Terrorised, persecuted, stateless, homeless, and, until recently, without real international support – this is the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community being forced out of Myanmar.
At the hands of the Myanmar military, more than 80 villages have been burnt, leaving ten thousands of Rohingyas fleeing daily and attempting to cross into a flooded Bangladesh.
Amid perennial media coverage linking Islam to terrorism and radicalisation, little has been known in the west of the persecution of Muslim minority communities like the Rohingya.
Like many displaced Muslims, the vulnerable Rohingya may face fear and resentment when they settle in new communities.
If by chance some of the Rohingya find refuge in our lucky country, there’s a strong possibility they will be on the receiving end of the relentless Islamophobia experienced by Muslims, in particular since 11 September 2001.
But just how serious a problem is Islamophobia in Australia?
As an Australian-born, modern, educated, uncovered Muslim woman, I am acutely aware I come to this issue from a position of privilege, but sadly, also some experience.
As a child of a migrant growing up in 1970s Australia, when the White Australia policy was still the policy of the day and “assimilation” was the buzzword, I, like many of my Italian, Greek, Asian and Aboriginal friends, tried to fit in, to become invisible to avoid the verbal and sometimes physical attacks that came mostly from the white kids at school. While being called racist names was hurtful and offensive, most of us shrugged it off and grew into reasonably confident, productive and, eventually, accepted members of the Australian community. Largely, it was thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of our parents.
In those days little was known about Islam or Muslims, and our community was relatively small, so we were lumped into the “Johnny foreigner” category until we proved ourselves worthy of respect and acceptance, but we were not specifically targeted by politicians, populists or nationalists like Muslims today.
Several independent reports show that while Islamophobia has risen since 2001, the majority of incidents have been directed at Muslim women and their children.
In 2004, a report to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney to investigate Australian Arabs’ and Muslims’ experiences of post-September 11 racism, found sharply increased incidents of racism, abuse or violence against Arab and Muslim Australians. While 93% of respondents reported an increase in racism, abuse and violence against their community; one of the most notable findings was that women experienced significantly more abuse than men.
A 2015 report “Islamophobia, social distance and fear of terrorism in Australia”by professors Riaz Hassan and Bill Martin from the University of South Australia found 10% of Australians describe themselves as highly Islamophobic, 20% as undecided and 70% as less Islamophobic. Focusing education and awareness efforts on those who consider themselves less Islamophobic holds the key to changing negative attitudes towards peace-loving Muslims, says Hassan.
The Islamophobia Register Australia, set up by Mariam Veiszadeh in 2014, provided a platform to report, record and analyse Islamophobic incidents. Veiszadeh observed that while extensive research and resourcing had gone into understanding radicalisation (particularly Islamic radicalisation) and addressing it as a security and a social problem, Islamophobia was under-researched, under-documented and not widely accepted as a serious issue affecting social harmony. This was despite evidence suggesting it is one of the largest contributors to radicalisation among Muslims.
The pressing need to tackle Islamophobia is evident in a combined Charles Sturt University and University of Western Australia report Islamophobia in Australia. It shows Muslim women, particularly hijab-wearing women and their children, bear the brunt of most Islamophobic attacks. Some 79.6% of victims are women and 47.7% of their children are direct or indirect targets. Most perpetrators are men, and the location makes little difference. Islamophobia doesn’t recognise the heterogeneous nature of Muslim communities and the disempowering impact these attacks have on Muslim women and children over other forms of racism. This disempowerment is often related to me by my hijab-wearing friends.
One friend’s daughter was deeply traumatised while walking home. A car of young white men slowed down alongside her, shouted abuse, pulled out toy guns and pretended to shoot her. She arrived home pale and shaken, vowing never to leave the house alone again.
In one of many other incidents, a friend’s four-year-old son told her he didn’t think he would grow up to become a father, because he was sure he would be killed before he got older. When asked why, he referred to a letter delivered to their home earlier that week. The anonymous letter (which he had overheard his parents talking about) was a death threat.
Anecdotal evidence, the experience of friends and the findings of reports dating back to 2003 all highlight a mutual normalisation of Islamophobia in Australia that must stop.
The Islamophobia in Australia report finds that victims are reluctant to report the all-too-regular crimes committed against them due to the inadequate response from authorities. And witnesses, who are more likely to report these attacks, still rarely intervene to stop the harm being inflicted.
Muslims, particularly Muslim women, expect Islamophobic attacks as something they must endure to be a part of Australian society. Non-Muslims often accept Islamophobia as an inevitable, if regrettable societal phenomenon.
Our leaders must take primary responsibility for reversing this normalisation. But we all have a role to play. An example of how we benefit can be seen in the support I had from professionals around the country to host a careers event for Muslim students who were allegedly asked to leave a Perth careers expo because some people felt uncomfortable by their presence. The resultant event showed students and teachers that they belong here and that everyone has a responsibility to speak against bigotry.
For me, it was another reminder of the importance of committing to living a life in harmony with the values most of us hold dear – the values that make Australia, all of our Australia, great.
• Rabia Siddique is an international humanitarian, professional speaker and author