It’s easy to fear what we don’t understand, believes Saara Sabbagh, founder and CEO of the Melbourne-based Muslim social organisation Benevolence Australia.
“Muslims are only 2.6 per cent of the Australian population, which means the average Australian will not get to meet the average Australian Muslim,” she says.
“They’re just going to hear about them and reinforce their fears and prejudices via the media and via Hollywood.”
A University of South Australia study found in 2016 that one in 10 Australians were “highly Islamophobic”, while an Essential Research poll in the same year found 49 per cent of Australians supported a ban on Muslim immigration.
Sabbagh was hoping to counter some of those fears at this month’s Victorian Mosque Open Day (April 15), when Benevolence Australia and 12 other Muslim community centres and mosques around Victoria opened their doors to the public.
In its second year, the open day included information sessions, mosque tours, sausage sizzles and even hijab tutorials, all in an effort to encourage Australians to meet face to face with Muslims in their community.
“Anyone is welcome to come,” says the president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Mohamed Mohideen. The council represents the state’s 200,000 Muslims and organises the event.
“We want people to reach out and ask questions.”
Just interacting with Muslims who are smiling and laughing is enough to change negative stereotypes, says Mohideen.
“We are always portrayed as angry,” he says. “But we are the same as anyone else. You prick us and we’ll bleed.”
Congratulations to our very own #SaaraSabbagh on her recent Victorian Multicultural Commission Champion award! The VMC’s new #MulticulturalChampions program acknowledges Victorians who have been instrumental in breaking down barriers between culturally diverse communities. ⠀ This award is a recognition of Saara’s contribution of 30 years of community service and supporting Saara in her leadership role. ⠀ Benevolence would like to take this opportunity to thank VMC for their ongoing support, and Helen Kapalos in particular for her brilliant leadership in this space. ⠀ MashaAllah! — #BenevolenceAustralia #MelbourneMuslims #LivingFaith #GodCentred #FemaleLeaders #InspirationalWomen @hkapalos
The open day also saw Benevolence Australia hosting two information sessions at its Doncaster East centre, which gave non-Muslims the chance to come and ask questions they might normally avoid.
Last year, Sabbagh fielded queries about headscarves, prayer and terrorism. It was “refreshing” she says, to talk openly about issues affecting the Muslim community.
“I don’t think people assume they can talk to us on that level,” she says. “But we don’t shy away from any questions.” And yet, the open day wasn’t all about serious discussion.
Like many of the participating mosques, Elsedeaq Mosque in Heidelberg Heights hosted a barbecue, with halal food provided by the mosque’s Somali and Egyptian communities, as well as face painting, gardening demonstrations and a jumping castle.
Elsedeaq’s imam, Sheik Alaa El Zokm, says an encouraging 300 people attended last year’s event, which included a tutorial showing people how to properly put on and wear a hijab (or head scarf).
“We took photos of them wearing the hijab and we sent it to them,” he says with a laugh. “It was very fun.”
Zokm says the day provided an important opportunity for the mosque to introduce itself to its neighbours, who might have only seen Muslims in the news or on TV.
“We need to spread the right information about Islam, especially when there are those who will misrepresent the religion by showing violence and extremism.”
He also wants to show Muslims in his community that they are welcome here. “We are encouraging Muslims to talk, because we are not here to isolate ourselves from the community,” he says. “We have to share in building this society.” ●