Calling out Islamophobia

Prayers at Newport Mosque. Photo by Helena Abdou.
Antagonism has increased in recent years, but where did Islamophobia come from and how are Muslims responding to it? Helena Abdou reports.

You get the sense that someone is watching you. You turn around to find a man staring at you in disgust. You’re uncomfortable and tense. The train slows and he rises. You worry that he may approach you, but he doesn’t. Just before he steps off, he turns and utters, “You stupid, filthy Muslim.”

Solicitor Fatima Dennaoui, who experienced such abuse on her morning commute to work one day, believes that Islamophobia became a prominent issue after the September 11 terrorist attack.

“As a pre-teen I never felt Islamophobia around me. At the age of 13, I travelled overseas with my family to live there for three years. We were in a Middle Eastern country during the time of the 9/11 attacks. When I returned at the age of 16, it felt like people paid more attention to me. I did not understand it at first but when people began showing more hostility towards me, I realised that this is what ‘Islamophobia’ was,” said Ms Dennaoui.

In 2004, a report sent to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney examined the racism and abuse projected towards Muslims and Arabs post-September 11. Ninety three per cent of participants said that there’d been a drastic increase in racism and abuse with women bearing the brunt of it.

Islamophobia is commonly defined as the intense fear of Muslims and Islam. The origin of the word is constantly debated but according to the studies and learnings of Professor Peter Riddell, vice principal of the Melbourne School of Theology, the term originated in the late 1990s.

“The term Islamophobia has its origins in a report entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for us all”, which was produced by the Runnymede Trust and published in the UK in late 1997. The report was commissioned by the British Government and was officially launched in the British Parliament,” said Professor Riddell.

He believes that Islamophobia has been around for as long as the religion.

“As for the origins of Islamophobia itself, rather than simply the origins of the term, such fear of Islam dates back many centuries, probably originally to the years following the death of Muhammad in 632 after which there was rapid expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East and into Europe through military conquest,” said Professor Riddell.

Ms Dennaoui is not alone. Sherene Hassan, a director at the Islamic Museum of Australia, understands the feeling.

“On a personal level it has caused much anxiety and angst. Once my youngest son just burst into tears and cried himself to sleep asking me, ‘Why do people hate Muslims so much?’ As a parent, that’s hard to witness,” said Ms Hassan.

Islam is believed to have been around since the 7th century and is said to be founded near Mecca in the Arabian peninsula of the Middle East. The religion follows the Quranic scripture and the learnings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. To date, Islam has garnered over 1.5 billion followers, not only attracting believers but critics too.

Such critics are often labeled Islamophobes, but Professor Riddell finds that the term isn’t helpful in combating the issue.

“Nobody likes to be called an Islamophobe. Such labels are useful in one way in that they provide a means to succinctly encapsulate a set of attitudes. To engage in such critical scrutiny, if it is done fairly and rationally, should not attract accusations of Islamophobia,” said Professor Riddell.

However, Ms Dennaoui does not agree.

“I do not believe the term Islamophobia has been brought into the spotlight for the purpose of criticising Muslim behaviour and Islamic practices,” said Ms Dennaoui. “It is used for the purposes of bigotry and discrimination.”

Calling out Islamophobia
The Islam book – The Holy Quran. Photo by Helena Abdou.

Studies conducted by Professor Kevin Dunn of Western Sydney University found individuals who have never met a Muslim are far more likely to hold negative views towards Muslims, whereas people with a Muslim friend or who interact with Muslims are more inclined to convey positive attitudes towards Muslims.

Ms Hassan encourages people to mingle with Muslims to gain a better understanding of them and their religion.

“They should get to know a Muslim! I spoke to a 95 year old woman at the Islamic Museum who told me she was terrified of Muslims and that I was the only Muslim she had ever spoken to and now that fear has dissipated,” said Ms Hassan.

Research suggests that Islamophobia is a growing societal issue. The television program hosted by SBS, Face Up To Racism, found that in 1998, three per cent of the population had negative views towards Muslims. Almost twenty years on and it has risen to 32 per cent.

Muslims have felt the need to protect themselves against Islamophobia. They’ve created sites (Islamophobia Register Australia and Islamophobia watch) that allow them to report Islamophobic incidents as a means of working towards combating the issue.

“Islamophobia, and the backlash against Muslims as a result, has impacted the safety and wellbeing of Muslims. The vilification of so many groups and individuals has caused a lot of concern and these avenues are hopefully what will help deal with the issue,” said Ms Dennaoui.

Professor Riddell suggested that all religions, Islam included, should be analysed and explored and not all remarks made should be labeled Islamophobic’.

“All belief systems should be able to be subjected to critical scrutiny, including the religion of Islam. To engage in such critical scrutiny, if it is done fairly and rationally, should not attract accusations of Islamophobia,” said Professor Riddell.

The abuse Ms Dennaoui has faced at the hands of Islamophobia has left her upset.

“I have personally lost some trust in the Australian way of life. I struggle to understand how I can be mistreated and looked down upon just because of a set of beliefs I adhere to that do not affect anyone else,” said Ms Dennaoui. “Being a Muslim woman means that I am a visible Muslim and so I am an easy target, but I pray one day that we will be treated with respect just as people from other faiths are.”