Love Thy Neighbour
Some years ago I found myself at VCAT trying to overturn Council's decision to refuse a planning permit for a “community centre which also facilitated Muslim prayers”. And I'm being very precise with the way I am describing the proposal – its primary function was not a mosque. It was intended as a community centre servicing the entire community; it had a multipurpose hall which was intended to be opened to the public as well as seminar and community meeting rooms. And yes, a part of the proposal was designated for congregational prayer for Muslim worshippers, but this was the secondary function.
In the lead up to the hearing we had struck agreements with churches immediately adjoining each side of our site, that we be allowed to utilise their parking lots on the Friday and they be allowed to utilise ours on the Sunday. This promised to be one of those feel good stories broadcast after the weather on the nightly news where words such as “harmony”, “bridge building” and “cross cultural exchange” were emphasised
However, it was not to be. Less than one week prior to the hearing, the churches, under pressure from their less obliging members, reneged on their pledges and attended as objectors. The council employed one of the best traffic consultants in town (even I insist on engaging them now when headed for VCAT). Our proposal was systematically dismantled citing photographs of Islamic centres where double parking and driveway blocking was commonplace.
Many years later it still hurts. I suppose it is because it was our first real attempt at engagement and it was refuted despite the conciliatory overtones in committing to providing public social infrastructure and committing to community based management post completion. What hurt most was the open vindictiveness displayed by objector neighbours who were passionately against having this centre in their backyard.
At times the objections bordered on hysteria, I still have them in my file – “these Muslims celebrate something called Ramadan where they slaughter animals on site”, “I am followed by Muslims who want to steal my credit card details” And then there is the hysteria that connects extremism around the world with the establishment of an Islamic centre. That somehow if an Islamic centre were established it would produce a wave of extremists that would destroy the community. This is the sort of hysteria thrown up with attempts to establish Islamic centres in Camden, Perth and more recently in Doveton and Monash.
These sentiments although easily digested and regurgitated by the media thankfully don’t hold any sway under planning laws and most certainly not at VCAT. Well I truly hope not anyway! In my 20 years of practice I have never come across a centre which embraces extremist views. If anything established centres have been instrumental in placating their congregations and espousing moderation.
Sadly what does hold sway are incidences of double parking, blocking of driveways, and excessive noise. That is sad and indefensible. We can run the argument that Islam does not condone these actions, but weekly evidence on the ground contradicts our exertions. It’s a fallacy to think that striving to become close to God can somehow involve a negative act. What is the merit of the congregational prayer when it involved frustrating a neighbour by denying their free movement?
What is missing from many Islamic centres is positive engagement. It used to be that wherever Muslims went, they benefitted those with whom they interacted. These days, this assertion is far from the truth. And yet it is easily reversible by exemplary behaviour stemming from humility and sincere concern for the plight of God’s Creations – people and the environment.