The Impact of Islamophobia: An Interview with MUIS President Abdulah Hamimi

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Abdulah Hamimi

On Monday, the Islamophobia in Australia report was released by Charles Sturt University. A first-of-its-kind in the world, the study focused on 243 verified incidents reported to the Islamophobia Register of Australia between September 2014 and December 2015.

President of the register Mariam Veiszadeh told us in May the report outlines that “on average the victim tends to be an Australian Muslim woman and the perpetrator tends to be a male.” She added that, alarmingly, “a significant number of incidents take place in the presence of children.”

The report also reveals that 98 percent of perpetrators identified as Anglo-Celtic, 60 percent of the physical assaults took place in NSW – followed by Victoria with 26.7 percent – and that in 75 percent of the reported cases, nobody intervened.

Charles Sturt University Islamic Studies associate professor Mehmet Ozalp said in the Conversation this week that Muslims have been raising the problem of Islamophobia in this country since the aftermath of 9/11, but “the problem is not going away: it is increasing.”

Instilling hatred

The Australian media has a hand in fuelling the flames of Islamophobia. Violent incidents are often reported as being terrorism-related long before there’s any confirmation one way or the other. And terrorist acts have become equated with Islam in the public mind, largely due to such reporting.

An incident like the Bourke Street tragedy in January was initially reported by media outlets as an Islamic terrorist attack, when it was perpetrated by a man with no links to any such organisation.

Whereas in the case of the attack last month on a group of Muslim people in the front of a mosque in Finsbury Park, north London, the media was initially hesitant to label the incident as a terror attack.

Sensationalism is also rife. In March, a major television network presented exclusive footage that was supposed to show radicalised Muslim inmates openly practising their “extreme beliefs.” But when they cut to the clip, a group of men were simply seen to be praying together.

Parliamentary prejudice

To add fuel to the fire, much of the hate talk making onto newsfeeds is expressed by Australian politicians.

Australian Conservative party Senator Cory Bernardi has referred to the Islamic faith as a “totalitarian, political and religious ideology”, while One Nation’s Pauline Hanson said in her maiden speech last year that Australia is “in danger of being swamped by Muslims.”

This is despite the fact that the 2016 Census figures reveal that of the 23.4 million people living in Australia, only 604,000 are Muslim, or 2.6 percent of the population.

The word from campus

There are about 1.1 million students enrolled at university at present, and around 4 percent of them are Muslims. The Monash University Islamic Society (MUIS) represents and supports Muslim university students on campus.

Abdulah Hamimi is the president of the MUIS. Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Mr Hamimi – a global studies student – about the rise of Islamophobia in Australia, the role the media plays and whether these prejudices are making an impact on university life.

The Islamophobia in Australia report was released on Monday. Researchers found that Islamophobia incidents are on the rise in Australia.

What’s it like for a young Muslim person living in Australia at the moment with a climate of prejudice like this around?

It’s really concerning. It puts a lot of pressure on an average person. Just simply looking and having certain racial or ethnic features makes you a target. You feel out of place. You have a little bit less confidence to do usual things, expecting some sort of scrutiny.

Generally, it puts an added layer of pressure on. And it gives an extra dimension of meaning to being Muslim.

As a Muslim man, there’s certainly a difference from being a Muslim woman, who is obviously much more visibly a Muslim. I can speak from my experience of being a man in society. And my personality is one of resilience, being outgoing and engaging with people as much as I can.

I had a chat with a good friend of mine from uni the other day. He messaged me and said, “This friend of mine is talking about all this right-wing stuff. Can you come down and have a chat with him?”

So I had a chat with him over lunch. It was really engaging, in the sense that, the way Islamophobia is being pedalled is that it creates that barrier where the discussion can’t happen. Because if that interaction does happen, then people can see through a lot of the rhetoric.

And in your opinion, Abdulah, why are hate crimes against Muslim people increasing in this country?

The fact that they required a study to prove that they’re on the rise, is probably five years to a decade late. The Muslim experience has been enduring this for a very long time. It’s almost like it took something like this to make the news.

Why are these hate crimes increasing? For many reasons I think. There’s a narrative. There this bogeyman Muslim foreign existential threat that the government deals with through foreign policy that’s over there. You have Muslims over here, and they’re one and the same.

If they pose a threat externally, they also pose a threat internally.

My personal belief is that it’s on the rise because Australia, as a country, in terms of its socioeconomic and political policies, is on the decline and they need a scapegoat.

So when Pauline Hanson talks about Muslims and Islam, we forget about all the other problems in Australian society: homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, economic issues, education, healthcare.

The number one priority is Muslims. It really is a deflection point. It seeks to deflect from the real problems in society, or the real issues that they don’t want to address.

You’re the president of the Monash University Islamic Society: a social and support group for Muslim students on campus.

Are incidents of Islamophobia happening on Australian university campuses at present?

At Monash university there hasn’t been anything major occurring. The university platform is one of engagement, discussion and critical thought anyway, so it’s not like anyone pulls their guards off or anything like that. Monash University is one of the most multicultural universities in Melbourne.

The younger generation, I feel, are a bit more in tune with what’s happening and interacting with other areas of society. And they don’t necessarily have a problem with it. The university is incredibly supportive with Muslims on campus, with providing services and support, when and if required.

There is one incident that comes to mind. Last year, during the Eid prayers – so we hold the Eid prayers after Ramadan on the massive basketball courts – on that morning there was this campaign that put posters around the university about Charlie Hebdo and Muslims, and all this derogatory stuff towards the prophet Mohammed.

