• Podsoc #79

Voices against bigotry:

In conversation with Susie Latham

[Transcript available in the tab below]

Islamophobia, a growing problem in Australia and around the world, has become a political football. Susie Latham talks about Voices against Bigotry and what we might do about this problem.

Susie Latham trained as a social worker and is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University. She has a history of activism in the trade union movement and against Australia’s refugee policies. She is co-author of Human rights overboard: seeking asylum in Australia, (with fellow social workers Linda Briskman and Chris Goddard) which won the Australian Human Rights Commission award for non-fiction in 2008. She recently founded Voices against Bigotry, a network to organise against Islamophobia, with Linda Briskman.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2015, August 5). Voices against bigotry: In conversation with Susie Latham [Episode 79]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/voices-against-bigotry/.

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Transcription Podsocs 79: Voices against Bigotry with Susie Latham

Thank you to Rachel Rodhe for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
This morning on Podsocs we’ve got Susie Latham who’s a social worker and human rights advocate.

Trish: Welcome to Podsocs Susie

Susie: Thanks very much Patricia

Trish: Now this morning we are going to talk about Voices against Bigotry, but let’s start and I’ll ask you to tell us a bit about you and your work

Susie: OK. Look I’ve trained as a social worker, I’ve never actually worked as a social worker, I’ve worked in a variety of health, and worked as a migration agent as a volunteer for a while and I got involved in the refugee advocacy movement about 12 or 15 years ago and that’s where I met my fellow social worker colleague, Linda Briskman, who I’ve started this group with so Its called Voices against Bigotry and its basically been formed because we’re concerned about the increasingly Islamophobic atmosphere in Australia.

Trish: So what have you noticed? Has it been escalating in the last few years, or what’s been the trajectory.

Susie: Look I think that most Muslim people that I’ve spoken to a lot of people feel that Islamophobia is worse then its ever been before and I think that’s quite extraordinary when you think about September 11, the Cronulla riots, the Bali bombings and so on. There was the Sydney siege in October last year, but after that really people I think reacted overwhelmingly by coming together and there wasn’t a huge backlash I don’t think about the Muslim community, but what we’ve seen in the last 6 months I think is a marked increase in that atmosphere.

Trish: After the twin towers went down, I certainly noticed that women disappeared off the street, Muslim women and it took about 6 months and then I started to see them again because I lived in a multicultural area at the time. But certainly, what we are seeing in the media being in incidents being reported certainly does seem to have increased dramatically in the last period of time.

Susie: Yeah, I think there’s obviously instances which we’ve seen for example on public transport where individuals have been attacked. There’s a lot more incidents which obviously aren’t so dramatic but can still be personally devastating for people. On our website we’ve got some examples where, for example, somebody has sent offensive letters denigrating Muslims just to households that have Muslim names, so they were received by a 90 year old man, a couple in their 80’s, a community activist, addressed to them and at their home address so obviously people get extremely frightened from that sought of thing. Things like people just being in their workplace, there was a man who was a halal butcher, and someone came in and asked for pork and then when he said they didn’t sell pork made a great big hoo haa in the whole shopping centre which he found incredibly devastating. Other things like someone just in the supermarket browsing and someone just abused her for wearing hijab. So there’s a lot of more low level less public things that make people feel frightened, but not just that even if no specific thing has been targeted at Muslims individually I think the whole political discourse has become very hostile to Muslims and people certainly aware of that.

Trish: We certainly need leadership from our politicians to address the issue but unfortunately it seems like there aiming at support from the lowest common denominator, those few Australians that are explicitly racist and sought of it gives them permission doesn’t it to act in that way.

Susie: Yeah absolutely and I think what we’ve seen this year from the Abbott government and I think its not really a coincidence that this was at a time when they really, really were unpopular and on the nose that this obviously co-ordinated kind of attack came out and you had, I mean earlier we’ve had George Brandis saying its OK, people have the right to be bigots, we’ve had the government trying to overturn the racial discrimination act, parts of it. We’ve had a burqa ban in parliament house, even though I don’t think any burqa wearing women had ever set foot in the door. We’ve had Tony Abbott talking about death cults every possible opportunity. We’ve had Cory Barnardi setting up an inquiry into halal food and also a National’s member of party, member of the government addressing a reclaim Australia rally. So, all those things together actually make people who hold these attitudes feel completely legitimate. I think.

Trish: It just astounds me that you know we do let people into the country who are promoting racism and extremism against groups of people.

Susie: So, you’re talking about, for example, Gert Wilders?

Trish: Yes that’s right.

