Interview with Brice Hamack, President, Islamophobia Register Australia

AMUST: Assalamu alaikum. Today we are speaking with Brice Hamack. Brice has just recently been elected as the president of Islamophobia Register Australia (the Register).

Brice, considering what Mariam (Veiszadeh) went through as the past President of the Register, what led you to volunteer to be the president this time.

Brice: Well, in my time at the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), I grew accustomed to a lot of the hate and the vitriol that people in those positions deal with.

There was one incident where we received a death threat with a bunch of white powder in the envelope. We had to call the FBI and the fire department, and they literally quarantined the office, escorted us out into the parking lot. We sat there for hours surrounded by fire trucks and helicopters and we had to go through decontamination tents.

So, I’m no stranger to that kind of environment. To me it’s just part and parcel of being in a position where you’re really pushing back against deeply entrenched prejudices and bigotry. When you’re making people question themselves on those attitudes, you’re going to get a lot of pushback and hate in response.

So for me it wasn’t something that really deterred me because it’s just something I’m used to and I understand that that’s part of the job.

Also, unfortunately, I think that because Mariam was a minority Muslim woman wearing hijab, that whatever she went through will not be anywhere near in comparison to what I’ll have to go through, inshaAllah, as a Western Caucasian male with an American accent.

Based on our recent report we also found that the majority of victims of Islamophobia are women wearing hijab, and I mean, I don’t have any scientific basis to back this, but it is possibly because a lot of the perpetrators see them as weak, defenseless and someone that they can easily target and let out their aggression. Whereas, a Caucasian male – they see more as I guess in their eyes an equal or someone who could potentially push back against them.

AMUST: So, for the benefit of our readers, you’re American. And whilst in the US, you had a position in CAIR. Tell us more about that.

Brice: Well, the way CAIR operates is that there’s a national office in Washington D.C., but then there are local offices all over the country, and each office operates almost like a franchisee, where they’re connected to the national office, but they run things how they best think serves their local community.

So I worked in the San Francisco Bay area and the Sacramento Valley offices as a civil rights attorney and a civil rights coordinator. I was the civil rights coordinator for all of northern California for CAIR.

I provided direct legal services, oversaw complex litigation. I also hosted events, presentations, educational workshops, liaised with other nonprofit and government organizations to develop best practices to serve the community.

AMUST: While we’re in the US, was what happened in Charlottesville a surprise?

Brice: Oh no, it’s not a surprise at all. My wife and I are trying to get up on world history, and the more I study history the more I’m not surprised by anything – It’s just a never ending cycle of people and races and social classes and caste systems and conflict and tension and power struggles.

In the US it’s always been a matter of Western control over minorities. I mean since the time when the first founding fathers came it was to colonise Native Americans, and then they enslaved African-Americans to help them with their agricultural, institutions and infrastructure. And whenever someone else comes in and starts making them question their system, they’re going to get pushback, they’re going to be faced with oppression.

So it’s not a surprise, it’s always been there. The fact that you had Obama as president doesn’t mean that racism was solved or that we’re in a post-racist world. I think post-racism is an idea that will never happen because there will just always be conflict.

And, of course, anyone who is really honest with themselves and really reflects can identify multitudes of prejudices within themselves. As much as people like to think that they’re not racist or that they’re colour blind or religious-blind or that nothing really affects them, that when they meet people they don’t judge them whatsoever. If you really go through your day and you’re constantly checking yourself, you realise you have judgments on everything. You might see a person walking down the street dressed a certain way or acting a certain way and your mind will automatically assign a judgment to them. But that’s just human. And I think the best we can strive to do is just to recognize those judgments and constantly work to make sure they don’t turn into long term behavior.

AMUST: So what brought you to Australia?

Brice: Mainly my wife. We met about seven years ago when I was studying abroad in Sydney. And since that time we remained really close. We developed a really close friendship for a while until it came to the point where we were both seriously looking to get married and we both realised that we had strong feelings for one another.

I was also looking for a move. I was considering maybe moving to the East Coast, New York, D.C. or something like that. So for me I was looking for an opportunity for something new and exciting. And when my wife offered the opportunity to move here and get married I was more than happy to pursue that. And because we developed a really close friendship over the years it’s really served us well in marriage.

AMUST: Why Canberra?

Brice: My wife is from Sydney, but out of uni she went into the Commonwealth grad program, and then she just stuck around. She loves the nature and the clean air and the relaxed attitude, the slower pace of life – she really enjoys it. So she wanted to stay here and I wanted to be with her, so here I am.

AMUST: What’s your day job?

Brice: Right now I work in Legal Aid ACT client services. My job is mostly comprised of reviewing applications for legal aid that come to our office. Making sure they comply with the Legal Aid Act and the guidelines. Client Services is more or less the front line of legal aid – we interact with people who are seeking out legal assistance.

