Local Muslims in Australia building bridges amid ignorance

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SHAFAQNA - Abbey Hodson and Abdul Aziz are two local Muslims who refuse to react to the fear and loathing emerging from some sections of Australia over their religion.

Ms Hodson is an Australian-born woman who converted to Islam about five years ago after a period of personal reflection.

“Islam is a lifestyle that to me is very practical,” she said.

“You are always in touch with the beauty of the world around you.”

Mr Aziz hails from Pakistan and immigrated to Australia with his family about a decade ago.

When he first arrived in Dubbo on a 457 visa, people there gave him a warm welcome.

“Every single person opened their arms to me,” Mr Aziz said.

“An Australian employed me into the country… they made me feel at home here, they even gave me a bedroom while I found a place to live.”

Going about his daily work running an electronics business in Lismore, Mr Aziz said any reaction from people to his appearance always melted away after a chat.

“When they do come into contact with Muslims they do realise Islam is not a religion of hatred or terrorism, or segregation,” he said.

“That is just a fear of the unknown.

“Yes we might have a different culture, yes we might have a different way of life, but that does not mean we want the rest of Australia to live that way.”

Mr Aziz said Lismore was a great example of a diverse and inclusive community and said he had never been personally abused for his race or religion here.

On the other hand, he reluctantly admitted a Lismore place of prayer recently established for local Muslims had been a target of verbal abuse by passing drivers, as well as graffiti.

A local Muslim friend of his and shop owner had also told of being approached by a man in a Reclaim Australia T-shirt who had to be removed from his shop by police.

But he said he didn’t want to make an issue of the behaviour because it was coming from a tiny minority.

In a similar vein, both Mr Aziz and Ms Hodson were reluctant to talk about groups like the anti-Islam Reclaim Australia, saying they wanted to focus on positive initiatives rather than criticise others.

But they believed such groups were victims of the fear being engendered around the religion of Islam – a fear based on ignorance.

“The majority of Australians have very little dealings with Muslims, it’s based on what they see in the media, so some think Islam is always related to terrorism,” Mr Aziz said.

Both said the rhetoric of Prime Minister Tony Abbott was sounding the wrong notes and creating mistrust when political leaders needed to emphasise unity.

Mr Aziz said he had genuine faith in Australians but he did worry about the future for his three young children if the current negativity towards Muslims continued.

“You create extremism by pushing people away,” he said.

“We need to focus on the positives rather than the negatives,” Ms Hodson added.

She cited people running programs all over the country helping people understand Islam to help take the fear of the unknown out of the equation.

“Why aren’t we telling the good stories about the work the Muslims are doing? We don’t need to create more division,” she said.

The two will be attending one such event this Saturday in Lismore to mark the end of Ramadan, a lunch designed to build bridges between the Muslim and wider community.

The event was initiated by local peace organisation Remembering and Healing and has had a huge response from the community, according to RaH’s Sabina Baltruweit.

That alone suggested there was deep support in the community for inclusivity and understanding.

“I’m really taken by the fabulous response,” Ms Baltruweit said.

“It says something about the Lismore community’s open mindedness and people wanting to go out of their way to make it visible that they want to connect with and meet Muslims.

“In this political climate it is great.”

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