Muslims Down Under had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Chin Tan, the Australian Human Rights Race Commissioner. Mr. Chin Tan commenced his term as Race Discrimination Commissioner in 2018. Since commencing in this position, Mr. Tan’s work has focused on the development of the National Anti-Racism Framework, which aims to tackle racism and promote racial equality by enabling a cohesive society where all Australians, from all cultures and backgrounds, feel safe, respected, and included. This is an edited transcript from portions of this interview. Click below to listen to the full interview.
Rabia: Today we have the wonderful opportunity to speak with Mr. Chin Tan, the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, on our podcast. Mr. Chin Tan commenced his term as Race Discrimination Commissioner in 2018 and he has been very busy since. And since being appointed, he has run many projects and has done quite a lot for the Muslim community and today we will be talking particularly about the “Sharing Stories of Australian Muslims” project that was initiated after the Christchurch attack. We also recently had the opportunity to talk with Tasneem Chopra, who is an ambassador of the Australian Human Rights Commissions Anti Racism Campaign called “Racism, It Stops With Me”, and now we actually have the opportunity to talk to the Race Discrimination Commissioner himself! So, thank you so much for giving us your very wonderful time and very valuable time and welcome. Peace be upon you.
Mr Chin Tan: Well, thank you Rabia for having me. This is, I mean, I haven’t really done too many podcasts. I’m very, very fortunate that you’ve asked. I firstly acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which I’m actually speaking from, in Melbourne. I pay my respect to the Elders, past, present and to emerging. And obviously to all your listeners, particularly the Muslim communities, Assalamo Alaikum wa Rahmatullahe wa Barakatohu. It’s always an honour and thank you Rabia for your wonderful, warm welcome. I get far more praise than I deserve but I’ll take it; you know it’s always good things you have to say.
Rabia: Yes, I think ever since you’ve been appointed there was definitely this shift in in the narrative and I think from day one, since we had those attacks (in New Zealand), and it is unfortunate that we have had those attacks, and other things that happen around the world against Muslim communities, but I think the importance and the work of the Human Rights Commission is definitely undervalued and we should appreciate it more, because that is a body that supports us. A little fun fact – I did a very small internship at the Human Rights Commission back when I was starting out in my law school days…. I think in terms of the insight that I had I walked away knowing that the Australian Human Rights Commission does work. There is definitely work there that people should appreciate, and it is a body where people should be able to raise their complaints and go through (to get support). I think there was that gap in that conversation prior to me joining when I wasn’t sure you know where we could go, and I think a lot of work can be done, but I think we have definitely come a long way. So, thank you for that.
Mr Chin Tan: On that point, if I can just take it up because it’s important for people to appreciate this. I get sometimes, you know, people coming up and then saying, ‘Oh, look, you know, what do you guys do?’ Your agency for government, what do you really do? I mean, we’re not getting a lot of benefit from you directly, but I think it’s important to remember that it’s never going to be this one instrument. There could be a lot of things out there – like a vehicle, and the Human Rights Commission is one such vehicle.
And if there’s things in this area which most people can’t get to, there is reform at the high end. And so even though we may not feel that we are touched by it directly, but it adds incrementally to the structure and the restructuring and redefining, in what we believe are important values in structures, and so they are very important aspects to what we do, and the Human Rights Commission shouldn’t be the only resort to fighting racism. Everyone, in my view, is a Race Discrimination Commissioner and has a responsibility, and obligation, and a role, and the vitality, to make some changes in their own lives.
Rabia: Yeah, definitely, I agree. And I think that’s something that we do advocate as Muslims, in terms of Islamic principles. The key sponsor of Muslims Down Under is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and our motto is ‘Love for all, Hatred for none’ and it was actually established during the time of our 3rd Khalifa (Caliph), when there was an uproar against Muslims building mosques and it was at the foundation laying of a Mosque in Spain where he came up with the motto of the community, which is ‘love for all, hatred for none’, and that’s what we do. We’re not coming with our own agenda, we’re here to integrate into the community, and I think your project, the ‘Sharing the Stories of Australian Muslims’ project, after the Christchurch attacks, was definitely something that we needed to give the experiences of Muslims to the public in the wake of that tragic attack. So, just to kind of start off the conversation, what are your thoughts on the progress of acceptance and tolerance in Australia following that project? Where do you think we are now?
