Legitimising a fear of difference – major impediment to social cohesion

One of the most challenging impediments to social and community cohesion in Australia has been the alarming increase in Islamophobia – a relatively new term established in the aftermath of 9/11. The public discourse, particularly in the media and amongst politicians, surrounding anti-terrorism and the so-called rise of radicalisation is evidence of this frightening trend.

There is no one specific source for the current climate of mistrust and hostility felt towards Australian Muslims but there are certainly significant contributing factors.

The most pervasive of these factors are the very frequent and often inaccurate portrayals of Muslims and Islamic principles in the media. For an overt and unforgivable example, one only needs to refer to Today Tonight and A Current Affair, which are poor excuses for current affairs shows. Given the extent of the sensationalist misrepresentations masked as factual reporting, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to argue that tabloid TV shows such as these are almost pursuing a deliberate agenda to portray Muslims in a derogatory manner. To engage in Muslim-bashing nowadays seems to be a ratings winner.

Added to this is the very public and highly politicised media discourse surrounding the justification for the war on terror, as well as general discussions around terrorism, fundamentalism and radicalisation. The discussion of the issues is not the concern per se, but rather it’s the immediate connections drawn between these complex concepts on the one hand, and Islam and Muslims on the other. Perhaps the use of such religious labels is amongst the most popular and available explanations for what would otherwise seem to be inconceivable man-made destruction. The connections being made however lead the average lay person to conclude that all terrorists are Muslims and that terrorism is only ever carried out by groups that associate themselves, no matter how loosely, with Islam. This neglects the reality that extremists and radicalised people derive their way of thinking from a vast array of extremist backgrounds, including right and left wing extremism, separatist and nationalist movements and religiously founded movements.

The recent Oslo massacre is one such example. When it became apparent that the man behind the Oslo attacks, the biggest massacre committed by a single gunman in modern times, was not of Middle Eastern origin or a supposed follower of Islam, the Western media labelled Anders Behring Breivik a lone, self-confessed mass killer and madman. I struggled to understand why the Terrorist label was so readily used for those that somehow connected themselves to Islam, and not for the likes of blond-haired, blue-eyed Breiviks. What the Western media’s coverage of the Oslo terrorist attacks seems to show is an underlying assumption, which sets the tone for discussions around terrorism, that only people who are even remotely connected to Islam engage in acts of terrorism.

The Oslo terrorist attacks and the manner in which it was reported in the Western media are strikingly similar to those of the 1995 Oklahoma bombings. The world was shocked then, too, to find that the perpetrator of the murderous attacks was not a Middle Eastern ‘terrorist’ but rather a fair-skinned US Army veteran – Timothy McVeigh. This kind of popular discourse helps reinforce and aggravate the existing stereotypes and bigotry towards Muslims and further alienates them from mainstream society, ultimately impacting their sense of belonging and, in turn, overall social cohesion and community harmony.

This sense of alienation and disenfranchisement is shared amongst young Australian Muslims who, despite being mostly born, raised and educated in Australia, still feel like their identity is being constantly questioned. Contrary to popular belief, these young Muslims are not disengaged, poorly educated, unemployed citizens but rather are often articulate, active, intelligent tertiary educated members of society who come from families that most would regard as quintessential migrant success stories. According to the 2006 ABS Census results, 21 per cent of adult Muslim men have a university degree compared with 15 per cent of non-Muslim Australians, yet these higher education levels do not seem to translate into higher levels of employment.

Another contributing factor is the not so measured government response to the tragic 9/11 attacks and, specifically, the introduction of an unprecedented number of new counter-terrorism laws. Since 9/11, the government has enacted a whopping 44 pieces of counter terrorism legislation. The legislation-enacting frenzy following 9/11 has led some to question whether the laws go too far and essentially infringe upon our civil liberties. Some have even argued that these laws are potentially unconstitutional as they do not respect the separation of powers doctrine. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the disproportionate impact these legislative provisions have had on average everyday Australian Muslims who have felt criminalised. The high profile case of the Indian-born doctor Mohamed Haneef who was detained without charge is one such example.

There is no denying that there are individuals who identify themselves as Muslims who have been convicted of terrorism related offences in Australia. But it is also true to say that Australian Muslims largely denounce the actions and intentions of these men. In fact, following the 9/11 attacks, major Islamic organisations from around Australia issued heartfelt statements addressed to “all the extremists of the world”, rejecting their violent acts without reservation. Despite this, an atmosphere has been created where Muslims are deemed guilty by association. This climate of fear has meant that Muslims are scapegoated and victimised, not just by the media but also by our politicians – often for some quick, cheap political gains.

In contrast to other comparable countries such as the UK, extensive powers are afforded to Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to interrogate and detain citizens, without evidence and who are not even actually suspected of engaging in any terrorist related activities, simply for the purpose of collecting intelligence. Last year, after a decade-long drawn out legal battle, ASIO enforced an adverse security assessment against Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, a prominent Iranian cleric, who had been widely praised for his moderate Islamic teachings and his significant contributions to inter-faith dialogue, by asking him to voluntarily deport himself. The allegations or the nature of the allegations against him, which resulted in the revocation of his visa, had never been revealed to Sheikh Leghaei or his lawyers. On appeal, the court declared that national security considerations overruled any notion of procedural fairness or natural justice. A bizarre departure from the very notions we hold onto so dearly as a nation that is meant to lead by example when it comes to upholding human rights.

The unintended consequence of this type of public media and political discourse has essentially helped legitimise a fear of difference and reinforced the concept of the ‘other’. Radio shock jocks like Alan Jones have capitalised and helped further exacerbate the problem. I personally am of the view that that rants from shock-jock Alan Jones were the key factor in fuelling the Cronulla riots. These riots, along with racially motivated violence against Muslim communities, attacks on international students and the vilification of asylum seekers have become a disconcerting part of Australia’s recent history which has worsened existing social divisions.

Australian Muslims, despite being an integral part of our nation’s rich history, feel scapegoated and marginalised by the wider society and many feel they are constantly required to publically reaffirm their loyalties and their level of ‘Australianness’. But since when did being an Australian and a Muslim become mutually exclusive? And what does it mean to be an Australian – is it un-Australian of me to choose not to consume alcohol and pray 5 times a day?

The harsh reality is that there are individuals and organisations that engage in acts of terrorism around the globe and who identify themselves as devout followers of Islam. Considering that these groups claim to rely on the religious beliefs of some 1.5 billion of the world’s population, extreme care needs to be taken to not make blanket statements linking Islam and Muslims to terrorism. This is particularly critical as there are direct correlations between popular media and political discourse and the manner in which Muslims and other minority groups are treated in this country.

Mariam Veiszadeh is of Afghan heritage and a practicing corporate Lawyer and Muslim community advocate. She has completed a Combined Bachelor of Economics and Law and a Post Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the University of Western Sydney (UWS).

She is an executive member and public officer of Australian Islamic Voice (AIV), an executive member of Mission of Hope, a Social Justice Coordinator of Justice and Arts Network (JAAN) and a member of the Muslim Legal Network. Mariam is also a member of both the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Young Lawyers Human Rights Committee.

Mariam has also been sought for comment by the media on issues pertaining to Islam and Australian Muslims and controversial issues such as the burqa. She has also had several opinion pieces published both in the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald on various topics.

Originally published in the FECCA (Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia) Mosaic Magazine 29 December 2011