People living in more diverse suburbs are less likely to express or experience Islamophobia, according to new RMIT research.

The study led by Associate Professor Val Colic-Peisker and Associate Professor Karien Dekker examined whether the religious visibility of Muslim residents had an impact on local community cohesion and Islamophobia.

“The data, collected through a survey of residents and follow-up in-depth interviews suggest that the significant presence of visible Muslims does not predict Islamophobia in areas where Muslim residents daily rub shoulders with non-Muslims,” Colic-Peisker said.

“The study confirms the suggestion of the ‘contact theory’: that direct social interaction with minority groups leads to the diminishing of prejudice against them,” she said.

A team of researchers, including seven bi-lingual interviewers, focused on the neighbourhood experience of people living in Fawkner and Broadmeadows, two relatively disadvantaged suburbs in Melbourne’s north where many Muslims live.

“Low socio-economic indicators for an area seem to be a stronger predictor of prejudice against Muslims than their visible local presence,” Colic-Peisker said.

“On the individual level, respondents with lower socio-economic status and older respondents tended to be more Islamophobic, which confirms findings of other Australian and overseas studies.”

Respondents with more diverse local social networks expressed significantly lower levels of Islamophobia. 

Overall, the neighbourhood experiences of Muslim and non-Muslim residents in both localities were positive. This was especially so for local Muslims, who liked their suburbs, interacted with their diverse neighbours and felt accepted and safe in their local areas.

“Despite a generally positive sentiment, we found that visible Muslim women often felt at risk outside their suburbs, where there was a higher likelihood of Islamophobic incidents,” Dekker said.

Public transport has been identified as a threatening setting for Muslim women.

The data indicate that most non-Muslims in the two suburbs consider Muslim visibility unremarkable. However, two-thirds of non-Muslim respondents and 28 per cent of Muslim respondents were uncomfortable about face covering worn by some Muslim women. Rather than being an expression of Islamophobia, this was an expression of concern that the veil precludes interaction with the women.

“While local governments successfully run community development and other programs, it seems that focusing the efforts on further strengthening English language and employment programs for migrants in the diverse, relatively disadvantaged areas, may be the most beneficial for the wider community,” Dekker said.

The study was conducted in collaboration with the Islamic Council of Victoria and Moreland and Hume city councils. Read the full report.