Interview with Professor Yasmeen

Hanne Melgård Watkins in conversation with Samina Yasmeen
On Friday 22 July 2011, Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law Annual Conference was held in Melbourne. Samina Yasmeen, Director of Centre for Muslim States and Societes at UWA addressed the topic “Islamophobia and Multicultural Australia”. Following the speech Right Now writer Hanne M Watkins spoke with Professor Yasmeen about Islamophobia, inclusion, women’s rights in Islam and multiculturalism.

RN: For those of us who weren’t able to make it to your talk, would you be able to provide a short summary?

SY: I was talking about the relationship between a multicultural Australia and Islamophobia. My understanding of multiculturalism is one which brings people from different backgrounds together in an environment in which they can learn about each other, and learn to find a way to live comfortably together. This is not a new phenomenon. It is something that has been happening throughout human existence.  So learning about other countries is nothing new, nor is it particular to the Western world. It happens everywhere.

What I want to point out is that Islamophobia undermines multicultural identity of any kind. Islamophobia is about fear of Islam and Muslims. In Australia we can’t say that it’s a full-blown Islamophobia, mainly because it’s a recent phenomenon here, but it’s a creeping Islamophobia.

We can see the signs of it since 1990. Before that, the Muslims were classified as “the other,” and there was discrimination based on Muslim identity, but it wasn’t as strong. Then after 9/11, we’ve seen the creeping Islamophobia emerge.  Muslims are seen as the critical issue with regards to terrorism and that impacts on how people are perceived. I guess what I’m saying is that this affects their sense of identity, their relationships and their sense of personal safety.

In Australia we can’t say that it’s a full-blown Islamophobia, mainly because it’s a recent phenomenon here, but it’s a creeping Islamophobia.

Islamophobia affects Muslim people’s sense of identity?

Yes.  In a way Islamophobia also shapes the way non-Muslim people see Muslim people. It sets the scene for generational change to come about in the way Muslims have been perceived.  Since 9/11 there’s a greater incidence of Muslims being identified as the “problem”, or the “other”.

However, it is still not at a level where we can say that Muslims are treated unwell in Australia, or that Australia is really hostile to Muslims. We have to be realistic. There are anti-Muslim feelings, but there are also pro-Muslim feelings. What I pointed out in my talk was that the anti-Muslim feeling has been fostered by the media, but also by political leaders. And that this needs to change.

Even when some efforts are made, for example when the government announced its People of Australia policy in February this year, some in the media still reacted badly claiming that Muslims were a problem for a multicultural Australia. So that needs to change.

But the responsibility isn’t all on the wider community. Muslims also have to take responsibility. There’s a greater sense among the Australian Muslim community of being ignored or excluded by the non-Muslims, than what the reality actually is. What that tells us is that Muslims have a responsibility to connect with the community, and in doing that, people who are seen as nodes of authenticity within the community also have a responsibility. Though governments and businesses also have a responsibility, it is really about learning – the learning has to happen on both sides. Once we operate on the level of being citizens, then we can come to the stage where we are all working together towards a multicultural Australia.

Muslims also have to take responsibility.

Considering Australian history since 1788, it seems to me that a pattern emerges: waves of immigrants arrive – for example the Chinese during the gold rush in the 1800s, then Northern Europeans after WWII – and after a period of “us – them” mentality everything settles down again. Could the Islamophobia you’re talking about be another example of that kind of adjustment?

This is different, in the sense that it was created. Muslims have been here in Australia since the second half of the 19th century and there was some negativity towards them – not because they were Muslims, but because they were different. They were exotic, not “one of us”. Islamophobia is a new idea. So when we say, “Oh this is a new wave of immigrants; they’ll get through it too”, I think: but they are not a new community. It’s like suddenly you started having a phobia against a community that has lived here for generations.