Mr Chin Tan: You know you can attack this from a number of angles, and you’ll have different views on where we sit and stand. But, if you look at a larger picture, it can certainly say, look, we are a far better country than we were before, and then the question is, well, before when? And a question is how far more do we have to go? And where we have reached is, a point where there is conversation happening today that wasn’t happening 5-6 years ago. And it’s the same as we’ve seen in other reports recently about Indigenous issues in football clubs, conversations that are raised and then taken on board and seriously considered that weren’t before. And it’s a good place to start. Because a race issue is an issue that’s not visible and people don’t talk about it and there’s so little in the way of clear, honest conversation. So, it’s a good place to start and hopefully we will guide this to a place where we are able to in fact, then graduate to more substantive changes that will come through and it will come. It will come.
So how are we today? Far better than we were before, but it’s still a lot of work to do. And the thing to remember, in this process is that racism is not a linear paradigm. But I can say this to you, in terms of the Muslim community, unfortunately there’s still a lot of issues to be confronted. There are three community groups in particular. For me, they are the measure of the long-term effect and an indicator of how we’ve progressing – the Indigenous community, the Jewish community, and the Muslim community. These appear to be for me, the racial issues that are kind of foundational, because unless we resolve those issues, we’re not going to be able to get ahead because these are very challenging issues for us to understand. How we are able to embrace differences, right? And so, for me, the Muslim issues, it’s a big issue. The Jewish issues are big issues, it is always continuous, persistent. And Indigenous issues are always persistent, and we need to be able to find ways to overcome that and move forward.
Rabia: Yeah, definitely. I 100% agree and as much as there were issues, I do agree that we have come a long way Unfortunately, even just in June there was another small attack in a mosque in Melbourne as well. So, it is happening, and I think one of the concerning aspects to that was that the youngest person being charged was around 18 years old. Regardless of one’s belief, it’s important to instil in the youth that it’s not OK to disrespect, let alone attack places of worship. In one of our previous podcasts we’ve talked about parenting and raising children and the importance of engaging the youth in our society to become model citizens. We have this concept of radicalisation which is always associated with Muslim youth. But what do you think can be done in the wider community, especially in schools? Because it looks like there are young ones that are involved in discrimination. What more can the wider community do to develop harmony and unity among our youth?
Mr Chin Tan: … So, what is racism? Racism is about the treatment of people based on who they are and their cultural background and that’s the issue here in this country… We must, when we look at racism and dealing with it, is this sense of being able to talk to young children. They live in a world which they’re so used to, they don’t see any other differences. And the question is, how do we inculcate that? We talk about this wonderful multicultural country we have, but we don’t actually practice this where it counts. So, for me this whole holistic national understanding is a commitment to a multicultural framework. That means people must pay the price if they have to. People must be prepared to commit to them. So, engagement’s important, education is important. So, we are also embarking on formal education.
So, our young people must begin to have a different cultural mindset. Like Mandela has said, no kid is born a racist. They got it from somewhere. They learn. But let’s get them before they learn all those bad things and the bad habits about race and issues that really are divisive. How do you start? It’s not an easy solution because it’s not just education. You’ve got parents’ influence, you’ve got peer influence, you’ve got media influence. They’re all there, right? And so, it’s working through all the different layers, working through to ensure that people understand, number one, what Islam is, about Muslims, and having interactions with them and appreciating what they stand for, and being able to embrace and understand and accept that difference.
Rabia: And the whole idea of, you know, commonality is definitely really important. Finding the good things and the differences, we can come and unite and we can talk about our values, but also be different. And this is something that we even spoke about in our previous podcast with Senator Payman as well, where, you know, we should appreciate and not have to change our roots to be able to integrate into this society. Because I can still be a Muslim, I can still wear a hijab and I should be able to also contribute to Australia, like I work for the government. And I shouldn’t have to compromise that. So, we definitely agree with that and resonate with that 100%.
