Through immigration, Australia has developed into one of the world’s most culturally and religiously diverse societies. People migrate to the so called “lucky country” of Australia with the notion that Australia is a land of fairness and opportunity for all (Mason, 2004). However, religiously and ethnically diverse societies produce a range of constantly changing issues and challenges for society, groups and individuals. Some of these issues include exclusion of minority groups, racism, harassment, stereotyping, intimidation, denial of employment, disapproval to build religious establishments and problems with access to housing and services due to ethnic appearance (Bouma, 1995: 296).
Australian Muslims are often one of the minority groups that are discriminated against. However, negative stereotyping and ill treatment of Muslims is not a new phenomenon. From as early as 1912 Muslims were seen as the “other” and a cause for concern and a threat to Australia’s cultural and societal values (Poynting, 2007). The Gulf War of the 1990s, the recent events of the September 11 attacks in the USA, the Bali bombings, the refugee crisis and the war in Afghanistan have escalated these feelings further and sparked much ill feeling between Muslims and non-Muslims within the Australian society (Aly, 2007). The aim of this essay is to discuss the negative stereotypes of Muslims portrayed in Australian society with examples given in relation to the role of the media and the effects of religious racism on Muslim school children.
Attitudes Towards Muslims within the Australian Society and the Role of the Media
Muslims are frequent targets of negative stereotyping and are often abused physically and verbally because of their religion. Assaults such as head scarves being torn off Muslim women are regularly reported to the Australian Arabic Communities Council Racism Register (Mason, 2004). Aly (2007), Dunn (2001) and Mason (2004) explain that Muslims are often defined as terrorists, outsiders, inferior, aliens, extremists, violent, intolerant, militant, fundamentalists and most commonly referred to as the “other”. Religion is constantly used as a key marker for identifying Muslims as a homogeneous group stripped of all ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences (Aly, 2007). Today, Australia’s Muslim community makes up 1.7% of Australia’s population and come from over 70 different countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Malaysia, India and others, each with their own cultural characteristics (Dunn et al., 2007: 565). Table 1 indicates that over 36% of Muslims are born in Australia.
There have also been cases of mistaken identity, where assaults have occurred due to the appearance of people. Examples of this include Sikh men having their turbans pulled off and Muslim women of South Asian descent being verbally abused for being a Muslim-Arab terrorist because of wearing a headscarf (Poynting, 2003). Research by Mason (2004) indicates that “Islamophobia” is present within Australian society and a recent study reveals that one in eight people interviewed admitted to being prejudice towards Muslims.
Many scholars recognise that much of the negative stereotyping of Muslims is fuelled by the media’s persuasive manner of reporting controversial issues and recent events involving Islam and violence (Pedersen, 2009). Pedersen (2009) explains that Islam is portrayed in the media as being backward and in direct conflict with the values and traditions of western culture and that Muslims are equated with terrorists. Dunn (2007) explains that a member of the Howard Government in a public broadcast insinuated that Australia will eventually become a Muslim country due to Australian Muslims’ high fertility rates. Dunn (2007) argues that this negative attitude from the previous government has made people afraid that Muslims will take over Australia and that the non-Muslim population will be converted to Islam. This fear has been evident with a number of mosque constructions being opposed due to community members complaining that mosques will encourage the conversion to Islam and the fear of a “neighbourhood takeover” (Dunn et al., 2001). Cahill et al. (2003; 2004) state that the media plays a major role in mis-educating the population. In the case of Islam the media has in many situations triggered religious and racial violence against Muslims. However, Cahill et al. (2004) point out that the media can potentially play a constructive role in increasing inter-faith understanding.
Effects of Religious Racism on School Children
Young Muslims in the Australian community are experiencing social and cultural marginalisation due to an increase in racism, stereotyping and exclusion after the September 11 attacks in the USA (Mansouri and Trembath, 2005). In 2004, a public school in Melbourne was closed down due to the high concentration of Muslim students (50%) and the fear that the Muslim students were not integrating with other non-Muslim students and therefore leading to a “sour ethnic ghetto” and a rejection of Australia (Mansouri and Trembath, 2005). The media portrayed the school as being isolated from the rest of society, educationally ineffective and a disadvantage to the community by only catering for one ethnic group. The school was regarded as a place for harbouring terrorists and turning students into violent criminals and the Government was forced by the community to close it down.
Mansouri and Trembath (2005) framed a research project around the closure of the school and decided to get the opinion of the parents and students attending the school in order to get a different perspective on the matter. The results of the study indicated that many of the Muslim students felt vilified and excluded from society. The students claimed that they were often treated as the “other” and not treated as Australian. Many students expressed their disappointment when people would tell them to “go back to where they came from” even though they were born in Australia. The research indicated that many students felt that they had a better connection in their local community with high proportions of Muslims, as it gave them sense of belonging, cultural identity, and a protection and social space from racism. The parents involved in the study acknowledged that their children’s educational performance was hindered due to the constant racism and they were concerned for their children’s future development and employment opportunities. Racism at a young age could potentially have harmful physiological effects on the individual but also foster violent reactions as a response to the abuse which in turn may inhibit them from integrating into society (Mansouri and Trembath, 2005).
This essay assessed the negative stereotyping of Muslims in contemporary Australian society. It was found that the portrayal in the media of international events involving Muslims significantly affects the way Australians relate, interact with and perceive people of Middle Eastern appearance. It was also found that young children of Muslim descent are often exposed to stereotyping, racism and social and cultural marginalisation within the Australian society. Hence, there is a significant need to identify ways of improving the integration process of Muslims and for many Australians to change their attitude and perception of different ethnic groups. With early education in religion and multiculturalism, informed and proactive political initiatives, and improved programs focussing on successfully integrating different ethnic groups into the Australia society, it may be possible to break the barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims and embrace cultural diversity to improve the living conditions for everyone in Australia in the future.
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