Muslims Down Under spoke with Rita Jabri Markwell, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Networks legal, policy, and strategic advisor. This is a national body working to secure the physical and psychological safety of Australian Muslims through research and policy development. Rita directs its research work and supports a team of law interns, volunteers, and research associates. She is a solicitor by profession, has a history of service in public policy, and advocacy, and has also served in the Australian Parliament.
This is an abridged transcript from portions of this podcast.
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Bushra: Welcome to the Muslims Down Under podcast. In our current series, we’ve been discussing topics related to social justice and we’ve had a number of wonderful guests who have been sharing their knowledge with us and giving us practical advice on how to play our part in ensuring we act with justice within our societies. In today’s episode, we also have another wonderful guest, Rita Jabri Markwell.
Rita is the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network’s legal policy and strategic advisor. This is a national body working to secure the physical and psychological safety of Australian Muslims through research and policy development. Rita directs its research work and supports a team of law interns, volunteers, and research associates. She’s a solicitor by profession and has a history of service in public policy advocacy and in the Australian Parliament. So, thank you so much for joining us today Rita, and welcome to our podcast.
Rita: It’s a pleasure Alhamdulillah.
Bushra: So, research, as I’m sure you would know, can shape policy and the way public debate actually happens within our societies, and I think it’s vital that we ask questions that are relevant to inform future policy that enables change within our societies. So, in this episode, I wanted to discuss the value and understanding of multiculturalism within society and specifically focus on the aspects of social justice that explain why discrimination tends to shape the concepts or ideologies that develop within society.
And you know, as you would be aware, there are many national-level surveys conducted that aim to provide evidence for Australia’s levels of things like cohesion and multiculturalism, to show that things are improving. However, I think unfortunately many people still experience racism and discrimination even today, and the reasons can be multifaceted, but I think many people still experience this. Maybe this is because those who aren’t given a voice or are too maybe reluctant to share their experiences. So do you think Australia truly enables multiculturalism or do we just enjoy having you know multicultural ideas? Do we really embrace this diversity and truly appreciate it and benefit from it?
Rita: Look, that’s a great question and just before I start I’d like to acknowledge that I’m speaking to you from the lands of the Jagera people here in Meanjin or Brisbane, and just to add Assalamu Alaikum, everybody. Yeah, so look, it’s a great question, although I think that, I’m sort of now at the point of asking the question, what do we do about it?
Because I think that the reality is that racism is real. It’s here. It’s not actually that we don’t really have any evidence that it’s improving or going away. It’s got a long history on this continent, with First Nations peoples the way they’ve been treated and continue to be treated.
For me now the question is in terms of just our survival and our enjoyment of life. You know, just being able to thrive and flourish on this planet. It’s really just to think about what we can do about it, in a way that gives us peace in our hearts and in our souls. What we’re doing something, but we’re also not suffering because we’re thinking about it so much, or we’re feeling sort of under the weight of it, if that makes sense. I know that I’ve just finished reading this great book by Chelsea Watego, ‘Another Day in the Colony’. She is a Brisbane-based writer, Doctor Watego actually also a health researcher and she addresses a black audience in that book, right? She speaks to other Aboriginal people and says, ‘OK, so we kind of had a lot of discussion about the reality, but OK, what’s next like in terms of how do we respond to it?’ And in her book, she talks about hope actually being a paralysing thing, and that we shouldn’t actually just spend our time having hope. Although she distinguishes that from faith in the sense that she says that, faith is different from hope, she prefers to go down this track of being quite nihilistic and saying ‘OK, this is the reality – what are we gonna do with it?’ We’re actually going to, every day, turn up and fight it in different ways. And we’re gonna do that because that act of fighting is not actually, its insistence she talks about insistence, like in terms of just insisting on who Aboriginal people are, and their identity, their culture, insisting on their values on their identity on their way of being, and in the face of a whole set of narratives, and in the face of a world that constantly pushes them the other way, and says that doesn’t have value. And it resonated a lot with me reading that book because I was thinking about how recently I was speaking to a group of young Muslims through ISRA, and the topic was ‘media’ and what do we do about narratives. About being Muslim. And I was reflecting on them. And how they’ve grown up in the war of terror, they’ve only ever known that narrative, you know, for someone my age, I was twenty when that started, so I knew I knew a kind of a little bit of life before that.
