Australia has changed for all of us since the events of 11 September 2001, whether it is what we see on the television or having to take our shoes off at airport security checks. However, for a lot of Muslim and Arab Australians the post-September 11 Australia is a particularly different place.
In 2003, based on reports from Muslim and Arab community organisations of increasing anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched the Ismaع project. Ismaع means ‘listen’ in Arabic. The aim of the project was to explore whether Muslim and Arab Australians were experiencing discrimination and vilification after September 11, the Bail bombings and the gang rape trials in Sydney. The project also looked at the impact of any such discrimination and made recommendations for future action.
The findings of the Ismaع report, released in 2004, are shameful. In his foreword to the report, Dr William Jonas, former Acting Race Commissioner of HREOC, describes Arab and Muslim Australians being ‘abused, threatened, spat on, assailed with eggs, bottles, cans and rocks, punched and even bitten’. This situation has worsened since the London Bombings in 2005, the Cronulla Riots in 2005/2006 and the events of the last month. Women in Islamic dress, including the hijab, niqab, chador and burqa, reported being particularly at risk. People identifiable as Arab or Muslim experienced discrimination and vilification in employment, at school and university, in shopping centres, on public transport and on the street.
What is even more heart breaking is the affect of the violence, discrimination and vilification on Arab and Muslim Australians. Participants in the Ismaع project reported ‘a substantial increase in fear, a growing sense of alienation from the wider community and an increasing distrust of authority’.
Given the experiences of innocent people as a result of these prejudices, you would hope that the law provides Arab and Muslim Australians with comprehensive protection. You would be wrong. While federal and state discrimination law generally protects people who have been treated badly because they are Arab, the situation for people who experience discrimination or vilification because they are Muslim is not so certain.
While the law is a bit unclear, it is very unlikely that people who are treated badly because they are Muslim are able to get an effective remedy under federal discrimination laws. State discrimination laws have patchy coverage. All states and territories, except New South Wales and South Australia, make it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of religion. While New South Wales law does cover people who have been discriminated against or vilified on the basis of their ‘ethno-religious origin’, it is unlikely that this extends to people who have been treated badly solely because they are Muslim. This gap is particularly problematic given that approximately half of Australia’s Muslim population lives in New South Wales. The coverage of religious vilification laws is even sparser, with only Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania making it unlawful to vilify someone because of their religion.
So the message is that if you don’t get a job in the local supermarket in New South Wales or South Australia because you are wearing the hijab, the law thinks that’s fine. If you are screamed at on the street in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin or Canberra and called a ‘nappy head’ or told that ‘all Muslims should go home’ you cannot make a vilification claim. Just when you needed it most, the law fails to protect you.
If I were the Federal Attorney-General I would think that was worth doing something about.
It is a basic human right to live a life free from discrimination. The prohibition against discrimination and the right to comprehensive protection from discrimination is enshrined in a number of international conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is time for action on the part of government and the broader community to protect Arab and Muslim Australians from the persecution they are currently experiencing. It is clearly a very complex and deep-rooted problem. The Ismaع report outlined a number of areas that require work, such as improving legal protection, promoting public awareness through education, addressing stereotypes and misinformation in public debate, ensuring community safety through law enforcement, empowering communities and fostering public support and solidarity with Arab and Muslim Australians. The report also made 10 recommendations for action. The first one calls for the introduction of a federal law making discrimination and vilification on the grounds of religion or belief unlawful. If I were Attorney-General, I think that would be a good place to start.
Teena Balgi is co-convenor of the National Human Rights Network of the National Association of Community Legal Centres and a solicitor at Kingsford Legal Centre in Sydney.