Islamophobia refers to dread or hatred of Islam and unfounded prejudice and hostility towards Islam and Muslims. Picture: Brendan McCarthy/AAP
Over the last few months, several reports have indicated a significant number of Australians hold anti-Muslim attitudes. In September 2016, The Australian newspaper reported an Essential poll showing 49 per cent of people surveyed were in favour of a ban against Muslims entering Australia – compared to 40 per cent opposed.
More recently, another Essential poll found 41 per cent of those surveyed supported a Donald-Trump-style ban on people from Muslim countries entering Australia. Another 46 per cent opposed a ban and 14 per cent didn’t know.
Meanwhile, a Newspoll found 44 per cent of respondents believed Australia should take similar measures to Trump’s executive order while 45 per cent opposed doing so. Add this to the increasing support for the anti-Muslim One Nation and it’s no wonder some Muslims may feel unwelcome in Australia.
Anti-Muslim and anti-Islam attitudes displayed in these surveys are largely the result of increasing migration from Muslim-majority countries and fear of terrorism. All this has given rise to a new field of study relating to Islamophobia. Research in the US and Europe shows Islamophobia is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, which is not captured in single-item surveys.
For instance, another recent survey by the Pew Research Centre in the US found Australians welcomed diversity as much as Americans, despite some uncertainty over Muslim integration.
In a survey conducted in late 2015 and early 2016, we used a battery of questions to ascertain Australians’ attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. It is the first study that explored the multidimensionality of Islamophobia in Australia.
The resulting nuanced and comprehensive profile of Islamophobia in Australia actually showed few Australians are truly afraid of those of Muslim faith.
What is Islamophobia?
A 1997 report described Islamophobia as a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam and unfounded prejudice and hostility towards Islam and Muslims. This included practical consequences of hostility such as discrimination and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.
In 2011, influential political scientist Erik Bleich defined Islamophobia as “indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims”.
Indiscriminate and negative attitudes and emotions encompass a wide range. This includes aversion, jealousy, suspicion, disdain, anxiety, rejection, contempt, fear, disgust, anger and hostility. They also cover the “phobic” dimension, which implies a persistent and irrational fear of a specific object, activity or situation which is excessive and unreasonable.
Multidimensionality makes Islamophobia a graded phenomenon with levels ranging low to high. Islamophobia scales have been developed to measure its prevalence in society.
How Islamophobic are Australians?
The scale we used to measure Islamophobia consisted of seven statements. These were:
Just to be safe it is important to stay away from places where Muslims could be.
I would feel comfortable speaking with a Muslim.
I would support any policy that will stop the building of a new mosque.
If I could, I would avoid contact with Muslims.
I would live in a place where there are Muslims.
Muslims should be allowed to work in places where many Australians gather such as airports.
If possible, I would avoid going to places where Muslims would be.
We randomly selected a sample of 1,000 adult Australians. The respondents were asked how they felt about each of the statements. The five options were: strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree and strongly disagree.
To obtain a single summary score, strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree and strongly disagree were given scores of one, two, three, four and five respectively.
In questions one, three, four and seven, “strongly agree” and “agree” reflect anti-Islam attitudes. In the other three questions, the same responses reflect the opposite. We reversed the scores for items one, two, four and seven in order to compute the values ranging from one to five. One represents low levels of Islamophobia, while five is high.
These findings are reported in the table below.
Our findings show almost 70 per cent of Australians appeared to have a very low level of Islamophobic attitudes.
But the individual item responses provide a nuanced understanding of the intensity of such feelings and attitudes. We found 20 per cent were undecided about how they truly felt. Less than 10 per cent fell into the highly Islamophobic category.
Pockets of Islamophobia
We performed further analysis to ascertain levels of Islamophobia by state, capital city, gender, age, educational attainment, labour-force status, occupation, political affiliation and contact with Muslims and religious affiliations.
Our results showed Islamophobia increased with age and declined with level of education. On average, residents of Victoria were less Islamophobic than their New South Wale counterparts. There wasn’t much difference in the other states.
Those from non-English-speaking background were more likely to be Islamophobic compared to those born in Australia and those from English-speaking backgrounds. Respondents not in the labour force were also more likely to score higher on Islamophobia.
Capital-city and non-capital-city residence, gender and employment status had no effect. Liberal and National party supporters were more likely to be Islamophobic than Labor and Greens voters, and people with no political affiliations.
Australians who regularly come in contact with Muslims and those who believe immigrants make important contribution to society are significantly less Islamophobic.
So while there are pockets of antipathy towards Muslims, an overwhelming majority of Australians don’t share that antipathy.