The vicious assault on a heavily pregnant woman in Sydney last week only highlights the rise of Islamophobia in Australia, Muslim citizens say.
Rana Elasmar was sitting in a cafe with friends when a man approached their table and brutally punched and kicked her until he was dragged away by other patrons. Ms Elasmar, 38 weeks pregnant at the time, said he made derogatory comments about Muslims before launching his attack. She was treated and discharged from hospital after the incident while her attacker is being held in custody after being denied bail.
Police said on Monday that the accused, Stipe Lozina, will face further charges for allegedly threatening two women at a shopping centre earlier this month. The women came forward after seeing a video of the cafe attack.
The fact the attack occurred is “shocking, but sadly, unsurprising”, said Sara M Saleh, a human rights activist and writer who has lived most of her life in Sydney apart from eight years in Dubai.
"It is just one of the more visible manifestations of the deeply embedded racism that racialised minorities, including Muslims, face in Australia," she told The National.
"Many visibly Muslim women live in constant anxiety and fear, they bear the brunt as they are normally the targets of these kinds of attacks,” Ms Saleh said.
“These attacks are not isolated, they are a reflection of the existing culture. Racism is not just on the ‘fringes’, racism is rife in mainstream media, from problematic ‘all white’ morning show panels to international guest speakers like Milo [Yiannopoulos], and in our political discourse," she said.
“It is precisely indicative of the wider problem when merely a few days after this attack, media platforms like Sky News are inviting alt-right populist speakers to discuss Muslim women – further spreading irresponsible and harmful views at a time when the community needs to come together and heal.”
Tameem Khader, a Palestinian-Australian based in Qatar, told The National that Australian media and politicians had created an environment conducive to bigotry, saying they "are terrible" when it comes to Muslims.
“Look at the relationship between the Australian media and Islam: they only run negative stories,” he said.
Muslims make up only 2.6 per cent of Australia's population, according to a 2016 census, but a study released late last year showed that the average perception of their numbers is far higher – 17 per cent. The census also showed that 42 per cent of the more than 600,000 Muslims in Australia live in Greater Sydney.
Award-winning Australian writer and journalist Sarah Malik said watching footage of the attack on Ms Elasmar, which was widely shared online, made her "feel sick and angry and anxious".
"This is what it means to be a Muslim woman navigating life in Australia today," Ms Malik wrote in an article for the Australian network SBS. "Forget the glass ceiling – just try being a woman trying to buy groceries without being attacked or abused at the shops."
The attack happened only days after a major report on Islamophobia in Australia said that 72 per cent of victims of Islamophobic attacks in public were women, and 73 per cent of the perpetrators of these attacks were male.
Most of the attacks happened in shopping centres, in well-guarded areas with surveillance, the report by the Islamophobia Register said. Ninety-two per cent of the victims were targeted when they were alone.
Ms Saleh said the attack on Ms Elasmar had sparked strong community solidarity.
“The Muslim community is traumatised, and of course concerned for Rana and her baby's safety and well-being. Other minority groups including Indigenous people have also expressed a lot of solidarity, they understand better than anyone,” she said.
“Any serious look at ourselves as a nation must begin by examining our history and the ongoing treatment of Indigenous people, who experience these kinds of abuses and violence on a daily basis with little to no attention.”