Muslims challenge stereotypes

Photograph by Anthony Pinda.
Muslims in Australia say media coverage of ISIS has changed attitudes towards their religion. Anthony Pinda reports.

It’s 5:46AM on a mild autumn morning in Melbourne. Bright yellow taxis are parked in a line one after another in a narrow street on the outskirts of the CBD. They aren’t outside the arrival lounge at Tullamarine Airport, or outside Crown Casino waiting for the intoxicated late-night gamblers to stumble out. The taxis are in Jeffcott Street, West Melbourne.

In the street is a discreet, 1960’s office building. Once close to its main doors you can start to feel the energy from the ambient call to prayer flow out onto the footpath.

It’s time for the first prayer of the day at the Jeffcott Street Mosque. In the Quran, Fajr is said to be Allah’s most favoured of the five daily prayers because at this time of the day most people are asleep.

Muslims in Australia say attitudes towards their religion has changed due to the coverage of ISIS by Australian media. The growing number of practising Muslims in Australia is creating demand for more mosques throughout the country and is sparking debate from all sides of the community.

Recently there has been an uprising of right-wing conservative organisations that oppose building mosques in Victoria and more broadly, Australia. Some believe an increase will contribute to the birth of Islamic enclaves that are part of an Islamization of the world. Rise up Australia Party legal advisor Ashwin Puvi said: “The consequence is the West as you know it would cease to exist.”

The Islamic Council of Victoria invites non-Muslims to attend the Jeffcott Street mosque on open days to demystify the sinister perceptions right-wingers have of Islam. “A method that helps engage and build relationships,” said general manager Nail Aykan. “You can’t just parachute into a community unannounced, choose a vacant block of land and say, ‘I want to build a mosque here.’”

He admits mosque proposals have been blocked in the past due to a failure to reach out to the wider community first in the planning process.

A recent mosque proposal in Narre Warren received criticism from members of the community, leading to significant media coverage over the debate. The plans for the building were unanimously blocked by the City of Casey, where Rise Up Australia deputy leader, Rosalie Crestani is a councillor.

“Since September 11, 2001, the media have been portraying Muslims negatively,” said Fijian-born Australian Muslim, Mohammed Khan. “For better or worse, everything changed.”

Khan believes it’s difficult for Australians to separate the negative stigma and misconception of an average Muslim because of its notorious presence within the media and specifically criticism of the religion’s treatment of women.

Alongside his father and uncle in 2004 Mohammed embarked on a once -in-a-life-time trip to the Middle East. Haj is a mandatory pilgrimage to the most sacred place on earth for Muslims, Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Khan remembers performing Sa’yee on the first day of the pilgrimage. This part of the journey is dedicated to pilgrims showing devotion to women by following the footsteps of the prophet Ibrahim’s wife to honour her care for the infant prophet Ismail.

“One of the main beliefs for Islamic males is that we become the greatest when we feel in debt to our wife,” he said. “The media’s irresponsible reporting on female Muslims and wearing religious head dress in Australia has manipulated society’s understanding of the religion.”

“It’s a ladies choice, we can’t force them to do anything,” he said. He also noted that in Islam all women make their own decisions otherwise it’s not made under Allah’s will, one of the main beliefs of the Quran.

A spokesman for Rise Up Australia Party, Ashwin Puli, said the country’s Judo-Christian values and heritage do not match. “Islam is not tolerant of other religions.

“I am a Sri-Lankan born Tamil, I was a lawyer in the courts of Colombo before I came to Australia. I have seen Muslim migrants all over the world attempt to implement parallel legal systems that are based on sharia law.”

Sharia law is a religious-based legal system that governs the daily life of those of Islamic faith.

However there is a negative perception of sharia law that’s not shared with Muslims of Australia.

“We have been living with sharia law from the first day Muslims migrated to Australia. Oh my god, shock and horror,” said Nail Aykan. “The unfair perception is based on the media’s, hyper-fear-mongered depiction of sharia.”

Mohammed lived in every corner of the globe before he migrated to Australia 18 years ago. He has experienced what it’s like to be raised as a Muslim in many Western countries.

The diverse upbringing has taught Mohammed to acknowledge the conservative aspects of his religion whilst transferring the beliefs into a modern perspective, something he will pass on to his children.

“There are always going to be differences in beliefs. What’s essential is to accept everyone equally…this helps show your true identity as a character within society,” he said. “Hopefully we will soon be living in a world without discrimination.”

Nail Aykan recalled when the only thing that defined someone was the AFL team they barracked for.

“I was a Western Bulldog’s supporter…but after 9/11 my Muslim faith became the only element of my life that defined me. If Australia acts now to solve this societal rift, we will become a great example for the rest of the world.”

6:46 PM. It’s time for Isha, the final prayer of the day. It begins after the sun has set over a gloomy Melbourne evening. The taxi drivers are this time accompanied by flocks of city workers and international students that frequent the mosque for prayer time, further illustrating that Islamic life is becoming part of the Australian culture.