So, you’ve talked a little bit about what the wider community can do and you’ve talked about what people can do to try and be open minded and to support others in being diverse. Muslims Down under was also established as a call to action for social justice with guidance from the worldwide Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to give education and awareness of Islam. And he has spoken across various parliaments and speaks about the teachings of Islam in establishing peace. So, what do you think the Muslim community and campaigns like ours can specifically do to support your work in tackling discrimination in Australia?
Mr Chin Tan: It’s important. It’s not a matter of communities acting in isolation. We all are involved in some way…. This is why the ‘Sharing Stories’ project is so important. Muslims are telling us that while they feel that they belong to Australia, they love this country, they’re loyal, they still feel that they’re maligned and, in a way, not being made to feel, to fit in, to belong. And that’s an issue.
And people wake up and say, I didn’t realize that. Well, hang on. These are the issues. ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ campaign. This is what we are talking about, the systemic issues. People waking up saying, I didn’t realise that, well, because that’s your privileged background. It’s where you come from. Wake up to these realisations. And we didn’t just stop there. We were saying we want people to understand people who are in fact, fair matter Australians, and said How do we get involved in this? Because it’s not right, it’s not fair, and we want to be involved in this. So, this sense of being involved and then we have changed people’s mindset collectively. Not the people who are extremists or whatever, because they’re very hard to change and they have different ways for which we deal with them. But the average Australians who don’t know a lot, but who feel that this is not right and don’t have a lot of interaction, how are we opening up to this possibility of saying, Hey, I didn’t realise this. I’m so sorry – what can we do about this, it’s not fair.
Rabia: Being Muslim in Australia, you know, there’s this concept of integration versus assimilation, to try and explain that is also quite controversial because people say, you can’t assimilate and you can’t integrate being from a diverse background. We believe that true integration is to be a true, law-abiding citizen, working for the nation’s prosperity, the progress of it. We are taught that loving your country is actually part of your faith. In terms of that concept of integration, what are your thoughts on that – in assisting that, acceptance, and tolerance in the community?
Mr Chin Tan: The Muslim communities have to answer this question themselves because in our survey Muslims don’t see an inconsistency or conflict in being a Muslim and being an Australian. And that’s exactly the point, you know? And that’s what we said too.
Everyone has to change to be like someone else, including in, even in America. In the worst of times, your religion…. you cannot compel someone to be who they’re not. The essence of humanity is to be, to get people with different backgrounds to live together under the one roof if possible. But to be able to embrace the differences and live as humans, with our common shared boundaries, respecting each other.
The message itself is very clear to the Muslim community…my view has always been clear. Whatever your background, whatever your culture and religion, you have a place here in Australia.
Rabia: I think that that’s the whole aspect of Muslims Down Under, where we do talk about the fact that it’s not against our religion to be a law-abiding citizen, right? We can live in Australia, and we are very privileged to be here. We are very blessed with all the opportunities that we’ve been afforded. I think it’s also this aspect of – it works two ways. To respect the laws of this country, and at the same time, not having to compromise our religion. In your project which you’ve talked about a significant number of Muslims also expressed they were unable to speak up when they experience racism or other forms of discrimination. I do want to talk a little bit about how racism, like it is, the type of discrimination that’s focused on race. But as you would understand, and I know you know this as well, being from Malaysia, Muslims come from across the whole world, they don’t come from just a certain country and therefore don’t come from just a certain race. Especially with Islam being the fastest growing religion, there’s an increase in the diversity of Muslims joining the religion and they each come with their own culture, which is very different to Islam.
