By Konrad Marshall
December 9, 2014
Imagine you are a young Muslim growing up in Melbourne. Now consider the last six months in isolation. Start with those ominous black balloons in Bendigo, and the organised campaign of hate and vilification to "Stop the Mosque".
Take a look at the next three-word slogan - "Ban the Burqa" - and the posturing of politicians reacting to the idea of a ban, the cross-examination of the practicality and morality and legality of a ban, and all that frothing over who even has the right to comment on a ban.
Stop as well to read the latest news, including the increase in unreported attacks against Muslim women - local women - as some sort of perverted response to faraway atrocities committed by a death cult somewhere in the Middle East.
As a young Muslim in Melbourne you may sense it building against you, yet again. That old guarded prejudice.
As you drown in each debate, maybe you glance at the results of recent VicHealth research suggesting an increasing number of people think there are ethnic groups who simply do not "fit in" – and that those who hold such views are most likely to feel negative towards Muslims and the Middle East.
Or perhaps you read the published results of the latest Ipsos Social Research Institute report, which polled Australians on various matters of potential ignorance. The findings show that we believe, on average, that 18 per cent of the population in this country is Muslim. The actual figure is closer to 2 per cent.
You are part of that misunderstood 2 per cent. You are not Numan Haider, 18, who was shot by police after stabbing two officers in Endeavour Hills. And you are not Adam Dahman, the Northcote teen who killed himself and five others with a bomb in Baghdad. You are not one of the "new faces of terror".
But nor are you an exemplar of some secularised Aussie Muslim ideal. You are not beloved public intellectual and Walkley winner Waleed Aly. Or Richmond back flanker and multicultural ambassador Bachar Houli. Or industry titan and transformational chief executive Ahmed Fahour.
You are, in fact, the bulk of that 2 per cent - one of those many young moderate Muslims from whom we never hear.
Maybe you are Ameera Karimshah, 27, who deftly navigates a post-9/11 era that seems fixated on the extreme actions of a frightening minority - instead of the peaceful behaviour of the majority.
"You have to sort of explain yourself, especially when some dramatic thing happens," she says. "It's continuous. It's almost like we've grown up with this stigma."
Or perhaps you are Giaan Tomcure, also 27, who graciously and continually answers basic questions about his faith, but at the same time feels forced to justify Islam's place in the world.
"I do feel like I'm being judged," he says, "as if I need to explain myself to people and say 'Hey, I'm actually a nice person'."
Giaan and Ameera meet on a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, outside a mosque in Hoppers Crossing. They are here (somewhat unfairly perhaps) as examples of an "average" Islam that is often overlooked.
Giaan runs through his recent work as a residential youth carer, helping teach life skills to kids removed from their parents by the Department of Human Services.
He wears black Havaiana thongs, beige skinny jeans and a pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers, and talks about how he enjoys mixed martial arts fighting, video editing and acting.
You might remember him from bit part roles in ABC television productions including Bed of Roses and The Slap. (He was the guy who stole $40,000 from his boss, played by Alex Dimitriades.)
Ameera wears an aqua Hijab (although she doesn't always wear one) and a beautiful peach and black dress, and she smiles while explaining her work as a masters student in international community development.
In her spare time she writes poetry, volunteers at a homework club at Footscray North Primary School, and regularly visits the detention centre at Broad meadows to spend time with asylum seekers.
"We just take food, fruit, snacks, things to share," she says. "We sit and talk, keep them company and give them something different to do during the day. It's pretty monotonous being there."
Ameera speaks only English, but most of the games they play at the centre are simple enough to bridge the language gap. Uno is popular, she says, and they invent card games. "Could I have a chat to you about that after we're done?" asks Giaan. "I actually wanted to do some volunteer work and didn't know where to start."
Giaan and Ameera seem as positive and unpolished as any well-meaning pair of 20-somethings, and this is in part what Anita Harris had in mind when she enlisted them in her Monash University research project on the "Civic Life of Young Australian Muslims".
Ameera was engaged as a peer researcher, while Giaan provided one of many "digital stories" to emerge from the project - which examines community belonging, active citizenship and social inclusion and is funded by the Australian Research Council.
Harris, an associate professor and sociologist, says the study involved interviews with 80 young people who identify as Muslim from a migrant background. She intentionally sought a diverse sample of "representative" middle-ground Muslim youth who are neither the most marginalised nor the most successful.
"They're not out on the fringe - either expressing their voice in media or running off to Syria," she says. "The project was about finding this hidden majority."