But, once you’ve grown up in a narrative which has been so dominant for so long, how do you actually even extricate yourself from that? How do you imagine yourself in a different way without kind of having that pollute your mind constantly, like in terms of those narratives…
And I think the reality is, you know, this is a work in progress for me, but I don’t think we can ever sort of imagine being totally free from those narratives. I think we actually have to deal with the reality that those narratives are here. They are a constant source of oppression in our community. There’s work that we can do to deal with the systemic drivers of those, which is a lot of our work is, you know, around dealing with the law and the problems that are the heart of some of these systemic drivers, but I think in terms of our energy, now we need to really reflect on, well, what is the healthiest thing we can be doing right now as a community. As parents, you know what is the healthiest thing we can be doing to stand strong in our faith and our identity. And yet not be, you know, consumed or worried but still stand and keep moving forward and flourishing with our identity.
Bushra: Yeah, you have to for the most part be ready to acknowledge this negative narrative to then be able to change it. Our whole platform has been curated on this idea, this notion that we need to change the narrative in order to improve our society and make sure that no individual within society is having to experience injustice. But unfortunately, we do still come across individuals who hold those negative and discriminatory views unfortunately, so how do we find that balance between feeling included and accepted, while still respecting ourselves and valuing who we are, and our own identities, but also respecting others, with the understanding that assimilation is not the goal, it’s not the purpose of embracing things like multiculturalism in Australia. I think sometimes there is an imposition of narratives, I think people have this understanding that there’s only one narrative that is OK or that is accepted within society in Australia. And when we say things like changing the narrative or accepting our own identities doesn’t mean that we’re discounting anyone else’s identity or anyone else’s narratives. And you know for many of us it may be a constant challenge, trying to figure out where that balance lies between respecting yourself and your identity and trying to find that harmony with others. How do we do that?
Rita: Well for me. I think you know, obviously, Islam provides us with a beautiful framework for having good character, respecting ourselves, and respecting others. Also for, you know, responding to difficult situations and also to use reason, it encourages us to use reason as much as possible. I think generally the work that we’re doing is around educating our community and also other communities about the impact of dehumanisation as a particular problem. And the reason why we’re focusing on that is because we don’t believe that enough people in our community understand how much these narratives have impacted us and how we have internalised them, and how we pass it on to our kids, even just in small things, we say and do.
There is a narrative that has run for the last 20 years of Muslims being terrorists or Muslims being unwanted illegal boat people and criminals of some sort of variety. All of that has suggested that we lack human depth and that we don’t have our own stories. That we act en masse, that we sort of have this collective mindset as Muslims that we have these innately subhuman qualities of being violent or barbaric or savage or not caring for our children, and that we lack independent thought and reason.
And so a lot of these narratives have worked to dehumanise us to the broader public so that they will see a war against Muslims and the killing of Muslims to be more acceptable. And also to create a veil over this threat of terrorism which makes a threat much more terrifying when you don’t truly understand it and I think, years ago, the Australian Government, UK, and US, if they’d sat down with their people and said, OK, this is why Al Qaeda has come about, this is the history of Al Qaeda. The US has been funding them. You know we’ve been doing these different things and then, same with ISIS, this is how ISIS came about. We went to Iraq and we had an illegal war there. There was a vacuum. ISIS came out. You know, we explained the political and ideological realities of these outfits, the threat, the fear of this threat that this monstrous threat would actually subside. But when you refer to it as an Islamic or religiously motivated terrorism or Islamic threat, what it paints for people is this idea that any Muslim, my colleague, my classmate, any Muslim I don’t even don’t know if I’m passing in the street is a ticking time bomb and that that threat, that idea is so much more fear creating because it is so veiled, it’s so unclear what is the actual threat and that’s been very purposeful and deliberate in discourse over the past 20 years.
It’s also been, as I say, deeply dehumanising of us as people, and because we haven’t, I think, had enough discussion about how de-humanising it has been. We haven’t had the tools to kind of push back on some of those narratives when we’re talking with people and I find generally that the best way to push back is to appeal to people’s logic, and to their most universal basic principles about treating people the same way that you want to be treated.
This means that acknowledging every group is full of humans who do different things, have different stories, have different motives, have different needs, and are layered. Who you know have independent thoughts, who are able to reason. And if you are to the alternative reality of that group and say, well, no, they’re just massive, homogeneous and hostile robots, who have no human depths. Well, then that’s not fair, because you wouldn’t do that to your own group. Yeah, so it’s a way of also appealing to people to not be hypocritical and research has shown that appealing to people’s desire to not be hypocritical is actually quite effective. And yet for example, if you were to talk to people about hate speech, racism, white supremacy, if you talk to people who you might think are white supremacist or racist and you’re to use that language and even hate speech, it is highly contested as a term in those groups. It’s weaponised in those groups, and they believe that it’s weaponised to curtail their free speech in their reality. So what we humans work on, dehumanisation aims to disrupt this discourse at a much deeper level by saying, OK, essentially we are all humans. Here is a logic that you are going to find very hard to rebut unless you want to say that our community is not human. If we are going to get people to reflect on that and they, that’s where they’re going to land, well then I think that’s going to be quite a hard reality for some people to have to face. So we’ve found that dehumanisation as a framework is a little bit more successful at penetrating some of those seals, those barriers that people have.
