Mosques, Muslims and myths: overcoming fear in our suburbs

There are now around half a million Muslim Australians, who are sometimes blamed for the actions of a tiny minority. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Since Australians woke to the news of yesterday morning’s counter-terrorism raids in Sydney, Brisbane and Logan, talkback radio and the TV news have filled with talk of “home-grown terrorism” and “enemies within”.

There have been claims that Australia’s half a million Muslims have particular difficulty “fitting in” and that their presence is a threat to social cohesion.

Many people took to social media in response to yesterday’s counter-terrorism raids – including Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi and Monash University’s Susan Carland. Twitter

That’s not unique to Australia. For instance, in the United Kingdom, it is sometimes claimed that Muslim Britons live alongside – but not with – their non-Muslim fellow citizens.

So what is the evidence that anything other than a tiny minority of Muslim Australians don’t want to live decent, ordinary lives, like the thousands who gathered for a Muslims Love Australia community barbecue in Sydney’s south-west on Sunday?

And given the fierce anti-Islamic protests in some areas – as seen on the Gold Coast in the past week, where a councillor reported rape and death threats from anonymous anti-mosque protesters – what’s the evidence that we should be afraid of mosques in our midst?

Are mosques the problem or part of the solution?

Only hours after yesterday’s raids, I was involved with the launch of the Mosques of Sydney and NSW Research Report 2014 at the New South Wales Parliament. The research was done by one of my PhD students, Husnia Underabi, in conjunction with the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy and the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation at Charles Sturt University.

Inside Lakemba Mosque in Sydney. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

The report surveyed 50 of New South Wales’ 167 Islamic places of worship to provide a picture of the formal religious experiences of the state’s 170,000 Muslims.

Mosques and other religious centres are too easily characterised as incubators of separation and radicalisation. Yet Underabi’s Mosque Report shows that as well as being places of prayer and communion, mosques have increasingly become places of social work. This includes weekend schools, language classes, women’s group meetings and marriage guidance, as well as child and youth activities.

Underabi’s report demonstrates how most mosques are hubs for engagement, civic participation and charitable work. They are places that encourage greater national identification and belonging. She found:

Most NSW mosques are involved in either interfaith dialogue or open days to invite non-Muslims to the mosque, indicating that mosques are involved with the wider society and are willing to communicate and exchange ideas.

Her research also found that:

  • the majority of mosque leaders feel Australian Muslims should participate in Australia’s civic institutions;
  • more than half (56%) of the mosques indicated having female representation in the mosque committee;
  • whereas mosques in the past served only one ethnic group, almost all mosques in NSW now serve people of many ethnic backgrounds.

Are Muslim and Western values incompatible?

Over the last decade there has been a rapid expansion of scholarship on the supposed difficulties of Muslims living in Western countries. One branch of this research is based on the common angst about Muslim incompatibility with “Western values”. Some of this angst focuses on the threat from radicalisation, if not terrorism.

A good deal of government-funded research in Australia on Muslims since 2007 has come from funding schemes with a de-radicalisation mission. In Australia this included the National Action Plan To Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security.

The catalyst for this funding and the resulting research projects was the London bombings of July 7, 2005. Much of this research was therefore focused on the threat of home-grown terrorism, specifically the vulnerability of young Australian Muslims to radicalisation.

But an unfortunate effect of this mission was that it reinforced many of the core stereotypes of Islam in the West: of militancy, fanaticism, intolerance, fundamentalism, misogyny and of alien-ness.

Australians’ religious affiliations, as reported in the 2011 Census. The Australian population is now estimated to be more than 23.6 million, so if the proportion of Australians identifying as Muslim has remained the same, there would be about 520,000 Muslims now. Australian Bureau of Statistics

Australian Muslims have faced ongoing frustrations in getting places of worship, schools and renovations approved by local councils. This has happened in other Western nations too. Unfortunately, Islamaphobia continues to feed opposition to new mosques.

Of course, this is but one manifestation of the negative effects of Islamaphobia. There are also the attacks on existing mosques, verbal attacks, physical assaults and prejudice.

Challenging Racism Project data reveal that over 60% of Australian Muslims have experienced racism in the workplace or when seeking employment.

Community safety starts with all of us

As the former head of International Counter Terrorism in Special Branch at New Scotland Yard, Nick O'Brien, wrote in The Conversation last night:

It’s in the interests of Islamic State for Muslims in Australia to be attacked or for their mosques to be attacked, because doing so would help divide the Australian community … it’s only a tiny minority of the Muslim community that are ever involved in any kind of extreme action. The vast majority are decent, ordinary people.

Similarly, the international director of Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre Greg Barton has warned that a knee-jerk, anti-Muslim reaction is a threat to our national security.

Trust between different ethnic and religious groups across Australia and with our security authorities is the bedrock of our security … In many cases where passports have been withheld in Australia, the tip-offs have come through the community.

For example, in 2005 a terrorism plot involving guns, ammunition and bomb-making equipment was thwarted after a tip-off from Melbourne’s Muslim community. After a long investigation, police arrested men in Melbourne and Sydney under Operation Pendennis.

Muslim parents, friends and community leaders are vital for helping authorities know about the tiny minority of young Australians who may be sufficiently disenchanted to be radicalised.

Low-key but effective policing

Over the last four years we have analysed the work of the Community Engagement Unit within the Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Command of the NSW Police Force.

Beyond the spectacular raids, such as those that occurred yesterday, there is the day-to-day counter-terrorism work that is done in our cities. That everyday effort includes police undertaking mundane intelligence gathering and liaison work, and building good relationships with communities.

Indeed, a large part of the counter-terrorism work – the primary interventions against radicalisation – is done by and through the communities. This mode of policing is called “community policing” and involves co-operation with communities.

That work is done through community infrastructures, including local mosques and the Islamic associations. Mosques are not our problem; instead, they are a fundamental part of the solution to radicalisation.