Sydney stabbing incidents stoke Islamophobia, antisemitism as social tensions in Australia unravel

As reports of stabbings in Sydney’s Bondi Junction started trickling in last Saturday, Bondi resident JJ Chen prayed for the victims but also found herself hoping that the perpetrator was not from a minority group.

An Asian-Australian, Chen knows too well how quickly blame for the crime will fall on migrants and “non-white foreigners”.

The man who stabbed and killed six people in the popular Westfield Bondi Junction mall turned out to be 40-year-old Queensland native Joel Cauchi, who reportedly had a history of mental illness.

Police officers walk outside the Westfield Bondi Junction shopping centre as it reopens to the public for the first time after the stabbing attacks which killed several people at the shopping centre, in Sydney, Australia, on Friday. Photo: Reuters

But what disappointed Chen most was that long before Cauchi’s identity was revealed, misinformation and disinformation about the perpetrator had spread with many unverified claims that the attacker was Muslim, while migrants were also blamed.

“Many of us Aussies feel excluded in mainstream Australian society shaped by the white Australian policy hangover, [and] find it hard to be accepted at face value and as a consequence wear a handicap for being non-white,” she said.

While Muslim Australians were still expressing their anger online and many across the country were still reeling from shock, two days later, a 16-year-old stabbed a bishop in a church in Sydney.

The Australian police and intelligence agency has charged the teenager with committing a “terrorist offence”, following evidence of religious motivations.

The separate major knife incidents shed light on a worrying undercurrent in society, fuelled by a cocktail of tensions over rising Islamophobia and antisemitism, deepening mental health problems and the poor treatment of women, as well as divisions fuelled by online falsehoods and anger over geopolitical issues such as the Israel-Gaza war.

A floral tribute featuring photos of the victims in the knife attack on April 13 lies near a crime scene at Bondi Junction in Sydney, on Thursday. Photo: AP

With few violent attacks in Australian history, however, experts said what had happened in Sydney was no different from the rest of the world where social complexities and emerging divisions had been reduced to “good versus bad”.

These tensions were laid bare when riots broke outside the church after the stabbing on Monday. Crowds of people – some chanting “bring him out” – besieged the church, before demonstrators turned on police, hurting more than 50 officers and damaging police cars.

Paramedics sought refuge from the rioters in the church.

Local media said text messages spread quickly that night calling for Christians to take revenge on the 16-year-old who knifed Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel for allegedly “swearing at his prophet”. Emmanuel is recovering after surgery.

The bishop, who leads the Assyrian Orthodox Christ the Good Shepherd Church and has an online following, has preached anti-LGBTQ views, opposed Covid-19 vaccinations, criticised other religions including Islam and conducted sermons supporting former US president Donald Trump.

NSW state premier Chris Minns in turn warned that tit-for-tat violence would be met with the “full force of the law”.

A man stabs Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel during a church service at Christ The Good Shepherd Church in Wakeley, Sydney, Australia, on April 15. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Terrorism versus mental health

In the aftermath of the horror, the Muslim community in Sydney has been on high alert.

After Cauchi’s stabbing spree, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network asked on Facebook for news platforms to remove comments that incited hate against people “on racial or religious grounds”. On Sunday, police confirmed the attack was not driven by ideology.

Throughout the week, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has expressed deep concerns about the impact of social media on social cohesion and on Friday, he warned he would take “whatever action necessary” to make sure social media companies take down violent material posted online.

A major Sydney mosque, the Lakemba Mosque, received fire bomb threats after the church attack on Monday night, as Muslims and other religious communities including the Assyrian Australian Association condemned the violence and called for unity and peace, and for places of worship to be respected following the second stabbing.

Members of the religious community, Ahmadiyya Muslim Association Australia, stand outside the Westfield Bondi Junction shopping centre in Sydney, Australia, on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

However, the Islamic Council of NSW said in a statement on Tuesday it was bewildered the Bondi Junction attack was attributed to mental health issues while the church incident was labelled as terrorism even though the teen suspect was known to have a history of behavioural and mental health issues.

In Cauchi’s case, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17 and his father told local press he was frustrated he could not get a girlfriend. Police said footage from the carnage last weekend showed Cauchi targeted women but they were still investigating his motive.

The 16-year-old’s father told the Lebanese Muslim Association he did not see any “signs of [his son] becoming extreme” although he was disobedient.

“The signal this sends to the Australian community is that terrorism is solely reserved for Muslims … mental health issues like terrorism are not exclusive to any community,” the council said in a statement.

“The NSW government’s decision to label this as a terrorist act is irresponsible and we believe will only increase the likelihood of further tensions within the Australian community by fuelling social division and disharmony.”

