Climate of tolerance gets frosty

By Kate Legge
The Australian

HATE mail sent to Islamic organisations makes no concession to euphemism in pages of angry and abusive language urging Middle Easterners to go home.

"You Leb people are scum. Lower than a snakes belly. We don't want your s--- in Australia. All Lebs should be rounded up, born here or not, and shipped back ... or maybe they could be fed to the sharks, if the sharks don't object to these mongrel useless dole bludging scumbags," says one unsigned missive sent to the Lebanese Moslems Association in Sydney. "I'm so glad these Middle Eastern scumbags drowned," wrote another correspondent after an overcrowded and unseaworthy refugee boat sunk off Java last October, killing 353 people.

"I would drown the f---ing lot of you here and over there ... When will you idiot bastards realise that the Australian people don't want scum s--- here at any cost."

The letters are repetitive, ridden with expletives and often illiterate, but all seethe with ill will and resentment. "We will slit your children's throats and feed them to swine. You are on borrowed time," menaces one to the Islamic Bookstore. Keysar Trad, vice-president of the Lebanese Moslems Association, says he stopped giving mail to the police because nothing could be done to stem the vitriol and threats of violence that began to flood his office last July following reports of Lebanese gang rapes in Sydney's southwest.

"I want to come and put a bullet in an Arab Lebanese Muslim's head," was the claim one caller made to social worker Hosam El-Samman when he answered the phone at the association's Lakemba headquarters last August.

Lebanese and Islamic organisations are not the only targets of abuse. The terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 and the onset of intense debate in Australia about refugee and detention centres has inflamed hostility towards anyone who publicly advocates higher levels of immigration or defends asylum-seekers.

Academics and former politicians who have spoken out against the Government's treatment of refugees have received hate mail. An anonymous letter sent to Jerzy Zubrzycki, who advised the Fraser government on multiculturalism, is typical of the sentiments often expressed: "Seeing your photograph and comments in today's Australian among the `usual suspects' who were (predictably) bagging the Government over the so-called refugees at Woomera I thought one day they will have to screw the lid tight on your coffin to stop you having a final word on multiculturalism."

There is no accurate barometer of national tolerance. The hate mail corresponds with anecdotal reports of racial and religious abuse that flooded hotlines set up in Sydney and Melbourne last September, yet formal complaints of racial vilification in Australia during the past six months have remained stable.

But not everyone reports incidents, which may range from a perceived snub or slur to serious intimidatory behaviour, and the picture is complicated by variation in state laws. In Western Australia, racial vilification is not grounds for complaint, and Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act has been in force only since January. The South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission has received 10 complaints since September last year compared with four for the same period a year earlier. Queensland's Anti-Discrimination Commission has received four complaints compared with none for the seven months ending in March 2001. The Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission has recorded a 9.5 per cent increase in inquiries about racial discrimination.

But in Sydney the anti-discrimination board has recorded a drop in complaints of racial vilification from 31 in the six months to August 2001 to 18 for the half-year ending in February. Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission chief executive Diane Sisley believes the Sydney figures reflect under-reporting.

"People are [so] terrified of further victimisation and attacks that they're not making complaints," she says.

Her office undertook a detailed survey of 48 racial incidents reported to ethnic community leaders during September and October last year. The agency verified each incident, but none became the basis of a formal complaint. "No one made complaints because they were afraid of being exposed," Sisley says.

NSW commissioner of community relations Stepan Kerkyasharian says the decline in Sydney's figures contrasts with 400 calls alleging incidents of physical and verbal assault that were made to a hotline in the two weeks following the September 11 attacks.

Nada Roude, from Sydney's Islamic Council, believes the climate of tolerance has changed: "You just have to see the way people look at you in the street."


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