You seem to suggest that multiculturalism is one way of reducing Isamophobia, since multiculturalism is a process of coming together and learning from each other. Apart from that process happening just by chance, for example in workplaces, what kind of concrete action do you think everyday people or groups can take to promote it?

First of all, I think the government needs to take the initiative. They have to make sure that when they let people in, access to services is on an equitable basis. Again, this is not particular to Muslims – it should apply to all other communities. Then they need to monitor whether equal treatment is meted out. If you don’t know whether there is a standard and whether it is being met, then you don’t know if some people are missing out. So that’s one thing, If you can’t measure it you don’t know what it is.

In April, the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights was opened. Are you involved in that at all?

Joumanah El Matrah, the executive director of the Centre, was working on Muslim women’s issues well before April. I worked with Joumanah because we were both on the Australian Multicultural Council, recommending the principles that were taken up by the Australian Government in its People of Australia policy.

I see. I came across an interesting quote by her, where she said the Centre “puts to rest the fallacy that human rights and Islam are incompatible, or any suggestion that Muslim women, because of their faith, cannot be equal to men”. Could you comment on the second part of that? How do you see human rights for women in the context of Islam?

The trouble is that we confuse religion with practice. On a purely religious basis, you can’t move away from the fact that Islam has rights and responsibilities for everyone. There are rights and responsibilities as man and woman, as child and grown up, father and son, mother and daughter – and these are indicated in the Koran.

Together they form the basis for what you can and can’t do. You must treat people with justice. That’s your duty; one that exists for all categories of human beings.

As for women: I think we focus a lot on whether women have half the inheritance of men, or whether they are or are not equal – the reality is that there are lots of different interpretations of women’s rights in Islam. Again, if you look at it comparatively, when Islam started as a religion, the rules were radically progressive. So if you continue that progress in a straight line up until now, women are equal, there’s no question! Women’s right to inheritance, to economic freedom, to choice, safety, and protection were part of Islamic teaching from day one. The first Muslim person was a woman of course: Mohammed’s wife!

People tend to focus on the practice, as opposed to the religion. The focus will often reflect your knowledge and understanding of Islamic principles, and it is mixed with culture.  If you don’t know what the religion is and what the culture is, then you end up focusing on cultural Islam. Women might be treated as second class in your area, in which case you might come in and say “this is what Islam is all about” –but it isn’t! The interesting thing is we tend to be more analytical about these mismatches between practice and religion when it’s not about Islam. But when it comes to Muslims we take it uncritically, and go “oh, women must not be treated equally”.

The trouble is that we confuse religion with practice.

I guess when two groups have mistaken ideas and stereotypes about each other it is going to be hard to engage in any sort of constructive dialogue.

Yes, but we also need to be careful.  There are several strains of interaction and interfaith dialogue and we need to acknowledge that positive side as well. That’s why I say that it’s a creeping Islamophobia, not full-blown. If it was, people wouldn’t be talking to each other.

You can’t legislate in a way that makes people think that they are being forced to accept something.

Since the Islamophobia is “creeping”, do you think the best way to attack this prejudice is also by being subtle?

You can’t legislate in a way that makes people think that they are being forced to accept something. The moment people think that the government is saying that multiculturalism is our policy they turn against it. So I think it’s better to slowly breed understanding, which is done partly through education. It is also done through interaction and working together on issues. That’s what leads people to work out “oh, so that’s how we cooperate with each other.”

Even if we were all the same colour and all had the same background, we don’t all do exactly the same things. It’s in the space outside, where we are working together, that we work on understanding each other. It requires a slow, careful, attention to detail and a willingness by people to take a stand. Not just Muslims or non-Muslims separately: I think people need to build partnerships.

RN: For those of us who weren’t able to make it to your talk, would you be able to provide a short summary?

SY: I was talking about the relationship between a multicultural Australia and Islamophobia. My understanding of multiculturalism is one which brings people from different backgrounds together in an environment in which they can learn about each other, and learn to find a way to live comfortably together. This is not a new phenomenon. It is something that has been happening throughout human existence. So learning about other countries is nothing new, nor is it particular to the Western world. It happens everywhere.

