“The Newcastle Islamic Centre is a welcome part of the Mayfield and wider Newcastle Community,” one Nathan Clarke openly stated in his letter to the Newcastle Herald on 22nd September, responding to news he had read that the mosque had been egged on the same evening of the AFP raids in Sydney. These words brought cheer to the current committee of the Islamic Centre of Newcastle (ICN), who have been working hard over the previous twelve months since being appointed, as well as the congregation, simply because we have far too often read about community members in regional Australia loudly stating that mosques are not welcome in their communities. Two days later in the House of Representatives in Canberra, the Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon made a speech entitled Islamic Centre of Newcastle to express her outrage at the egging incident. She said, “The Islamic Centre of Newcastle is very much valued within Mayfield (suburb) and the broader Newcastle community.” Again, it was heart-warming to see such support from a local politician.
Gaining acceptance from non-Muslims in the immediate suburb and wider community is one of the two main areas of work for regional Australian mosques. While they may face eggs or other forms of hate from one segment of community which will inevitably take time to improve, the challenge is to foster good relations, understanding and to be inclusive of everyone. This will lead to acceptance from other segments of community, as well as leaders and politicians. It was not PR exercises or back door political lobbying that gained the ICN this level of acceptance. It started the very day the centre started back in 2007 when a Salvation Army citadel was bought and converted into a mosque and Islamic centre. Groups of individuals walked into the place to express their condemnation of Muslims having taken away their Christian place of worship. In each instance, the mosque founders brought them into the mosque, offered them tea, explained that the space was bought at an auction, that despite now becoming a mosque it remains a house of worship and that they are welcome any time to come and worship the Creator who created all mankind. Even today we get all kinds of non-Muslim people walking into the masjid. Some claim they were walking down the street when something inspired them to walk into the masjid. Nobody is chased away. Sometimes they even wear their shoes and we have to advise them to remove them.
When thinking about how to respond to the overwhelming bias against Muslims, we did not have to search far, only needing to pay more attention to examples in Islamic civilisation. The Prophet (saw) responded to the worst forms of bias and treatment only with mercy. Our imams have shared some of these stories with the congregation. Habib Qais Assegaf, our current visiting scholar, will often share the story of how the Prophet (saw) fed a blind Jewish woman who was wicked and unfair towards him, without telling her who he was; ‘respond to what is bad with what is good’. Another guiding inspiration for the ICN is Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s famous prose “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”
The ICN has also started a learning programme by Prof. Seyyed Naquib Alatas Kulliye about Islamic civilisation and thought. Part of the objective is for the congregation to learn examples in Islamic civilisation of how migrant Muslims were able to settle peacefully, gain acceptance, establish masjids and grow their communities in non-Muslim lands. One common approach the ICN realised to be characteristic of such migrant Muslim communities was the tendency for them to participate in the wider narrative of society – the workforce, society-building, nation-building, the learning of cultures, etc. – and not just lock themselves into the Muslim community domain. For example, during its celebration of the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, the ICN invited theologians, religious communities, police and academics to present on the concept of peace and non-violence and after the event encouraged the various sides to build a framework for preventing all kinds of violence. This effort was well received and was specially mentioned by MP Sharon Claydon in her speech at the House of Representatives.
Another area of work for all Australian mosques, be it regional or not, is service development. When I was appointed as secretary to the ICN, I did a quick study of the entire set-up and embarked on a restructuring exercise. As a public health evaluation expert of health services and programmes, I used my domain approaches for the assessment. I realised that the ICN needed to restructure itself to separate the mosque services – five daily prayers, Friday prayer, etc. – from the broader services. The fact that we had two separate buildings made it easy to implement this, even at the level of physical space, with one building becoming the mosque building (Sultan Fatih Masjid) for religious services and the next building (Fatimah building) being used for broader services.
When I searched for data on the Newcastle Muslims, I discovered there were 2,200 Muslims who are citizens as per census data, 450 Muslim university students as per university information and, via rough estimates, another 350 Muslims who were working on visas, making a total Muslim population of 3,000. However, the two mosques in Newcastle were not able to reach out to more than 1,000 Muslims. The make-up of the Muslims is also very diverse and in the ICN congregation there are no less than 20 communities. Out of the estimated 3,000 Muslims, one third are below 21 years of age. Sadly, only 20% or less of this youth segment is accessed.
A closer look at underlying factors revealed some reasons for this. Rather than a strong Islamic learning culture led by scholars, there was instead a futile debating culture, with misinformed groups led by preachers. There were also deep divisions and ridiculous identity conflicts over ethnicity, nationality, theology, law and Shariah issues that morphed into turf wars, personal conflicts and so on. Many local Muslims were also from an affluent background, which weakened the spirit for community-building, as its need was not patently obvious to them.
It was evident the root of these symptoms was a weak culture of Islamic knowledge. The solution therefore was to increase Islamic knowledge through the promotion of Islamic scholarship. However we were faced with a lack of resources. Attempts to seek help locally with other Muslim organisations led to nothing more than big promises. Hence, the ICN teamed up with one of the largest zakat foundations in Indonesia which runs a scholarly preaching programme, Dompet Dhuafa. They offered to support the development of learning programmes and various other programmes through visiting scholars. The first visiting teacher who arrived started a daily Qur’an reading program for youth and adults. The second visiting teacher started Qur’anic commentary, hadith commentary and Ihya Ulumuddin classes. The third visiting teacher started to offer support services for individuals and families in distress, developed improved classes and started webinar teaching. With the support of an Afghan and Iranian family, a basic refugee integration programme was initiated. Shaykh Amatullah Armstrong also aided in the launch and running of a ladies’ zawiyah. We now have a Sydney congregation including men, women and families, who visit us from time to time to participate in our activities. In summary, the ICN has managed to make large leaps in service development over the past 12 months and currently is at the next stage of making improvements in order to make these services sustainable.
Developing a masjid in regional Australia offers better opportunities than in metropolitan cities due to the availability of space, lower costs and so on. However, it also comes with greater challenges. Muslim communities in North America in non-metropolitan cities have achieved remarkable growth proving that it is indeed possible for Muslim communities to thrive in regional areas. To achieve this, it is not about chasing after the best leaders, rather it is about finding the best scholars who can provide the best advice and guidance.