Fear of Islam is something which has been growing in Australia over the last decade. Fear of Sharia is just one manifestation of a general fear of Islam and Muslims among some members of the public, most of whom have never met a Muslim or have any real knowledge of Islam.
Most of the information the Australian public receives about Sharia comes from the media, which concentrates on exotic or sensational stories which will grab public attention and sell newspapers or internet advertising. Thus beheadings, lashings, polgamy, and terrorism (especially against western targets) are more interesting to the media than sober explanations of law. In this way the Australian public has learnt to connect Sharia with the hudud punishments of stoning and amputation & with the oppression of women in countries like Saudi Arabia & Iran, although in fact, these have no relevance to life in Australia.
There are some particular sources which encourage fear of Sharia. A recent report from the United States, ‘Fear Inc., the roots of the Islamophobic network in America’ (2011) detailed the existence of a well-funded network of right wing extremists actively involved in inciting fear & hatred of Islam in the US. These people have been able to infect the US media, politicians and public opinion to an amazing extent, and through the internet and other means their influence has spread to Australia.
There has been a fair bit of anti-Muslim and anti-sharia rhetoric in Europe & the UK,  which also influences public opinion here. Wearing the burqa has been banned in some countries as has praying in public places in France and in Switzerland, minarets have been prohibited.
At home, fear is generated by local media and comments by some politicians and community leaders. Headlines such as ‘Goodbye to rights under sharia,’‘Repressing women is sharia’s raison d’etre,’ and ‘Australia must steer clear of theocracy,’ create a misleading impression and instil fear. Talkback radio is another fruitful source of fear mongering.
Some Australian politicians have made their contribution. In 2005 Peter Costello, then Deputy Prime Minister, suggested that anyone who wanted to live under sharia law should go and live elsewhere, and he nominated Saudi Arabia and Iran as suitable places. More recently, Senator Barnaby Joyce, the leader of the National Party in the Senate, said: “Under sharia law, gay marriage would be an excuse for a good public stoning,” and wondered how many Islamic countries were introducing a carbon tax. Senator Cory Bernardi said “Sharia law is part of the Islamic proselytisation of Australia.” Senator Bernardi has invited the Dutch anti-Islamic extremist, Geert Wilders, to visit Australia. All this despite the fact that there has been no general call on behalf of the Muslim community for the establishment of Sharia as a parallel legal system or for the introduction of Islamic criminal law at all.
However, there are a few‘fringe radicals’ in the Muslim community who are loud and conspicuous in their demands that Australia adopt sharia as its legal system. ‘Sharia4Australia’ is one such splinter group, promising Australians that one day “they won’t be able to drink their beer…because one day they know they will be controlled.” The prospect of being deprived of beer is calculated to strike fear into the heart of the Australian masses whatever they might think of other proposals.
Response from Muslim community and religious leaders has been muted or non-existent. There is a need for rational and well-informed dialogue on this issue, a voice for Australian Muslim women, leadership from those who hold themselves out as religious or community leaders, and hopefully, a strong government supported campaign to inform the general public of the true meaning of Sharia in the Australian context. Information of this kind should reduce  misunderstanding and banish unnecessary fear in the public mind.
A question for all - what is the best way of convincing the Australian public that Muslims are not trying to impose Sharia on everyone and that, in fact, there is nothing to fear?

Jamila Hussain

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