What I want to point out is that Islamophobia undermines multicultural identity of any kind. Islamophobia is about fear of Islam and Muslims. In Australia we can’t say that it’s a full-blown Islamophobia, mainly because it’s a recent phenomenon here, but it’s a creeping Islamophobia.

We can see the signs of it since 1990. Before that, the Muslims were classified as “the other,” and there was discrimination based on Muslim identity, but it wasn’t as strong. Then after 9/11, we’ve seen the creeping Islamophobia emerge. Muslims are seen as the critical issue with regards to terrorism and that impacts on how people are perceived. I guess what I’m saying is that this affects their sense of identity, their relationships and their sense of personal safety.

Islamophobia affects Muslim people’s sense of identity?

Yes. In a way Islamophobia also shapes the way non-Muslim people see Muslim people. It sets the scene for generational change to come about in the way Muslims have been perceived. Since 9/11 there’s a greater incidence of Muslims being identified as the “problem”, or the “other”.

However, it is still not at a level where we can say that Muslims are treated unwell in Australia, or that Australia is really hostile to Muslims. We have to be realistic. There are anti-Muslim feelings, but there are also pro-Muslim feelings. What I pointed out in my talk was that the anti-Muslim feeling has been fostered by the media, but also by political leaders. And that this needs to change.

Even when some efforts are made, for example when the government announced its People of Australia policy in February this year, some in the media still reacted badly claiming that Muslims were a problem for a multicultural Australia. So that needs to change.

But the responsibility isn’t all on the wider community. Muslims also have to take responsibility. There’s a greater sense among the Australian Muslim community [H1] of being ignored or excluded by the non-Muslims, than what the reality actually is. What that tells us is that Muslims have a responsibility to connect with the community, and in doing that, people who are seen as nodes of authenticity within the community also have a responsibility. [RP2] [H3] Though governments and businesses also have a responsibility, it is really about learning – the learning has to happen on both sides. Once we operate on the level of being citizens, then we can come to the stage where we are all working together towards a multicultural Australia.

Considering Australian history since 1788, it seems to me that a pattern emerges: waves of immigrants arrive – for example the Chinese during the gold rush in the 1800s, then Northern Europeans after WWII – and after a period of “us – them” mentality everything settles down again. Could the Islamophobia you’re talking about be another example of that kind of adjustment?

This is different, in the sense that it was created. Muslims have been here in Australia since the second half of the 19th century and there was some negativity towards them – not because they were Muslims, but because they were different. They were exotic, not “one of us”. Islamophobia is a new idea. So when we say, “Oh this is a new wave of immigrants; they’ll get through it too”, I think: but they are not a new community. It’s like suddenly you started having a phobia against a community that has lived here for generations.

You seem to suggest that multiculturalism is one way of reducing Isamophobia, since multiculturalism is a process of coming together and learning from each other. Apart from that process happening just by chance, for example in workplaces, what kind of concrete action do you think everyday people or groups can take to promote it?[H4]

First of all, I think the government needs to take the initiative. They have to make sure that when they let people in, access to services is on an equitable basis. Again, this is not particular to Muslims – it should apply to all other communities. Then they need to monitor whether equal treatment is meted out. If you don’t know whether there is a standard and whether it is being met, then you don’t know if some people are missing out. So that’s one thing, If you can’t measure it you don’t know what it is. [MS5]

In April, the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights was opened. Are you involved in that at all?

Joumanah El Matrah, the executive director of the Centre, was working on Muslim women’s issues well before April. I worked with Joumanah because we were both on the Australian Multicultural Council, recommending the principles that were taken up by the Australian Government in its People of Australia policy.