Susie: I mean I just want to say back on that thing about the Abbott government that the other thing we’ve seen is that the opposition completely silent. They don’t want to stand up and I think its like you said because of the lowest common denominator because their scared that they’ll been seen as soft on security or something like that so their silence has also helped this atmosphere to flourish. But um in terms of yeah this, there’s a new political party, an anti-muslim political party launching in October and that was really the sort of final straw for Linda and I in organising this little network that we’ve got and yeah the guy who’s coming to launch that is Gert Wilders who’s an extremist politician from the Netherlands, so and yeah he’s makes outrageous statements about Muslims but I’m sure he’ll be granted a visa to come and stir up some more hatred.

Trish: Tell us a bit about that group.

Susie: Well it’s come out of it there’s a group called the Q Society that’s been organising in Australia for about 4 years against Muslims and Islam. So, they’ve been instrumental in, for example, getting the Halal inquiry up, they’ve been active against the mosques being built in particular areas, so I know in Bendigo they were went into there and try advise a few people on how to stop a mosque being built. And they have slowly built up their connections and I think this is the worrying thing about them. They can’t be written off as easily as say Pauline Hansen’s one Nation Party or reclaim Australia as a sought of very fringe group. They have really strong connections and they appeal to a higher level of voter I guess. Like they will say at their meetings things like you know if anyone’s come here to hate you know step outside now because were not about hate, but then proceed to denigrate you know a religion , which religions don’t exist in abstraction from human beings so all their slandering of the religion of course ends up having consequences for the human beings who practice that.

Trish: So, its organised and strategic and planned and systematic in its approach?

Susie: Yeah their quite sophisticated. Um their well-financed, their well-connected so they all they have their part of a group called Stop Islamization of Nations which encompasses anti-Muslim activists from the US from Europe from the UK and they also have this connection with Gert Wilders who really helped them, he’s mentored them to create a political party and the worrying thing is that these activists in the US are extremely influential across Europe there’s a whole range of countries where these anti-Muslim parties initially are kind of seen as a laughing stock or whatever but in the end they are commanding in the 20% range of the vote, so it’s quite serious.

Trish: So we shouldn’t underestimate that influence and um my understanding is their targeting young people as well.

Susie: Look they, they don’t have any, their targeting anyone that they can basically so, yeah that’s the problem that they, I mean I think for people who hold negative sentiments towards Muslims and there have been studies done that show that’s almost half the population holds some negative sentiments towards Muslims. They might not like to go to a reclaim Australia rally but if you go into a ballot box where no one can see you and you’ve got those sentiments and you know your annoyed with the major parties and its an attractive easy safe option and obviously the larger that vote is the more it emboldens bigots who might go out and physically and verbally attack, so it’s a sought of reinforced the circle.

Trish: I find it personally really scary because I haven’t seen things so bad certainly in western countries since mid-last century against the Jews and it’s so anyone who’s done any history can see the parallels and I know that is often put down, anyone who draws parallels to Nazi Germany, for example, but it’s the same pattern and its terribly, terribly frightening. We might not be building extermination camps, but we have camps and the Islamophobia is bad.

Susie: Look I think you know the closest I mean some people will say oh it’s not racism because Islam is a religion not a race, but I think obviously the closest parallel is antisemitism and we can see how dangerous that was, but I think that when you think about and a lot of people will also say well all these groups have been through this in Australia. It was the Italians it was the Greeks it was the Vietnamese and so on its now just the Muslims turn, I think that it’s a real measure of how deeply this anti-Muslim sentiment is held. It’s held right across the political spectrum as well, for example, like some left wingers will say well, for example Islam oppresses women or something like this and use that as a justification for their, their sort of racist attitudes. So there’s all these stereotypes, there’s all these caricatures which are used to justify and I find like even talking to people who are involved in civic society who are anti-racist who are good people they don’t always equate Islamophobia the same way. They don’t quite get it and I think that shows really how deep the hostility goes.

Trish: Mm and its centuries really of misunderstandings.

Susie: Yeah

Trish: mmm

Susie: Yeah

Trish: So why are politicians so frightened? Is it they really think that those studies that show 50% of people have adverse feelings and therefore they assume that they’re going to support everything they do and it’s a vote situation or is it their own ignorance, or where do you think this is coming from?

Susie: Look I think this is probably a combination, that they probably have some sought of anti-Muslim sentiments themselves. In 2011, Scott Morrison told it was then the opposition Abbott government or Abbott opposition whoever it was, but he basically suggested that the one thing that they could concentrate on was exploiting the anti-Muslim sentiment in the community and I think look this anti-Muslim sentiment isn’t accidental. There are a lot of people who particularly since September 11 who have spent their, their lives basically trying to build anti-Muslim sentiment and that’s across the globe and as I said that is bearing fruit in many, many places. So, politicians can see that that is something that has some hold and I think it’s very clear that earlier this year and in the last few months that the government has consciously decided to jump on this bandwagon because they are in trouble. So, I think it’s a combination.

Trish: It makes for a good distraction.

