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Tenth of Aussies fear Islam, Muslims

AAP logoAAP 22/07/2016 Tracey Ferrier

TV host Waleed Aly is scared about his place in Australia amid calls for the nation to lock out fellow followers of Islam.

Celebrity Sonia Kruger is scared of a Nice-style terrorist attack and wants Australia to stop taking in Muslims so she can feel safer.

Senator-elect Pauline Hanson is scared too. She thinks the real Australia is vanishing fast and that Islam will bring murder and terror to the streets.

That's an awful lot of fear. But what's Australia going to do with it?

One thing the nation cannot do, Australian Muslim academics say, is ignore the elephant in the room.

About 543,000 Australians voted 1 for Hanson's One Nation Party at this month's election - significantly more than the 480,000 Muslims who live here.

Hanson's policy platform was heavy on anti-Islam policies, including banning Muslim immigration and the construction of new mosques.

While it can't be said those policies spawned every vote she and her party won, it's clear Hanson's anti-Islam stance has resonated with some Australians.

Professor Riaz Hassan is the director of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia.

He's quick to defend the rights of Hanson and Kruger to express their fears, as repugnant as they are to him as Muslim who has spent 40 years in Australia.

But as the author of the only systematic study on the prevalence of Islamophobia in Australia, he wants to put things into perspective.

His landmark 2015 study, based on interviews with 1000 Australians, showed the majority - 70 per cent - don't fear Muslims or their religion.

He says that figure should serve as comfort to Muslim Australians who may feel threatened by what Hanson and Kruger have to say.

But he also acknowledges the challenges thrown up by those who do hold irrational fears about Muslims and Islam, and who seek to punish the religion and all of its followers for terrorist attacks committed by a radicalised few.

Of the remaining 30 per cent of survey respondents, 10 per cent were classed as highly Islamophobic and 20 per cent as undecided.

Prof Hassan says the government must find a way to engage with this group, and understanding who they are will be critical in working out how best to achieve that.

An Australian Islamophobe is someone who is relatively easy to describe.

They are more likely to be older and unemployed.

They are more likely to have lower levels of education.

And they are more likely to be Liberal-leaning in terms of political affiliation.

Other crucial findings include that Australians who have regular contact with Muslims are less likely to be Islamophobic, as are people who have tolerant attitudes towards migrants or who are not very worried about terrorism.

Prof Hassan says the profile of Islamophobes must inform what the government does next, because ignoring the presence of those views in Australia is not an option.

And education, in whatever form that might take, will be crucial.

"People with less education, or no education, tend to think in monopolistic terms - that all Muslims are like that, all men are like that," he says.

"As we become more educated, begin to read, to think and engage with what others are saying, we move to differentiated thought - that is, that some Muslims are like that, and some are not."

He says more must be done too to highlight the other factors that drive a small minority of extremists who follow Islam to commit terrorist attacks.

"You cannot completely take away religion, as if it's not a factor," he says.

"But there are political reasons, a whole range of reasons other than religion, that goes into the mix. It is a concoction of motivations and religion is only one part of it."

Professor Amin Saikal, from the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, agrees.

He says Australians must learn to distinguish between followers of Islam as a religious faith, and those who abuse it to sow terror for political purposes.

"One should not talk about the Muslim community in collective terms," he says.

"One should not see the religion of Islam as the source of extremism. You can be a Muslim and stray from the path into extremist activities, but this does not mean the religion is a source of inspiration for those activities or that it's endorsed.

"When we try to understand a particular group on the basis of faith, race or cultural background, I think that is very dangerous."

Aly made that point too when he responded to Kruger's very public call for Australia to put up the no-vacancy sign for Muslims.

"I see such hostility and aggression and I'm afraid about what it could do to this country," the host told viewers of The Project on Network Ten.

He spoke of a letter to the editor, published in The Australian, in which NSW man Malcolm Martin appeared to suggest that Muslims should be locked up to reduce the threat they pose to society.

But Kruger, Aly said, wasn't evil. Just scared.

And he had a challenge for the nation as politicians grapple with how best to foster social cohesion when voices like Hanson's are cutting through, at least with some.

"We're afraid. Sonia. Pauline. Malcolm. And me. We're all afraid, but it's how you deal with that fear," Aly said.

"... show others radical generosity in the face of their hostility."

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