Bushra: And you know I think for anyone listening, these kinds of goals might seem something that is kind of, maybe unachievable or something that is a bit difficult to do, but ultimately you know you mentioned what Islam teaches us, and Islam actually considers the diversity of people and nature as God’s creation, and so respecting that diversity, considering us as humans, just like everyone else, is actually a commandment of Islam, and His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he actually wrote a book called True Justice and Peace and he explains in that, that the root cause of the unrest in the world today that leads to things like racism and discrimination, it’s actually due to that lack of justice, fundamental justice at every level of society and only by recognising that I think, can we actually hope to establish true justice at every level, whether it’s individual, communal or even global peace as well, because you know to achieve justice means that we can achieve true harmony and that’s what is described in the Holy Quran and the teachings of Islam that is required to maintain social justice in all aspects of our lives as well, so it’s kind of, the work that your organisation is doing it’s very commendable and I do hope that it achieves these kind of goals and it’s good to see that there is a group of people who are actually actively trying to do something about this as well.
You mentioned just before that there’s no research or no evidence, I guess to show that Australia is actually a successful multicultural society, as we often hear in the media. Could you expand on that as well, you know we do see a lot of reports being released in terms of levels of cohesion and multiculturalism and how things are improving.
Rita: Yeah, so my comment was that there’s no evidence that racism itself is going away or reducing and I would say the social cohesion reports. You know, the Scanlon Foundation study has found exceptionally high rates of negative sentiment towards Muslims over successive reports. It’s been somewhere between 35 and 40% of participants having negative sentiment or distrust towards Muslims and what’s always shocked me looking at those reports is the reaction from the government and from people who are releasing the report where it’s like, Oh yeah, things are generally getting better, you know, look at these other statistics which show that attitudes towards immigration are slightly improving.
Well, you know there’s an elephant in the room. That’s an unacceptable statistic, and yet it’s much higher than any other faith group. Yeah, it’s exceptionally high. There’s no other faith group that comes close in terms of being a target of negative sentiment, and it’s been normalised because of the war.
This terminology of religiously motivated terrorism has conflated our religion with Islam with terrorism and it’s got to the point where there was some research released last year which found that media coverage on terrorism actually annihilated people’s ability to accept positive messages about Muslims. So a lot of efforts on anti-racism are undone every time there is more terrorism media coverage. It is just because terrorism media coverage is so intense, right? The imagery and the stories of ISIS are so visceral and so brutal that it is just, it sticks into people’s consciousness very deeply and that marriage with our religion has been socialised by not by us, not by Muslims. It’s not though Muslims are sitting around saying ISIS is religious or Muslim or Islamic. We deny that, we actually say, you can say they’re politically motivated, or they’re ideologically motivated. They’re not religiously motivated. It’s not the Quran that is teaching them to behave like this. Yet the law in this country and the official speech in this country is to refer to them as religiously motivated because our law makes a distinction between religious and ideological terrorism. And a lot of AMANs work Insha’Allah, we are going to really push more and more spotlight onto this particular problem. We believe that it’s probably the most powerful, singularly most powerful problem for us as a community and for Australian Society.
Really, if 20 years ago, the Australian Government followed the UK with this law, a decision would have been made 20 years ago to refer to Al Qaeda as ideologically motivated. And then ISIS, as ideologically motivated and to refer to ISIS ideology and Al Qaeda ideology as opposed to Islam, and as opposed to our religion, can you imagine how much the discourse would have been different and how that wouldn’t have been wedded in people’s minds? Now, unfortunately, every time there is media coverage, that conflation in people’s minds brings up a very visceral response, and it is quite harmful to our efforts, our anti-racist efforts so I think we have to deal with that very systemic driver in the law and ask the Australian Government to remove the term religious from the terrorism definition. And treat all terrorism as ideologically or politically motivated and send a very strong signal to the Australian people that the time for this subtle messaging about the Muslim community is over. We actually stand together against violent ideology and terrorism. And we stand in support of all communities.
