Love Thy Neighbour

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.

We lost.

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.

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  • Salem

    13/02/2013 12:37pm (5 years ago)

    What a thought provoking piece! Thank you. You have initiated a discussion of definite pioneering potential. During my experiences in community engagement and social/community work over the last 25 years (the major chunk includes direct work with Muslim communities, migrants and refugee settlement) I have constantly witnessed this tugger-war effect around building development issues crossing over every newly arrived community repeating the very same, flawed, approach! In fact i am currently working with one of the most recently arrived groups, an African community, wanting to build their "own" mosque! In my discussions with that community, in as much as I have tried to share the experiences of the many communities before them, I came to realize one other twist to this dilemma you presented. It is very clear to me that beyond the issues of discrimination, community objections and planning restrictions, the Australian Muslim community needs to address a major issue relating to identity and 'inclusion' of our own newly arrived Muslim communities. Why should a newly arrived refugee community be exploring the need to have their "own" place of worship? - ‘They’ are not ‘included’! I am totally convinced this attitude, established by existing communities, and approach to religious infrastructure development caused some kind of intra-community discrimination! Where is the practice of Muhajereen-Ansaar? Applicable today more than ever, i say. Wasn't that genius concept first constructed in the attitude and behaviour of the faithful before building infrastructure?! Furthermore, even if new communities were to build additional structures, 'established' Muslim communities have not left much of a legacy or models to follow. It's not surprising that such distancing from the essence of applicable Islam is the same that gives rise to misbehaviour in the community and on the streets during Fridays and ‘Eids - a complete disregard to the most emphasized counsel of the founder of the Islamic Faith: the "rights, protection and safety of your Neighbour! Your Neighbour! Your Neighbour..." Engagement is a multi-faceted word and should not simply be limited to inviting neighbours to an open day, or negotiating parking space on Fridays. It is very much linked to a holistic settlement process. Multifunctional centres can be a wonderful conduit to settlement of communities – and by that I mean multi functions that include wider community activities and daily engagements; be it business, leisure access, sporting etc. (not such a new strategy as it was the modus operandi implemented by Muslim rulers and Architects throughout history) It will lead to not only settlement but acceptance – leaps beyond simple ‘tolerance’… This is also how second generation Muslims and revert Muslims may also be included under this notion of ‘settlement’ even though are born and raised in Australia: acceptance! Therefore, as much as we expect understanding and tolerance from the wider Australian society, I believe we have some deep and real introspective assessment of our selves; as a community and as individuals to apply a much needed paradigm shift. This assessment should not push us deeper into our own thoughts and ideas (the kind of self-centered situation we find ourselves in now) but should include a serious analysis of what and how Muslims and Islam behaved throughout history. Starting from the way our 'prototype' (the prophet Muhammad SAW) exemplified for us, to the way his protégés spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula and the heightened presence, influence and civilizations established during the Spanish and Ottoman eras! They were absolutely clear about their ‘mission’. Islam wasn’t simply an adopted title but an Amanah, a trust, held for all creation! It belongs to every Australian as much as it does to anyone else on the globe! This is the motivation that produced Muslim nations and influenced, educated and enlightened the entire western world out of the dark ages. We need to ask: how are we (re)presenting this trust? Does our infrastructural planning and development consider the whole society?! Your notion now gives rise to some kind of awakening and I hope it will bring all levels of community, government and the wider Australian community to expose all these issues. Number one step though is that initial 'spark' within. Our individual, and communal, paradigm shift! To 'change within' is to expect divine victory. It just may be that an establishment like yours is the one required to now lead the way….

  • Tasneem

    04/02/2013 12:49pm (5 years ago)

    It is ironic that the very inflexibiity with which detractors inhibit our capacity to coexist, is then demonstrated to our 'supporters' through unruly ettiquette. Where is the love?? A great piece, summarising to point the hindrances to positive engagement, but moreso, the pathways to rectifying this. May we lead by humble example rather than callous disregard.

  • Zohra

    03/02/2013 5:10am (5 years ago)

    This is actually quite sad to hear. To think that we're forgetting the comfort and safety of those around us before we stand before God shows that we don't truly understand the spirit of our religion. Of the main causes of the plight of Muslims in western countries are the Muslims themselves, and this needs to change for reasons highlighted in this article. It is, however, refreshing to see that efforts are continuously being made to rectify this.

  • Rahmat Bayudi

    31/01/2013 5:51pm (5 years ago)

    Thanks for sharing. In the age where inter community positive engagement is needed through whichever means, the underpinning environmental factors such as space related issue above had created negative perception in such neighbourhood. Malaysia is well known for its formal and official efforts to create 'social cohesion' in a melting pot society of varied background. Such balance can easily be tarnished by simple incidents, and some like to believe by deliberate attempt to disrupt peace and harmony. Islamic community centres, regardless of nomenclature, must be more open to accept community members from all walks of life. An 'open masjid' or sometimes described as 'magnanimous masjid' must underpin future community development initiatives., especially with the push towards 'Rural transformation Centres (RTC)' in Malaysia. In urban areas, there is a growing effort to revive the role of community centres based on Islamic principles that provided services to the wider community. We must continue to support such effort, and more importantly participate, in contributing towards this positive engagement. Your last paragraph echoed the statement by the Sultan of Selangor, which had called for effort to revive the prestige of Islam, not by putting up magnificent and glittering structures but by capacity building in our community and wider society.

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