Beyond Bendigo: Why More Mosques Are Only Part of the Solution

Sunshine Mosque, Victoria

Controversy surrounds Bendgio Council’s decision for new mosque

The controversy surrounding the recent decision of the Bendigo Council to approve the city’s first mosque highlights the impossible situation in which Australian Muslims frequently find themselves.

There can be no doubt that mosques are not the centres of radicalisation so often depicted by bigots and fearmongers. Indeed, convicted terrorists in Australia and in other western countries have proven themselves to be religiously illiterate and antithetical to the kind of traditional Islamic learning promulgated in mosques and most Islamic schools. Recall that the former al-Qa’ida leader, Osama bin Laden, was an engineer by profession, and the current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a qualified medical doctor. They waged a global war against non-Muslims and Muslims alike, not as religious authorities, but as autodidacts. Their minions are Muslim in name only; they betray everything that the Islamic faith stands for.

It is with good reason, therefore, that last year Australia’s top Muslim cleric, the Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, argued that more mosques are the key to combating radicalisation.

Yet, most applications for the construction of mosques and Islamic schools are rejected by local councils. Some locals feel threatened by such institutions, others feel such structures are “out of place” and will clash in character and nature with the broader society, while others simply hold onto misinformed views about Muslims and of Islam. It is little wonder, then, that many Australian Muslims feel alienated from their society, when research confirms large proportions of mainstream society holding anti-Islamic sentiments.

Overwhelmingly, the majority of Australian Muslims feel that Islam instils universal values that are shared by Australians: they believe that their faith makes them better citizens. Yet, large swathes of Australian Muslims feel demonised and vilified, largely due to events that stem overseas, involving Muslims. So a polarisation within society creates distrust and fear. Only bigots and extremists on both sides of the spectrum thrive and gain in such an environment to the detriment of everyone else.

There is near consensus among academics that the process of radicalisation is triggered by many factors – some personal, others economic and political (the so-called “elephant in the room”), others still cultural and societal. Through their rhetoric, fringe demagogues encourage a climate of fear within mainstream Australian society, thereby exacerbating the hostile environment in which Muslims find themselves. And while these preachers masterfully manipulate social inequalities – real and perceived – to convince disenfranchised young Muslims that non-Muslims have an inherent hatred for Islam, global terror events involving Muslims confirm to the wider society their worst fears about Islam.

This toxic cycle – made worse by flagrantly irresponsible media reporting with its sensationalist headlines depicting Muslims as the enemy within – foments a public discourse driven, not by rational thought and empathy, but by emotion, myopia and panic. In order to arrest the spread of animosity and suspicion among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, partnerships are required. While Australian Muslims already feel they are under intense scrutiny, the Australian government needs to be sensitive to ensure that it is not perceived to be anti-Islam. Furthermore, moves need to be made to ensure that community leaders and mosques are consulted, engaged and valued as real stakeholders. The problem is that the Muslim community has its own internal challenges, not least being that mosques need to be more amenable and relevant to young Muslims and the wider public.

Ultimately, mosques are only as good as the imams they employ. If these pivotal guides cannot connect with large numbers of their flock, young Australian Muslims will go elsewhere for religious instruction. Increasingly, many turn to the internet for guidance, while others seek out fringe, charismatic individuals who are culturally relevant and linguistically conversant. Most radical Muslims that I have had the misfortune to meet in the UK over the past decade were initially disenfranchised by mosques because they could not understand their mother tongue – the first language of most imams. I have encountered the same tendency among many of the youth to whom I speak in Australia’s unofficial Muslim capital, Sydney.

The Australian Muslim leadership needs to ensure that Muslim scholars and theologians are able to articulate theology in a meaningful manner and be bold enough to challenge the theology of hate that festers in the ghettos. It is a theology that hides behinds genuine grievances, and as such, is well camaflouged. It appeals to the disenfranchised because those articulating it are seen as the moral champions of causes that so few Muslim leaders publicly talk about. However, the more the Muslim community is able to acquaint themselves with traditional Islamic belief, the more they will be inoculated against such bizarre, putrid, literal readings of Islam that are seductively interwoven with conspiracy theories.

The Grand Mufti was right to say that more institutions need to be built, but I would simply add that we need the right kind. We need enlightened institutions with a curriculum that comprehends modern thought and that will attract talented students. Without such institutions, it is unlikely that a sophisticated understanding of the Islamic tradition can be fostered. We also need institutions that nurture and better empower indigenous imams with the tools to navigate the challenges of modernity, and not simply regurgitate a textual understanding of Islam from overseas.

A conversation is taking place among young Muslims, towards an indigenous form of Islam, something that is neither imported nor imposed by governments, but is anchored in Australia. A generational shift is in the making – I see it first-hand in Sydney. Still very much in its infancy, it needs leadership and guidance to take the Muslim community from being reactive, isolated and defensive, to being concerned with the advancement and wellbeing of society as a whole. There are visionaries out there trying to get this discussion moving, but they can’t do it alone.

The outcome of investing in the youth now is the formation of an inquisitive, creative, articulate generation of Australian Muslims who will see no dichotomy between holding onto their faith and contributing to a democratic, secular state. They will be Australian and Muslim; it is within this community of believers that we might see the most potent force against radical Islam. I know that the future belongs to them, not to the radicals.

Aftab Malik is a UN Alliance of Civilizations Global Expert on Muslim Affairs and a Board Advisory member of the British Council’s “Our Shared Future” project, based in Washington DC, which aims to improve the public conversation about Muslims and intercultural relations in the United States and Europe. He is currently serving as the Scholar in Residence at the Lebanese Muslim Association based in Lakemba, Sydney.

Opponents of the Bendigo Mosque strung black balloons around the city

Reidents of Bendigo responded with coloured balloons!

Source ABC Religion and Ethics

Image CreditCommons Wikimedia Org

Image Sources: ABC News, Bendigo Advertiser