We live our lives in the taken-for-granted world of everyday interaction and activities. This taken-for-grantedness characterises the stable and predictable nature of our environment through which we can go about the everyday business of living our lives. Research shows, however, that Islamophobia unfairly denies many Muslim-Australians the comfort and security usually afforded to most Australians. Apart from the sense of harm such negative views and actions cause, it is evident that Islamophobia acts to limit the capacity and opportunity for Muslim-Australians to go about the business of and to participate in everyday life. After reviewing the empirical research on Muslim-Australians’ experiences of Islamophobia, it is necessary to canvass some of the concepts and ideas that can help to explain and generate understanding about the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim- Australians and how to address it. The final section will examine some of the elements of community and neighbourhood level interventions that have met with success.
Negative Experiences of Muslim-Australians – Islamophobia
The term Islamophobia is used to capture a range of sentiments towards the religion of Islam and its adherents - from fear to hatred, from anxiety to disgust, from misunderstanding to denigration. In this sense, manifestations of Islamophobia are best described as prejudice, which is here understood to be
‘an avertive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he (sic) belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.’ (Allport 1954: 7)
The sources and content of the prejudice that underlies Islamophobia, while obviously pertaining to Islam, are quite varied. By looking at recent research on experiences of Muslim-Australians, we can examine both the effects of Islamophobia and what form it takes. There are three broad and sometimes overlapping categories of experiences that constitute Islamophobia: social incivility, discrimination, violence and intimidation.
Social incivility is usually experienced in everyday face-to-face interactions. Social incivility is in stark contrast to the civility - indifference and reserve – we grant strangers in our day-to-day interactions. This ‘civil inattention’ (Goffman 1963) in fact is an implicit recognition of the non-threatening status of strangers (Noble 2005: 112). Social incivility, however, takes the form of verbal abuse and behaviours that are perceived by the recipients to be rude and insulting (Poynting and Noble 2004: 9; Noble 2005: 112). For Muslim-Australians, it is an undesirable form of attention that marks out their differences as threatening and unwelcome.
Much of the reported abuse has been directed at Muslim women, especially those who veil. While driving, a pregnant Muslim woman reported how she was verbally abused and spat at by another commuter (Dreher 2005: 13). While crossing the road another woman was yelled at and told to ‘go back home’ (Dreher 2005: 13). A Lebanese-born woman recounted how a man had been making obscene hand gestures at her and calling her a ‘bloody wog’ (Poynting and Noble 2004: 9). Other women had reported similar incidents while walking to their cars in carparks (Poynting and Noble 2004: 9-10). Sometimes the abuse is subtler and comes in the form of uncomfortable stares or ‘dirty looks’ (Poynting and Noble 2004: 9). These incidents were not reported to have been due to provocation.
However, the many incidences of social incivility reported in these studies do seem to have been provoked by current events of the day. The events of September 11, 2001 had the effect of increasing Islamophobia and adversely affecting relations between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians. Immediately following the event, the New South Wales Community Relations Commission (CRC) established a ‘hotline’ to handle reports of problems experienced as a consequence of the terrorist attacks (Dreher 2005: 3). The CRC Hotline received, at its peak on the 13th of September 2001, 41 calls relating to adverse experiences suffered as a result of the attacks, which dropped to only two calls within the month of November (Dreher 2005: 10-11). The Muslim-Australian participants in the study by Poynting and Noble also reported higher levels of racism following the terrorist attacks (2004: 6-7). Furthermore, the use of terms such as ‘terrorist’ in such instances shows the strong association between Muslims as a whole and the attacks of September 11 almost to the extent that they become synonymous (Poynting and Noble 2004: 9; Dreher 2005: 13).
Sometimes social incivility is not experienced directly, but rather through the media. Discussions within the popular media and talkback radio have been cited by Muslim- Australians as hurtfully misrepresentative (Dreher 2005: 17-18; Poynting and Noble 2004: 11-12). There was one reported case where the perpetrators harassing a Muslim woman made direct reference to a current affairs program that had contained stereotypes about Muslim youth (Poynting and Noble 2004: 12).
Discrimination and Vilification
Discrimination constitutes the unequal treatment of an individual based on criteria that are deemed inappropriate and unjust. In the case of Islamophobia, Islam itself acts as the criterion for treating those of that faith in a different and unjustifiably unequal way, such as:
Not being granted time and space to pray in the workplace has been reported (Dreher 2005: 16).
Similarly, in shops, Muslim-Australians have encountered discriminatory treatment (Dreher 2005: 13, 15).
Profiling by policing agencies has also been highlighted as being marked by unjustified discrimination (Noble and Poynting 2004: 12-13). Many Mosque developments in Sydney have experienced difficulties both in dealing with the members of the surrounding area, elected officials and bureaucrats as a consequence of being Muslim (Dunn 1999: 299-407). What marks these particular experiences is that, more often than not, the unequal treatment is dubiously justified on other instrumental grounds. In some cases the discrimination eventually becomes obvious, as was the case with the Minto Mosque in Campbelltown whose opponents resorted to vilification once the development and building had been approved and planning issues could no longer be used to disguise Islamophobic sentiments (Dunn 1999: 392-393).
