Muslims at a mosque in Mareeba, Queensland, during Eid. There are more than 340 mosques in the country, serving a half-million strong population Image Credit: Reuters

Australia is popularly known as a country blessed with fertile land, abundant sunshine and plentiful natural resources. It is advertised as the best place for living the good life and enjoying a work-life balance.

The country is also a multi-ethnic society — a product of waves of immigration. Arab, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Italian, Somali and Vietnamese immigrants, among others, are trying hard to assimilate and live the Australian Dream. But the society’s peaceful existence seems fragile. Several incidents have made headlines recently, including the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Abdul Numan Haider after he stabbed two officers outside a Melbourne police station.

A Muslim woman was viciously attacked on a train in the same city just days after a man was charged for entering an Islamic school with a knife. Then there was the counter-terrorism operation, which raided more than 800 homes in Sydney and Brisbane and led to the arrest of a man on charges of kidnapping in a bid to behead a person. In the past few weeks, several mosques around the country have received threats or have been vandalised.

These incidents over the past couple of months raise the question: Is Australia’s Muslim community being targeted?

“People fear the unknown,” says Mohammad Khodr, a 41-year-old Australian who was born in Melbourne and has lived in Australia for most of his life. “With the current media attention on the Muslim community in Australia and across the globe, I personally feel we as Muslims need to open up more and show the world that we are no different because of our religious beliefs,” he says.

Shared ideals

Khodr moved to Dubai six years ago with his wife and four children, aged between two and nine, to work as a senior IT manager in a multinational IT company. “We strive for the same values other Australians strive for — better education, living in harmony and a good future for our kids. Growing up in Australia, I felt no different than any other citizen — being Muslim was no taboo.”

Minas Al Ansari, 28, was born in Dubai. Her family emigrated to New Zealand when she was 11 years old. Last year, Al Ansari moved to Australia to join her husband in the popular resort town of Cairns, Queensland, a famous port for travellers to the Great Barrier Reef. She says Cairns is a small community that is pretty isolated. “People here do not know much about Islam. I am constantly explaining the relevance of Ramadan to my Aussie friends and the reasons for fasting or what Eid means to us and why Muslims only eat Halal food and don’t drink. It’s all good — I want them to know that Muslims are normal people who love to have a good time and at the same time respect and love other religions.

“The recent incidents or hate crimes against Muslims in Australia are just one-off occurrences where people’s ignorance and lack of exposure to other parts of the world have prejudiced them,” she says.

“My Aussie experience so far has been very positive — I have actually had a chance to enjoy the Aussie lifestyle and travel around the country without being bothered about being a Muslim woman.”

Fitting in

Does the divide lie in immigrants not willing to assimilate into their new environment? M.H., who requested anonymity, is among those who think so. The 43-year-old Palestinian-Canadian formerly lived in the UAE but currently calls Australia home. “When I first moved to Melbourne, I recall thinking this is such a multi-ethnic society with people from across the globe living together. I was surprised to see the large presence of an Arab community in Australia [compared to Canada],” she says.

“It was interesting to see immigrants who had moved from different parts of the Middle East to Australia with their culture and traditions. It was also sad to see that instead of integrating with the community, a lot of them preferred to hold on to their old ideas and not change anything. In such situations, there is bound to be conflict.

“Recently in Melbourne, a 26-year-old woman was accosted by another woman on a train and abused for wearing the hijab. She made a number of racial remarks before assaulting the victim. But two fellow passengers supported the young woman,” recounts M.H., who was told about this incident by her stepdaughter. “While this incident is unfortunate, the fact that this young woman was helped by two fellow passengers does give me hope that things will change and the anti-Muslim sentiment will die down eventually.

“On the flip side, the teller at my local bank wears a hijab and conducts herself so professionally. She has never had a problem because of the hijab or the way she dresses. I am a Muslim woman myself and have friends of different nationalities including Russian, Palestinian, Italian and Australian — my friends do not define me by
my religion but by the person I am,” adds M.H.