I wonder why every proposal to establish an Islamic school or mosque causes so much drama in Australia, and turns into a legal battle for some Muslim-Australians.
Sociologist Michael Humphrey wrote in an academic article in 1989 talking about the period from about 1970s to 1989 that Muslim communities in Australia were forced to engage in “major legal battles with Local, State and Federal government bodies over their rights to choose their own clerics, to bury their dead according to Islamic rites and to establish mosques and Islamic schools in the suburbs” (“Is this a mosque free zone? Islam and the State in Australia”, Migration Monitor).
Especially the establishment of mosques and Islamic schools caused public outrage, becoming the manifestation of widespread racism against Arabs and Muslims who were generally associated with fanaticism and terrorism.
Local residents who generally perceived mosques as “symbols of a collective Muslim presence” and as “a threat to the lifestyle and character of Australian suburbs” objected to the establishment of new mosques and Islamic schools in their suburbs for a range of reasons “from moderate expressions of concern about increased traffic, parking problems, crowds and noise level in their street to fears of a Muslim invasion of their suburb, threatening to change its cultural character and depress house values”.
Academic Kevin Dunn, in an article published in 2001, also points out that local residents in Sydney strategically used stereotypes of Muslims as “fanatical, intolerant, militant, fundamentalist, misogynist and alien” in campaigns against the establishment of mosques and Islamic schools in Sydney (“Representations of Islam in the politics of mosque development in Sydney”, Tijdschrift vaar Economische en Sociale Geographie).
Such Islamophobic stereotypes have been articulated in the western societies for centuries, and they have been widely circulated after September 11. Dunn states that these stereotypes were used in Sydney “to influence planning determinations and political decisions within local authorities". As he points out "The charges of militancy and misogyny did not easily convert into a planning ground for opposing a mosque, but they were used to heighten public unease and widen opposition”. He highlights that local authorities generally rejected the establishment of mosques claiming that “the proposals were ‘out of character’ with surrounding development, drawing on the construction of Muslims as alien and ultimately out of place”.
Nothing has changed in contemporary Australia: recent media reports tell a similar story. For instance, recently the court allowed the construction of an Islamic school in Bass Hill in south-western Sydney after a long legal battle (Sydney Morning Herald, May 15, 2009, “Court allows Islamic school”). The council refused development consent for the school in 2007 following the locals’ antagonistic campaign against the proposal. The residents rejected the development on the grounds of traffic congestion, and the incompatibility of the Islamic school with the character of the area.
Moreover, in Camden, a town in south-western Sydney, the council refused the proposal of a Muslim group to build an Islamic school, and the Muslim group has appealed against the council’s decision. Camden residents object to the Islamic school because of Islam’s so-called “violent” nature. Camden’s Christian leaders have also condemned the school since they claim that the Muslim group behind the proposal promotes a political ideology based on the superiority of the
Koranic law that is “incompatible with the Australian way of life” (Sydney Morning Herald, April 22, 2009, "Churches oppose Islamic school").
What lies at the heart of this fierce opposition to the construction of mosques and Islamic schools is some Australians’ inability and unwillingness to accept and acknowledge that Australia is a multicultural society, and to come to terms with this fact.
Multiculturalism, which offers the mainstream society various pleasures in terms of cosmopolitan consumer products like ethnic food and entertainment such as kebabs and belly dancers, is scorned when it gives the minorities the right to maintain their specific ethnic, cultural and religious identity, for instance through building mosques and Islamic schools, forgetting that prayers and Islamic theology come from the same region as kebabs and belly dancers.
And although the White Australia policy was abolished in the early 1970s, the attitudes that created that policy still linger in Australia. And this leads to a tribal mindset based on Anglo-European-Christian identity in some suburbs where residents refuse to accommodate any difference fearing the change and discomfort this may cause.
The opposition to mosques and Islamic schools also has a specific Islamophobic aspect, and brings to mind a number of questions: would local residents object to establishment of Buddhist temples in a similar way? Wouldn’t many Australians get outraged if, for instance, Indonesians rejected construction of an Australian-Christian church or school in Indonesia? And wouldn’t they associate it with the so-called “innate aggressive and violent character of Islam”? Why do some Christian leaders condemn the establishment of Islamic schools? Aren’t Islam and Christianity sister religions that originate from the Middle East or are they rival religions a bit like Coles and Woolworths?
As American historian Joan Wallach Scott highlights:
A worldview organised in terms of good versus evil, civilized versus backward, morally upright versus ideologically compromised, us versus them, is one we inhabit at our risk. It leaves no room for self-criticism, no way to think about change, no way to open ourselves to others. By refusing to accept and respect the difference of these others we turn them into enemies, producing that which we most fear about them in the first place (The Politics of the Veil, 2007, Princeton University Press).
Scott also suggests that instead of assimilation and rejecting difference:
… we need to think about the negotiation of difference: how can individuals and groups with different interests live together? Is it possible to think about difference non-hierarchically? On what common ground can differences be negotiated? Perhaps it is the common ground of shared difference, as French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has suggested.
Muslim-Australians who appeal against council decisions rather than passively accepting the refusal, and the legal system that sooner or later allows them to build mosques and Islamic schools, manifests that multiculturalism in fact works well in Australia. And it would be a progressive step if mosques, churches and other temples can stand side by side without anybody feeling threatened.
Maybe it’s time for all Australians to come to terms with multiculturalism, and to accept Muslim-Australians, who have been in Australia for many generations, and also other minorities, as real Aussies and give them “a fair go”.