Harmony and religious freedom in anxious times

Tim Soutphommasane
Dr Tim Soutphommasane Race Discrimination Commissioner Australian Human Rights Commission

These are difficult times. Community anxiety about the threat of terrorism is understandably high. There have been counter-terror raids in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. A teenager, suspected of possible extremism, was shot dead in suburban Melbourne after attacking police. We have seen propaganda videos for ISIL featuring young Australian militants.

At the same time, there has been an increase in hate attacks against Muslim Australians. Victoria Police have arrested a woman who allegedly attacked a Muslim woman on a Melbourne train – in this case, bashing her head into the wall of the carriage and then pushing her off the train as it rolled into a station.[1] Then there is the abuse of Muslims on streets, at parks and in shops. There have been other instances of violent threats made against Muslims – including to religious leaders.

There is every reason for us to be concerned.  Muslim Australians are entitled to enjoy their basic freedoms. All Australians, whatever their religion, race or ethnicity, should be able to live their lives with an assurance they will be safe; with an assurance that they will be treated fairly as equals.

In a multicultural Australia, an attack on any community is an attack on the whole community. And an attack on any one faith is an attack on all faiths. We must not let fear and hate prevail.

It is disappointing that some of our elected representatives have been appealing to division. Consider the interim ruling by parliament’s presiding officers to ban the wearing of face coverings in the building’s public galleries. This followed a debate, in which links were drawn between the wearing of the burqa, national security and the introduction of sharia law. As is so often the case at times of community anxiety, different concerns can be joined. There can be more confusion than clarity.

It is welcome that the decision to segregate wearers of the burqa has since been overturned. The ruling would have introduced a form  of religious segregation to our parliament. No member of society, though, should be treated like a second-class citizen.

The decision was also odd because the burqa is not commonplace in Australia. Some Muslim women do wear the hijab or headscarf. Some Muslim women wear the niqab – a veil that covers a woman, leaving only a small opening for the eyes. Yet it is extremely rare to see someone wearing the burqa: a full veil covering the head and body, which has a grill that conceals the eyes. Whether the advocates have confused the burqa with the niqab, or even with the hijab, is perhaps unclear.

Also odd is the suggestion that the burqa represents a threat to safety in parliament. Those who have visited parliament will know that entry requires a person to pass through a security check: people must pass through a metal detector and subject their personal items to an x-ray examination. If someone wearing a burqa or niqab required a second look, or if there was a need to confirm identification, you would think that security could check this without too much drama, and with a bit of common sense. I have not to date come across any expert opinion or analysis indicating that the burqa represents an additional, special security threat.

The debate about banning the burqa has been a dangerous diversion at an extremely testing time.

We should be in no doubt that the challenge of combating radicalism is significant. Terrorist organisations such as ISIL have become more adept at using the global media to spread their messages of hate. They are using social media, in particular, as a tool of recruitment in Western countries – targeting those who are socially isolated and marginalised. While there is no perfect defence against radicalisation, we must do all we can to prevent extremism getting a foothold in Australia.

One message in particular must get through: Let's not judge entire communities by the actions of extremist minorities. Muslim Australians are entitled to a fair go. They are entitled to be treated decently as equal members of our society. The vast majority are law-abiding citizens who are committed to this country, who are proud to be Australians.

Harmony is never organic. It is always the result of effort. Right now, there is a special premium on harmony. Our security and stability depend on it. But we must all continually work to ensure that our lives together involve a culture of encounter. We must all be humble enough to take the risk of dialogue. And we must all be humble enough to recognise that we can all do better.


This is an adapted extract of a speech given by Dr Tim Soutphommasane to the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference – National Conference on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees at the Australian Catholic University (Sydney) on 2 October 2014.

[1] N Bucci, ‘Woman’s head bashed in racial attack on train’, The Age, 29 September 2014 at http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/womans-head-bashed-in-racial-attack-on-train-20140929-10nh5a.html (viewed 1 October 2014); ‘Woman assaulted, racially abused at Batman train station in Melbourne’s north’, ABC News, 29 September 2014 at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-29/woman-assaulted-racially-abused-at-batman-train-station/5776684 (viewed 1 October 2014).


About Dr Tim Soutphommasane

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Race Discrimination Commissioner and commenced his five-year appointment in August 2013. Prior to joining the Australian Human Rights Commission, he was a political philosopher at the University of Sydney. His thinking on multiculturalism and national identity has been influential in reshaping debates in Australia and Britain.

For those interested in the correct pronunciation of Dr Soutphommasane’s surname, the phonetic spelling of it is Soot-pom-ma-sarn.

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