If we go back to 9/11, one of the first hate attacks that actually happened was not actually against a Muslim. It was against someone who was perceived to be a Muslim – it was a turban wearing Sikh individual, but because they were thought to be a Muslim in response to that, they were attacked. I feel there is still maybe education lacking around the world with these misconceptions. And in Australia, discrimination on the basis of religion is not unlawful under federal anti-discrimination law. I understand that in some cases people may be covered under the term ethnic origin in the Racial Discrimination Act. What are your thoughts in terms of going forward in terms of religious attacks? Do you think this poses issues for the Muslim community or anyone of any religion, in ensuring they can seek justice for being religiously discriminated?
Mr Chin Tan: It’s a far more complex issue at the ground level because there is a view that being a Muslim is almost erased…And we’ve explored that in our document, that we’re not saying that being a Muslim is not religion. But you know, the attack is a sense of Muslim-ness. They don’t care about what religion means. But it’s just like this sense that being Muslim, therefore you come under this class, and you are attacked. And so, it’s a key to former racism that’s been explored. But, where the good news might be, is that I think this federal government is keen, and I think the Attorney General expresses it quite clearly to us and publicly as well that he’s keen to put into Parliament an Anti-Discrimination Act for Religious Discrimination. So, it will offer the protection for the Muslim communities. And we saw a few weeks ago that he felt very passionate (about it) and saw the need for it – because Muslims were in fact left out. Nationally they will provide religious discrimination and protection.
Rabia: It’d be really interesting to see going forward. But, in saying that as well, I don’t want to take away from the fact that we have advanced so much. To even be including the word Islam or Muslims in under the Race Discrimination profile says a lot about where we’re heading. For those who do feel that maybe they were un unable to speak up because of that, maybe unclear about whether they can make a discrimination complaint, hopefully in the future they would be able to do so comfortably.
Mr Chin Tan: For the Muslim community there isn’t a kind of structural vehicle that permit that to happen. I think to some extent Jewish communities are set up and established, so they have different capacities for which they can express all those things.
Again, you mentioned very correctly that they (Muslims) don’t come from one place or one country. They’re also diverse. But, when there was this incident with the kids ransacking the Mosque in Melbourne, there wasn’t a very vociferous kind of backlash from other Muslim community groups as well. It was very fractured in the response.
Importantly, we should provide the Muslim community with channels for which they can raise concerns and issues when they’re abused. And I’m doing the same thing with the Asian Chinese community in the last two years, during the pandemic saying, where would they go? How do they complain? How do we support them? How do we provide them with individual support? I like to have a one stop shop. I mean, it’s still a long way because it costs, commitment and money. And that’s why the framework we’re doing will hopefully help provide that structural capacity for people to be able to do things and then it gets recorded.
I get asked the question, has racism increased? I put my finger up in the wind and say I think it has. But we can’t tell, can’t we? But we should be able to tell and say there were 4,000 more cases of people being abused in the street than last year. And I need that to do my job properly and to rebut those people who say that racism is not a problem in this country.
Rabia: Would you be able to speak more than in terms of the “It Stops with Me” Campaign and what that’s doing now with education and giving that platform to the wider community? I’m not even just talking about Muslims – just in terms of where that’s heading and why you decided to maybe relaunch the campaign?
Mr Chin Tan: We had enough money to do what we did. But the point is that with the money you have, what have you done? I think with the support we had and, there wasn’t any government money that we got, it was the private sector. So, we ran this campaign purely on that basis. We were very heartened to hear the new government has prepared to commit some funding. This will allow us to go back and expand all of that.
So, how do we take this forward? Nothing sits there. Even the “Sharing the Stories of Muslims” report, it does not just sit there. It has actually informed us. … In many ways it has filtered into the campaign we are doing in dealing with opening up, for people to understand. We have for example, Tasneem Chopra and suddenly this Muslim factor comes in. For me the document that we’ve done is a living testimony about issues that we need to be able to work on continuously and draw on by saying, how do we make this work? (And) The media is a large issue within the framework to progress media narratives.
