Melbourne, Australia – In Christian majority countries like Australia, Easter is usually a time of family gatherings and celebration.
However, a day before Easter Sunday, hundreds of people took to the streets in major Australian cities to protest against what they see as the rising influence of Islam.
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Under the banner “Reclaim Australia”, protesters, many waving Australian flags, chanted against Islamic law and held signs reading “No More Mosques” and “Islam is an Enemy of the West.”
In Melbourne, the 500 or so anti-Islam protesters were outnumbered by the over 1,000 who attended a counterprotest against Islamophobia and religious bigotry.
Local Socialist Party councillor Stephen Jolly, who was one of the organisers of the counter-rally, told Al Jazeera that it was important that people came out to show their support for the Muslim community.
“We’re here to make a stand against stupid explanations for Australia’s problems. To suggest that the problems we are facing with unemployment, education and healthcare are because of the two percent of the population who are Islamic, is completely irrational,” he said.
Already high tensions at the rallies built throughout the afternoon as members of the counter-rally sought to block off the anti-Islam protesters. The hundreds of police deployed were unable to stop violent scuffles breaking out at times as the groups clashed.
Maree Adgemis was one of a handful of visibly Muslim women who braved the counterprotest. She told Al Jazeera the use of Australian flags as an anti-Islam symbol was “complete foolishness and ignorance”.
“We are not a threat to people, we are normal people, we want peace. Yes, there are some people out there who don’t want that, but that’s in every community. We’re much more similar than we are different, but the media is showing our differences to separate [us] and to use fear,” she told Al Jazeera.
Explaining the rally
Similar to the PEGIDA movement in Germany, rally organisers attempted to brand the rally as not about race, but instead about what protesters considered to be “regressive Islamic cultural values”.
Among the anti-Islam protesters were extremists, like skinheads and men bearing neo-Nazi tattoos, however there were also seemingly average families.
Margaret Rowe-Keys, a 52-year-old artist, told Al Jazeera the rally wasn’t racist but was in “defence of Australian values”.
“We’re not anti-ethnic, we’re not racist. We’re trying to fight for our culture, rather than have someone come in and say you have to change your culture. We do have an Australian culture and it’s quite embedded in what we’ve built on for over 200 years,” she told Al Jazeera.
Another protester, Phil Athanasiadis said that he wasn’t against all Muslims but was only concerned about “religious extremism”.
“We just love our way of life, we live in the best country on earth and we see examples of where it’s deteriorating overseas. We see the large Muslim presence in a lot of the European countries that is causing a lot of problems,” he said.
There has been no significant push to implement Islamic law by Australia’s small Muslim minority or to enforce Islamic religious teachings or norms on the broader society.
Among the many issues raised by protesters was Muslim women wearing face coverings in public, which some said was a security threat. Another issue was the fees food companies pay for optional halal certification, which some claim constitutes a “halal tax”.
This is first time Australia has seen national anti-Islam rallies. The rallies come amid a heightened terrorism warning in Australia and also in wake of last year’s Lindt cafe siege, where a lone gunman took over a dozen hostages in a Sydney café, two of whom were killed when police stormed the building.
Following the siege, a Twitter campaign using the hashtag “IllRideWithYou” took off with citizens offering to take public transport with Muslims who felt unsafe.
However, the large scale anti-Islamic backlash many feared didn’t immediately materialise, partly because the gunman was such a fringe figure not accepted by the Islamic community and community members had previously reported him to intelligence services.
Away from the rally, the rising anti-Islamic sentiment has had a real effect on everyday life in some Muslim communities.
Mariam Veiszadeh, from the Islamophobia Register of Australia, told Al Jazeera they have been receiving a high number of reports of verbal and physical abuse on the street, particularly against hijab-wearing Muslim women.
“We have heard of cases of women, who are otherwise confident and deeply devout, who have taken off their hijabs in response to the current climate,” she said.
Some have also accused the federal government of contributing to the rising anti-Islamic sentiment. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has on several occasions accused mainstream Muslim community leaders for not doing enough to condemn extremist elements of Islam.
No senior federal government official has commented on the Reclaim Australia rallies.
Multiculturalism and Muslim Studies academic Shakira Hussein told Al Jazeera that while the extreme hardline racism at the rally was not representative of broader Australia, a milder anti-Islamic attitude was more pervasive.
“During the 1990s we saw a lot of racism directed at Asians and that was based on the fact they came from a different country and that their skin wasn’t the same colour as white Australians.
“After 9/11 it became more specifically directed towards Muslims and that’s been regarded as a more respectable form of racism because it’s not just based on genes and the colour of your skin and factors you can’t control, it’s supposedly, though often dubiously, meant to be based on people’s behaviour,” she said.
Hussein said that international events meant that it was difficult to predict whether the anti-Islam movement would continue to grow in Australia.
“Unlike with previous migrant groups, the difficulty for Muslims living in Australia is that events overseas, and not only in their own country of origin but in any Muslim country around the globe, continue to have ongoing ramifications here.
“Events in Syria and Iraq have played into life in Australia in a way that Muslims living here can do very little about. With no end date in sight to events in the Middle East, it makes it very difficult to see where anti-Muslim racism in Australia might end up because they’re connected. This might sadly be the new normal,” she said.
Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter: @JarniBlakkarly