I see. I came across an interesting quote by her, where she said the Centre “puts to rest the fallacy that human rights and Islam are incompatible, or any suggestion that Muslim women, because of their faith, cannot be equal to men”. Could you comment on the second part of that? How do you see human rights for women in the context of Islam[RP6] ?[MS7] [H8]

The trouble is that we confuse religion with practice. On a purely religious basis, you can’t move away from the fact that Islam has rights and responsibilities for everyone[MS9] . There are rights and responsibilities as man and woman, as child and grown up, father and son, mother and daughter – and these are indicated in the Koran. [H10]

Together they form the basis for what you can and can’t do. You must treat people with justice. That’s your duty; one that exists for all categories of human beings.

As for women: I think we focus a lot on whether women have half the inheritance of men, or whether they are or are not equal – the reality is that there are lots of different interpretations of women’s rights in Islam. Again, if you look at it comparatively, when Islam started as a religion, the rules were radically progressive. So if you continue that progress in a straight line up until now, women are equal, there’s no question! Women’s right to inheritance, to economic freedom, to choice, safety, and protection were part of Islamic teaching from day one. The first Muslim person was a woman of course: Mohammed’s wife[RP11] ! [MS12] [H13]

People tend to focus on the practice, as opposed to the religion. The focus will often reflect your knowledge and understanding of Islamic principles, and it is mixed with culture. If you don’t know what the religion is and what the culture is, then you end up focusing on cultural Islam. Women might be treated as second class in your area, in which case you might come in and say “this is what Islam is all about” –but it isn’t! The interesting thing is we tend to be more analytical about these mismatches between practice and religion when it’s not about Islam. But when it comes to Muslims we take it uncritically, and go “oh, women must not be treated equally”.

I guess when two groups have mistaken ideas and stereotypes about each other it is going to be hard to engage in any sort of constructive dialogue.

Yes, but we also need to be careful. [H14] There are several strains of interaction and interfaith dialogue and we need to acknowledge that positive side as well. [RP15] That’s why I say that it’s a creeping Islamophobia, not full-blown. If it was, people wouldn’t be talking to each other.

Since the Islamophobia is “creeping”, do you think the best way to attack this prejudice is also by being subtle?

You can’t legislate in a way that makes people think that they are being forced to accept something. The moment people think that the government is saying that multiculturalism is our policy they turn against it. So I think it’s better to slowly breed understanding, which is done partly through education. It is also done through interaction and working together on issues. That’s what leads people to work out “oh, so that’s how we cooperate with each other.”

Even if we were all the same colour and all had the same background, we don’t all do exactly the same things. It’s in the space outside, where we are working together, that we work on understanding each other. It requires a slow, careful, attention to detail and a willingness by people to take a stand. Not just Muslims or non-Muslims separately: I think people need to build partnerships.


[H1]Good way of clarifying, Murray 🙂

[RP2]What does this mean?

[H3]I think she was referring to people within the Muslim community who in some way have “influence” – I’ve added “within the community”, do you think that makes it clearer?

[H4]If we cut the above two paragraphs, does this rewording work?

[MS5]Seems like she is speaking about the substantive law, and the difficulties face by new migrants in understanding it’s purpose, not really equality before the law. But that’s just my opinion.

[RP6]Yeah that’s what has been asked, but she didn’t fully answer the question. It’s not an easy question!

[MS7]I would have liked to hear her own views on whether Islamic law is compatible with HR.

[H8]I know. I felt like she was evading it a bit, in some ways… if I was going to do the interview again I would’ve focused more on this!

[MS9]Unequal rights though…men/women, muslim/non-muslim

[H10]Yep 🙂

[RP11]What do you mean?

[MS12]This is an interesting and dare I say fundamentalist perspective

[H13]I’m with Rose – what do you mean? Once this is online you’ll have to add it to the comment section! Should make for interesting debate…

[H14]Why did this get cut? It’s slightly clumsily phrased, but an important point, surely?

[RP15]She means interaction that’s happening now?

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