Please do not tell us to ‘pray away’ our mental health issues

You don’t need to see a psychologist. Just pray.” A well meaning and otherwise caring individual said these words to me. At a time when I was very clearly struggling with my mental health, this was a painful reminder of how so many people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and faith communities are widely misguided and uninformed when it comes to mental health and well being. This deep lack of awareness severely hinders treatment and early diagnosis, which results in victims suffering in silence.

As has undoubtedly become the case for so many contemporary issues we face, people are told to simply “pray it away”. Whilst I do not seek to even remotely dismiss the role faith plays in helping people from all walks of life, myself included, to cope with whatever life throws their way, spiritualising one’s mental health issues can have grave and dangerous consequences.

There was a time when I was relatively ignorant about mental health issues. I knew very little. I had never set foot in a psychologist’s office, nor did I think I would ever have to. Little did I know that my life would soon be changed and I would become intimately familiar with the comfortable lounges, jugs of water and tissue boxes that seem to grace psychologists’ offices.

In early 2015, I became the victim of a vicious cyber bullying campaign that reached epic, international proportions, remnants of which are still present today. At the peak of my struggles in early 2015 I was experiencing nausea, dizziness and episodes of vertigo. A colleague once had to escort me to my chair at work because she’d seen me walk into a filing cabinet only moments before. I couldn’t walk down steps without risk of hurting myself. I didn’t want to see anyone or speak to anyone. I wanted to be alone all the time and when I was alone, I wanted to escape my thoughts. No state of solitude was ever satisfying. I felt a hollow emptiness and sheer, unrelenting pain. It lasted initially for six weeks. Six, painful weeks when I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.

In that time I went to five different doctors, including an otolaryngologist (head and neck specialist) and a neurologist. I had my ears tested, my heart tested and my brain function tested and in the end – it seemed the cause of my physical illnesses was anxiety. I vividly remember the palpable relief I felt and an almost instant easing of my physical conditions when I finally managed to speak to a psychologist. At the time it seemed odd to me, that my physical conditions were manifestations of anxiety and depression.

Since that period, anxiety and at times, depression has become like a distant relative who insists on visiting at the most inconvenient times and always over stays their welcome.

While I’ve received incredible unconditional support from my loved ones each and every time, there’s no denying that there is still a huge culture of silence that surrounds this issue.

The unfortunate stigma associated with mental health issues is particularly prevalent amongst CALD and faith communities who may view it through a lens of stigma and shame. Some even consider those who struggle with their mental health as an indictment and so routinely dismiss it as a “lack of faith”.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the data very clearly demonstrates that people from CALD backgrounds do not seek out voluntary mental health services compared with those from non-CALD backgrounds. They are, however, disproportionately over-represented among those who are treated for mental health issues on an involuntarily basis. It seems they are less likely to seek treatment unless until they are in a desperate state, and so they are metaphorically dragged to the table kicking and screaming; even then, they will go to great lengths to keep it all private to supposedly “protect their family’s honour”.

As I’ve said to so many over the years, we turn to a medical professional to help us when we have a physical condition. We don’t simply just pray for a cure, so by the same logic, why are we so hesitant to seek help from a professional when we are presented with a mental condition? While spiritual healing can certainly support recovery, it cannot and must not be seen as an alternative to seeking professional help.

ortunately, there are a growing number of advocates who are speaking out and working tirelessly behind the scenes to disseminate knowledge about and further develop culturally appropriate services to cater for CALD and faith communities.

And in the poignant words of the talented poet and Mental Health advocate, Hawraa Kash “I am a trigger warning walking, with an uncertain heart beat, chanting that it’s ok not to be ok.” It certainly is, ok not to be ok but don’t do it alone. Don’t suffer in silence. Have faith that professional and culturally appropriate support is available to you to help you overcome the most challenging of mental health conditions.
Mental health support services:
Black Dog Institute
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Carers Australia 1800 242 636 – Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.
Headspace 1800 650 890 – a free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 – A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.
Mindspot Clinic 1800 61 44 34 – An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)
QLife 1800 184 527 – QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people.
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277- A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
SANE Australia 1800 18 7263 – Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.
Support after Suicide
Source: Beyond Blue

Equality For Women Does Not Mean Oppression For Men

You can’t be oppressed when another group is merely gaining rights you exclusively acquired by default decades ago.

