Date: July 10 2012
The debate over the proposed construction of a mosque in Gungahlin highlights a significant source of tension and opportunity for multicultural societies. An organised minority is opposed to the construction for various reasons. Much of the rhetoric of the Concerned Citizens of Canberra group is grounded in many misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. But this tension is not unique to this particular debate. Across the world similar misconceptions have given rise to feelings of insecurity and intolerance. These tensions have been experienced in democracies as diverse as Australia, Malaysia and Norway. However, from these acrimonious debates, we can find increased opportunities to foster greater appreciation and understanding of other cultures and civilisations.
Beyond the current debate, Australia has witnessed similar objections to the construction and establishment of Islamic institutions. Underlying this opposition is a sense of insecurity about their identity and community being undermined. The recent controversy surrounding the construction of an Islamic school in Camden, NSW is emblematic of this insecurity. This same tension has manifested itself in other places in the world. Recently in Malaysia some groups within the dominant Malay-Muslim community felt their faith threatened by the use of the term ''Allah'' in a Catholic publication, The Herald. In the same vein the fear of Christian evangelism and that Muslims would be confused was evident when the distribution of the Indonesian translation of the Bible, Al-Kitab, was restricted to certain churches and bookstores. The general lack of awareness and understanding of the long history of the Christian usage of the term Allah in Malaysia drove a general feeling of unease amongst the Malay-Muslim community. The notion among the religious elite that the Christians are there to confuse the Muslims exacerbates the problem. Both these cases demonstrate the negative effects from the absence of dialogue between the various faith communities. Even in Australia 50 years ago misunderstood differences between Catholics and Protestants generated an all pervasive sense of sectarianism which has strong implications to this present day.
When minor misunderstandings are not appropriately addressed the consequences can be severe. The resulting mistrust can provide a fodder for extremist agendas to take hold. The exacerbation of fear by those who seek to appropriate and exploit religion for their own political agenda leads to violence. We were reminded of this in July 2011 when Anders Behring Breivik murdered eight people in downtown Oslo, and 69 students participating in a youth camp of the ruling party. He did this on the pretext of ''defending'' Norway from the evils of multiculturalism. In his subsequent justification Breivik condemned multicultural agenda, specifically targeting the spread of Islam in Norway. Breivik's demonisation of multiculturalism in general, and Islam in particular, had the effect of driving him to attack not Muslims, but the institutions of his own government. This demonstrates how a person's insecurity and intolerance towards other communities and cultures can have devastating consequences for the entire society.
Of course, the intensity of the debate over the proposed mosque in Gungahlin pales into insignificance when contrasted with these other examples. Nonetheless, there is an opportunity here to avoid the pitfalls experienced by others. Dialogue is the most crucial element in developing mutual trust and understanding. Dialogue serves as a platform for leaders of the various faith communities and others in Canberra to iron out differences and misunderstandings, and to examine the universal principles and values shared by all belief systems. Dialogue does not only refer to serious discussions in formal settings, but can also be conducted through cultural exchanges. This process is already well under way in Canberra through events such as the annual multicultural festival. But these exchanges alone are not enough for meaningful understanding.
Through dialogue, Muslims can have a forum to share their faith with others and also to respond to concerns. Again, this process has already been started at the grassroots with the Uniting Church neighbouring the proposed mosque welcoming the development. The progressive and positive outlook of that church's minister needs to be replicated across the country. It is indeed fortuitous that the proposed mosque will neighbour a church. This will demonstrate to the world that people of different faiths can worship side by side; Canberra can be a model of a modern, progressive, and diverse community.
The ultimate goal of dialogue is to change the outlook of the community, where the true benefits of multiculturalism are cherished by all. There must be a transformation from a mere tolerance of difference, to a genuine appreciation of diversity. We have arrived at a point where we can no longer sweep our differences under the carpet by agreeing to disagree. Dialogue, whether between leaders or people in the street, is the only way to achieve a universal understanding and appreciation of each other. The debate over the proposed Gungahlin mosque provides us with this opportunity for dialogue. Handled correctly, this situation can allow us to grow as a community.
Brendan Forde and Norshahril Saat are PhD candidates at the department of political and social change within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU.
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