Susie: Absolutely and there’s been, and I mean I think the thing is that they have kind of gone a bit too far because it was, there’s been a whole range of commentators and we’ve got some stuff on that on our website. Where we’re even more conservative people have said just hang on a minute you are carrying it a bit far with this death cult kind of rhetoric and that it is used as a distraction from the economy and other difficulties.

Trish: Mm and, and it is really blatantly obvious that when anything happens that is really about a person who has their own issues whether it be a siege or whatever it is, if it’s a white Australian its reported as it is. The minute it is not a white Australian and someone who is Muslim that its reported differently and a whole heap of labels such as terrorism is attached to that.

Susie: Yep, yeah, I think that’s right. I mean it seemed pretty clear to me that the Monis siege in Sydney was a very disturbed individual and members of the Muslim community had been reporting him to police for years. And nothing was done about him and yet its yeah, its sort of seen as a terrorist attack, which again its sought of something where Muslims are constantly feeling that they have to justify any sought of craziness or political extremism, but the same thing doesn’t happen with the extremism that’s coming from the um

Trish: Other side, yeah the right extreme right

Susie: Yeah

Trish: And I mean we certainly have heard in the media very well over the last week or so about racism towards the I’m using racism and discrimination interchangeably here but with the footballer Goode, how people have spoken out about the impact of racism that constant daily barrage that people do have to deal with and the impact it has on people.

Susie: Yeah that’s right and I think there are parallels there again I mean, how far into this whole saga did it have to be before the government said the most wishy washy thing it could have said, the opposition again sought of forced into it at the last minute basically out of embarrassment because so many ordinary people, community leaders and so on had just said well look we need to stand up and tackle this and again you know you’ve had from the government rhetoric about Aboriginal people having lifestyle choices so they need to have their traditional communities closed and so on, so yeah and I think though that the Adam Goodes situation I think the good things it did is it, it identified people who were racist who were getting up and saying that you know he should apologise. The most ridiculous example I heard and this shows how different sought of racisms and discriminations are linked is that he should be deported for goodness sake and um yeah but I think the good thing it did is that a lot of people don’t agree with the things that are going on but they don’t say anything and Adam Goodes I think there was a line in the sand that a whole heap of people thought look, we have to say something we are getting up and saying it and I think that that has really done, it’s the most effective way to tackle racism and that’s what were really trying to get people to do with Islamophobia. Not Muslims, its not up to Muslims to deal with this, this is a problem with non-Muslims and we need to stand up and call out the people and the whole atmosphere and say we don’t find it acceptable.

Trish: And the conversations around, and there’s some wonderful conversations around radicalising youth and what’s happening there, but what is, what I really noticed is there’s very little conversation around exclusion of youth, and how youth don’t feel part of our communities and that’s really in where it starts as far as I’m concerned, or from my point of view. What do you think about that?

Susie: Look I think people who are made to feel that they don’t belong I think that does contribute to radicalisation. That doesn’t mean that you know, that anyone has the potential to be radicalised.

Trish: No that’s right.

Susie: I think that um there needs to be a whole heap of factors and a lot of the people who have ended up being radicalised are not even people who are Muslims overseas that they’ve been spoken to on the internet and virtually bullied into getting involved. But I think that um it is a problem and we should find it a huge problem if people who are born here which the biggest group in terms of the Muslim population, the biggest country of birth is Australia. If they are made to feel that they don’t belong here, I mean that’s just something that we don’t want to have anyone feel. We don’t want people to be scared to wear what they want or to go outside and I think it is something it concerns me a lot yeah.

Trish: Ah Suzie what can we do ? because I really don’t believe the majority of Australians want to be perceived as anti-Islam even thought they might be ignorant about some factors or even fearful about some factors, so how do we raise awareness? How do we change this? How do we pressure the governments and media about the way these issues are often talked about which actually are very big players in promoting these attitudes?

Susie: Yeah. Look I think the thing is that um people who are not sure about Islam if they’ve got any questions, look I mean one of the things is that , Muslim community, the organised Muslim community and I guess there’s differences like most Muslims do not go to the mosque they are not involved in any you know society. They just live their lives. They go to work. They come home. The kids go to school they play soccer or netball or whatever, but there are the Muslim community organisations, mosques and so on, there is a lot of them that have had open days, they’ve had you know if you’re interested in, if you want to find out more, in Melbourne there’s the Islamic museum which is beautiful and it’s got a lot of information and obviously they’ve got a website, so there’s a lot of things that you can do to find out if your truly curious but, if people, people don’t like the idea that some people are being victimised and are fearful because of their religion then I think what we need to do is we need to make our voices heard, so you can get a lot of information at our website which is www.voicesagainstbigotry.org and what um what we’re asking people to do is first of all endorse our statement against Islamophobia and the use of it for political ends as we’ve been talking about and to share that with as many people as possible, so were trying to really spread the word. People can also sign up for our email list and we will then keep them in contact with what’s going on, so we want to act as a sought of coordinating network um and then of course there’s things that people can do if you see something that you don’t like, a newspaper report or a comment by a politician or even observe something or hear something from someone um you can write a letter to the newspaper you can call talk back radio. You can um in particular areas people might take actions if there was an incident in their local area. So were just basically saying look we need to speak up, we can see that things are going on and especially as social workers were looking at social justice and the right for people to live life without, I mean everyone as we know has there own personal issues and problems and people don’t need this sought of stuff on top of it and we feel that social workers and all people who are interested in social justice just have an obligation to call out the extremism that’s in our sort of community.