I recall a conversation I was having with two senior managers about Corporate Australia’s shift to focus on cultural diversity within its leadership ranks. One of them was a woman of Asian Australian heritage; the other, a colleague of hers, a man of Anglo-Celtic origin.

It was in the context of this discussion, in which the man turns to her and says: “There you go, another leg up for people like you”.

The shocked and hurt look on her face will be permanently etched into my memory. She didn’t say a word but I couldn’t let that go. I responded: “When you extend a hand to someone who for too long has been walking in the gutter, while you’re comfortably strolling the streets, that’s not a leg up or a hand out – it’s simply levelling the playing field”.

And then I did a Wonder Woman pose and walked off. Okay, so the last part didn’t happen.

Image: Getty.

That man’s remarks, it turns out, whilst fairly brazen, are not uncommon.

According to a new landmark study from the 50/50 Foundation at the University of Canberra, while 88 percent of Australians agree that gender equality is still a problem, 46 percent of the men surveyed believe that the adopted measures do not take men into account or, put another way, they feel like their man-given rights are being eroded.

It’s no surprise of course, because “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” (Quote by unknown).

But you can’t be oppressed when another group is merely gaining rights, you exclusively acquired, by default, decades ago. Perhaps the trepidation some men are feeling is because they fear that they will be treated how women have been treated for centuries?

Needless to say, the report findings fuelled the usual debate across social media.

As one Twitter user put it to me (let’s call him ‘David’ for now) “… how can you expect millennial males to suffer discrimination for the wrongs of history, which they did not commit?”

What you’re really saying is that you want the system to continue to operate in an unjust manner which advantages men over women because it’s not your individual fault that David, Peter and John built a system which advantages other Davids, Peters and Johns. I didn’t select those names randomly – there are fewer women in top jobs than there are actual Davids, Peters and Johns.

L to R: David, Peter John, David, Peter… Image: Getty.

What you’re really saying is that you’ve found a large bag of money which doesn’t belong to you, but you’re just going to hang on to it, instead of returning it the authorities.

Balancing the gender equality scales is not a historical issue nor is it about punishing one gender over another. It’s not about attributing fault. It’s not about revenge. It’s about justice – pure and simple.

The injustices and barriers to full equality are still flourishing today and the barriers are amplified for women from minority groups who have to face not only a glass ceiling, but a double glazed one at that. And no, they are not lacking in merit. That argument was blown out of the water long ago.

Countless studies have shown how unconscious institutional bias operates to advantage men, and particularly those of an Anglo-Celtic background. How else do you explain that once “blind” (or a better term, ‘anonymous’) recruitment practices were adopted, the chances of women advancing to key positions were exponentially increased?

Whether it’s musicians in orchestras or executives in boardrooms, remove the bias creating attributes of human beings, like their gender, race, sexuality, etc. and the pendulum seems to swing towards equality.

And is it not ironic that those who claim that their selections are based on merit tend to hire people just like them? Affinity bias is an actual thing, you know.

You can’t argue that you have more merit when all you have are more privileges. If you, whether advertently or inadvertently threw a cover over one side of a newly planted garden bed, which resulted in sunlight and rain water not reaching them, curtailing their growth, you can’t claim that the other side of the garden bed, which produced healthier and taller flowers, are just of a better, more meritorious variety.

Here’s the thing, you can’t address inequality equally. In order to tip the scales of equality back to balance, the side weighing it down must return to a state of equilibrium.

Throughout history, humanity has sought to right historical wrongs. Sometimes you have to give your seat up on the bus and sit further back because it’s the right thing to do.

And at that point, the question is not, ‘why I am not getting the unearned privileges I was previously afforded by virtue of my gender’?

The question is, why does my fellow human being not have access to the same equitable opportunities and privileges that I’ve had access to and continue to benefit from?

Mariam Veiszadeh is a Diversity & Inclusion Consultant and did a TEDx talk on Rethinking Privilege.  


Article originally published at Ten Daily 




I arrived in Australia as a seven year old and I’m still grateful

Twenty seven years ago, on this day, my family and I first arrived in Australia on board a Qantas plane. 

Given all that we had endured, grateful is understatement when it comes to describing how we felt.We finally had a home we could adopt as our own. A home that would allow us to escape the horrors of the past. 

I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan you see, during the Soviet War in 1984.

I, like every other human being living on this earth, didn’t exercise any choice in where, or the circumstances in which I would be born. 

