Muslims have been Australian for longer than you might think

By Davide Schiappapietra What if you were told that most Australian Muslims are at least fifth-generation Australians and not recent migrants? Or that Muslims had traveled to and settled in Australia way before its "discovery" by European explorers? Following the Bourke Street attack and the recently thwarted terror plot in Melbourne, a political debate around Islam in Australia has returned. It is a debate that, according to leading academics speaking with SBS Italian, tends to distort reality. While Islamophobic attacks have been reported in the most recent weeks, a series of opinion polls provide an insight into Australian perceptions of the Muslim world. According to a recent Fairfax-IPSOS poll, around 46 per cent of Australians want to limit the entry of Muslim migrants into the country. Another IPSOS poll shows that Australians believe that the Muslim presence in Australia is nine times larger than what it is in reality. Which Muslims are we talking about? "Every time I read those opinion polls I ask myself the question of which Muslims they are talking about", Professor Lucia Sorbera, chair of the Department of Arab studies at The University of Sydney tells SBS Italian. "Every time there is an attack defined as 'terror-related' or an international crisis occurs, the spotlight is positioned on minority groups and in particular on the Muslim communities", she says. And the public's perceptions of these Muslim communities are generally rooted in the popular narrative of the Middle East, Arabs and Islam, says Sorbera. It is episodic and mostly focused on crises and generalisations. "While Islam is perceived as a monolithic world, it is, in fact, a kaleidoscopic and multifaceted world, made of a constellation of different groups, communities and individual approaches," she says. Professor Sorbera's description of Islam mirrors the popular perception that many would have of Christianity and its diversity across the West and World overall. Muslim women the biggest targets of hate According to Professor Sorbera, the root issue here is an alarmist narrative surrounding Islam. "It is based on ignorance and prejudice, thus reinforcing Islamophobic attitudes, which in turn cause harm to the weakest individuals and groups within the society," she says. According to data from a 2015 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, women are the most common targets of Islamophobic attacks. "Women tend to be more easily identifiable because of religious clothes such as the scarf," says Sorbera. "In an Islamophobic climate, they become the easiest targets. Muslim men tend to be less easily identifiable, in this sense." But are Muslims more likely to commit violence? Some in the wider community seem to believe that other religious or political contexts do not inspire violence in the way that Islam appears to. According to Sorbera it is a matter of perception once again. "I am just back from the US where in the past week two deadly attacks, one in a bar full of university students, were carried out by white men with firearms," she says. "Attacks are carried out globally by Muslim and non-Muslim individuals, both male and females. The issue is that when a Muslim person is responsible, the attack's narrative is solely centered on their religious affiliation and this originates a negative perception on behalf of the population." Hollywood and schoolbooks provide a partial history This connection of Islam and terrorism has a long history, and in its current forms, links to the 1970s movie industry, according to Sorbera. Recent studies such as Jack Shaheen's Reel Bad Arabs make an argument that Hollywood built a niche market on depicting spectacles of Islamic terror on film, thus driving conversation around Islam into an alarmist zone. Sorbera also thinks we need to look at the way Islam is depicted in education in Australia. "In school it is never mentioned the fact that contacts between indigenous Australians and Muslim populations existed well before the arrival of the Europeans in Australia," she says. "In fact, before 1788 there were already in place commercial routes connecting Southeast Asia with Australia, and there are documented examples of Muslim individuals settling in Australia and marrying into Aboriginal families. This before British colonization had even begun." According to Sorbera, another misconception is that Muslims in Australia are mostly migrants. "The majority of Australian Muslims are not migrants – in spite of a common belief - as the bulk of arrivals of Muslim migrants occurred in the 1800s," she says. "Therefore the majority of the members of the Australian Muslim communities are fifth-generation Australian with a family background coming from overseas." Australia better than others but far from perfect Matteo Vergani, a senior lecturer at Deakin University and expert in international terrorism tells SBS Italian that hateful crimes can be fueled by the rhetoric of political leaders; "Comments like the ones recently made by high ranking politicians, encouraging Muslim community leaders to take on more responsibilities in fighting radicalisation, can negatively contribute to the climate in the country", he says, citing abuse of Muslims in the street. However, Vergani believes in Australia the situation is better than elsewhere, noting that "Australian political leaders tend to be more responsible than other world leaders in this sense." Australia's integration of minority communities is also better than many other countries, but also not perfect, says Vergani who believes that there are further ways to address radicalisation in minority groups. "A way to prevent violent acts in communities considered at risk could be to focus on providing social services and psychological support to groups and individuals at risk within those communities."

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