Stereotyping tears veil off hostility against Muslims

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

A world away from a teddy bear called Mohammed, two pigs' heads are impaled on stakes in a field near Sydney, Australia, where Muslims want to build an Islamic school.

Medieval justice Sudan-style provides fresh ammunition for supporters of this Dark Ages symbolism.

One woman tells a radio station why she does not want Muslim children coming to rural Camden. Mothers could hide an assault rifle under their burqas and no-one would be able to tell, she says.

In Australia, fear, suspicion and extremist stereotypes have come to dominate the agenda when applications are made to build Muslim places of worship and education. The pigs' heads in Camden - found with an Australian flag strung between them - may have been an extreme one-off incident.

In the media the voices of a radical Islamist minority and agenda-driven politicians dominate, lapped up by radio shock jocks and others only too willing to whip their audiences into a frenzy.

In recent years Australian perceptions of the nation's 350,000 Muslims have been shaped by negative coverage focusing on cultural differences and links to terrorism. The ravings of the community's former symbolic head, Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali - who most famously likened Australian women to uncovered meat - have only widened the void.

But whether it is the rant of a mad mufti or former prime minister John Howard demanding to know if Islamic schools preached the 'virtues of terrorism', the views of the moderate Muslim majority are generally drowned out.

At the height of anti-Muslim sentiment two years ago, culminating in the Cronulla riots, Mr Howard's replacement as Liberal Party leader, Brendan Nelson, was among a number of senior ministers who said 'Australian values' should be taught in Islamic schools.

Muslims unwilling to accept this, added the then education minister, should 'clear off'.

In the ensuing furore, the Independent Schools Council of Australia felt moved to produce a brochure attempting to challenge negative public perceptions.

Their message: Islamic schools were pretty much the same as other private schools, whether they were Catholic, Anglican or Jewish. Such issues are now exercising the minds of the predominantly white, Anglo-Celtic and Christian residents of Camden, 60km southwest of central Sydney. They are concerned that their rural town - first settled in the 1840s - will be eaten up by the city's ever-expanding sprawl and its traditional social fabric changed.

Taking advantage of cheaper land prices, members of the Quranic Society are among the earliest and least welcome pioneers.

Group spokesman Jeremy Bingham believes opposition is driven primarily by state development plans, which could see the 50,000 population increase four-fold in coming years. But he accepts a vocal minority are fuelled primarily by anti-Muslim sentiment.

'It is fear of the unknown,' he said. 'They haven't had a Muslim school near them in the past. Some people feel fear of everything that's new, and that's a normal part of human nature.'

The lawyer and former lord mayor of Sydney is an unlikely public face of the Quranic Society, which he says is made up of hard-working Muslim families.

'They asked me to be spokesman because they found the prospect of trying to deal with the metropolitan press a little bit intimidating,' he said. 'I am not a Muslim myself but I very strongly believe in the right of people to vote or worship as they wish.'

In his role as a development consultant, Mr Bingham has supported several Muslim projects in Sydney.

Four years ago a proposal for a prayer hall in the northwest suburb of Baulkham Hills attracted opposition and was rejected in part because councillors ruled it was not in accordance with the 'shared customs and values' of the local community.

Mr Bingham led a successful appeal and the centre was built.

With 15,874 children attending Australia's 30 Islamic schools, demand is high for more. The first to open- Melbourne's King Khalid Islamic College - opened in 1983.

'Bob Hawke was our local member and the prime minister, and he wasn't supportive,' said Abdul Karim Galea, head of the senior campus.

'But the establishment of the Islamic schools in Melbourne has been enormously beneficial, not only to the Muslim community but the wider Australian community.

Mr Galea said the school - which last year changed its name to the Australian International Academy - instils the benefits of multiculturalism, promoting Muslim culture within an Australian context.

'We are all Australians. Muslims want the best for their children, for their community and for Australia.'

That argument has yet to convince the people of Camden. During the public consultation for the proposed 1,200-pupil school, the local council received a record 3,500 submissions. Almost all were against the development.

Most of the 1,000 people at a public meeting were also firmly opposed, and local media have reported on protest websites being set up.

Although Camden's mayor Chris Patterson insists opposition is based largely on planning and traffic issues, religion and race concerns are clear.

During last month's federal election campaign, former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson visited the town to protest against what she thought was a mosque.

'Every school in Australia is Christian apart from the Islamic schools,' said the once-popular rabble rouser.

'I have no understanding of what they teach in the Islamic schools, do you? If they are teaching the kids the Koran then they are teaching the kids to oppose us because they think Christians are infidels.'

Her views struck a chord with some locals.

'We lit up the Christmas tree the other night, and that is something they wouldn't be into because they're anti-Christian,' Camden resident Rebecca Napier told Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

For Mr Galea, last week's headlines on the pigs' heads were symptomatic of an era in which Australian Muslims became the 'patsy'.

'I think a lot of people did feel that Islam was used for political gain and wedge politics,' he said.

'Muslims have not had a good press in the Australia in the last five years, and characterisations of Muslims have become generalised, unfortunately.'