The Fight against Online Islamophobia

by Rita Jabri-Markwell, lawyer for Australian Muslim Advocacy Network, with help from Waffa Bakfalouni and Maryam Hashimi

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, has published a report to the Human Rights Council on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, comparing the situation of Muslims globally and recommending urgent action by social media platforms.

The Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN) made an extensive submission, including research from Australian-Muslim researchers. It was very encouraging to see so many points endorsed in the Report, which will, in turn, support future advocacy.

The Report criticised the impact of counter-terror laws focused on religion, having served 'to perpetuate, validate and normalize discrimination, hostility, and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities.' (p.2)

Significantly for law interpretation purposes, the Report recognised that Muslims experience a form of racism based on their religion:

"religion" serves the function of race in differentiating, dehumanizing, and subordinating Muslims to the relevant dominant group. However, the racism frame elides religious bigotry that is independent of racialized narratives. (p. 3)

The Report also recognised that 'Islamophobic disinformation' works in parallel with that racism:

Followers of Islam, Muslims are demonized as disloyal "others" who are intent upon imposing their values on non-believers through violence, overbreeding, and the radicalization of "good" Muslims. Scholars have explored how this latter process functions as a form of "racialization"; instilling the idea that Muslim identity is a fixed marker of cultural – not just religious – difference, characterizing Muslims as a foreign "other”. (p. 4)

This recognition is important because one of the most robust legal protections against hate speech applies to racially motivated hate speech.

The Report also recognised the view put forward by AMAN that 'a nebula of anti-Islam discourses use "Islam" as a proxy for "Muslims."' It noted:

conspiracy theories have been amplified by a number of so-called "Counter-jihad" and "alt-news" websites, blogs, and organisations across Europe and North America. These theories have also directly incited atrocities offline, including Norwegian and Christchurch terrorists whose statements frequently referenced these conspiracies as justifications for their acts. (pp. 6-7)

Recognition of the far-right 'counter jihad' movement is important as there continues to be reluctance from most mainstream social media companies to ban, label, or demote this content.

AMAN has argued ‘counter jihad’ theories are inherently dehumanising to Muslims, hence its link to mass-casualty violence and hate crime. After months of providing evidence and policy solutions to Facebook and Twitter, AMAN is yet to break through with this point and is now exploring a range of options to escalate the matter.

With this, the Report recommends that the digital technology companies must:

  1. Ensure community guidelines and terms of use are clear and predictable in their application. That content moderation takes a human rights-based approach. This includes providing content moderators with just and favourable working conditions and robust psychological support; and

  2. Increase transparency concerning their efforts to tackle incitement and hate speech. Anonymized datasets regarding hate speech detection and moderation should be public, regularly updated, and disaggregated by protected characteristics. Likewise, the training that content moderators receive should be made public.

AMAN has developed law reform proposals to counter online dehumanisation through civil penalties, which it has put to the Australian government. This work was grounded in research and analysis of problem groups conducted in 2020.

As a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network and other global discussions, AMAN intends to be part of the growing civil society movement working across national boundaries to demand more just social media outcomes.

Domestically, AMAN and Birchgrove Legal have also been investigating legal avenues against digital platforms that fail to moderate anti-Muslim hateful pages, groups, and accounts – actions that have garnered attention in the national news.

A combination of strategies will be needed to influence and change attitudes towards anti-Muslim dehumanising and hateful content online, especially where it is falsely parading as 'anti-Islam' or 'counter-jihad’ news or opinion.