Unearthing Islam in Hell Town

I boarded the train to Gympie. Home. It’d been long since I’d visited, but I went with a purpose – to seek theology in the place dubbed ‘Hell town’.

Now, religion is certainly nothing new to the regional Queensland hub where I was raised Christian. Perceptions of a traditionalist, Anglo-dominated place remain, and it’s still the kind of town where Sunday trading is novel. Yet I wasn’t there to rediscover my long-lost inner-Christian. Or to convert.

When I visited last Boxing Day, conversation had turned to theology as we waited for cricketing tradition – I’d recently been to a mosque. The sights, sounds, tranquillity and mystery had fascinated me, yet I remained perplexed by the politics of Islam. As I spoke of my experiences, common views were uttered by my kind-hearted mother.

“I’ve read Muslims stone women who’ve been raped for adultery”.

So, I’d come full circle – back to small-town Australia speak with an inconspicuous, but growing, Muslim population. Little did I know I would meet anyone like Ali and Shifa Mustapha.

Upon entering the Gympie Yoga and Relaxation Centre, a makeshift venue for prayer, I was greeted by Ali. Originally from Lebanon and prayer leader mostly out of necessity, he soon introduced his wife, Shifa – an Anglo-Saxon, Christian-come-Muslim theologian whom he knew could answer my questions.

“When you get a job, you can’t make demands,” Ali said following prayer, explaining that many couldn’t make it, and those who did had to leave quickly despite graciously receiving my presence. Many were doctors, meat workers, store owners, but Ali and Shifa were the first to settle in 1996 and have seen the community grow.

“There’s probably more than you’d think. There’d be 25, 30 now,” Shifa said.

Through the years they approached new arrivals to ask them to join in prayer, and have both become ambassadors of sorts, with Shifa regularly teaching high school students. Yet they still suffer discrimination.

“We’ve had death threats, I’ve been picked on in shopping centres, people have said ‘go back to your country!’, and I was even spat on,” Shifa said.

“It is cowardly – somebody sends a letter without a name, doesn’t want an answer, and abuses you,” Ali added.

They invited me to their home to speak further. It was but a short stroll from my parents’.

As the Afghanistan war against so-called Islamic foes comes to an end, throughout the West images of extremism are entrenched. 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 has hosted notorious Dutch MP Geert Wilders; Australia First support Greek Neo-Fascist group, Golden Dawn; and Reform Australia and Rise Up Australia campaign vehemently against ‘Islamic takeover’.

While a 2007 Griffith University survey found 78 per cent of non-Muslim respondents were comfortable with Muslims, 67 per cent had barely any contact with them. An Issues Deliberation Australia survey from the same year found 70 per cent of Muslims felt discriminated against, and almost half of everyday respondents thought Islam impacted on social harmony. In 2009, a Monash University survey of Muslims found 77 per cent had experienced greater prejudice in the past five years.

Muslims prey at a Brisbane Mosque where I first experienced Islam - Phillip Wells

Muslims prey at a Brisbane Mosque where I first experienced Islam – Phillip Wells

Professor Katherine Gelber from the University of Queensland (UQ) 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 or very nationalist organisations, what is more worrying is the extent myths inform mainstream policy. Muslim communities have felt the brunt of that in very tangible ways,” Professor Gelber said.

UQ History Professor Philip Almond is passionate about theology throughout the ages, and knows well about Western perceptions of Islam. He sees what’s happening now as a recurring theme.

“There’s always going to be tolerance if you’re the cultural imperialist who’s got all the power. As the oppressed people free themselves, they move from being oppressed to being the enemy, and sometimes they become the enemy,” he said.

He also thinks Islam has been slow to adapt to an increasingly secular world.

“As a consequence of the wars of religion the in 16th and 17th centuries, in the European West a backlash and separation of the state and religion occurred. Islam, in its bigger picture, hasn’t had that kind of reformation”.

Shifa was fretting over biscuits when I arrived, and Ali poured me a glass of juice before getting slippers for my shoeless feet. We sat, and I asked Shifa to tell her fascinating story.

Born and raised in Gympie, she was captivated by the concept of God at an early age and became a Christian, yet never quite fit in. 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 in Sydney.

“To me, it was the worst of all scenarios,” she joked, reminiscing on when he broke the news.

But Ali was unfazed.

“I said to her, ‘young lady, I am a Muslim, I will never change, but I respect you and I respect your religion. There’s no compulsion in Islam’”.

It wasn’t until well after they’d married that Shifa was challenged on ‘contradictions’ in the Bible by Ali’s nephew. Shifa was furious, and began studying for more than nine months, in essence, to prove the Bible right and the Quran wrong. She proved quite the opposite.

“I couldn’t leave it – I was like a dog with a bone. I suddenly thought, ‘good grief, Mohammad is Shiloh’. My head spun. This was a big deal for me. To me, it was the best day of my life,” Shifa said.

Her mother, sisters and old friends largely shunned her following that day. Indeed, one sister is a Zionist who speaks furiously of Muslims so, needless to say, Shifa’s outspoken on Western perceptions of Islam.

“You don’t worry about women getting about in bikinis in the street. Isn’t it just that one’s got too little and one too much? If anyone makes me take off my hijab, that’s because I’m oppressed. Oppression goes both ways,” she said.

Shifa believes women’s rights has a long history in Islamic tradition, particularly customs relating to female control of money, career and children.

“I couldn’t rent a TV in Australia after my first husband died. So much has changed so quickly. Muslim women have so many rights, and the crazy part is all these people are crying out and Australia still hasn’t paid women equally!”

She also says Islam is clear about the right to wilfully marry, circumcision is forbidden, and that Sharia is ritual compatible with Australian law. According to Ali, Jihad prohibits pre-emption in cases of war, but is largely about the “struggle to survive in the community, to bring family together, to live”.

On the train back to Brisbane more questions filled my head. 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 asked Professor Almond.

“This goes to the $64, 000 question about not only Islam, but almost any religion – the distinction between what is at the essence of religion and what is merely a cultural manifestation. Does Christianity have the same problem? Yes it does! Ironically, in footy each code runs its own justice system, which is a kind of Sharia – a legal community in a legal community,” he said.

Religion should certainly be open to criticism, but I wondered how we balance freedom of speech with freedom of religion when anti-Islamic sentiments abound. Professor Gelber welcomes human rights critics like Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who suffered horrific female genital mutilation, but warns not to take it too far.

“She’s become such an outspoken critic that people are worried her argument can be interpreted in a way that vilifies all Muslims. I encourage that kind of debate, as long as it doesn’t cross the line,” she said.

Professor Gelber thinks Victorian evangelical church Catch the Fires, who claim Muslims are child molesters that want to take over Australia, cross that line, but knows how difficult a court decision can be and hence doesn’t support laws against religious vilification.

“I think that was vilification – I don’t think that was debate about faith. In the end, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal disagreed. In some cases it’s easy to make that differentiation, but in others some people may find simply calling aspects of their faith into question so offensive that they feel vilified, and I think that’s difficult for a court to draw a line under”.

It’s disheartening to think how hard it can be to stop the discrimination of Muslims by those who fundamentally misunderstand the incredible complexity of history. Islam, like any religion, has flaws, but none suffer quite the same level of unfounded vitriol as a theology in modern society. I remembered something Shifa had said, however, that made me think we’ll be alright.

“They smile and wave when all these dreadful things happen, like the girls who’ve been taken. They’re saying ‘we like you, we understand’. We are, in a way, really lucky,” she said.

If more non-Muslims met Ali and Shifa Mustapha, humanity would be a step closer to getting along.

Maybe Hell town can save us yet.