Violence and Intimidation
At the more extreme end of Islamophobia, Muslim-Australians have been subjected to physical assault, damage to property, threats and intimidation. For one young Muslim woman, a series of incidents with a hostile group from her neighbourhood that started with being hit on a tram, verbally abused and having her ‘scarf’ pulled off, eventually led to serious physical injuries to herself, a bystander who had come to her aid and her brother (Poynting and Noble 2004: 10). These incidents, coupled with abusive phone calls, having a brick thrown through the window of her home and having her lawn set on fire, led to an apprehended violence order (Poynting and Noble 2004: 10). However, since this did not stop such attacks, this woman and her family were ultimately left with no choice but to move (Poynting and Noble 2004: 10).
Pervasiveness of Islamophobia
There are two dimensions along which to understand the extent of Islamophobia. In the first dimension, there are social attitudes towards Muslim-Australians that can be found in experiences of Islamophobia. The second dimension concerns the sites in which Muslim- Australians experience Islamophobia. Taken together, these two dimensions give some indication of the pervasiveness of Islamophobia in Australia today.
While social attitudes do not necessarily translate into Islamophobia, they do give some indication as to what extent Islamophobia is generally present and accepted. An earlier national study on ethnic prejudice conducted by McAllister and Moore (1989: 7) showed that Muslims faced the highest levels of prejudice in terms of people’s attitudes towards them. Twelve years later, Dunn et al (2004: 414-415) conducted similar research, with respondents in New South Wales and Queensland, into racist attitudes and found similar results –Muslims rated highest in terms of prejudice where Muslims were ranked highest amongst groups of people who were believed to not fit into Australian society. While such surveys only measure the extent of such attitudes, rather than their quality, the generality of sentiments across the Australian population is often felt by Muslim-Australians as a consequence of experiences of Islamophobia.
In examining the sites or locations where Muslim-Australians have experienced Islamophobia, its pervasive character becomes clearer. As has already been indicated, most of the experiences of Islamophobia have occurred in shared or common public places, such as shopping centres, on public transport and on the streets. Many experiences reported occurred within the victim’s own neighbourhood and homes (Dreher 2005: 11). Sometimes, such experiences occur within more institutional settings, such as at work and school (Dreher 2005: 11) or even in contact with government institutions (Poynting and Noble 2004: 12-13). On other occasions, Islamophobia is experienced indirectly through the media or directly because of media reporting (Dreher 2005: 11, 17-18; Poynting and Noble 2004: 11-12). The spaces and places in which Muslim-Australians may potentially experience Islamophobia are quite widespread.
While not every Muslim-Australian experiences Islamophobia directly, the extent of such attitudes and the places in which they manifest themselves can generate a sense of its pervasiveness.
Conclusions: Consequences of Islamophobia
While the experience of Islamophobia generates feelings of harm and disrespect, there are more practical consequences for Muslim-Australians. Patterns of discomfort and fear, distrust and exclusion amongst Muslim-Australians emphasise a general sense that their whole way of life is not only devalued, but not to be accommodated. Comfort, or ontological security, is understood as ‘the confidence or trust we have in the world around us, both in terms of the things and the people with which we share our lives, and hence which provide stability and continuity to our identity’ (Noble 205: 113). What a pervasive sense of Islamophobia creates for Muslim-Australians is discomfort and fear (Dreher 2005: 1; Poynting and Noble 2004: 13-14) that affects their sense of belonging both to the nation (Dreher 2005: 22; Noble 2005: 117) and to their neighbourhoods and spaces of everyday life (Noble 2005: 117).
Coupled closely with discomfort and fear is distrust – the lack of confidence in one’s social setting. Distrust, in effect, reduces the sense of social competence and efficacy of many Muslim-Australians that represents a taking away of their capacity for social action (Noble 2005: 116). This reduced capacity can affect the way people conduct their everyday lives as well as affecting important perceptions and relationships of public institutions, like the police (Poynting and Noble 2004: 13).
Islamophobia has the general effect of marginalising Muslim-Australians from the very activities that would allow them to be full participants in Australian society. This exclusion is sometimes the result of discrimination (Poynting and Noble 2004: 14; Dreher 2005: 21-22). On other occasions it manifests itself as a retreat from public activities, such as not leaving the home or not making use of certain services (Dreher 2005: 19; Poynting and Noble 2004: 16-17). To some degree, the Muslim-Australian community feels under siege and they sometimes seek relief from the consequences of Islamophobia by closing themselves off (Dreher 2005: 23-25). Islamophobia not only creates a divide between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians but produces in Muslim-Australians a retreat into their own communities.