My own encounters with the Muslim community in Newcastle have always been warm, friendly and enriching. As a non-Muslim I have felt very welcome whenever I have visited local mosques. The Muslims I have met are everyday Aussies who just want to co-exist peacefully with the rest of the Newcastle community.
So I was extremely disappointed when the anti- Muslim group, 'Reclaim Australia' held a rally in Newcastle last Easter. This local rally was one of 16 held nationwide. At this rally speakers promoted fear and raised suspicions about the Muslim community.
I hold no such fears and concerns about the Muslim community in Newcastle. However, I concede that constant media bombardment with negative stereotypes of Muslims can affect people’s perceptions and provide fertile ground for fear to take seed.
I also note that the Australian Government has failed to dissociate the atrocities of extremists from the moderate Muslim population. This failure to differentiate between the two has resulted in some people’s fears of Islamic extremists being transferred to the general Muslim community.
The outcome of such fears can clearly be seen in the anti-Muslim rhetoric of groups like ‘Reclaim Australia’. Such hostility towards Muslims is having a negative impact on our community. I was deeply saddened to hear that when ‘Reclaim Australia’ held the rally in Newcastle, some local Muslims spent all day locked inside their homes, frightened for their lives.
Whenever any section of the community fears for its safety and welfare, it should concern us all. Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has commented, “In a multicultural Australia, an attack on any community is an attack on the whole community. And an attack on any one faith is an attack on all faiths.”
Rather than building walls of fear, it is time to build bridges of understanding. Pope Francis has demonstrated his willingness to build bridges and foster Christian-Muslim relations. On a visit to Turkey in November last year he prayed in Istanbul’s historic Blue Mosque. Pope Francis has also noted that equating Islam with violence is wrong.
For those with suspicions about the Islamic community, might I challenge you to also direct some of your suspicion towards the media? Is the media painting a true picture of the Muslim community in Australia or are they seeking higher TV ratings or wanting to sell more newspapers?
Perhaps one could also be suspicious of some of our political leaders? Is this really just a campaign against terrorism or could it also be about political point scoring?
One could ask if there are better ways for Australia to foster harmony, peace, justice and respect for all. Are there better ways in which we can work towards the common good and the well-being and flourishing of all?
Yes, let’s be on our guard against terrorism, but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t generate unnecessary Islamophobia. Tim Soutphommasane says, “Muslim Australians are entitled to a fair go. Let’s keep calm and united – and not succumb to fear and suspicion.“
David Whitson has a Master of Theology degree from Charles Sturt University. He was born and raised in Newcastle, and currently lives in Lake Macquarie. His interests include eco-spirituality and exploring coffee drinking as a spiritual discipline.