My favourite memories during my 1980s upbringing in Bendigo were yabby catching, bush dancing, netball and The Brady Bunch. So much of who I am today as an adult, working professional and Australian, stems from my time in that country town with its predominantly Anglo-Saxon population.
Not surprisingly, the shrill tone of this recent "No mosque in Bendigo"campaign, deeply enmeshed in hate and irrationality, fails to resonate with the spirit of my neighbours, friends and the community leaders I grew up with.
I'm a fifth generation East African-born Muslim of Indian origin, and I grew up feeling very much a part of my hometown. I attended the local schools and can confidently say my faith was never cause for discrimination, hate or fear amongst my peers and community. While a country upbringing may be comparatively more conservative than a city one, I enjoyed the best qualities of inclusion, self-confidence and plenty of opportunities to succeed.
My Bendigo schooling saw me attend church services, sing hymns at school assembly and achieve straight As in religious education. None of these experiences placed me at odds with my faith. Instead they provided me a genuine understanding and respect for others' beliefs. My family were ardent members of the Indo-Australia Club, partaking in functions that celebrated our heritage. In school I studied the Dreamtime, Chinese culture, and learned French and Indonesian. I celebrated Easter with friends and Eid with my family, without any crisis of conscience. The naysayers and hatemongers had no oxygen when I was growing up.
I’ve wondered how my upbringing might have differed had there been a local mosque to attend, both for my own spiritual rounding and that of my classmates. My first mosque visit was in the Melbourne suburb of Preston as a 13 year old. I recall being mesmerised by its tranquil ambience. Upon returning to Bendigo I realised how much I missed that spiritual connection, which until that point I never knew I needed. Ultimately, that is the purpose of places of worship – to provide a spiritual repose for practitioners of any faith.
Thirty years on later, the political and cultural landscape of Australia has transformed significantly, without a doubt. But what I understand to be the fundamentals of Bendigo culture – understanding and acceptance – cannot have changed that much.
The anti-mosque group peddles a concept of fairness applicable only to those whom they deem spiritually fit. They have distributed hate material, given speeches and tied black balloons to the houses of pro-mosque councillors. Their strategy is to demonise the other, based on a false belief that the host culture needs protecting from being polluted and overrun. If that fear-mongering sounds un-Australian, that’s because it is.
Today local Muslims in Bendigo are seeking a space to meet their spiritual needs. In a democracy, it seems an entitlement so basic as to hardly warrant controversy. To the Bendigonians I know and love, the responses of bigots are foreign and in no way reflective of the majority view. Evidence points to a mainly externally sourced "rent-a-racist" collective, marshalled by the Q Society, who are sadly tarnishing the good name of the golden city where I grew up.
I view these agitators as extremist hate-ists, addicted to spewing forth vitriol. However, I am prompted to keep calm and recall the wisdom of my year 11 English teacher who assured me,"‘you can’t be rational with irrational people". Ah, for the wisdom of country folk; haters, take heed.