Legal Aid’s goal is to provide legal services to marginalized communities. Impoverished community,  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, refugees, domestic violence victims and the like.

AMUST: How does this complement your new role?

Brice: I really do see almost every single application for legal aid that comes through our office. And so I get a really good idea of the issues facing a big chunk of the Canberra community, especially those who are marginalized, those who are in trouble with the law in one  form or another.  This helps me gain a better understanding of how I and institutions can better serve that community, including the Australian Muslim community contained therein.

AMUST: What is the primary function of the Register?

Brice: The primary function is to correlate incidents of Islamophobia across Australia to create a central database that can be relied upon in producing academic papers and reports to present to elected officials and to community leaders to say this is how much abuse our community is getting, here are specific examples, what can you do to help us, how can we work with you to solve these issues.

Without a centralized source like this you just get anecdotal stories every now and then.

In the past, working with elected officials, I’ve found that when you’re responsible to a constituency, you’re very hesitant to take action on an issue as contentious as Islamophobia.

But if a group comes to you and says, ‘hey look, 20 percent of your voting constituency is Muslim and half of them are being abused in the streets, you need to do something about this’, they’re much more likely to realize there’s votes at stake and take action.

Additionally, if someone comes back to an elected official or community leader following action and asks, ‘why are you doing this?’, that person can pull out this report and they can point to this website and this database.

You’re obviously going to have your critics, but it’s a very powerful tool to tell our story and advocate for our community to people who have control over these problems.

AMUST: Was it the key input to the Islamophobia Report?

Brice: The data from the register is the data in the report, a report which was just referenced in Parliament House the other day by a senator discussing the issue of Islamophobia in Australia.

Until you have this type of verifiable accredited information to put out there to give to people, you’re not going to be able to have your story told properly.

It’s definitely one piece and you need many other pieces, but it’s one of those pieces that I think this community is slowly starting to see the power of, and because of that they’re going to hopefully start assisting more and reporting more and encouraging others to report.

AMUST: Islamophobia is fear of Islam?

Brice: It’s not just fear. It’s an irrational hatred and disgust. It’s kind of abhorrence of Islam. But you can’t just think of fear in the sense of fear that Islam is going to come get you, like physically harm you.

It’s also the fear that there’s this idea, this ideology out there that is different than your own. And if it’s different, and it’s saying its right, then people start to subconsciously thinking, ‘am I wrong?’ And they start questioning themselves and their belief systems.

You can’t just look at fear at the surface level, you have to really think about it psychologically and subconsciously. Anyone who is presented with something that makes them question themselves and everything they think to be true, their natural response is to be defensive and to eradicate that idea so that they can feel comfortable with themselves again.

In doing so, they can also feel comfortable attacking people who hold those beliefs, bashing them, calling them all terrorists, labelling them, stereotyping them et cetera. It’s really not a fear of personal harm.

It’s fear of the unknown. It’s the fear of, ‘who are these strange people and these strange ideas, things that I don’t agree with, the strange way they dress, the strange way they look?’ For example, people go their whole life being told that freedom is to wear less clothes if they desire and drink alcohol to excess. But now they are being presented with an idea of freedom where wearing more clothes is desirable and abstaining from alcohol is desirable. To those people that just doesn’t make sense. At a theological level many people worship Jesus, and here is a group of people saying Jesus isn’t who Christians think he is, that there is another Prophet, it’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way and cause defensiveness.

Feeding off this subconscious and irrational fear is the globalized information and 24/7 news networks, news networks that need to show something literally at all hours. And what do they show? Most of the time it’s violence and chaos and anarchy, and it’s easy in a western society to find that in Muslim societies while ignoring all the violence and chaos in your own country. These media outlets are constantly generating narratives that aren’t true of the global Muslim community, but it’s what you can put on TV to gain viewership through sensationalism, and it’s subsequently going to stoke fear and hatred as well.

AMUST: So how does the Register work?

Brice: Well there are no paid people, we’re all volunteers. To be honest I’m still kind of figuring it out. There are really only a small handful of people who are fully involved.

So there’s myself who’s the president, I oversee its operation on a day to day basis and I look over the reports that come in and will send releases or disseminate information to social media or to the media or the public.

It mostly works when people experience or witness an incident of Islamophobia like abuse or harassment of a Muslim or the Muslim community, and they will report that through the Register’s reporting tool.

It’s through a web site right now and we’re working on a Facebook tool as well because we’ve noticed that Facebook is the main channel in which the Register communicates with the Australian Muslim community. So we’re working to implement a tool that you can use on Facebook itself without having to go to the Web site that will generate that information for us. And then once we receive any information we sometimes will reach back out to the person to check in on them to see if they need any assistance or to verify the incident.

Once received we put it into our database which then someone else in our organization like Dr Derya Iner from ISRA – she’s our statistical data analyst, and she’ll collate everything and analyse it and write up on it. We just keep track of everything so that when we do produce a report or are called on to respond to questions we have the information available.

