Face to face with fear of the hijab

The stories are not nice. The register reports one incident after another of abuse. More often than not it is directed at the woman wearing a hijab. The statistics say nearly 80 per cent of the recorded incidents. The language is vulgar. It has more to do with indictments of being a “whore” and a “bitch” than anything to do with terrorism – though sometimes there are shouts like “she’ll behead you” or “she will bomb you”. In the latter instance the hijab-wearing woman was a mother pushing a pram with her daughter tucked up inside.

The perpetrator is more often than not casual, anonymous. The women who are targeted are often in the company of their children. The awkward dilemma is how to explain what is happening to these children afterwards. The incidents tend to happen in public – “three out of four times no one intervenes”. The most likely “venues” for such discrimination are train stations, outside schools and crowded shopping centres. These offline attacks are more than matched by what happens online. The setting up of the first Islamic childcare centre in Perth was greeted with a post suggesting Islamophobes should wait until it was full and then burn it down.

The Report on Islamophobia in Australia was launched at NSW Parliament House on July 10. The report was the work of a number of scholars from different disciplines and parts of the country. Its publication was edited and overseen by Dr Derya Iner of Charles Sturt University. The initiative for the online Islamophobia Register Australia lay with Mariam Veiszadeh. At the launch she spoke of what it was like to receive, on a far too regular basis, accounts of such incidents, what it was like to contact the victim, check the facts, lodge the report and set in train counsel and support for those on the receiving end of the abuse.

There have been other reports on Australian attitudes to Islam like that overseen by Riaz Hassan of Flinders University in Adelaide. Through a rather different method (based on a sophisticated analysis of questionnaires) it discerned that Australians were less Islamophobic “than they were sometimes led to believe”. That is the good news, but it did suggest a significant minority able to inflame prejudice and hatred.

The Islamophobia report based on the register is more confronting because it makes use of actual stories reported by victims or witnesses. The report is based on 243 cases of verified Islamophobic incidents collected over 14 months in 2014-15. Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp, also of Charles Sturt University, indicated it is highly likely this number is “only the tip of the iceberg”. It seems the level of reporting is heightened at times of terrorist attacks and incidents like the Lindt Café siege.

The word “Islamophobia” is itself an interesting term. It is relatively new. It only came into widespread usage in the English-speaking world through a publication in the United Kingdom that came to be known as The Runnymede Report. That was in 1997, although there were intimations of the word in different settings intermittently throughout the 20th century. For the sake of this Australian report, Mehmet Ozalp’s brief definition is: “The special form of racism revealing ‘indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam and Muslims’. An Islamophobic incident is any act comprising abusive hatred, vilification and violence inflicted on Muslims going about their daily lives.”

I was asked to write a theological response from a Christian perspective. I was embarrassed to note that some of the most extreme right-wing political responses came from minority groups who laid claim to Australia being “a Christian country”. The rhetoric here was not vulgar but it was uncompromising and exclusionary. The most high-profile political party to have a policy with regards to Islam is One Nation.

Some mainline denominations like the Uniting Church in Australia and the Roman Catholic Church have been to the fore in inter-religious witness and dialogue. Lying behind those kinds of initiative is the advice of Melbourne-based sociologist of religion, Gary Bouma, author of Australian Soul. It is time to come to terms with the “new normal”. Australia is now a society that is both secular and religious – and, in terms of religions, while the Christian faith is clearly the most dominant in terms of number, the country at large is now religiously plural. The task in this new normal is to live faithfully (or, if one is not religious, then to live with wisdom and integrity) in the midst of difference.



Clive Pearson is a Research Fellow, Centre for Public and Contextual Theologies (PaCT), Charles Sturt University.

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