The class act last night on Tony, Tanya and Bob was the guy in the audience who said “I’m married to a Muslim, so I speak Muslim; welcome to my world, and a good place it is too!” Not such a class act was Tony Abbott’s “throw-away line” — actually a deep insight into what passes for a brain inside the Abbott skull — saying the NSW Department of Education was the “atheist school system” — harking back to all those furphies that passed for fact under the Howard government about state schools being “value-free zones”, something I ranted about at the time. Tony was however defending the equal right of Muslim parents to establish Islamic schools if they so desired, as have Catholics and others, and that aspect of his message at least was some kind of contribution, in line of course with Cardinal Pell’s recent call for a fair go for Muslims.
MAXINE McKEW: It’s already been a tough year for Australia’s Muslim community, which has reported a rise in racial vilification incidents in the wake of September 11, the Bali bombings and the subsequent ASIO raids.
But, last night, a Sydney suburban council thrust itself into the forefront of the ethnic divide when it rejected a building application for a Muslim prayer hall.
After receiving more than 5,000 letters of objection, Baulkham Hills Council voted against the application on the grounds that it was not in the public interest.
Although most of the objections cited town planning issues such as traffic and parking, the local Muslim community believes it’s being discriminated against and plans to take the issue to court.
Andrew Geoghegan reports.
MICHAEL BLAIR, BAULKHAM HILLS: Why should that community be subjected to a development that it does not want?
It’s as simple as that.
MARTIN TOLAR, BAULKHAM HILLS COUNCILLOR: Actually, that poses a threat the way of life for the people of the shire, Baulkham Hills, Mr Mayor.
GABR ELGAFI, CHAIRMAN, ISLAMIC COUNCIL: I think it’s sending a message that Muslims are not part of Australia.
It’s sending a message that we’re going back to the ’40s and the ’50s where, if you’re not an Anglo-Saxon background, you’re not one of us.
ABBAS ALY, DEVELOPER: The council didn’t have the courage or conviction to stand up for what is right.
They’re making excuses to take what is easy and not to have to vote on something.
ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Abbas Aly’s plan was to build an informal place of worship for Muslim families.
ABBAS ALY: The plans were to have a prayer hall that would be just past the shed there to accommodate the 35 families in this area who at the moment travel about 45-50 minutes to the closest prayer centre.
ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Such prayer halls are found in other parts of Sydney.
But the semi-rural community of Annangrove in Sydney’s north-west has made it clear that no such development is welcome in their area.
DIANA BAIN, ANNANGROVE PROGRESS ASSOCIATION: The zoning and the majority of the people have chosen to live like this and the majority have spoken and this is a democracy.
And I’m really pleased that the council took notice of what the majority of the people wanted…
A familiar ring to that, wouldn’t you say?
Well, eventually they got their prayer hall, and last night it was pointed out that it is hard today to find anyone in Annangrove who objects to its presence or to the people who use it! Even the Daily Telegraph noted this in 2007, though last night it wasn’t Mr Aly who was quoted but the local shopkeepers and ordinary folk:
Hills are alive with the sounds of harmony
SMASHED windows, severed pig heads, threats of violence and mass rallies: all over an Islamic prayer hall on Sydney’s fringe.
No, this is not Camden. It is another community split asunder five years ago when Annangrove locals rallied against the construction of an Islamic prayer hall in the heart of their bible-belt suburb.
The man at the centre of that dispute – Abbas Aly – has some advice for the people of Camden.
“People in Camden should come and see what happened in The Hills, which went from a nasty situation to a beautiful situation,” Mr Aly said.
Mr Aly faced a heated backlash from locals opposed to the prayer centre, with an action group called the Annangrove Progress Association taking the battle to the Land and Environment Court.
More than 8000 objections were lodged against the Annangrove Muslim prayer centre in 2002 before the court overturned Baulkham Hills Shire Council’s decision to reject the proposal.
The site was subjected to constant vandalism, including smashed windows and a severed pig’s head impaled outside the building.
In the bitter court challenge, members from the residents group said they had a jihad placed on them for their staunch opposition.
But according to Mr Aly there has been none of the predicted doom that locals feared an influx of Muslim worshippers would have on the amenity of Annangrove.
“Once people started coming in and having a look around, talking to us and sharing a cup of coffee – their attitudes changed,” Mr Aly said.
“It has turned around so much that on December 5 we will be having a joint celebration of Jesus’ life here, with speeches by both Christians and Muslims and Christmas carols by the Galston Uniting Church’s men’s choir,” Mr Aly said.
A new development application currently before Baulkham Hills Council for an extension of the prayer hall’s hours has received just a handful of objections – a far cry from the 8000 in 2002.
One of those objections comes from Annangrove Progress Association president Dermot O’Sullivan, who stands by their group’s opposition to the prayer hall.
Mr O’Sullivan said, while there might not be any problems now, it could be a different situation in 10 to 15 years when the number of worshippers grows and increases the strain on roads and infrastructure.
“The substance of our objection was always about the appropriateness of a development like that in the locality it was proposed and we stand by that,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
“The trouble was that people who stuck their hand in the air and objected were all called a bunch of redneck racists.”…
Let’s say xenophobia or Islamophobia perhaps, just to please the nitpickers who say opposing Muslims can’t be racist because Islam is not a race, but there is little doubt that much the media focused on in Camden recently was very ugly. The fact is Muslims can be and in most cases are good citizens of Australia; as Warren Mundine noted, the whole idea of a suburb that can’t have Muslims or blacks or Asians or Anglos or whatever just isn’t our way; our way is to mix in together respecting one another’s differences.
Amen to that.