A car passed, the driver’s window rolled down and the man spat two crude words at the young mother standing with her baby on the path.
It was 2001, only a few months after the twin towers at the World Trade Center fell on the other side of the world, and 20-year-old Ayesha was walking her son to the nearby shopping centre from their Maribyrnong home.
Unsure and afraid, Ayesha could only freeze.
It has been more than 20 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and Ayesha can still recall the shock of the moment and her confusion over how anyone could look at her and see a threat.
“I remember the man screaming really loudly and I remember feeling hurt and upset,” she said. “I didn’t understand what I had done to deserve such treatment, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that it was because of my niqab [Islamic face veil].”
While Islamophobia existed before the September 11 attacks, it has significantly increased during the past two decades. A recent national survey by researchers from Western Sydney University reveals that Islamophobia is still prevalent in Australia.
Lead author Professor Kevin Dunn, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and head of the university’s Challenging Racism Project, says a substantial cohort of Australians are racist against Muslims.
This new analysis found that just over one in 10 Australians are overtly and intentionally Islamophobic.
“Too many Australians are affected by this affliction, by Islamophobia, and this is a real concern,” he said.
According to Prof Dunn, Islamophobia is any distinction, exclusion or restriction towards or against Muslims that has the purpose of impairing exercise on an equal footing of their human rights, as well as their fundamental freedoms.
“A phobia gives a sense of an affliction that affects people and leads to behaviours and attitudes that are problematic, not just for society and the targets of those attitudes, but for the people themselves,” he said.
The university’s analysis found that Islamophobia has become widespread in Australian society and normalised in everyday settings such as in mainstream media, underpinning the verbal and physical attacks on Muslim communities.
It has been reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission that before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, discrimination was most often expressed around community members’ cultural backgrounds. Following the attacks, these incidents became focused on religion.
What arose was a far-right, anti-Muslim movement fuelled by prejudice and led by activists who portrayed Muslims as potential terrorists. It trafficked in dark conspiracy theories about Islamist extremists, reinforced by the US government’s “war on terror”, according to civil right advocates the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Attitudes have since shifted from racialised discrimination and hate to intolerances based on people being Muslim.
The report shows that high levels of Islamophobic attitudes are prevalent in Australian society, meaning too many Australian Muslims are exposed to the negative impacts of racism.
Ayesha, an Indian-born mum of five, says she was “really conscious” about leaving her home immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
“I was constantly worried that people would stare and pass comments at me,” she said. “I didn’t want any drama to happen, especially because I didn’t want my young son to ever get scared.
Over the last 20 years, my children have had to watch me face strangers cursing at me, shopkeepers refusing to serve me, judgemental looks whenever we stop at a red light or go to the beach.
“It’s sad that they have grown to be protective of me because they shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission conducted a national survey of more than 1000 Muslims as part of the Sharing the stories of Australian Muslims project, in an effort to learn about Australian Muslims’ concerns, priorities and experiences of hate, violence and negative public commentary.
The report, released in July this year, shows that almost 80 per cent of Australian Muslims have experienced prejudice or discrimination.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan says nearly everyone interviewed could provide an example of someone in their immediate family or friendship group who had been a victim of harassment or hate incident.
“The stories shared by Australian Muslim community members for this project have brought home to me that the undercurrents of religious discrimination, vilification and hate … are not an aberration,” Mr Tan says in the report.
“They are consistent with the experiences of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate that is routinely experienced in Australia.”
The report highlights the need for work to be done to protect and promote the human rights of Australian Muslims. Understanding the prevalence and nature of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, and effectively protecting people from them, is key to this.
The Western Sydney University study, Segmenting anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia: Insights for the diverse project of countering Islamophobia, assessed data from the Face Up to Racism national survey, which attracted 6,001 adult respondents from across Australia. The results place Australians in four broad groups based on their perception of Islam:
- Islamophobes: 13 per cent
- Those who are unsure about diversity and have some concerns about Muslims: 24 per cent
- Those with progressive attitudes about diversity but with concerns about Muslims: 50 per cent
- Progressives who have no concerns about Muslims: 13 per cent
Prof Dunn says Islamophobia manifests in different ways and to different degrees, which means countering it needs to involve varied approaches, stakeholders and narratives.
“It is important to unravel and segment the issue of Islamophobia so that we can start to think about the different sorts of remedies we need to undertake,” he said.
“Understanding the different forms … is important to undertake effective counter-Islamophobic interventions.”
Mr Tan echoed this sentiment, saying the Sharing the stories of Australian Muslims report underlined the need for a national anti-racism strategy, which Australia has not had the funding for since 2015.
It is not enough to simply condemn racism.
“We need a coordinated strategy that works on many fronts to actively counter racism at the various levels that it occurs,” he said.
Despite the negative experiences that Ayesha, and many Australian Muslims like her, continue to face, she remains positive that change can be made.
“I wear my niqab proudly to show the world I am a Muslim. Islam is beautiful and I am hopeful that, with time, uneducated, misguided and hateful people will see this, too.”