Melbourne ~ Wednesday July 20, 2011
Burqa rally is about stoking fear not promoting security
by Helen Szoke
A rally calling on Victorians to support a ban on the wearing of burqas has the potential to light a fuse that we might find very hard to extinguish.
Rallies like the one held on Monday – and our willingness to let such opinions drown out the broad range of views that truly exist in our community – unwittingly send a message that reviling difference is OK.
What starts as a genuine expression of a viewpoint by a single person can, when fuelled by hysteria and given oxygen by media coverage, very easily ignite into fear, loathing and in the worst cases, acts of violence. Just look at what happened in Cronulla in 2005.
The purported rationale for the rally is that the burqa poses a threat to security, and to law and order. That's a deft, but unconvincing, effort to conceal a more serious issue.
Clearly, this is all about race. It's about difference, and it's about fear. To put any other face on the intent behind the rally is disingenuous, at best.
Even when cloaked in the guise of concern for security, words and actions that single out particular racial and religious groups in our community exclude and diminish them and create fear.
I am not so naive as to imagine that racism is a thing of the past. Clearly, racist beliefs persist in pockets of society – and they are, I believe, rooted in fear. It's the fear of what is different, of the other, of what isn't familiar, and of what we can't understand. And human fear may, in the end, prove impossible to eradicate.
But the hateful words and actions that arise from fear can, and should, be doused.
We have come a long way towards combating racism and Victoria enjoys an enviable record of racial acceptance. Now we need to reflect again and, as a diverse and tolerant society, identify racist beliefs and behaviours and declare them intolerable.
This is not about dampening freedom of expression. It is about not tolerating activities that provoke hatred and threaten the rights of individuals and groups to live safely among us.
Victorian laws prohibit vilification and derive directly from our own values: as Victorians, we often publicly declaim the right of everyone to a fair go. We, rightly, declare that we expect respectful behaviour from everyone in the community, from our politicians, to workers and schoolchildren.
I would go one step further. I would say that everyone of us has a right to go about their daily lives in safety, without fear and without violence. And that is under threat.
By not publicly condemning this rally, we open the door to a very small but very real racist element of our society who think they have the right to hate, abuse and even physically assault people because they express their religion through their clothing.
It is terrifying to think that something worn as a mark of religious observance – whether it be a burqa, a yarmulke or a crucifix – has the potential to mark its wearer as a legitimate target of hate or violence.
But without vigilance, that may be where we're headed.
Dr Helen Szoke is commissioner of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.