Muslim contact with the Aboriginals of Australia predates the European conquest, but often the country’s small Muslim population is ignored or feared. One century-old mosque in Brisbane is aiming to change that by opening its doors to non-Muslims.
A century-old mosque in a Western country will sound like a building out of place and time for many people in Australia. Such ignorance is widespread even though Muslim contact with indigenous Australians, the Aboriginals, predates European settlement.
Even the colonisers needed Muslim expertise in scaling the vast and inhospitable landscape of Australia. This help was imported in the form of Afghan cameleers, who were mainly Muslims from northwest India and parts of today’s Pakistan. Many returned after the rail network was set up, but a few remained with some marrying European and Aboriginal women.
Some of these early Muslim families established Holland Park Mosque, which has been part of the landscape of Brisbane since 1908. Muslims were so few in number to start with and a huge influx of European migrants after the great wars made them even more invisible. The abolishment of the 'White Australia Policy' in the 1970s, followed by the migration of Lebanese refugees and the skilled migrants of the 1990s, were not enough to change the status quo, especially in smaller cities like Brisbane.
The terrorist attack of September 11 2001, changed a lot of that, both for good and for bad. Suddenly there was a widespread interest in everything Islam. The bad part of it was that it was driven by fear which was constantly drummed into the heads of an average Westerner in the name of the ‘War on Terror’, sold as a ‘clash of civilisations’ by an unholy alliance of the right-wing media, politicians and extreme right-wing groups.
Mosques became the first and most visible non-human target of this fear which turned into hostility. The first mosque to be firebombed in the wake of September 11 was in Brisbane, Australia. The good thing about this renewed interest was that for the first time in its history, Australia was talking about Islam and Muslims as part of this young nation’s past and the future. This debate has increasingly become more polarising as the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has done what it was set out to do: create an ‘us and them’ mentality in a low-level global conflict.
It is true that as a tiny minority in one of the least populated nations in the world, we cannot make a huge difference in global geopolitics but to sit on the sidelines would be a betrayal of our faith (Islam) and our nationality (Australian). That is why I decided to dive right into it and volunteer myself to be the spokesperson of Holland Park Mosque and the Queensland Islamic Community in 2010.
It was hard to figure out where to start and what could we do with our limited resources. While I was solving this dilemma one evening outside Holland Park Mosque, I saw a middle-aged non-Muslim neighbour walking past the mosque.
As we do here in Australia, I greeted him with “G’day (good day) mate, how you going?” He seemed a little surprised, perhaps because he didn’t expect me to sound like an Aussie. Nonetheless he interrupted his walk and we started chatting. I introduced myself to him and asked him how long he has been living in the area. He said around 30 years.
So, I decided to ask him if he knew what we did at this building, pointing to the mosque. He paused a little and said: “you burn people here”.
I was shocked but quickly realised he has confused the mosque with a crematorium which is right behind the mosque and is not part of the mosque structure. I clarified the difference between a crematorium and a mosque to him and invited him inside the mosque. He didn’t come in that day but promised he would come over sometime.
That evening some of these questions kept on bothering me for hours. How can a person live next to a mosque and not know what we do inside for over 30 years? Should he know? Or should we, Muslims, introduce ourselves to our neighbours?
After a brief discussion with Imam Uzair Akbar, the imam of Holland Park Mosque, we came up with the idea of a mosque open day, inviting non-Muslims to come in and ask questions. Our first open day had 200 people, non-Muslims from all walks of life, ages and beliefs poured in.
That single day gave me the confidence to believe that the best way to conquer manufactured fear is by communicating with love and peace. That message needs amplification and that is why when we were approached by the production team of The Mosque Next Door, we accepted right away.
While we try to win hearts and minds, Islamophobia and the demonisation of Muslims continues from the highest political and media platforms. Most Muslims have personally faced anti-Muslim discrimination or know of someone who has. Most mosques and Islamic institutions receive threats and abuse via email and letters. Last month’s terrorist attack in Christchurch didn’t come as a surprise to many Muslims. While this was the largest terror attack against Muslims in the West it was not the first time Muslims were killed by a Western terrorist.
In 2017, a British man killed worshippers at Finsbury Park Mosque by driving a van into Muslim worshippers. Despite increasing terrorism against Muslims there are some like Senator Fraser Anning, who continue their anti-Muslim hate crusade, and conservative media commentators continue to give them platforms and act as apologists for them.
These are not easy times for Muslims in the West, but as Muslims we know that life was not meant to be easy. This is the test of our times and there is solace in the fact that the reward for these struggles awaits us in the afterlife. But while we live it, we will always choose to respond in the way our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught us to respond: with love and peace.
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