Finally, an articulate, highly educated Imam appearing on TV

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The Twittersphere was alight during and after ABC’s airing of QandA on Monday night. To my surprise, the words ‘Imam’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Religion’ were trending on Twitter. The interfaith panel comprising of Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge; Imam, Dr Mohamad Abdalla; Buddhist nun, The Venerable Robina Courtin; Comedian and atheist, Josh Thomas and Jewish/Atheist singer songwriter Deborah Conway stimulated rigorous debate on social media.

One panelist in particular however, seemed to have captivated the entire audience: Imam Mohamad Abdalla.

It was incredibly refreshing to see (finally) an articulate, well spoken, highly educated religious cleric representing Islam and Muslims in Australia. He spoke with dignity and exhibited a calming and peaceful demeanour which resonated with many. He was rational and genuine – a breath of fresh air.

He explained key Islamic concepts in a manner which sadly, had rarely been done on Australian mainstream media before, offering much needed insight and understanding. In that regard, his appearance on QandA was therefore historic.

I was particularly impressed by the fact that he made sure to distinguish between ‘Islamic extremism’ versus ‘Muslim extremists’. He also explained that there are a host of reasons for why young people feel disenfranchised and turn to violent acts of terrorism, including feelings of isolation and questions of identity and belonging. He articulately explained that religions do not posses a monopoly when it comes to human values, a comment which was met with hearty applause. In every aspect of his discussion, the key theme was finding common ground.

Many (mostly non-Muslims) praised him over social media:

Penny Gordon @PrettyPennyLane11h :#QandA “It’s a shame this cleric isn’t the spokesperson for Islam in Australia, he is a voice of reason”

james norman @jamescnorman12h

#QandA “the cleric is doing a great job at explaining in simple language what Islam is really about – we don’t hear that clarity often enough

Sean Scullion @seanifool11h

Very Impressed with the insights and wisdom being shared by this Islamic cleric sharing truth with Muslim & non-Muslim Australians on #QandA

In short, Imam Abdalla spoke a lot of sense. I watched on with pride. As did many other Muslims.

He is by far, one of the best things to happen to the Muslim community in Australia for a while – an under-utilized talent. Don’t get me wrong, we have many articulate and very capable Muslim spokespersons that have previously spoken in the media about a whole host of issues. And we also have many knowledgeable and pious scholars – the issue at hand is – not many of these scholars are equipped with the necessary skills and demeanour to address national media. The Muslim community has been grappling with this issue for decades now.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) now known as ‘Muslims Australia’ claimed to represent Muslims in Australia but failed miserably. Caught up in scandals, many in the community feel a sense of distrust and antagonism towards AFIC and its leadership team – both past and present.

Imam Abdalla’s impressive performance on QandA prompted social media posts suggesting that Imam Abdalla should be considered for the role of the next Mufti of Australia. This is a view I wholeheartedly agree with and encourage. Perhaps as a community we need to come together and demand more from our leaders.

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Cultural diversity now on the menu

With the notion of multiculturalism being kicked around like a political football, the diversity being showcased on reality TV shows such as MasterChef Australia is a testament to the fact that the infamous M-word is here to stay – and not just in the form of Chinese dumplings and Turkish kebabs.

The MasterChef 2012 contestants this year included not only people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds but also from several religious backgrounds too.

Georgian-born schoolteacher Alice Zaslavsky has a Jewish background, which she says has influenced her cooking style. Public servant Dalvinder Dhami said early on in the show that she had virtually no experience in cooking with beef due to her Hindu faith.

And paediatric nurse Amina Elshafei is a devout Muslim. Her impressive culinary skills, bubbly nature and infectious smile made her an early favourite on the show.

Woman’s Day described her as the “contestant the whole country has fallen head over heels for”.

Despite early predictions that she could take out the title, Amina narrowly missed out on a top 10 placing in a double elimination on Thursday night.

Her surprise departure sent shock waves through the social media world, with her fans on Twitter expressing outrage at how some contestants were able to make their way into the top 10 over Amina. Truth be told, I was one of them.

But in any event, the MasterChef set this year seems to be far more inclusive and diverse than ever before.

The effect of showcasing such diversity on prime-time TV means the mere presence of an effervescent character and visibly Muslim person such as Amina has played a significant role in breaking down commonly held cultural and religious stereotypes.

With national studies concluding that anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia sits at just under 50 per cent, real, positive coverage of Muslim women is to be welcomed. The results of a parliamentary inquiry, due in August, will investigate Australia’s acceptance of people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

It will conclude that one of the largest issues facing our nation is the acceptance of – you guessed it – Muslims.

Sadly, Muslim women such as Amina who choose to wear the hijab (head scarf) have often borne the brunt of animosity, racism and discrimination.

But fortunately the situation has improved, particularly compared to the hostility Muslims faced in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

Many Muslims will tell you that the increased levels of enmity directed at them during that period have instilled in them a strong sense of identity and a desire to proactively engage with the media and the public to demystify their faith. This is certainly true for me.

Given this climate, it’s incredibly refreshing to see someone like Amina on TV not being defined by her religion or her hijab alone. Amina is a shining beacon of hope who has helped to create a positive image of Muslims just by being herself, instead of trying to represent an entire faith of 1.5 billion people.

She has been judged purely on her cooking ability, on her own merits, not favoured nor discriminated against due to her faith. That is great progress.

What’s more impressive and heartening is how Australia has come to embrace Amina. Fans have inundated her Facebook page. Logie award-winner Chrissie Swan tweeted: “Whenever I look at Amina, or hear her speak, I get a rush of what can only be described as love. Warm, fuzzy, sunny love.”

Many, including Chrissie, admitted to being moved to tears when she was eliminated on Thursday night’s episode.

Amina’s mixed family heritage is a beautiful example of the diversity of the Muslim community in Australia. It negates the assumption that all Muslims are Arabs.

Largely defined by our religion, we are often seen and treated as some sort of homogenous blob, ignoring the fact Muslims are ethnically and culturally diverse.

Amina’s father is Egyptian and her mother South Korean. She is the only woman in her immediate family who has chosen to wear the hijab. It’s a personal choice which some women choose to embrace and others don’t.

It is a fact that one of the best ways to tackle racism, discrimination and eliminate the fear of the “other” is to interact and engage in inter-faith, inter-cultural and inter-community dialogue.

No one is born racist. Racism is taught, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and it can be untaught.

The so-called “fear” of Islam often arises because of the lack of interaction between those who hold this “fear” with your everyday, garden-variety Muslims.

Amina gave viewers a valuable insight into Muslim Australia, brightening the slightly battered image we have.

This is no small achievement.

So, why I am pointing out what may seem to some to be the bleeding obvious?

To applaud those in the media world who are getting the depiction of Muslims and other minority groups right for a change, irrespective of whether they are doing it overtly or inadvertently.

And, to encourage others to adopt a similar approach.

What’s apparent is that there is a gradual and welcoming shift in attitudes. Dare I say that Muslim women are moving beyond being merely tolerated.

Perhaps we are even being celebrated.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a Muslim lawyer and advocate.

Originally published in The Daily Telegraph 7 July 2012