How can we combat Islamophobia?

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Pauline Hanson’s return to parliament was heralded by many as a sign of the normalisation of anti-Islam sentiment in Australia. But the rise and rise of Islamophobia shouldn’t be regarded as the work of a single actor. Unless political leaders across the spectrum are prepared to stamp out Islamophobic rhetoric from our cultural and political discourse, we can only expect it to fester.

Fortified alienation

In recent comments at the United Nations General Assembly Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull praised Australia as a successful immigration nation ‘not defined by race, religion or culture, but by equality of opportunity and a fair go’. But with a new poll showing 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration, it’s clear embracing immigration doesn’t always extend to Muslim people. Why?

Deakin Professor of Middle East & Central Asian Politics Shahram Akbarzadeh recently released a paper on a pilot-study exploring the experiences of recently arrived Afghan community leaders in Victoria. He says that Islamophobia starts with negative Muslim stereotypes that are propagated by politicians. ‘If Muslims are relentlessly questioned about their ‘Australianness’ and portrayed as violent fanatics, misogynists and IS loyalists, then they will gravitate away from the mainstream Australian culture that rejects them,’ explains Prof. Akbarzadeh.

Anti-Islam rhetoric exploits a lack of knowledge about the culture and conflates the entire religion with related extremist elements, such as ISIS. The diversity within the religion of over a billion people is being ignored and simplified for political gain. In her maiden speech to the Senate this year, Pauline Hanson called for a ban on Muslim immigration and warned Australians would eventually be forced to live under sharia law unless something was done. Echoing Hanson, Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie has requested a Senate inquiry into radicalisation of Australian Muslims, saying ‘We have a problem with sharia law in this country, we have a problem with terrorism in this country and we have a problem with Islam in this country.’ In their comments both politicians reduce Islam to its extremist elements; in doing promoting a culture of fear and anti-Muslim sentiment.

'If Muslims are relentlessly questioned about their ‘Australianness’ and portrayed as violent fanatics, misogynists and IS loyalists, then they will gravitate away from the mainstream Australian culture that rejects them'

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Courting intolerance

Young Muslim immigrants suffer the impact of negative public sentiment the most. The irony of Islamophobia is that it breeds the social isolation and division that extremists prey upon when looking to recruit young Muslim men for their cause. Deakin terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton explains that organisations like IS offer isolated people a sense of belonging and purpose, which is attractive for young Muslims who are socially alienated in Western countries. ‘They see a kid ask a question, they latch on to that kid … and they strike a friendship, build confidence and engage with them and then they try and win them over with their ideas and move onto their friends,’ Prof. Barton says.

And unless politicians work to build an Australian identity that’s inclusive of Muslims – ‘a strong sense of us’ as Prof. Akbarzadeh calls it – we risk further alienation. ‘Young people will look for alternative interpretations to make sense of bad news. Fringe groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and IS fill this gap by providing simplistic answers to complex questions,’ he says. ‘The youth aspect is significant and should speak to all of us.’

The lucky country

‘For every case of political extremism and alienation in Australia, there are hundreds of examples of harmony and understanding,’ says Prof. Akbarzadeh. Within his study, young Muslims report their fondness of Australia and its communities. ‘They are in no doubt, Australia is their new home,’ he explains. It is this sense of community that’s at stake if anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rise.

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Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh

Lecturer in Middle East & Central Asian Politics, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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Professor Greg Barton
Professor Greg Barton

Counter Terrorism Expert, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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