Perhaps the most striking of the study's findings was the degree to which young Muslims feel positively perceived by their local community (61 per cent) as compared to wider society (25 per cent).
In interviews they talked about having open conversations and great interactions with non-Muslims on a one-to-one basis, but feeling isolated and misunderstood on the national stage.
"There was this frustration," says Harris, "that they didn't know how to scale up what was working at the community level with a broader public perception."
The frustration was amplified in part because the surveyed cohort are so heavily engaged in positive "civic practices" - including 91 per cent who give time, money and goods to causes such as Unicef, Red Cross and Amnesty International.
A whopping 83 per cent of the young Muslims surveyed do volunteer work in schools, nursing homes and hospitals, and are involved in various local community projects. (By comparison, ABS statistics from the recent Census suggest just 27 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 25 are involved in such work.)
The young Muslims also reported helping neighbours and the elderly with gardening, shopping and household chores - voluntary contributions that far exceed what Harris has found in prior research on other youth cohorts. And for most of them, this desire to serve others and contribute to community was directly correlated with their perceived obligations as good Muslims.
Giaan, for instance, speaks of Zakat. One of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat is a form of charity not unlike Christian tithing, which asks Muslims to give 2.5 per cent of their savings to charity each year.
"Islam is a guide to how you should live your life," says Ameera. "It teaches us to be good and charitable and engaged."
Of course, as Harris points out, research often shows that followers of any faith with an ethic of charity are bound to be more civically engaged. (In that way, the behaviour of these young Muslims could be more generally religious than exclusively Islamic.)
Generalising the motivation of Muslims is an easy way to lose sight of their diversity. There remains a persistent idea that there is only one way to be Muslim, and it involves being devout and pious - neglecting the obvious truth that there are varying levels of commitment to any faith.
Many Muslims will pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan - but not all. Many do come from the Middle East - but they are just as likely to come from the Sudan or Bosnia or Indonesia.
Ameera was born in Zimbabwe (with Indian, Malay and Dutch heritage) and came to Australia when she was 14.
Giaan was born here to Turkish parents who did not raise him religiously. He only began practising a few years ago, and is one of few members of his family to do so.
He goes to mosque every week for the all important Friday afternoon prayer, while Ameera rarely sets foot in any mosque, excepting certain community events or a religious gathering like Eid, the celebration after Ramadan.
Just as there are lapsed Catholics and non-practising Protestants, so are there laissez faire followers of Islam - people for whom the faith is more about culture and community than religion and dogma.
Experiences of racism and Islamophobia among those in the Monash University project were just are diverse. Some have experienced none whatsoever, while others have been appalled at their treatment - and their responses were varied, too.
Harris says many of the girls in particular were "gutsy" in defending themselves from insults and attacks - challenging the stereotype that suggests Muslim females are shut away and trained not to speak up.
"There was one girl who said she was on a train, went to get her laptop out of her bag, and a woman next to her whispered to the woman she was with, 'it's probably a bomb'. And this girl was furious, and she went up to her and said: 'It's a laptop, and I'm sure your son or daughter also has a laptop'. And the woman was embarrassed. But it took a lot of courage to confront her.
"Another woman, a guy walked past her in the street and told her to take her headscarf off, and she said: 'How would you feel if I told you to take your pants off?' So these are really good examples of coming back, and having some smart responses, and not putting up with it."
But those interviewed also felt enormous pressure to "perform" as good Muslims - to hold themselves up to a higher standard. One noted that any identifiably Muslim person cannot afford to commit an infraction as relatively minor as littering.
"The standards they feel they have to meet to be seen as decent people are far higher than others," says Harris. "With this burden of being good, there isn't a lot of time left to just be who you are."
Ameera heard the same thing in her interviews. "People said: 'I have to be smiling all the time, because if I don't smile I'll convey that image of the bad Muslim'. They didn't feel they could frown in public."
What struck her most in the course of the research was the idea that young Muslims have to work so hard to show people how "normal" they are "by acting out their normalness and explaining their normalness".
Adds Giaan: "I just want people to stop seeing a man with dark skin and a beard and thinking he's evil ... just get out there and do some research, and understand what Islam is about."
Or ask Ameera and Giaan.
They are happy to answer your questions, although like many of their peers they do find it curious that their life seemingly involves acting as unofficial spokespeople for their brand of religion.
"There's a lot of cautious curiosity," says Ameera. "People going 'Oh, so, you're a Muslim - what does this mean?' It does get tiring when I have to tell my story again. But I'd rather have that conversation than not. I prefer that to the alternative."