Australian society

A delicate balance
The Islamic Council of Victoria is optimistic

The Islamic Council of Victoria sits in a nondescript office building on a side street in West Melbourne, between two busy arterials shuttling traffic in and out of the CBD. When I visit, it’s only been a couple of weeks since the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Abdul Numan Haider in Melbourne’s Endeavour Hills, and I half suspect the Council will be under siege. But there’s only a taxi driver on his way out from praying at the mosque on the ground floor, and when I make my way up the stairs to the office I’m greeted by a friendly woman at reception wearing a hijab. Nail Aykan, the Council’s general manager, ushers me into a small meeting room.

Our conversation quickly turns to the media coverage following Abdul Numan Haider’s death: the headlines screaming “Jihad Revenge Fears” and “Terror Strikes Home”, the press conference hastily convened by Muslim community leaders – including one by Council secretary Ghaith Krayem – at which they feel they must reiterate, once again, that not all Muslims are terrorists.

Aykan says that the coverage was “maybe a bit too much sensationalist.” But, he stresses, he is less concerned with how Islamophobia plays out in the media on an “intellectual or abstract level”, than he is troubled by the consequences such coverage has on the average Muslim person in the community. Just before my arrival, Aykan had received a complaint over the phone. That morning, a teenage Muslim girl in a hijab working at a Coles supermarket had been verbally abused until the store’s manager finally stepped in to remove the abusive customer. It’s exactly this sort of incident, Aykan argues, which is part of the “domino effect” of irresponsible reporting.

Unsurprisingly, he singles out the Murdoch press as the worst offenders: “we’d have a healthier society if we didn’t have tabloids.” What is surprising is that he remains doggedly upbeat throughout our conversation. The source of his positivity – he describes himself as “cautiously optimistic” – is his belief that “eventually common sense prevails.” Ultimately, he says, the majority of white Australians aren’t racists, and just because the tabloids have a wide audience doesn’t mean all their readers “buy their crap”.

Aykan also insists that things have gotten better since the dark days immediately following 11 September 2001. In that year, there was a real feeling of alienation, which he doesn’t perceive now. Even in the recent Burqa ban hysterics, there were voices of reason in Cabinet – Aykan lists Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and even George Brandis. This, Aykan argues, wouldn’t have been the case ten years ago. He puts this improvement down to greater “maturity” as a nation. Since 2001, he says, Muslim and non-Muslim communities have gotten to know each other better.

Aykan sees the Islamic Council of Victoria operating at the forefront of this improved relationship. In the weeks following the fatal shooting, Aykan and the Council have met with dozens of organisations, including Victoria Police, the Premier, the Victorian Equal Opportunities & Human Rights Commission and a range of interfaith groups and multicultural organisations. The message Aykan takes away, over and over again, is clear: “we’re not alone.”

Despite his hopefulness, I find myself returning to the teenage girl working at Coles. Perhaps it’s the absolute mundaneness of the setting that makes it all the more shocking: a suburban supermarket, a checkout girl, and a customer, apoplectic with a dark, disturbing rage. A “disease”, Aykan calls it at one point, as we discuss racism, and it occurs to me that he’s performing a delicate balancing act. As a peak body representing 47 different Muslim community groups in Victoria, the Council can only perform its job if it has access to the highest levels of government.

Aykan himself tells me that part of the Council's role is to “provide some type of comfort to both the authorities, the institutions…and the local Muslim community.” His bullish optimism strikes the right tone in that regard, but I’m left wondering about our supposed “maturity” as a nation. A few days later, the spectre of Ebola-infected “suicide agents” is dominating the news cycle, and a family friend tells me about their elderly neighbours who, for fear of ISIS, are too scared to leave their leafy hamlet on the Mornington Peninsula. On this evidence, common sense has a long way to go before it triumphs over fear.

André Dao

André Dao is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history organisation documenting people’s lived experience of human rights abuses.


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