What the university did really well – it was only up for a very short moment – the campus security were really quick in taking it down. And no one really noticed it. Because I was president and a couple of other people I was in touch with, we knew about it, but we didn’t have to announce it.

So the university is very proactive in preventing that sort of tension and that sort of controversy from happening.

There are sensationalist reports in the media at times portraying Islamic people in a negative light.

What sort of role do you think the media has in fuelling Islamophobia?

Huge. The media is the vehicle that carries Islamophobia to the masses. For example, the ideology or the rhetoric that’s started by politicians, the only way that actually gets out into the public is through the media.

By no means is the media innocent in what they do. And they’re not naive either. Media is driven by interests – economic or ideological. And so, they play a really crucial role in pushing this thought.

Take the anti-terrorist raids. The AFP is backed by the media. You can see everything televised. The commentary is through the media. Literally across every single platform it’s essentially the same message. And there’s very little critical discussion about this.

It’s as simple as Muslims equal terrorists. Muslims praying equals radicalism. Being Muslim is an issue, without actually being upfront about it. And then there’s token discussion about multiculturalism, when they need to do it, to try and make you feel good. But really, the policy is clear-cut.

I emphasis again, the media is not naive. It’s very much aware of what’s happening. And they are very much carrying Islamophobia, rather than putting it under the critical eye.

The Bourke Street tragedy was initially reported as an Islamic terrorist attack. While, in the case of the attack at the mosque in Finsbury Park, the media was hesitant to label it as a terror attack at first.

What do you think about the media operating in this way in regards to these events? And what impact does this have on the Muslim population in Australia?

The media selectively chooses what terrorism is. Terrorism is a very politicised subject anyway. But let’s be honest, it only really applies to Muslims. And even if they’re proven not to be Muslims, at least at the start, it’s almost by default a terrorist attack, until proven otherwise.

Of course, it puts Muslims under pressure, because if that’s what fuels Islamophobia, the discussion then arises and all these right-wing people come out and they feel vindicated. “See I was right. We’ve got to get rid of Muslims. Muslims are an issue.” Let’s not talk about any other specifics of this incident, or whether this person was driven by ideology.

In many of these cases, months after the investigation happens, things turn out differently. But it’s too late by that stage, as it’s already been trial by media.

The Muslim community in general has matured politically throughout these times. Initially, it was condemn, condemn, condemn – as almost a default condemnation. But now, community organisations are stepping up and saying, “You know what? I don’t have to take responsibility for this.”

I think this is a very positive thing, and people are picking up on it. The discussions on the ground by Muslims certainly reflect that.

You’ve already touched on this to a certain extent, but politicians like Pauline Hanson are out there readily expressing anti-Islamic rhetoric.

What sort of role do you think politicians play is this situation?

Essentially opportunistic. They pop up and their entire relevance is based on Islamophobia or xenophobia. And without Islamophobia or xenophobia, they have no relevance in politics, because they have no policies – absolutely, no leadership or policy measures.

Their entire relevance is underpinned by the existential threat be it of Muslims or aliens or Europeans, or whatever at the time.

They’re essentially opportunistic. They will show up whenever they feel like they can capitalise on it. But really there’s no substance to it beyond that.

And the media does this quite well. They don’t interrogate Pauline Hanson on what her proposed education or healthcare policy is – or what she is going to do about other things that Australian society are facing. It’s just, “What do you think about Muslims?”

A 2016 University of South Australia study found that one in ten Australians are “highly Islamophobic.” But, if we look at this in a different way, it means that the overwhelming majority of people in Australia don’t hold strong prejudices.

Do you think there would be some merit in putting more of a focus on this aspect of the situation?

One hundred percent. The vast majority of the public – I have a lot of confidence in the Australian public – they see through this. They really do. And it reflects in the polls as well.

Take for example the state election in Western Australia, One Nation did ridiculously poorly. They appeal to a certain demographic – a very niche demographic – but the vast majority of the public see through this.

As mentioned before, you help run the Monash University Islamic Society. Can you tell us a bit about what sort of role the group plays on campus?

Essentially, what we do is provide services for a greater sense of community on campus in our demographic. So we’re vastly Muslims. At least a third, if not more, is non-Muslim. We won the award for the most successful spiritual club.

We have around four or five hundred members this year. We run events such as discussions, debates and lectures. It’s very interactive with other people on campus, as well as social stuff for our own membership. And advocacy as well, if anyone does need it.

And lastly, Abdulah, Charles Sturt University associate professor Mehmet Ozalp recently said that Muslims have been raising the problem of Islamophobia in this country for a very long time, but “the problem is not going away: it is increasing.”

In your opinion what has to change in order for things to improve in Australian society?

We need to change the parameters of the discussion. The discussions that have always been had – and all issues – are seen through the prism of religion or ideology, and not outside of that.

A lot of it is driven by politics. And that political dimension is often underplayed. Islamophobia doesn’t simply exist within a vacuum. There’s a context to it. And the discussion does not reflect the context.

Muslims are being targeted directly, and there’s a connection to what’s happening internationally. The Australian government, and western governments in general, are very complicit in that.

It’s not like we suddenly woke up and there’s a threat of Muslims in Australia, when they’ve existed here for the best part of a century, almost as long as Australia has been around.

Abdulah thanks very much for taking the time out to have this chat today.

Thank you.  

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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