The intensity of the Soviet war drove my family and I to flee Afghanistan in 1988. 

Our journey took us from Kabul to India, to the Czech Republic, followed by Germany and then finally Australia, where we were granted asylum in 1991 under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian program. 

I remember being enrolled in school both in India and Germany, each time making new friends and learning a completely new language. I remember how much I cried because we had to leave all of my toys behind in India.  

And then I remember being gutted not being able to stay in Germany, having to say goodbye to my friends and our snow-fighting adventures.  

Coming to a new foreign land is never easy but I remember the warmth of my ESL teacher Mrs Browne at Penrith South Public school. She made us, all of us, feel welcome. She helped teach me to speak English but unbeknown to her, she did more than that – she effectively taught me to believe in myself.  

She helped to inject a confidence in me that our years of travelling from one country to another had sucked out of me. 

Now when I reflect on my humble beginnings, it is still unbelievable to think that I arrived in Australia as a shy seven year old who couldn’t speak a word of English. 

I am grateful for all of the opportunities and privileges afforded to me and I know that being able to call Australia our home has been instrumental in enabling me to become the woman that I am today. And for that privilege, I am grateful. 

I cannot begin to imagine what life would be like if I was back home in Afghanistan. 

Now, I hear the naysayers and my ‘troll base’ scream out, “but you’re not grateful!…you’re always pointing out racism and bigotry etc etc, why can’t you just shut up and be grateful”. I am not exaggerating here for dramatic effect – I have words to this effect written to me almost on a weekly basis.  

It’s worth noting that there are also those lone voices, on the other side of the spectrum, that will label me a sell-out for merely putting the words grateful and Australia in the one sentence. 

My work in the Diversity and Inclusion space in recent times has forced me to more profoundly reflect on my own levels of privilege and that of those around me. I’ve felt compelled to unapologetically, hold up a mirror and to call out the grossly unfair double standards applied to different members of society.  

Just as we can clap hands and skip at the same time, we can be grateful while speaking about our history and pointing out injustices. They are not mutually exclusive. And for a person of colour, voicing one’s opinion, no matter how unsavoury you may find it, shouldn’t come with a greater price tag than everybody else.

So today I’m sitting back and reflecting on that day 27 years ago with gratitude.

What I cherish most about Australia is that we are continually trying to better ourselves as a nation. We are proud of who we are yet we have the confident humility to know we can always strive to be better.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, writer and advocate.

Originally published at SBS Life


The beauty of unpronounceable names is that we all eventually learn them

MARIO! Mario!” The barista is calling out a coffee order. I’m half asleep so it doesn’t register. “Mario? Skinny flat white”. It dawns on me then – he means me. It’s my coffee order!

OMG. How embarrassing. I walk over; he takes a look at me and then at the coffee and realises their cashier has totally butchered my name. He apologises. I politely say thank you, pick up my coffee, my ego off the ground, and walk off.

“It’s OK,” I think to myself. I’m used to it. Worse still was the time I ordered my coffee using the Hey You app which clearly displays my full name – correct spelling and all – and the considerate barista thought he’d Anglicise my name for me – it had “Mary” written on the cup.

Do you remember that feeling as you’re sitting in roll call at school and your teacher is yelling out a list of each of the students’ names, and then there’s that infamous pause and you just know that they are about to butcher yours?

Are you nodding? Or maybe you’re like, “nope I can’t relate.” That means you probably have a pronounceable name – by Western standards anyway.

My name, you see, is Mariam Veiszadeh. No not, Miriam (I get that A LOT), not Maria, not Mary, definitely not Mario, but MAAARIAM. As for my surname, oh boy – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer would have no hope in hell trying to utter it, ever.

It’s Veiszadeh. Not Visydeh, Versace, Veh-veh-veh –?

Look, I get it. It’s not easy – not even by ethnic standards. (I can say that because I’m ethnic.)

But having a name like mine does have its perks. You never have to worry about someone else having the same Gmail address or Instagram handle. As a work colleague once pointed out to me, “your name is unusual enough for me to be able to easily find you in the directory”. (PS: Please don’t say that to people, especially ones you’ve just met).

But yeah, being different ain’t always cool. Just ask Emma Alberici, Neel Kolhatkar, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Magda Szubanski or Gladys Berejiklian about how many times well-intentioned people have butchered their names before they finally got it.

These are the brave folks who persevered and didn’t give in to the urge to change their names or Anglicise them – and now, after years of practice, we just know how to say their names.

