Nonfiction

Religious Prejudice: The New Driver of Anti-Asylum Seeker Sentiment?

21 April 2016

We are not racist, we just don’t like your religion

A new study from the University of Melbourne attempts to see what drives negative attitudes towards asylum seekers and the findings suggest that religious intolerance is the main culprit.

The study, called Islamisation and Other Anxieties, examined 10 focus group discussions across regional and metropolitan Victoria, News South Wales and Queensland.

A total of 80 participants were involved, ranging in age, gender and socio-economic status.

The study found that whilst racism and economic anxieties do to play at least some role in fuelling anti-asylum seeker sentiment, they are both secondary to religion.

Lead researcher from the Centre of Advancing Journalism, Denis Muller, says the findings suggest a historic shift.

“For decades it was primarily racial prejudice – especially during the Pauline Hanson ascendancy – that drove these negative attitudes towards asylum seekers. Now it appears to be religion,” he says.

In a report of his findings, released Thursday, Dr Muller said there were two aspects to to this phenomenon.

He says participants who held the strongest anti-asylums seeker exhibited the first aspect – a deep prejudice towards the Islamic faith.

“Those people had this view that Islam is an intolerant religion. They think that Islam claims tolerance for itself while not conferring tolerance on others and that it has ambitions to impose Sharia law on Australia, and that violates one of the absolute fundamentals of Australian politics, and that is that new arrivals are expected to assimilate, they’re expected to learn English, not live in ghettos, adopt Australian mores and contribute to Australian society.”

“What we saw is that there is a spectrum of the population believe that Islam is not prepared to enter into that covenant.”

Dr Muller believes the fear of what’s described as islamisation is overestimated in the community, citing previous research showing only 2.2 per cent of the Australian population practice Islam.

The second aspect is that Islam was seen as inseparable from the threat of terrorism amongst some participants.

He says it was common for participants to to assume that Asylum seekers were coming from the Middle East and that they were Muslim.

“In the public mind there’s a kind of syllogism that says, ‘Islamists are terrorists, asylum seekers are Islamists and therefore asylum seekers are terrorists’.”

This suggests that there is a portion of the community that view asylum seekers as potential terrorists.

Mo Elleissy from the Jewish Christian-Muslim Association – a Victorian group that promotes the prevention of religious intolerance – says the finding is sad but not unsurprising.

“Islam is a lot more scary for people because it’s the world second-largest faith community and, of course, it has been conflated with the issue of terrorism. So it allows people to take on a whole lot of fears as well as ideological fears.”

Dr Muller says the participants attitudes were found to be influenced, at least in part, by political debate and the media as well as unsubstantiated word-of-mouth gossip.

“They just believe much of what the government has said about the risks of home-grown terrorism, and they refer to these things all the time. They refer to the Lindt Café siege, they refer to court cases, incidents they’ve heard of or plots they’ve allegedly foiled and all of this creates an impression in people’s minds and it comes up over and over again and in qualitative research when the same arrows come up you know you’re seeing a pattern.”

Mr Elleissy says he is aware that asylum seekers and refugees come in contact with these opinions.

He says they pose another burden for asylum seekers to overcome as they attempt to settle in Australia.

“Refugees regardless will always come in contact with these views because they’re so pervasive in our society – imaging being a refugee – just opening a newspaper, reading an article on the internet, talking to people, whilst it may not always be directed at these people… but knowing in society at large that there are these views – is something that we know only adds to the angst and anguish that refugees have.”

With headquarters in Victoria, the Australian Multicultural Education Service (AMES) is a settlement agency specialising in assisting refugees across Australia.

CEO Cath Scarth says those who hold these views should remember why asylum seekers come to countries like Australia in the first place.

“One of the critical things we need to remember is that the majority of Muslims are also fleeing the very terrorism that people are concerned about. That they think they’re perpetrating. Most of the asylum seekers who are here are fleeing prosecution. It is interesting that we’ve got this feeling that we’re in danger they’re the terrorist, when, in fact, they are the victims.”

Mo Elleissy says inroads can be made if Australian media and politicians step up and call out bigoted views when they occur.

“What we need right now is more leadership from our politicians, from our media to give more nuance to this conversation. People are spreading their views about Muslims, Islam… so often they are factually incorrect views and the response from our politicians isn’t ‘alright let’s have a nuanced discussion about this issue,’ its ‘people have the right to be bigots, this is real Australia just talking, the salts of the earth Australians are talking about their views. I think if we have Australians saying those incorrect things then it needs to be nipped in the bud.

Ms Scarth says the study is too small to draw any conclusions from. She says that Australia is generally highly accepting of Asylum seekers, regardless of religion.

She points to the broader work from the Scanlon Foundation – an Australian social research centre as evidence.

“Obviously much larger scale surveys like the Scanlon Foundation would give us a better sense of the what the larger population think. I think generally, in this space, we are seeing a great acceptance of diversity and high levels of social cohesion. Of course there are pockets of the community who have negative feelings, that does exist to some extent.”

Indeed a 2015 study by the Scanlon Foundation found that whist the number of Australians worried about terrorism had surged the number of people concerned about Australia immigration intake had reduced.

Responding to the studies critics Dr Mueller says the research was never meant to be representative of the population, but rather to ‘get behind the answers we already know.”


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