AMUST: Do you provide any support for those who report these incidents?

Brice: Right now it’s very basic.

We help them file a report with police or maybe reach out to services like counseling. Someone in our group often calls people back and counsels them directly, just talks to them and gives them an ear to listen to or talk to. And I think that alone does a lot of benefit.

Too often we don’t just sit and listen and let someone grieve in our presence. That alone can really be empowering for someone. But I would like to see it move forward a little bit more and offer more in the way of advocacy services and support services.

I don’t know if the Register itself is a vehicle for community organizing and legal advocacy. I would like to see it maintain its integrity as an academic resource and a database.

But personally, from my work in CAIR, I have a desire to do those things, so I’m trying to slowly figure out ways to incorporate that with the Register. It might involve starting a new nonprofit. It might involve getting legal practitioners involved to do work on a pro bono basis. I’m not entirely sure. It’s still very up in the air, but I think the Register is a solid foundation for increasing the advocacy institutions serving the Australian Muslim community.

AMUST: What other plans do you have for the Register?

Brice: Just enhancing the reporting tool, making sure that we’re getting the right information to allow us to best assist people and increasing the frequency of the reports.

Also hoping to increase communication with academic bodies, with journalists, with government agencies – just sharing that information. Not so much advocating a political stance but advocating the position that this community is under attack right now and there’s a lot of abuse and harassment being directed at this community and something needs to be done.

What exactly needs to be done is a bigger discussion, but the Register can be utilized to better understand the community and how institutions can better serve it. That’s something I haven’t looked into enough that I really want to: How can this information benefit Muslim institutions? Can we start offering pro bono counselling services to the community? Can we start implementing culturally sensitive legal clinics?

AMUST: So what challenges does the Register face?

Brice: The same challenges that any nonprofit faces which are sustainability and funding.

Like I said it’s all volunteer based now. But as it grows it requires more time and more energy and more effort. And if we really want to see it take the leap to the next level it’s going to require paid staff at some point. It can’t just be three working professionals who volunteer before work and after work a few hours a day. That’s only going to take us so far. And if the community really wants this organisation, and wants to see a long lasting presence, it needs to invest in it at some point.

So that’s probably the biggest challenge: how do we take the Register from a volunteer based organisation to one that the community regularly invests in? But then again that comes back to needing to better understand the community, and needing to better understand what the Register can offer. I don’t expect people to just start giving money to something that they don’t see benefit and value in, so that’s going to take a little bit of time.

Another challenge is dealing with the hate out there against the Register itself – it’s quite a lot of hate. As much hate as we got at CAIR, it amazes me how much hate there is for the Register, and how much hate there is for Muslims actually speaking up for themselves in Australia. Maybe in the US there’s just a more engrained culture of civil resistance, vocalizing your opinion and standing up for yourself and pushing back against oppressive behaviours.

In Australia it’s not something you see as often, you don’t have the civil rights movement, you didn’t have Malcolm X, you never had a Million Man March, Martin Luther King Junior. You don’t have this history of civilians standing up and saying to government and society that what is happening to a group of people is wrong and will not be tolerated anymore.

Even the Aboriginal community is struggling immensely to achieve its goals. And that’s something that the Muslim community itself needs to really reflect on, how we are supporting other communities struggling much worse than we are.

We can’t let this just be about us. We have to realize that the best thing we can do is to advocate against oppression no matter who the oppressor or the oppressed is.

AMUST: How can members of the community help the Register?

Brice: First thing is just reporting incidents. Too often Muslims normalize discriminatory behaviour. We don’t think of it as something that’s different or out of the ordinary or something that shouldn’t happen, we just normalize it as behavior that we have to get used to. And so really reporting those things to the register and giving us the data that we can then use to promote the Register and provide to elected officials and community leaders to show them that this is what our community is going through.

Increased reporting will empower The Register to take a bigger stance in the community and to maintain a bigger presence, and when doing that it will attract funding naturally.

But with that said, it is always a blessing when people who see benefit in the Register reach out and offer to help, offer financial services, whatever they can offer we do our best to find opportunities for community engagement. I always tell people that service is service no matter how big or how small it is, and every little bit of service helps the community move forward.

When you’re building a community center the person who lays the concrete for the foundation is just as important to that community center’s existence as the person who will run the center once it’s opened.

And so if people can just talk about the register in their local community, if they can donate 10 or 15 dollars to help us pay for our P.O. Box or pay for our web domain, if they can offer a couple hours a month to call back people who have reported incidents and just talk to them and just check in on them and see how they’re doing. If you’re a law student and you are interested in legal practice, offering to research legal issues and write legal papers. If you’re someone interested in writing or academia offering to do some analysis or write editorials – little bits here and there can really go a long way.

AMUST: Thank you very much, Brice.

The Islamophobia Register can be accessed via: