When we take the time to get to know a Muslim person and engage with them face-to-face, the stereotypes and preconceived ideas begin to break down, writes Ashleigh Green.
BY Ashleigh Green*
When former army chief, Peter Leahy was misquoted in The Weekend Australian on August 9 saying, “We’ll fight Islam [for] 100 years,” I instantly thought of my Muslim friends. Images of my generous, big-hearted Muslim friends came to mind as I reminisced about our several shared meals where I have been welcomed with open arms into the homes of Muslim families. Naturally, I wanted to know why we were supposed to be “fighting” the religion of some of the most self-sacrificing, generous people that I know.
The Weekend Australian headline sparked outrage and ASIO boss, David Irvine, in an interview on The Voice of Islam radio station said he was “utterly outraged” by the newspaper headline, saying: “We are not fighting Islam, we are fighting terrorism. And they’re two very, very different things”.
As the group, ‘Islamic State’, continues to carry out abhorrent and appalling acts in the Middle East, Muslims here in Australia are facing the backlash. Knowing the deep commitment of my Muslim friends to peace, community and mutual respect, I say with conviction that the values of extremists like the Islamic State group are not representative of the Australian Muslim community. Muslims are no less revolted by the actions of the Islamic State than the rest of us.
Media discourse and the tone of public statements have deeply affected the Muslim community, particularly in recent months. As Australians, we should deplore the physical violence overseas, but we should also deplore the verbal violence against Muslims and other minority groups that is taking place on our own soil.
My good friend, Ibrahim or “Ibbi” as I know him, is one of many young leaders in the Muslim community working tirelessly to break down religious and cultural barriers in Sydney. I first met Ibbi on an interfaith trek in Tasmania where we spent four days camping and trekking through the wilderness as a small group of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Mormons.
Ibbi described the way that he, as an Australian Muslim, is constantly faced with the task of defending the majority of Australian Muslims who value peace and nonviolence. “While it gets tiring, I see it as my responsibility to speak up and share the fact that Islam is a religion of peace. If I don’t speak up, who will?” Ibbi said.
Ibbi, who is well educated and informed about current issues, is more than willing to condemn the abhorrent actions of the Islamic State and suggest solutions for dealing with the radicalisation of Muslim youth. But Ibbi explains that for young, Australian Muslims who are unaware of the politics surrounding particular issues, being constantly asked to comment and speak out is exhausting, difficult and likely to make matters worse for the Muslim community.
Ibbi gave the example of his brother: “If approached, my brother wouldn’t be able to answer most questions surrounding these issues. He doesn’t know what’s happening in his own community let alone the rest of Australia and the world”.
As Australian Muslim communities are faced with the task of explaining that they are not, in fact, a breeding ground for extremists, Ibbi makes the point that the young Australians joining extremist groups were never overly involved in the Muslim community in the first place. “When in Australia, these young people were marginalised, lost and not involved in the community at all. So when someone whispers in their ear with an offer of something they can devote their lives to, they willingly accept because they have nothing else in their lives,” he said.
Ibbi explains that Australian Muslim communities see it as their task to draw these young people into the heart of the community before they are left with such little purpose and meaning that the lure of an extremist group is their last resort.
Australia is home to countless good, strong, resilient Muslim leaders. I meet these people every time I attend an interfaith Iftar dinner, every time I attend Eid prayers and every time I attend Muslim festivals and community events. When we take the time to get to know a Muslim person and engage with them face-to-face, the stereotypes and preconceived ideas begin to break down.
Indeed, it is only going to become harder for Muslims as the Australian public awake each day to news of the next inconceivable crime carried out by the Islamic State. Australian Muslims fear that a proposed raft of new counter-terrorism laws will unfairly target them and there are concerns that Muslims travelling to Saudi Arabia this month for the Hajj pilgrimage will be caught up by the new anti-terrorism units operating at Australian airports.
In the face of escalating fear and anti-Muslim sentiment, last month Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders responded by issuing a message of love to Muslims, in what they hoped would become a viral campaign to counter hatred, divisiveness and marginalisation. In contrast to The Weekend Australian headline, “We’ll Fight Islam [for] 100 Years”, the statement read, “We’ll Love Muslims [for] 100 Years” and it was signed by more than 150 religious leaders, including my colleagues at the Columban Mission Institute.
We must certainly condemn the violence overseas, but we mustn’t forget the more subtle forms of violence that appear on our Facebook newsfeeds, on the pages of our newspapers and from the mouths of shock jocks. Let us not become blind to the challenges for Muslims in our own backyard. There has never been a better time for genuine, open, face-to-face dialogue.
The full text of the “Love for 100 Years” statement is available online at www.lovefor100years.com where you can add your name to the list of signatories.
* Ashleigh Green works at the Columban Mission Institute’s Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations where she is involved in several interfaith initiatives in Sydney that seek to break down barriers between Christians and Muslims. She also offers workshops on interfaith dialogue for school students and community groups. Ashleigh graduated from the University of Sydney in 2013 with a degree in media and anthropology.
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