I wrote this article a few months back for the Autumn edition of GreenMail, a quarterly Greens NSW publication. The issue of hate speech and violence is now even more topical. Tejasvi Surya, a politician with the extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, recently toured Australia. He was on a speaking tour and to recruit for the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. HSS is the overseas wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fascist group that created the BJP party. HSS, RSS and BJP foster intolerance and hate as they work to reshape India according to the rightwing extremist Hindutva ideology. For the record Surya has called for people who leave the Hindu faith to be reconverted. He attempted to apologise.
Islamophobia is killing Muslims. In 2020 in the Indian capital, Delhi, over 50 people were killed following protests against a law that uses citizenship status to discriminate against Muslims. There is video evidence of incidents where police joined the attackers or took no action to stop them. In 2019 in New Zealand an Australian gunman opened fire in two mosques killing 51. Over 30 countries have reported violence linked to Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is defined as the fear, hatred or prejudice against Muslims or the Islamic religion. Social media platforms are enabling an increase in dangerous and hate speech directed at Muslims.
In Australia Islamophobia is a serious problem. A recent Western Sydney University study, based on a national survey of racist attitudes and experiences, found that 87 per cent of those surveyed expressed “some concerns about Muslims”. The authors concluded that an urgent comprehensive response is needed to minimise this form of racism.
Although these figures are disturbing they are not surprising. For over two decades Muslims and their religion have been portrayed in a sinister way by numerous conservative parties and media outlets.
The origin of Islamophobia is relevant to this discussion. The 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 shocked the world. The West desperately needed a target to blame – to explain how the greatest power on earth could succumb to this attack. As the tragedy unfolded the US faced questions about its foreign policy, security and leadership of the “free” world.
In the Cold War decades of the later half of the twentieth century the West had the old Soviet Union to blame. In those days foreign policy was largely presented as a goodies and baddies narrative. Now the US, supposedly in the ascendancy as the only super power left standing, was scrambling to control the reporting about its power and world dominance with no clear target to blame.
Overnight Muslims and Islamic countries were under scrutiny and attack by media and politicians desperate to explain why the US had been attacked. While the 9/11 investigation found those associated with the attack were from or linked to Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that is no justification for blaming a whole religion.
The language used to describe people who perpetrate massacres also carries considerable bias. If the killer or killers are of the Islamic faith they are usually identified as Islamic terrorists. If the killer is a Christian that fact is rarely discussed and the religion overall is not linked to the crime.
Two shocking terrorist attacks early this century illustrate this bias. The crimes were committed by Christians but no one blames that religion. In 2011 Andrew Berwick killed 77 people in two far right terrorist attacks in Norway. In 2017 Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire on a Quebec City mosque. Six worshippers were killed and five others seriously injured. In these examples the mass murder of Muslims was often described as lone wolf acts.
In some countries criticism of Muslims is presented as necessary to defend “our values and way of life”. People of Islamic faith are portrayed in a simplistic way that readily translates to media stories with a discriminatory theme. Violence, misogyny and homophobia are attributes that some Australians readily associate with Muslims because of this distorted narrative about Islam. Sadly discriminatory attitudes to Muslims have become integrated into the attitudes of many.
Combating Islamophobia needs to be put into a political context, and not just in terms of how governments and opposition forces respond to this form of racism. There is clear evidence that some parties and even government authorities deliberately engage in acts of Islamophobia to incite fear and distrust of Muslims to assist what are often dangerous agendas. The stand out example is India. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party actively promotes Islamophobia to achieve its objective to turn India into a Hindu state.
Last year the BBC reported that the BJP government rarely responds or condemns the unprovoked attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs that they note are now routine in India. Amnesty International has linked the increase in Muslims being killed in public hate crimes to “a rising tide of Islamophobia in the country”. This report was in 2017. In 2020 Amnesty India was forced to close its office after the government froze its bank accounts. Amnesty said this came after a two-year “incessant witch-hunt” by the Modi forces.
The BJP increasingly relies on the dissemination of hate speech to promote Islamophobia. Professor Mohan Dutta, who studies the impact of Islamophobia at Massey University in New Zealand, has identified that the Hindu extremism of the BJP is expanding globally through the use of digital platforms. He has found that since Modi’s election in 2014 the level of hate speech on Facebook and other sites has increased exponentially. In many Indian communities hate speech translates into shocking violent crimes. Muslims are being killed. Their homes and businesses are increasingly being attacked and burnt down and many suffer numerous forms of discrimination.
Tragically verbal abuse and the resulting violence directed at Muslims is on the rise not just in India but among the Indian diaspora. At the end of 2021 Professor Dutta conducted a survey on this issue among over 1000 Indians. He found that during the previous year 39 per cent of Indians surveyed had been called an offensive name because they are Muslim; and 40 per cent reported that they have been abused on social media.
Professor Dutta, who is Hindu, has been targeted by Hindu extremists for this work. On his social media accounts he has been called a “Bootlicker” and “brown servant”. One post stated, “If you were in India you would be burnt … We should do anything in our power to stop him.”
Dealing with Islamophobia needs to become a society wide priority. Discrimination in terms of access to political power, social services, jobs, education and housing must be addressed. Ethnic and religious profiling by police and any other departments needs to end. Dehumanising language directed at Muslims should be eliminated from social media platforms.
We need to build a political discourse that sets out how diversity, equality, respect and tolerance benefit people and nations. This will provide an alternative to hate and dangerous speech and the antidote to Islamophobia.