First they came for Muslim women

Students speak out against racism and Islamophobia at UTS. Photo: Peter Boyle/Green Left Weekly.

Just two weeks ago, four young Muslim women wearing hijabs were assaulted right in front of the University of Technology Sydney at about 1.30pm. They were punched, one after another, by a woman they had not spoken to or interacted with in any way.

One of the women, a young student at UTS, and a recent migrant, was punched in the face and fell to the ground bleeding. A staff member who witnessed the assaults rushed to her assistance and photographed the alleged assailant.

Police later arrested a 38-year-old journalism student and charged her with assault. The media reported that this person’s Facebook page was full of right-wing and anti-Muslim posts.

This shocking incident follows reports of increasingly common far-right and racist propaganda being distributed on several university campuses around Australia.

According to recent academic studies, Muslims in Australia are now three times as discriminated against as any other section of the population and the number of reports of abuse and assault of Muslim people are rising.

Mariam Veiszadeh, founder of the Islamophobia Register, told the UTS student newspaper Vertigo that most victims of attacks on Muslims were women. UTS students and staff have organised a protest rally on May 23.

Many people have been shocked at these recent racist and anti-Muslim incidents on university campuses. But we should not be surprised: Australia has been undergoing a government-legitimised campaign of scapegoating of refugees and recent migrants, especially those from the Middle East.

Influential sections of the corporate media — especially the Murdoch tabloids and right-wing radio shock jocks — have whipped up fear and hysteria around the painting of all Muslims as “potential terrorists”.

Labor and Liberal governments alike have kept asylum seekers in indefinite detention in horrific concentration camps in Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

Politicians of both major parties have shamelessly played the race card over and over again and even the trade union movement is guilty of playing on racist prejudices in their campaigns against the increasing use by bosses of workers on temporary work visas.

The shocking racist assaults we are now seeing on streets, on public transport, in shopping malls, workplaces and in schools and universities are the inevitable by-products of systemic racism implemented through government policy, by the media and other significant institutions. Unless this systemic racism is completely opposed and dismantled, violent and abusive incidents like those against the four Muslim women at UTS will grow.

The famous warning by Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who was put in a concentration camp by the Nazis in 1937, can be fittingly paraphrased to fit today’s ugly situation in Australia: First they came for the Muslim women and the refugees and I did not speak out because I was not a Muslim woman or a refugee ... Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.