The Deafening Silence Around Amanda Vanstone’s Anti-Islam Rhetoric



As Australian leaders weighed into the debate on Islamophobia in the wake of the Christchurch attacks, Dr Susie Latham was struck mainstream hate-speech has become, and how exposed Muslim Australians are.

I have more reason than most to be favourably disposed towards Amanda Vanstone. In 2004, when she was immigration minister, she exercised her personal power to grant my husband, a Muslim asylum seeker, the visa that allowed him to remain in Australia.

But last week, when she argued that it’s reasonable for (presumably non-Muslim) Australians to be concerned about Muslim immigration, she lost me. In words that echoed Pauline Hanson’s 2016 first speech to Parliament, Vanstone said, “The problem we all face is the not knowing who is and who is not a terrorist.”

It’s an extraordinary intervention just weeks after 50 Muslims were massacred in Christchurch. So first let’s get a few facts straight.

In western countries, Muslims are just as likely as anyone else to be killed in a terrorist attack. Muslims died in 9/11, Madrid, London and Paris. In Nice, over one third of the 84 people ‘mowed down by a truck’ were Muslims aged between four and 70 years old.

As Susan Carland has so eloquently outlined, Australian Muslim leaders have repeatedly condemned terrorism committed by Muslims, but the myth that they refuse to, repeated by Vanstone, persists.

Many Australians are worried about being victims of ‘Islamic’ terrorism, but this fear is vastly disproportionateto the actual risk. The so-called Islamic State created some of this fear – that was their aim, after all. But they had some help. As Jacinda Arden has shown the world, political leadership matters. Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott repeatedly declaring things like ‘the Daesh death cult is…coming after us’ heightened this fear for political purposes.

Right-wing terrorism is a serious problem. The Christchurch killer was inspired by Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 mostly young left-wing activists at a summer camp in Norway in 2011 because of what he saw as their softness on Muslim immigration. Since 2014, right-wing terrorists have carried out more attacks in the US than ‘Islamist’ terrorists.

Almost every Muslim involved in a terrorist act has been known to authorities, some because other Muslims have reported concerns about them. But as is generally being acknowledged in the wake of Christchurch, law enforcement, researchers and politicians have not paid enough attention to the rising threat of right-wing terrorism.

Now let’s talk about what saying ‘Muslims are dangerous and you’re right to be scared of them’ means for ordinary Muslims two weeks after a massacre. The argument that it’s reasonable to question allowing Muslims into Australia leads very quickly to more. Especially, how do ‘we’ protect ourselves from the Muslims already here?

Mainstream politicians and media figures across the western world have come up with solutions – paying Muslim immigrants to leave, mass deportations and internments. Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant took it one step further.

I’ve been researching and organising against Islamophobia for almost a decade. Despite attending academic conferences and political meetings, working with Muslim organisations, and socialising with Muslims regularly for years, I have never heard a single Muslim claim ‘that Islam must be at war with Christianity’. I’ve never heard anyone feel they have to avenge ‘the European repulsion of the Ottomans’. I don’t know what claptrap Vanstone is reading. But I do know this.

It’s actually Muslims who have the most to fear from terrorism in Australia at the moment. Not only are they the potential targets of Muslim extremists and the more likely targets of right-wingers, they also continue to be subjected to the stereotypes which have made them one of the most marginalised groups in the country.

Fifteen years ago Amanda Vanstone used her power to allow me to create my gorgeous family. On Monday, when she echoed the words of Trump, Hanson and Sonia Kruger, words NCAT recently ruled encouraged ‘hatred towards, or serious contempt for, Australian Muslims by ordinary members of the Australian population,’ and there was barely a ripple of dissent, let alone outrage, she demonstrated how far the window of acceptable public debate in Australia has shifted.

Fraser Anning, who thinks One Nation is too left, is the new, low, benchmark.

Vanstone’s column, and the non-reaction to it, has crushed the small hope I’d held that the tragedy of Christchurch might give people pause to think about the damage such words can do. Because of their potential consequences, it’s illegal to incite hatred against people based on their race. Muslims aren’t protected from them, because as those promoting anti-Muslim hate constantly assert, Islam is a religion, not a race.

But if Christchurch has taught us anything, it is that this makes Muslims more, not less vulnerable to the consequences of hate speech.


Dr Susie Latham is an Adjunct postdoctoral fellow at Curtin University and the co-founder of Voices against Bigotry. Susie has written on Islamophobia in academic journals and mainstream media outlets including The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and Crikey, and is also the co-author of Human Rights Overboard: Seeking asylum in Australia, which won the Australian Human Rights Commission award for non-fiction in 2008.