Trish:And it does have an impact, I mean if we, even when you look at the Ride with Me phenomenon, these little things do count and do add up and do have an influence.
Susie: Yeah that’s right and I mean I think you know again going back to the Adam Goodes example, he was feeling victimised and I think the thing is because there were not a lot of people speaking up. When people are victimised and others don’t speak up, the people who are victimised can just assume that everyone agrees with them and it can make you know, make you feel much more worse and more isolated. So it doesn’t stop the fact that there are racists and bigots but when other people get up and say Look I don’t agree with that, your not speaking for me, that’s wrong you shouldn’t be saying it, it makes the persons who’s been victimised feel supported, feel validated and like I said were never going to get rid of the actual racism and bigots. Like some people are just going to be like that but what we can do to support the victim is actually to, to stand up and say that we don’t support that.

Trish: And Muslims are not new to Australia, they count amongst the early settlers I mean that’s how we got camels in central Australia, so I mean their people like everybody else and no different.

Susie: That’s right.

Trish: They might dress differently, they might have a different religion or different habits but that’s what Australia’s made of, so we need to really, really take action, we can’t be complacent about this.

Susie: Yeah and I mean I think a lot of people don’t realise there’s a lot of Muslims, who you would never know a Muslim, who don’t look Muslim, who don’t wear a headscarf who you know look completely Anglo or whatever and I think that um yeah there’s stereotypes there about the Muslim community but it’s not just the people you know who are really involved in Muslim communities there’s a whole lot of people and also people who married Muslims, who are related, who’ve got friends and neighbours and workmates, your defending a whole lot of people when you get into this sought of victimisation.

Trish: And I will mention Suzie, you and Lynda consulted with the community about this website, didn’t you? And, and this group.

Susie: Yeah we spoke yeah we did speak to members of the Muslim community and um they were supportive of the idea because they like one women said to us, look I just feel like, I’ve got tears in my eyes because I feel like sometimes you feel like that your carrying this burden all alone and like you know thank you so much for the support and so on, quite passionate about it.

Trish: And I think social workers are, but I think let’s translate it into action, lets get behind the website and, and do what we can. Because I think this really is dangerous, dangerous, territory.

Susie: Yeah and as I said it’s an issue that’s not just in Australia, its global and the one thing that was interesting is we spoke to a man, from American academic from America called John Esposito who’s an expert on Islam and we asked him before, because before we set up this website some people said to us oh you’ll just give them publicity and so on, so we were hesitant and then we asked him what he thought and he said look in America these groups get the spotlight and they are going to get the spotlight and if no one speaks up against them they just get it all to themselves. So, you know you need to get people to stand up and speak out.

Trish:And when these groups don’t tell the truth you know that people get caught up in it without realising what it really is about. Final words Suzie, I mean its such a huge topic and we barely, we, we have no chance in covering it in any depth in this time, but is there anything really important you’d like to say before we close?
Susie: Look all I’d like to say basically is that the, the general atmosphere, the it, it has consequences , it has consequences for real people that are hurtful and as I said I do think it’s quite parallel with the Adam Goodes situation where its really hurtful, it can devastate people and the thing that makes people feel better is when other people speak up and I think if you substitute Islam for Jews or Aboriginal people or Asians when you hear some of this discourse, you’ll realise that basically things are said about Muslims today that are completely unacceptable if there being said about any other group. So I’d encourage everyone please to go to our website www.voicesagainstbigotry.org and sign up, keep in touch and let us know what your doing. We’ll let you know what we’re doing, what other people are doing and just be organised, because these people who have created this situation are organised and if we’re going to ameliorate their effect we need to be organised too.

Trish: Thankyou so much Suzie, and I’m going to, I’ll, I’ll put that link up on our website, so people can get to it easily, but a simple google search will also find it, Voices against Bigotry, thank you so much for talking to us today Suzie.

Suzie: Your welcome Thankyou

Trish: Bye Bye

Suzie: Ok. Bye Bye

[Musical outro begins 28.09 to END]
Interview ENDS: 28.41