Bushra: Absolutely, to slightly change the focus a bit, and moving along as you would know, women play a strong part in diversity and obviously towards the success and growth of Australia as a nation as well. But I think the reality is that women from these diverse backgrounds still continue to experience a lot of racism and discrimination unfortunately. There’s actually a study in 2021 that highlighted that more than 60% have experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace. And there are a lot of diversity and inclusion policies that play an important role in workplaces, but I think it’s clear that many of them are simply not working, and often these kinds of measures are seen as like tick box exercises, rather than actually enabling any kind of change, any vehicle to any kind of change, so in your view, what else can be done? Nationally at the policy level, but also for everyday people who might be listening today, how can we play a role in enabling that kind of reform, both in practice and policy?
Rita: OK, well look I’ll answer that question in two ways. One is the systemic answer and the other is a personal answer. OK, so at a systemic level, I think we need data about the diversity of boards and not only in media, across corporate Australia, across public service, and I think even in Parliament we need to know about diversity and patterns and trends of diversity to see how representative all of these institutions are of law enforcement. Another institution that I would love to see the data, just to give us a sense of the trend and of the reality, I think that won’t be enough, obviously, but the other thing we need to consider is that people, people of colour, need to be brought into leadership positions. It’s an unfortunate reality that there are a lot of hidden criteria that are applied to people when it comes to, shall we promote them, which are not always considered. I think with white candidates I would, for example, work of Media Diversity Australia in bringing together culturally and linguistically diverse journalists to organise and share notes and also work with the news platforms to create pathways.
I think that’s going to be really, really important and I and I think the way that Media Diversity Australia works is that, you know they are more of a honey approach in terms of encouragement rather than wielding a stick, but they will use research. They’ll hold up research as a mirror to organisations, and institutions so they can get this constant reminder of ‘OK, yeah, we’re not doing that well.’ We need to improve, I think, systemically. It’s going to take some time. But it will happen Insha’Allah. Because just because of the way the population is changing and I think it will, it will gradually start to change in some workplaces.
At a personal level, what I would say to people is, it’s really hard when you’re working in an environment where you’re the only person who’s Muslim or a person of colour or one of a few rights, and you feel like this wall is there sometimes, and sometimes you feel like your career just has a limit on it. Like you’re like they’re so far that I can dream of going. And then it’s just not going to happen for me. The rest is just not, it’s just not for me, right? Because of who I am. And I certainly held that belief for many many years, and I probably still do, to be honest. If I was talking to someone I love right, to my children or to family or friends, I would be saying don’t hold that belief, you know, because it’s limited. It’s limiting on ourselves when we actually exclude ourselves and cut ourselves off and say we can’t dream of those positions because ultimately we have to keep putting ourselves forward and being the trailblazers and finding avenues of support in toxic workplaces or workplaces where we may be feeling uncomfortable, we need to find ways to keep going and keep pushing. Because it makes it easier for the next people coming through.
Bushra: And I think in terms of just verbally proclaiming that, you know it’s very easy to say then actually making that happen is quite hard. And even for myself, being born here and growing up here in Australia, back in the day when I was going to school and high school there wasn’t a lot of diversity, there weren’t a lot of familiar faces, even wearing my scarf I used to the most often the only one doing it and it wasn’t easy, it was very difficult, but I think my community, my family, my parents they instilled in me an understanding, values that made me realise the importance of my own identity. And my faith taught me what that should look like, the founder of my community the Promised Messiah Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, explains that it was our job to make progress so that love, forgiveness, righteousness, peace and reformation, and kindness to humanity be spread in the world.
And even now in academia, there is a hierarchy that is very difficult to navigate and constantly having to prove yourself is very draining and challenging sometimes. I am the only Muslim woman in my immediate workplace, and I work within a wonderful, supportive team that has always tried to encourage me to push myself and achieve bigger goals, however overall, in the bigger scheme of things, it is very hard to climb that academic ladder. But in saying that, over the last few years of my career, I’ve had so many other Muslim women reach out to me for various reasons, but mostly to seek that connection, that understanding I guess, that we’re all in this together and even many women from different diverse backgrounds have probably experienced similar challenges where they just think that they’re not enough, or those bigger goals and climbing the academic ladder can actually be a reality for them. So, I definitely resonate with your personal aspect to this and it is definitely something we need to change in terms of changing the narrative for ourselves as well.
Rita: Yeah, I think maybe I could review what I just said before about what I would say to someone I love. Maybe because I don’t want to put pressure on people to do things that I personally don’t want to do right? In terms of feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. But you know, like I, I don’t wear the Hijab and challah, one day I’ll maybe get to that point. But throughout my career in my mind, I knew just my identity being Arab Muslim background that it was just, things were just not meant for me that there would be because there would be assumptions made about my political beliefs and there would be questions about, well can we trust her? What’s she gonna say? Now, these XY and Z think, as I say, the hidden criteria that are not applied to other people so much. But what I would review is what I would say to people is, your presence, your existence there is already powerful, right? It’s because you’re standing there, you’re insisting on being there. That’s powerful in itself. And so I think you need to do your best and keep moving forward I guess.