Flowers at a memorial for the victims of the Bondi Junction attacks in Australia. Photo: Su-Lin Tan

Online attacks – which came from social media users as far as the UK – did not stop at the Muslim community. These users as well as major Australian network Channel 7 also wrongly named Benjamin Cohen, a Jewish Australian, as the perpetrator in the Bondi Junction attack. Cohen is suing the broadcaster for defamation.

The Jewish Council of Australia has condemned “notorious anti-Semites and fascists” for attempting to use the tragedy to drive antisemitism and right-wing Islamophobic groups for calling it an “Islamist” attack.

A mirror on society

Even though authorities and experts were satisfied the church stabbing met the definition of terrorism, Greg Noble, a professor at the Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society, said the label was “extremely harmful” to Australian society.

“It escalates the nature of the incident – and changes the way people see it,” he told This Week in Asia.

“This doesn’t mean it wasn’t a tragic incident that had its basis in religious differences, but it comes down to a young man with a troubled history responding individually to a perceived grievance. To lump this together with systematic, large-scale attacks by well-resourced organisations seems absurd.”

New South Wales Premier Chris Minns (left) and NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb sign a condolence book on Thursday while visiting a memorial to the victims of a knife attack at Westfield Bondi Junction shopping centre in Sydney. Photo: Pool/AFP

Religious leaders such as the Lebanese Muslim Association’s Gamel Kheir told local media that police should have been more thorough with their investigations before calling it terrorism.

While this was not a problem isolated to Australia, Noble said society had become conditioned to want “simple explanations of events” and to reduce the complexities of a situation “to a good and bad side”.

Noble, however, voiced concern over what he said was poor coverage from the media and social commentators in Australia on the Israel-Gaza war.

“Political leaders and social commentators have a responsibility to be much more careful in the way they talk about events, pick sides in conflicts, and try to harness tragedies as PR opportunities,” he said.

Flowers are left at Christ The Good Shepherd Church in the suburb of Wakeley, in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday. A 16-year-old boy has been charged after a stabbing at an Orthodox Assyrian church in western Sydney. Photo: EPA-EFE

Other experts also point to potential fractures in society caused by politicians looking to profit from dividing people.

Josh Roose, a political sociologist at Deakin University, told local media this week that Australia had become polarised. With so many actors seeking to score points over the war in the Middle East, people could be “pulled to extremes”, he warned.

There have been weekly pro-Palestinian marches in Australia since the war started.

“Political emotion is just heightened to an extent that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time … particularly those who believe themselves have a vested stake or in some way, shape or form, a connection to the conflict, feeling it deeply in everyday life,” he said.

Westfield Bondi Junction in Australia reopened on Friday after a stabbing attack last week. Photo: Su-Lin Tan

The speed with which people started spreading Islamophobia and antisemitism after the Bondi Junction incident was the outcome of politicians weaponising racism amid the Israel-Gaza war, the White Rose Society, an anti-fascist group, told This Week in Asia.

“After the Bondi Junction attack, we saw the worst of social media on display, with people looking to weaponise the incident to score points against everything from Palestine and Israel to bike lanes,” the group’s spokesman said.

“The current state of affairs is that bad actors are financially rewarded for spreading misinformation and disinformation on the world’s largest social platforms.”

The group urged Australia’s leaders to display moral courage and reject genocide or risk something worse than the Cronulla riots – a clash between Anglo and Middle-Eastern Australians in Sydney in 2005 – which became a national shame.

Scanlon Institute summarised these concerns in its annual report last year saying that social cohesion in Australia was under pressure and declining on some fronts.

“Our sense of national pride and belonging has been declining for some years, discrimination and prejudice remain stubbornly common, while in more recent years, we are reporting greater financial stress, increased concern for economic inequality and growing pessimism for the future,” the independent research body said.

Flowers at a memorial for the victims of the Bondi Junction attacks in Australia. Photo: Su-Lin Tan

Its data showed more than 90 per cent of Australians have positive feelings towards immigrants from Italy, Germany, and the UK but less for those from places such as India, Lebanon or Sudan. More people viewed Muslims negatively, compared with Christians.

Last week, a parliamentary inquiry called out the proposed controversial deportation bill by the Albanese government as a possible breach of human rights. The law seeks to ban entire nationalities from coming to Australia with some parliamentarians saying it could lead to people being “rounded up to be removed”.

On Thursday, Canberra gave recovering Pakistani security guard Muhammad Taha, who was stabbed protecting people at Bondi Junction, permanent residency for his bravery. Albanese also applauded the heroism of his colleague, Pakistani refugee Faraz Tahir, who died in the attack. Frenchman Damien Guerot, who tried to fight the attacker, was also given a visa.



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