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Young Australian Muslims share progressive values

While Pauline Hanson calls for an inquiry into Islam, one group of Australians is quietly promoting a view that Muslims are just as diverse as the rest of society.

The message of Muslims for Progressive Values [MPV] is that all people are equal regardless of race, gender, faith or sexual orientation.

Members include ordinary Australians like Canberra engineer Omar Hashmi, 29, and his doctor wife Tanya, 31.

Omar traces his Australian roots back to 1827 and Tanya was born in England.

MPV is a grassroots organisation that uses the teachings of Islam to challenge social inequality and promote human rights.

The focus is not to engage in political debate, but to help young Muslims understand that tolerance and compassion are tenets of the faith.

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Members believe that secular government is the only way to achieve freedom from compulsion in matters of religion.

Groups meet regularly in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth.

Mr Hashmi said many people falsely believed all Muslims were recent arrivals.

"One of the things I like telling people is that my family came here in 1827, because people don't expect it," he said.

"Muslims come from a wide range of places.

"There are Muslims in Canberra who have Torres Strait Islander ancestry, with people in their family whose experience with Islam pre-dates white settlement.

"There's a whole range from 400 years ago to people who arrived yesterday.

"Each group that's moved here has brought a different culture."

Mr Hashmi said he joined MPV because he supported the aims and objectives.

"I didn't join the organisation to challenge stereotypes that are external to the Muslim community," he said, "but internal to the community. I want to show young people growing up that they don't need to follow their parents' culture.

"There's a big challenge in all migrant communities that parents have grown up with the culture from where they came from and children are growing up with a different culture.

"That cultural difference between the parents and the kids is always something that's going to happen, but I'm someone who people that are younger than me can look to and see that I have the same culture as them."

The almost 6000 Muslims in Canberra come from more than 50 different countries.

Mr Hashmi said the cultural differences from such a diverse group were as broad in the Muslim community as they would be among people from Christian countries.

He said young Muslims generally think the same as young Christians and believe there should be separation between organised religion and government.

"As for what happens overseas, the same things that motivate Trump happened in [some Muslim] countries as well," he said.

"That's not a good representation of Islam; the factors that are driving it are not religious piety. They're social inequality and so forth.

"If you think about America and how Christianity plays into politics there, that is an incredibly complex issue and it's true for every country in the world as well.

"For me to sit here in Australia, without having lived in another country and talk about Iran's problems, I'm never going to know."

Mr Hashmi said he didn't understand why some Australians were supporting parties like One Nation, which wants an inquiry into Islam.

"Even if I understood why people are afraid of Australia becoming like Afghanistan, their policies don't prevent that," he said.

"You need to not be very critical of how she [Pauline Hanson] views the world to actually follow her.

"I completely agree that we don't want Australia to become an Arab dictatorship, I'm completely on board with that, but whether policies like those of Donald Trump take us further away or closer to that is a different question."

Mr Hashmi said most Australians were tolerant and he's never personally experienced any racism.

"I've heard of cases where people have got upset about something, but it's usually the action of individuals and not a systemic problem," he said.

"But my experiences are shaped by the fact I have an Australian accent and nobody picks me as being a foreigner by look.

"For someone who has a heavy accent and wears hijab and looks visibly different, their experience is likely to be very different to mine because so much goes on how you look and what you sound like."

MPV has held "meet a Muslim" events where non-Muslims can ask questions about Islam.

"There are studies that show prejudice against Muslims drops significantly if you know one Muslim," Mr Hashmi said.

"From that study the [MPV] Melbourne group adopted this format where people could come in and ask whatever they want.

"We have a number of Muslims there who give different responses, so you can see how opinions are different between people and why they think that."

Tanya Hashmi lives that difference by not wearing a headdress of any kind.

"I have personal views about the necessity of wearing hijab and I know many Muslims will think differently to me," she said.

"That's one of the aspects of Islam, that your traditional image of a Muslim woman wearing a long dress and hijab is just one of the wide variety of ways that Muslim women dress.

"I think the image of Islam being very varied has become compressed, both through the media and through the wider representation of the Saudi Muslim as what people think of as the standard.

"Some [Muslim] people will disagree with me, but I know a lot of people feel the same as I do."

Dr Hashmi said the headdress was more a historical tradition than a religious one.

"Looking back at paintings of women from 15th century England, women covered their hair; it was the norm," she said.

"I don't see it as a specifically religious practice, but an historical practice which for various reasons has carried through for a long period of time.

"If you look at various Christian and Jewish groups there are some that have women keeping their hair covered."

Mr Hashmi said the MPV group would continue to host "meet a Muslim events". The next will be held on February 28 at the Griffin Centre.

More information about Muslims for Progressive Values can be found on the group's website, Facebook page or Meetup.

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