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Australian Commission Calls for New Anti-Discrimination Laws - 2004-06-23


Australia's government-appointed Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission says the country needs new laws against religious discrimination. The call comes after the commission found an alarming rise in abuse against Muslims - particularly women - since a spate of attacks by Islamic terrorist groups in the past three years.

There are just under 300,000 Muslims living in Australia. Many of those who reside in Sydney - like these people stopped on the street - say they are not treated well by their fellow Australians.

WOMAN 1: "I find as I'm driving if I pull up at the red light someone will turn round and say something really nasty to me."

MAN 1: "Very bad, yeah, very bad. After September 11th, after Iraq was happening."

WOMAN 2: "Everywhere. In bank, in hospitals."

Publicity surrounding the surge in anti-Muslim acts prompted Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate.

The commission surveyed 1,400 people over a 12-month period across the whole of Australia. Its project, entitled Isma, which means 'listen' in Arabic, found that many women were afraid to shop and were frightened to walk their children to school, fearing verbal abuse and physical attacks.

The commission says the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 by the al Qaida network spurred anti-Islamic feeling. That has since been fueled by a 2002 Islamic terrorist bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia - which killed 202 people, many of them Australian tourists.

The Commission's chief, William Jonas, says the organization's research shows public anger is being directed at those who look different. Many Muslim women - who wear traditional religious headscarves - are among those most likely to be targeted.

"One of the reasons that people often get targeted is because they look different. And we actually heard that post-September 11, the Sikh community and the Jewish community also came in for increased vilification and discrimination," says Mr. Jonas. "All round there was a general increase in the level of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-different type feeling."

Australian federal law prohibits discrimination but not specifically on the grounds of religion. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission would like the government to address this with new legislation.

"We should be allowed to exercise those human rights that enable us to live in dignity as full and free human beings," says Mr. Jonas. "And having a religion is one of those rights, and I think that we need a law which makes it illegal to vilify people, to discriminate [against] people on the grounds of their religious beliefs."

Australia's government insists that existing racial discrimination laws are adequate, and that education is the key to ensuring greater tolerance and understanding.

Muslim community worker Omeima Sukkarieh says despite the many problems, there are many examples of Australia living up to its multi-cultural reputation. "There are stories of neighbors who are showing support by saying, 'well, come over, we'll have a halal barbeque', you know. I remember a woman was telling me that? an Iraqi woman was telling me right after the war in Iraq in the last year, her neighbor came over and brought her flowers to say, 'well, you know, I support you and we are here if you need anything,'" he says. "So, negative and positive and I think the [Muslim] community, in terms of their experiences, are just looking forward to looking forward, if you know what I mean. They don't want to look back and they don't want this to happen anymore."

Islamic organizations in Australia are worried about the rise of small but vociferous conservative Christian groups. A brochure published by the Catch the Fire Ministry urges its followers to pray for the pulling down of so-called strongholds of Satan, including temples, brothels - and mosques.

The ministry's pastor, Danny Nalliah, has been accused of religious vilification. He rejects the accusation, and insists that all he has done is to quote from Islamic scripture. "It's very clear we are infidels ."

But despite this, Mr. Nalliah insisted that his group feels only "love towards the Muslim world" but believes Australia's true spiritual path should be a Christian one.

However, on the positive side, government-supported anti-racism campaigns are underway in many schools, and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission says there is more interfaith dialogue than ever before. A growing number of Islamic groups are holding open days at their mosques in an attempt to teach the wider Australian community about their culture and their religion.

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