John Howard’s critics believed that he at least pandered to, if not stirred up, anti-Muslim sentiment. According to Malcolm Fraser:
for a variety of reasons, but not least because the Government has sought to set Muslims aside, discrimination and defamation against Muslims has been rising dramatically. (italics added)
What we’ve lacked in assessing these claims is comparable survey data over time that lets us track changing views towards Muslims. Now that has changed. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2007 has partially unlocked the results of their social distance question on Muslims, enabling a comparision with the same question asked in the Issues in Multicultural Australia Survey 1988.
The results are not what I expected. Especially since 2001, Islam has suffered one PR disaster after another. Yet over the nearly 20 years since 1988, Muslims have improved their position in the social distance survey.
In 1988, 24% of the Australian population would either welcome a Muslim into their family or as a close friend. By 2007, that was up to 38.5%. In 1988, 32% of the Australian population wanted either to keep Muslims out of the country or to have them as visitors only. That had dropped to 24.5% by 2007.
Overall, Muslims are the least popular group – the Jehovah’s Witness will find fewer people who want them in their house (31%) but also fewer who want to keep them out of the country (16%) – but to improve their position despite all that has happened is a good result.
While politicians can raise the salience of ethnic or religious differences, I’m sceptical of the view that they shape attitudes to ethnic or religious minorities. People don’t take advice from politicians on matters that they can work out for themselves. So I don’t think Howard influenced attitudes to Muslims either way, and this evidence is consistent with that view though not proof of it.
The more interesting issue is why the more positive attitudes? Perhaps on the contact hypothesis the significant Muslim migration to Australia since 1988 has meant more people know Muslims and conclude that they aren’t that bad after all. Perhaps prejudice (or at least open prejudice) has become less acceptable since 1988. Perhaps both. Either way, concerns about rising anti-Muslim prejudice seem misplaced.