• Religion, not race, main source of negativity on asylum seekers
SBS World News Radio: Religious intolerance or racism? A new study out of Melbourne suggests religious intolerance, not racism, is the main source of negative feelings towards asylum seekers in Australia.
By
Will Higginbotham

18 Apr 2016 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 16 May 2016 - 5:18 PM

It is leading to calls for Australian politicians and media outlets to bring more nuance and accuracy to their discussions around asylum seekers.

The study was called Islamophobia and other anxieties.

Conducted by the University of Melbourne, it examined 10 focus groups across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

And the result suggests religious intolerance, not racism, is the main driver of negative attitudes in the country towards asylum seekers.

The 80 participants in the study ranged across age, gender and socio-economic status.

The study found, while racism and economic anxieties play at least a role in fuelling anti-asylum-seeker sentiment, the main cause now appears to be religiously motivated.

Lead researcher Denis Muller says participants who strongly opposed asylum seekers usually identified them as being from the Middle East and followers of Islam.

"People think that Islam is an intolerant religion which, at the same time, claims tolerance for itself while not conferring tolerance on others, and that it has ambitions to impose sharia law on Australia. Now 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, to not live in ghettos, to adopt Australian mores, to make a contribution to society. And a broad spectrum of the population believes that Islam is not prepared to enter into that covenant."

Dr Muller suggests the fear of what is described as Islamisation is overestimated in the community.

He cites previous research showing only 2.2 per cent of the Australian population practises Islam.

Further, he says, some participants equated Islam with terrorism and, therefore, viewed asylum seekers as terrorists.

Melbourne-based Mo Elleissy is from the Jewish Christian Muslim Association in Victoria, a group that promotes the prevention of religious intolerance.

He says that finding is unsurprising.

"Obviously, Islam is something that is a lot more scary for people because it's the world's second-largest faith community and, of course, it conflates with the issue of terrorism. So it allows people to take on a whole bunch of other fears as well -- ideological fears."

Denis Muller says the participants' attitudes were found to be influenced, at least in part, by political debate and the media.

"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, or incidents they've heard of, or plots they've allegedly foiled, and all of this has created this impression in people's minds, and it comes up over and over again, group after group. And with qualitative research, when you see all of the arrows pointing in the same direction, you know that you're seeing a pattern."

Mr Elleissy says he is very aware asylum seekers and refugees do come into contact with such opinions.

"Refugees, regardless, will always come in contact with these views, because they are so pervasive in our society. So, imagine being a refugee -- and we do know there have been a lot of people who have mentioned, as refugees -- just opening the newspaper, just reading any article on the internet, talking to people, that, while it might not be all directed at these people, because not everyone actually knows that they're refugees, but knowing that, in the society at large, there are these views that see them in such a way, is something that we know only adds to the angst and anguish that refugees have as they're trying to settle."

With headquarters in Victoria, the Australian Multicultural Education Service is a settlement agency specialising in helping refugees across Australia.

Chief executive Cath Scarth says those who hold such views should remember why asylum seekers come to countries like Australia.

"I think one of the critical things that we need to remind people of 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, whether they're Muslim or not, they're fleeing persecution. So, it's quite interesting that we've got this feeling that we're in danger, that they're the terrorist, when, in fact, they're the victim themselves."

Mo Elleissy, from the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, says the Australian media and politicians need to lead the way in countering such views.

"What we need right now is, again, more leadership from our politicians, from media as well, to give more nuance to this conversation. People are spreading their views about their fears of refugees and Islam and this crazy 'takeover' that's supposedly happening. The response from our politicians isn't, 'Okay, well, let's have a nuanced discussion about this.' It's, 'People have the right to be bigots,' or, 'This is real Australia just talking ...' you know, 'the salt-of-the-earth* Australians talking about their views.' I think we really need to start to say, 'Well, if people are saying something that's factually incorrect about Muslims, then it needs to be nipped in the bud.'"

Ms Scarth says Australia is generally highly accepting of asylum seekers, though, regardless of religion.

As a reminder, she points to wider work from the Scanlon Foundation, an Australian social-research centre.

"It's quite a selective snapshot of voters' views, and, obviously, much larger-scale surveys like the Scanlon Foundation would give us a better sense of the 'population think.' And there, I think, generally, we're seeing a great acceptance of diversity and high levels of social cohesion and so on."