difficult for Islam, a religion followed by 1.5 billion people, all of whom cannot be uncivilised, unintelligent, immoral, unthinking dupes, to be treated with the same respect.”

Is it not unconscionable for some religious minority groups to be afforded legislative protections and other religious groups, who are also in desperate need of such protections, to be denied the same protections?

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia. An earlier version of this article was presented to the RDA@40 Conference in Sydney, 19-20 February 2015.

Originally published  here: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/02/25/4186872.htm

We need to call out the double standards in Australia’s anti-discrimination laws

Over the past year, women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them, had hot coffee thrown in their face, told to leave an entertainment venue, assaulted and thrown off a train, verbally intimidated, had their cars vandalised and have been forced to restrict their public movements out of fear.

Some of these incidents took place in the presence of children. Some victims were heavily pregnant. Some victims complained that passers-by and witnesses failed to intervene. All of the victims were left traumatised – the experiences haunting them, each and every time they hear of yet another incident similar to theirs.

These women all have one thing in common.
“Over the past year, [Muslim] women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them.”

“Over the past year, [Muslim] women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them.”

And no, they are not the victims of a domestic violence epidemic.
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These women just happen to be Australian Muslims, many of them who have chosen to display their faith publicly by wearing a hijab or on some occasions, a niqab. This is their only ‘crime’.

Despite being part of the world’s second largest faith group, Muslim women in all parts of the Western world are singled out and targeted daily by those who continue to extrapolate the criminal actions of a minority to the entire 1.6+ billion followers of Islam.
A woman holds a placard during an anti-racism protest in Federation Square where Reclaim Australia, a community group, stages an anti-Islam rally at the same time in Melbourne,

A woman holds a placard during an anti-racism protest in Federation Square where Reclaim Australia, a community group, stages an anti-Islam rally at the same time in Melbourne, Photo: Getty Images

The fear, both debilitating and real, has been so great at times that citizens have taken it upon themselves to offer to escort Australian Muslim women in the aftermath of incidents which result in an inevitable backlash against Muslims.

Although groundswell movements like #Illridewithyou have helped cushion the backlash somewhat, the inevitable reality remains that being ‘visibly Muslim’ (or even ‘remotely Muslim’ in the online world) puts you at higher risk of being the victim of an islamophobic incident.

What’s more disturbing is that when I’ve sought to speak out about Islamophobia, in addition to many expressing concern, a rather alarming number of people expressly engage in victim blaming.

Having launched the Islamophobia Register late last year, a platform that collates incidents of Islamophobia across Australia, and having spoken directly to countless victims over the past year, I’ve witnessed first hand the absolutely terrifying impact the experiences have left on victims and their loved ones.

I often find myself playing the role of an investigator, legal advisor, counsellor, advocate and social worker. Having experienced long drawn out episodes of cyber bullying and near constant online hate myself, I find myself re-living my own anguish each time I speak to them.

As an advocate seeking to amplify the voices of victims of Islamophobia, I myself have become the target. I’ve been bestowed with the honour of becoming every Islamophobes’ favourite poster child.

It was these very experiences that I reflected upon, as well as highlighting the inadequacies in the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), in my address to the Australian Human Rights Commission, at its 40 years of the RDA Conference in February this year.

I specifically spoke about the fact that despite the alarming increase in the frequency and severity of incidents of Islamophobia, Australian Muslims were still not afforded adequate protection under Federal laws.

In NSW, which houses the largest percentage of Australian Muslims, legal protections would only apply, as an example, if one was abused as an “effing Lebanese Muslim” as opposed to an “effing Muslim” because clearly bigots pause to reflect on one’s ethnicity before letting loose. This same imposition is not required where Australian Jewish and Sikh communities are concerned.

We know that religion is often used as a pretext for what is, in reality, race discrimination. And the whole ‘I ain’t racist because Islam is not a race’ argument is getting old and is frankly, a cop out!

I’m sick of hearing the absurd argument that unless I condemn repeatedly and ad nauseam the atrocious acts committed by every Mahmoud, Abdul or Ahmed, I cannot speak out about acts committed against Zahra, Sara and Aisha.

What concerns me is the double standards, anomalies and contradictions embedded in anti-discrimination laws, which leads to ridiculously unjust but perfectly legal decisions whereby, for a complaint against similar offences when religion is not a protected attribute, a Jewish person can obtain protection while a Muslim cannot.

The National Consultation Report on the 40th anniversary of the RDA released by the Australian Human Rights Commission last week echos what many in the community, myself included, have been saying for a while – that Australian Muslim, whilst having to endure increased levels of biased motivated vilification and discrimination, have at best, “limited protection” under the RDA as religion is not a protected attribute and Islam is not considered an “ethno-religion” (unlike Judaism).

Legal experts are now calling on the Federal Government to consider how to better protect Australian Muslims.

The cynic in me thinks that it’s tough to imagine that there’s a huge amount of capital to be gained by any of the major political parties to consider legislating on this issue as they’d be effectively sticking their neck out for one of the most ‘disliked’ segments of the broader community – Australian Muslims.

I recognise the rather tricky intersection between race and religion and the complexities associated with legislating on what is perceived as a non-biological trait – religion.

I note however that some academics are mounting the argument that increasing levels of Islamophobia in Australia has sped up a process of “ethnicisation” of the Australian Muslim community.

There have been suggestions that given that there is next to none political appetite to go down the legislative reform route, that perhaps a more realistic approach to secure legal protections would be for an impacted member of the Australian Muslim community to commence litigation to test the relevant provisions of the RDA or its state equivalents before a court (‘a test case’).

This might be a viable option but given sky rocketing legal expenses and the drawn out legal battle that would ensue, not to mention the potential associated trauma that one would have to endure – how realistic is this option? I know this because, given that I’ve been racially and religiously vilified myself, I have considered mounting my own ‘test case’.

In 2012, a proposed a draft bill, which sought to merge and simplify five existing anti-discrimination laws, including the RDA was shelved. More recently, some have floated the idea of a Multicultural Act.

Perhaps its time we commenced a national debate about how best to address these issues which, if left unaddressed can have significant broader and long-term implications.

It’s apparent that there are various options available – most seem to be lacking a vital ingredient however – political willpower.

 

Originally published here: http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl-women-of-the-year/mariam-veiszadeh-we-need-to-call-out-the-double-standards-in-australias-antidiscrimination-laws-20151110-gkvug6.html