SHAFAQNA – Multicultural Melbourne might win plaudits as Australia’s most tolerant city, but social campaigners warn comforting statistics can obscure the personal damage from anti-Muslim sentiment and other bigotry.
Saara Sabbagh, director of Benevolence Australia, a prominent Muslim charity, told a forum hosted by Darebin city council in Preston the hatred preached by far-right groups was frightening.
Women walking on suburban streets felt especially vulnerable.
Victorian Multicultural Affairs minister Robin Scott told the forum it was important not to empower people who trade on fear because their position is weak.
Ms Sabbagh said her organisation counselled Muslim women just to “smile back and take it” in response to any verbal abuse, and not create a confrontation, but make a report to police.
She said there were undoubted problems with extremist recruitment within the Muslim community, but Attorney General George Brandis’ comment last year “people do have a right to be bigots” and the language of former prime minister Tony Abbott had fuelled a sense of isolation in the Muslim community.
She said the switch to Malcolm Turnbull had led to a change of tone, but it was more important for Australians to meet Muslims and learn about the religion.
Darebin councillor Gaetano Greco said the forum was a chance to send a message of social harmony.
Forum organiser Susie Latham from the group Voices Against Bigotry said she was concerned the rise of racist sentiment that had always been on the fringes was moving to the mainstream.