The rise of anti-immigration, anti-Islam movements is not just happening in Europe, where recent elections saw strong results to far-right parties, but in Australia too: The Q Society have recently hosted notorious Dutch MP Geert Wilders, and plan to start a political party; Australia First have announced support for Greek Neo-Fascist group, Golden Dawn; and Reform Australia and Rise Up Australia continue to campaign vehemently against ‘Islamic takeover’. The Afghanistan war is coming to an end, but the ideological war continues to rage. PHILLIP WELLS travels to a place in Queensland known as ‘Hell town’, with a small but growing Muslim population, to hear their experiences, and to get to the heart of the great societal debate surrounding Islam.
(Natsound of Brisbane traffic followed by train natsound for 3 secs then fade under script).
I’m boarding the train from Brisbane’s bustling Roma Street station to Gympie, on a mission to seek theology in the place dubbed ‘Hell town’.
(Train horn natsound for 1 sec, fade out train sounds. Natsounds of church bell and farm animals for 8 secs under script)
Now, religion is certainly nothing new to the regional Queensland hub where I was raised Christian. While development is going ahead, my perceptions of a small-town place remain. It’s still the kind of town where Sunday trading is a novelty.
(Natsound of Friday prayer for 24 secs under script).
But I’m not here to rediscover my long-lost inner-Christian. I’m here to speak with a small population of Muslims, to see how they live in this sleepy town, and to unravel some of the complexities of Islam.
I enter the THE GYMPIE YOGA AND RELAXATION CENTRE, a makeshift venue for Friday prayer where I first meet ALI MUSTAPHA. He soon introduces his wife, SHIFA – an Anglo-Saxon, Christian-come-Muslim theologian. Following prayer, they explain many were unable to make it.
SHIFA: “I think you sort of see the tip of the iceberg – a lot who can’t make it”.
ALI: “When you first get a job, you can’t make demands”.
RUNS: 7 secs.
ALI and SHIFA were the first to settle in 1996, and have seen the community grow to about twenty-five. They still suffer discrimination.
“I’ve been picked on in the shopping centres, people have called out and said ‘go back to your country!’. All this jazz, and I was even spat on!”.
RUNS: 9 secs.
(Natsound of door bell, kitchen sounds, and SHIFA muttering about her biscuits for 4 secs, then fade under script).
I arrive at ALI and SHIFA’s the following day. SHIFA’s been baking, and is fretting over her biscuits.
Born and raised in Gympie, she was captivated by the concept of God at an early age and became a Christian. She eventually went on to study theology before marrying a Christian man and mothering three children. After he died, however, she never imagined falling for a Muslim, but ALI never tried to change her and it wasn’t until well after they’d married that SHIFA was challenged on the bible by ALI’s nephew.
ALI: “She marched out”.
SHIFA: “I said, ‘how dare you say that about my religious book!’”.
RUNS: 6 secs.
SHIFA began studying for more than 9 months, in essence, to prove the Bible right and the Quran wrong. She proved quite the opposite.
“I was like a dog with a bone. I’d be reading the Quran and some of it didn’t make sense to me and I realized it had to make sense”.
RUNS: 8 secs.
When she converted, her mother, sisters and old friends largely shunned her. Indeed, one sister is a Zionist who speaks furiously of Muslims so, needless to say, SHIFA’s outspoken on Western perceptions of Islam, particularly regarding women’s rights.
“I have chosen to wear this. If anyone makes me take it off, that is because I’m oppressed. Oppression goes both ways”.
RUNS: 9 secs.
Shifa believes women’s rights has a long history in Islamic tradition.
“Muslim women have so many rights, and the crazy part is that Australia still hasn’t paid women in equal measure!”
She also says Islam is clear about the right to wilfully marry, circumcision is forbidden and that Sharia is ritual compatible with Australian law.
(Natsound of train for 4 secs, then fade under script).
On the train back to Brisbane more questions fill my head. As the Afghanistan war against so-called Islamic foes comes to an end, throughout the West images of extremism are entrenched. Why is it that so few non-Muslims seek to better understand Islam? Will there ever be a time when the West truly understands, and extreme Islam has the room to become moderate? Are the atrocities associated with Islam cultural, or justifiably religious? I ask UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND History professor, PHILIP ALMOND, who is passionate about theology throughout the ages.
“I think this goes to something like what is the sixty-four-thousand dollar question about not only Islam, but almost any religion – the distinction between what is at the essence of religion and what is merely a manifestation. Does Christianity have the same kind of problem? Yes it does!”
RUNS: 17 secs
PROFESSOR ALMOND knows well about Western perceptions of Islam and thinks it’s been slow to adapt to an increasingly secular world.
“As a consequence, I suppose, of the wars of religion in the West, a separation of the state and religion and the political. Now, Islam, in its bigger picture, hasn’t had that kind of reformation, that kind of enlightenment”.
RUNS: 15 secs
PROFESSOR KATHERINE GELBER from the UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND has a particular interest in human rights and the regulation of hate speech, and is currently writing about free speech in the post 9/11 era. She believes in the intervening years, anti-Islamic sentiment has become mainstream.
“It’s not just that those ideas exist in far right organisations or very nationalist organisations, in fact what is more worrying is the extent to which those kind myths inform mainstream government policy. Muslim communities have felt the brunt of that in very tangible ways”.
RUNS: 14 secs
But PROFESSOR GELBER knows how difficult a court decision can be, and hence doesn’t support laws against religious vilification.
(Natsound of Friday prayer under script for 24 secs).
“In some cases I think it’s easy to make that differentiation, but in others some people may find that simply calling aspects of their faith into question is so offensive that they might feel vilified by it, and that I think is a difficult thing for a court or a tribunal to draw a line under”.
RUNS: 15 secs
Islam, like any religion, has flaws, but none suffer quite the same level of unfounded vitriol as a theology in modern society. It’s hard to know when the discrimination will end, but if more non-Muslims met ALI and SIFA MUSTAPHA, humanity would be one step closer to getting along.
Maybe Hell town can save us yet.
PHILLIP WELLS reporting.
RUNS: 5 min. 27 secs.