I wanted to introduce my two-year-old son to the diversity of faiths that make up Australia, and to let local Muslims know that they are welcome, respected and valued in our society.
And so, with my husband, son and members of my extended family in tow, we turned up at the Wallsend Mosque on a Saturday morning.
For those who haven’t been there, the mosque is an unimposing building on a quiet suburban street, fewer than 100 metres from the Wallsend Uniting Church. As we approached the front gate, a young man stood ready to greet us. A woman in a headscarf walked towards us with a big smile and warmly invited us inside.
It almost felt as if we’d stepped inside someone’s home.
People said hello over and over as we were offered flyers and refreshments from a table spread with dates and sweets.
Everyone wanted to talk. I spoke to international students from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman, India. They were genuinely heartened by our interest in their faith.
National Mosque Open Day is part of the National Day of Unity launched this year by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Mosques across the country opened their doors to the community to give people the opportunity to learn more about Islam and demystify some myths.
There was a film and afterwards we were invited inside the mosque for a tour.
The interior is modest. The red carpet is overlaid with a pattern which outlines the positions for worshippers to pray. The walls contain pictures of Mecca and clocks indicating the five times Muslims pray each day.
As we stepped inside, my son started saying, “church, church”. He had identified the similarities between a mosque and a church and knew this was a sacred space.
We were addressed by the mosque’s two Imams, the head of the Newcastle Mosque Association and others.
They spoke about some of the key beliefs and practices for Muslims. We listened to a recitation of the Qur’an – both in English and the melodic Arabic singing.
Afterwards we had the opportunity to ask questions – any question. There was a clear willingness to engage with us and respond to concerns about Islam. Given the vitriol surrounding the Muslim community in Australia, they were gracious in their honesty and openness.
Before we left, the woman who greeted us told us how a neighbour had left flowers early in the morning. She couldn’t make it to the open day, but wanted the Muslim community to know it had her support.
There is so much goodwill between Muslims and non-Muslims. We hardly hear about it. We hear way too many voices of those hostile towards Muslims.
TV crews were there to broadcast the voice of a well-known anti-Muslim protester who travelled from Queensland to protest with some residents against the proposed Hunter mosque. Her views were echoed across the country to everyone watching the Sunday news.
To hear these kinds of protests in my home town made me especially sad. It’s such a shame these protesters haven’t taken the time to meet the Muslims of Newcastle.
What struck me most about my family’s excursion was the desire of our hosts to engage with us. The people we met were so happy we made the effort to visit them in their sacred space. I was really glad to be there.