Canberra's top intelligence officer said there was "no doubt" some right-wing extremists have been inspired by the Christchurch mosque attack, and that an attack in Australia by the extreme right is "plausible".
Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation director general Mike Burgess issued the warning at a parliamentary committee meeting early this month, and his agency's annual report said the threat has increased in recent years.
The warning came as Australia's top Islamic body warned a national government inquiry that discrimination against Muslims is on the rise.
The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils said the government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill does not go far enough to address an increasingly intolerant society.
Australian author and journalist Andy Fleming, who has closely monitored the extreme right in Australia for 15 years, told The National the possibility of a far-right attack is "fairly high".
“[The Christchurch attack] certainly was celebrated by some... If the rhetoric engaged in by these sorts of groups is taken seriously, then there is a basis for concern. Beyond that, many thousands have been radicalised in the recent period, and it's also possible for a so-called 'lone wolf' to again emerge from this milieu,” he said.
Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah, who is working on a research project with the generation who grew up during the War on Terror, told The National that anti-Muslim bigotry "intensified and escalated" after the attacks of 9/11.
“I knew what it means to be spat at in the street because I was wearing hijab. [But since 9/11] we have seen the normalisation of white supremacy… it is in the governing party, it is in sections of the mainstream media,” she said.
In December 2005, a rally of about 5,000 people was held on Cronulla Beach in New South Wales after an altercation involving local youth. Neo-Nazis and other far-right groups swarmed to the rally, handing out white nationalist and anti-Muslim material. Some wore shirts with anti-Muslim slogans.
The mob began to chase and attack anyone of "foreign" appearance. By the end of the day, 26 people needed medical treatment for injuries and 16 were arrested.
Major radio broadcaster Alan Jones was found by a tribunal to have “incited hatred and vilified Lebanese Muslims” on air in the lead-up to the riots.
John Howard, the prime minister at the time, dismissed any suggestion his government's frequent warnings about “home-grown terrorists” had contributed to an atmosphere conducive to hate crimes.
Amer moved to Australia from Iraq in 2006. He told The National he learnt of the Cronulla riots after he had applied to migrate to Australia and thought "where are we going?".
He said he had experienced a lot of “indirect” Islamophobia in Australia, and a few direct incidents.
Amer said Islamophobia was a "lucrative trade" for some – like far-right One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos and activist Lauren Southern – and also a useful tool for politicians.
“If unemployment goes up, blame Muslims. If there are political issues you can scaremonger and deflect from the priorities of working people,” he said.
Mehreen Faruqi, a senator, was born in Pakistan and moved to Australia in 1992. In 2013, she became the first Muslim woman in Australia to enter parliament when she joined the New South Wales legislature, and in August 2018 became a national senator.
“Since I’ve been in public life, I’ve been a target of anti-Muslim and anti-migrant racism. It seems some people can’t accept that Muslim Australians dare to have a political voice,” she said.
“It’s no secret some politicians in Australia have been openly inciting hatred against Muslims for a long time. Shamefully, parts of the media, rather than scrutinising these politicians, have amplified their message of Islamophobia.”
In February 2011, it was reported that Scott Morrison, now prime minister but then the opposition spokesman for immigration, suggested an anti-Muslim election strategy to his parliamentary colleagues. He denied the claims.
In April 2017, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced a Bill that would require migrants settling in Australia to sign a "values statement".
They said the law would be put to Parliament "as soon as possible". But after the government was re-elected in May 2019, the proposed "values test" law vanished from their agenda.
Mr Dutton had previously said an earlier government made "mistakes" by allowing refugees from Lebanon's civil war into Australia.
Mrs Faruqi told The National that "racist 'dog-whistling' is nothing new in Australia".
"Some members of Parliament see political opportunity in targeting Muslims. This sends a signal that Muslims are fair game, emboldens the far right and gives further licence to some media personalities to be openly racist against Muslims," she said.
The Islamophobia Register Australia surveyed Australian Muslim university students and found that between September 2014 and the end of 2015, 77.9 per cent had witnessed Islamophobic incidents and 50 per cent had been the target of an anti-Muslim attack of some kind.
Mrs Faruqi said “the seriousness of the spread of Islamophobia really hit home after the massacre of innocent people at a mosque in Christchurch which showed the real and dangerous consequences of stoking the fires of hatred”.
After the massacre, the former One Nation senator Fraser Anning, now an independent, issued a statement blaming the attack on Muslim immigration.
"[The] real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration programme which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand... Whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence," he said.
Anning was defeated at the subsequent election, but his former party still has two national senators and five representatives in state parliaments across Australia.
Ms Abdel Fattah said every Muslim she spoke to was “not surprised” the man on trial for the Christchurch mosque attacks, Brenton Tarrant, was an Australian.
David Coleman, Australia's Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, told The National that Australia is "a country of many faiths" and "this is part of what makes us such a successful multicultural society".
“The overwhelming majority of Australians recognise that our multicultural communities have added immensely to our nation. The Morrison Government has no tolerance for racial or cultural prejudice and we welcome all migrants who commit to Australia and its values,” he said.
The government has committed to an A$71 million (Dh180m) package over four years to "build social cohesion by connecting diverse communities to Australian society and to the workforce".
Amer said the government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill did nothing to address the root causes of racism and bigotry.
“Australian racism was born from the persecution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. First we need to settle those problems. Second, get rid of the racism. Make it as illegal as possible… it’s not good for society,” he said.
Mrs Faruqi said her party, the Greens, have long campaigned for a Charter of Rights that makes hate speech illegal and provides strong protections against all forms of racism, including Islamophobia.
Ms Abdel-Fattah said the fight to stop anti-Muslim bigotry could and should not be done without working to end all racism.
"Even if I could get rid of Islamophobia tomorrow, indigenous people will have to deal with racism," she said. "We need to mobilise the critical mass of people, and it usually falls to minorities to do that work. White Australia needs to step up and do that work, build that critical mass so that governments will change."