Scholarly research on Islamophobia in Australia needs to be expanded and strengthened in the wake of the Christchurch shooting. Connections between the views and attitudes contained in the sinister 'manifesto' placed online by the suspect, Grafton-born Brenton Tarrant; the decades-long anti-Muslim campaign by the Murdoch press; the normalisation of hate through the lavish media exposure granted to far-right speakers both visiting and home-grown (including Pauline Hanson), and mainstream politicians' proclivity to foment and exploit divisions for electoral gain – all have been the subject of speculation in recent days, with debate rapidly dividing along familiar lines.
In the process, we have realised – or, at least, should realise – how little we actually know about such connections. Researchers should be able to furnish us with evidence about where Islamophobia 'comes from'; what it consists of; how it is promulgated and spread, by whom and for what ends, and what can be done to roll it back from the status of legitimacy it has enjoyed in our public sphere. In the process, Australia academia needs to show its mettle. Cowed by media attacks and political interference going back over many years, the official body for funding scholarly inquiry in social science, the Australian Research Council, has a marked tendency to support 'safe' projects, with no potential to expose or contest the ideological constructs commonly used for exerting and maintaining political control. Given the importance of winning research grants as a performance indicator for academics, this pattern exerts a chilling effect throughout the 'industry'. But academics – particularly, but not only, those who assess funding proposals – now need to locate their backbone.
Where could they start? I reproduce, below, a proposal I submitted five years ago to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA), to hold a workshop at the University of Sydney. In terms of research funding, this is entry-level stuff: worth a measly few thousand dollars, and intended to spark further inquiry. That it did not even get to first base, but was instead rejected out of hand, shows how the academy has been part of the problem with regard to Islamophobia in Australia, not part of the solution. The proposal sets out some initial precepts for a public service Australia needed its academic research community to perform, in 2015. After Christchurch, the need is still more urgent.
The resurgence and exploitation of Islamophobia in Australian politics and media.
Summary of proposal
This workshop will enable scholars to exchange perspectives, with each other and with senior figures from the non-academic community, about the nature, extent and influence of Islamophobia in Australian political and media discourses, policy formation and dissemination. Outcomes will include plans for collaborative, multi-disciplinary research, using a framework based on the Runnymede Trust definition of Islamophobia. They will include recommendations for media reporting of conflicted political and social issues, and principles for informed community representations to media organisations; as well as recommendations to policy-makers seeking to build on principles of dialogue, nonviolence, equity and inclusiveness in the formation and dissemination of public policy.
Summary of proposal for public release
This workshop will consider how Islamophobia may influence – either overtly, or in implicit form – the ways in which political views are exchanged, and social affairs reported, in Australia. It will produce a plan for research, and recommendations for journalists, community groups and policy-makers who wish to counter this influence, for the sake of equity and inclusiveness in the Australian community.
This workshop will examine the social and rhetorical construction of Islamophobia as a mediated form of political control in Australia. Islamophobia is defined by Zuquete as "a widespread mindset and fear-laden discourse in which people make blanket judgments of Islam as the enemy, as the 'other,' as a dangerous and unchanged, monolithic bloc that is the natural subject of well-deserved hostility from Westerners".
When it is discussed in the Australian public sphere, Islamophobia is often dismissed using a reductive behaviourist analysis: demanding evidence of its existence in the intentional, literal words and deeds of identified actors, who can be written off as 'ignorant' and therefore aberrant in the context of a "big-hearted country". However, Islamophobia is conceptualised in recent scholarship as diffuse and therefore insidious: a discourse that is activated by invoking fears and resentments through a series of much more subtle signals, implicit in public texts including, notably, political speeches and news journalism, and exerting generative force on levels other than that of manifest content. "Rather than understanding Islamophobia as a series of actions and beliefs that target Muslims and arise from a general misunderstanding of… Islam", Stephen Sheehi urges a view of Islamophobia as "an ideological phenomenon which exists to promote political and economic goals".
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