Bushra: Yes, do the work that you can change those narratives in that way of thinking and future generations. As you’ve done a lot of work in this space, racism and discrimination and so forth. What are some of the challenges you’ve shared, but what are some of the challenges, but then also successes you’ve experienced, given your immense contribution and I think dedication to tackling this issue in Australia, why does it matter so much to you?
Rita: Yeah, I think it matters for me because probably some of the reasons are the same that it matters for everyone, but why does it matter for everyone? But for me, it also matters because I am half Anglo half Arab by background. So all the war and terror stuff always felt like an intern, realised literally an internalised war for me between parts of my own identity where I wasn’t able to just kind of exist in any kind of sphere. But I would also say I became really politicised by witnessing the treatment of First Nations people in this country. Growing up, my mother involved me in a lot of community events and protests. And watching the Howard government’s sort of refusal to apologise on the way that he politicised native title made it a threat, you know, made it seem like it was a threat to Australian people, the same way that I’ve seen some, unfortunately, some politicians suggest that the Voice to Parliament is a threat. Again, using that kind of language. That really politicised me in the sense that I felt there was this presence here in Australia of First Nations people in terms of their presence, their culture, their history, and yet it was being treated with such disrespect.
And then I went working in Parliament in the Indigenous Affairs area, which is just I feel sick when I use the words Indigenous Affairs these days, which is sad but it was such a difficult working environment because the entire office for the most part at the time I was there, was white (people) dealing with Indigenous Affairs. Yeah, except for me, and I was kind of, you know, I’m in this sort of ambiguous situation of being kind of white, but then white people were looking at me and going, what are you? you know you’re not white. So it was, it was a very, very difficult situation because I felt this sickening, kind of, I don’t know, it was just violent and it felt wrong every day of my work, to the point where I had to leave because I was physically unwell in that job and that really showed to me I know it seems like a strong word, but it just feels like I felt violence in Parliament, a violence about, it just felt violent. I don’t know how this is a crime, but it felt unsafe and uncomfortable, and when I left I thought well at least, you know not being indigenous myself, it’s not a reality that I have to live with constantly. I can choose to sort of dip in and out. That’s the privilege of white privilege.
But then immediately my tension began turning to my Arab identity and the War on Terror. And I realised that there was this bubbling river underneath all of it, which was about my identity and my love for my people and for my history and my children that would one day come. And their ability to live in freedom and to form their own identity and (be) themselves without the violence of particular narratives and discourse. So I think that’s where it sort of brought it all together and then the Christchurch massacre happened and really that was a turning point where I went, OK, that’s it. I have to step in and not just speak.
Bushra: Absolutely. I think that was a turning point for many, even though it happened in New Zealand, a lot of us experienced the after-effects of it in Australia most definitely, and I think you know, just to conclude, many of these problems that we face in today’s society, it’s because maybe we’ve forgotten, you know the true concept of human diversity and embracing true brotherhood. No matter who we are, or where we come from, the Holy Quran actually describes mankind as one great brotherhood and has taught all of us to seek and win the pleasure of God Almighty through acts of kindness and justice towards everyone. The Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said that a person should desire for others whatever he desires for himself. I believe that this timeless principle is as true today as it ever was in the past. And if we keep that in our minds, no matter who we are, and then actively try and enable that within our own lives, but then also educate others through the work that we do in whichever sphere of society we are. Then you know, maybe one day we can move past these struggles, these challenges, and do something good for our future generations. So in the end did you have anything else to add?
Rita: Yeah, I mean to me I’m not sort of focusing my gaze on the day where one day we’ll move past these struggles because I’m not sure we ever will in our lifetimes, but for me, I think you know I don’t need hope, but I have faith right, to have faith in Islam and I just know that this process, like a lot of many groups throughout history that have been oppressed at a group level, it’s just, it’s a very slow process. It’s a very gradual process. As one person described to me, it’s like water moving through rocks, which takes tens of thousands of years of intergenerational, and it’s just our job to do what we can and to speak the truth when we can.
Bushra: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you so much for your time today and for joining us on our podcast Rita.
Rita: Oh, it’s a pleasure, and well done, for all the work that you guys have been doing to create that public presence for Islam where people can learn a different narrative. It’s wonderful Bushra. So well done. Thank you.