The thing is not everyone who changes, shortens or Anglicises their names is doing it because their names are unpronounceable. Some are doing to avoid or reduce discrimination.

“Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as discrimination,” I hear you say! Well, an ANU 2009 study found that someone with a Chinese-sounding name typically must submit 68 per cent more applications than a person with an Anglo-sounding name to get the same amount of call backs and therefore land a job interview.

And if you’re Middle Eastern, not only are you more likely to be randomly selected for a bomb test at the airport, but to get the same number of interviews as a job applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, you must submit 64 per cent more applications. An Indigenous applicant 35 per cent more, and an Italian applicant 12 per cent more applications.

With odds like that, it is entirely understandable why some feel the need to go from Ming to May or from Mohammed to Michael because you just can’t beat unconscious (or in some cases conscious) bias in the recruitment process.

The fact that people from the above named ethnic groups are less likely to advance to leadership positions once they make it through the recruitment process is a topic that we will have to leave for another day. Needless to say if you don’t see folks with unpronounceable names in the top ranks of society, there’s even less incentive to retain the names given to you at birth.

But what if your parents named you North West – surely you should be able to change that when you’re older, I hear you say? Hey, this is a judgment-free zone.

It’s a sad reality that on the top of the usual anxieties that new parents battle with, some have the added problem of having to worry about their name selections – trying to settle on names that will less likely result in bullying and discrimination in the playground and beyond.

In an era where parents try to be different by naming their child a variant of popular names like Sophia (who knew that Sophia could be spelt at least 10 different ways?) – let’s truly embrace difference and let us encourage others to be proud of their identities.

Most importantly, let us become conscious of the role each of us play in society in ensuring that we don’t merely tolerate difference, be in it in name or otherwise, but rather, we celebrate it.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 June 2917

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:

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:

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.

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:

Sydney siege: why my heart sank when I saw an Islamic flag

As a mother and a fellow Australian, I join the rest of the nation in grieving the loss of two innocent Sydneysiders who so tragically lost their lives in the Martin Place siege. My thoughts and prayers are with their families, the rest of the hostages and their loved ones. I went to Martin Place on Tuesday to lay flowers in their honour.

As this nightmare unravelled on Monday, my heart sank as I sat at my desk at work, hearing about the events occurring only a few streets away. I felt completely numb when I heard that the innocent hostages were forced to hold up an “Islamic flag”. With one grotesque act, 1½ billion Muslims were at risk of being dragged through the mud, deemed “guilty by association”, and religious symbols misappropriated.

Unable to contain my emotions, I wept uncontrollably in my team meeting at work as the sheer magnitude of this callous act and the unknown potential violence dawned on me. The love, compassion and unconditional support my colleagues showed me that day reaffirmed my belief that love will always triumph over hate.

I dreaded the calls that I would start receiving from the media – asking me to “comment” on the unfolding crisis, like I was somehow connected or responsible for this lone, mentally deranged gunman. I immediately thought, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t “comment”.

I then somewhat hesitantly roamed the streets of Sydney’s CBD with my work colleagues to find a taxi, which seemed like an impossible task. Being visibly Muslim, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I finally managed to find a taxi travelling in my direction and shared it with two lovely women named Michaela and Dixie.

The pain must have been visible on my face, as they comforted me with their words of solidarity and support. The taxi was unable to drop me off all the way home so Michaela insisted on driving me the final stretch to my door; a beautiful gesture from a complete stranger, which helped mend my heart. It is only later that I discovered the #illridewithyou hashtag, a social media campaign which not only helped restore my faith in humanity but reminded me that visible Australian Muslims would no doubt bear the brunt of the rampant Islamophobia which to some extent, will inevitably follow.

Racist groups have already started exploiting this unprecedented tragedy. Predators who foster ill will, division and hatred at a time of tragedy are sacrilegious to those who have lost their lives. It is socially irresponsible behaviour – whether it comes from racist groups or shock jocks.

How we respond to tragedies define us as a nation, as a community and as a people.

There are many unanswered questions, which will no doubt have complex and complicated answers. But in time, they must be asked and as a nation, we must have the frank conversation of what we want and how we will achieve it. In doing so, it is important that we challenge the prevailing narrative, free of hysteria. We must not give in to the temptation to demonise, stigmatise or alienate entire communities.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 17 December 2014

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


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