Rabia: I think when I started seeing these things happening in the wider communities, especially from the Human Rights Commission, it’s helping to change that, and it was really nice to see that there are Muslim representations as well. And I know you mentioned a little bit about this and, and I have to admit that yes, there is a lot of work to do just within the Muslim community in terms of coming together, as a unified approach to help tackle that idea of racism. I could put it this way that yes, it’s hopefully being worked on, and I think platforms like ours are giving that unity amongst the Muslim community and to the wider community that we don’t look at what culture, we don’t look at what type of maybe division of Islam you come from. For example, we had Tasneem Chopra, and I spoke with Senator Payman. We’re not all from the same Muslim, sect, but we don’t look at that. The idea is that we’re Australian, we’re a Muslim, and we live here, and it’s important for us to be able to at least share the same values being an Australian Muslim.
Moving forward, there was a little bit of that hype around free speech, and I think that’s where some of those issues stem about religious discrimination. We have unfortunately seen a little bit of it now in terms of politicians mentioning their views and then also being attacked for what they express. People claim that achieving social cohesion does set up barriers to free speech. How can we find that balance between cohesion and freedom of speech? How free is free speech? And in terms of the context of race discrimination, I’m sure you see a lot of complaints relating to that. So, what’s your view on the whole free speech aspect?
Mr Chin Tan: We can have 4000 PhD scholars exploring this into the next four years. I still won’t have the answer. Basic principles are there. Freedom in a country like this is terribly important. I subscribe to that. With my background in law, and any community and society need to understand the limits to what you can do. The freedom that you have is mirrored against other freedoms as well. For me, the point is this…while I am a big proponent of freedom of speech and the right of people to express themselves, it must be done in the context of ensuring that it’s not harmful in any way. So, the limit of that is going to be worked down as the community progresses. Where we believe the medium point would be. And it’s important for communities, like yours, Muslim communities, for example, to come forward to articulate where the limit is. What is unacceptable conduct, where it’s costing hurt and harm and even violence to your community. The homework, it will come from Muslim communities and is about empowering communities to understand. What is it that Muslims are looking for and how they can live in this umbrella, this system blueprint of the Muslim way of doing things in Australia and this is how they live.
Rabia: I think you’ve really hit that point about the misconceptions, with the Islamic principles. So, we are hopefully changing that narrative slowly. Even just with race, just Islamically speaking, it goes back to the time, to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) where it was proclaimed at that time, that people are born equal and that a white person is not superior to a black or a black person is not superior to a white. And these are words that were stemmed 1400 years ago. We are stemmed on these Islamic principles that we are meant to be equal, and we should treat everyone with equality and embrace racial equality. From this, we learn that it’s really our responsibility to break all prejudices so our community can truly progress and to be continually conscious and aware of our thoughts and actions and Islam teaches us to honor the fact that we are different. To start to wrap up, were there any key messages that you’d like to put out there? Being appointed as a race discrimination commissioner and what we’ve sort of spoken about today, what do you think is the next step going forward?
Mr Chin Tan: Racism in any form is never acceptable. I believe fundamentally the important thing that we need to do is shaping nation building. We don’t articulate this, or we don’t, in fact get to lay out the real foundation of what’s important. So, a lot of that role for me is important for the Muslim community as well as part of this…army of responsible citizens to take that initiative and say, What does Australia mean? This multicultural sense, that we feel comfortable, that we feel, you can see it happening. If we can’t settle on that, then we get into the future with all this, you know, burden that we have that relates to more issues of conflict. It’s very important that we get the design right when we’re talking multiculturalism. When 68% Muslim says there’s no conflict with being a Muslim in Australia – what does that mean?
How do we articulate to be able to live in a world where there’s differences and we can embrace a difference and live together without being afraid of those differences being a problem for us. The Muslim community has a big role to play. A Jew is never Muslim, Muslim, nor a Buddhist or Christian. These differences are so fundamental, but yet we can live peacefully. How do we do this? How do we reconcile those differences?
Rabia: And that’s why we’ve spoken about what the wider community can do, but we also acknowledge the fact that we should support that work. There’s only so much you can do on your end.
Mr Chin Tan: The thing is this, how do we find that meaningful co-existence or capacity to live, under one shared caravan. And this will come from many facets of differences, but it has to come from a place of goodwill and understanding of the basic principles of living differences…