Call to better understand Muslims

AUSTRALIA prides itself on being a multicultural country, yet people of Islamic faith were sometimes labelled terrorists, spat on and had their Hijab torn off in the street, said a Mortdale religious teacher.

Helen Smith said these things happened in St George and Sutherland Shire and the only way to dilute "Islamaphobia" and the misunderstanding of Islam in Australia was through education.

Fellowship grant: Mortdale resident Helen Smith received a Churchill Fellowship to study the misunderstanding of Islam with Western culture. Picture: Chris Lane

Fellowship grant: Mortdale resident Helen Smith received a Churchill Fellowship to study the misunderstanding of Islam with Western culture. Picture: Chris Lane

The St Joseph's College, Hunters Hills, director of mission travelled to England and the United States on a Churchill Fellowship last year.

She visited schools and universities over six weeks with the aim of bringing back educational strategies to create a better understanding of Islam.

"A longitudinal study released at the start of 2011 indicated that 47 per cent of Australian are anti-Muslim," Ms Smith said.

"So often the phrase, 'why can't they be like us?' is heard when the topic of Islam is discussed, yet as a nation we struggle to satisfactorily describe what the common values of 'us' really are."

Ms Smith discovered programs that would help educate Australians often brought up on a curriculum that focused little on the Middle East.

One such program was the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Face to Faith, which connected students of different religions and cultures through video conference on the internet.

The program gave people of different faiths time to talk about global issues and was used in 19 countries.

Ms Smith also learned of a practice, called scriptural reasoning, at Cambridge University. This involved people from two different faiths picking a topic such as peace and then reading a passage from each of their sacred text. They then talked and reflected on what each other had said.

Ms Smith said she learned there was a greater need for interaction between universities and schools because academics could help teachers better understand what they were delivering in a classroom.

Two Muslim mothers, Nighat and Mariam, from Bradford in England, were brought to tears when talking about how helpless they felt trying to communicate their values to the rest of the world.

"99.99 per cent of us just want to live in peace and be happy like everyone else," Nighat told Ms Smith.

"I want to make my world better but people do not want to hear that. No one will ever hear my voice."

Since the September 11, 2002, terrorist attacks, Ms Smith said Muslims had been stereotyped by people who had little understanding of the diversity that existed within Islamic culture.

The World Trade Centre attack, the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2005 London bombings became the primary sources of information in respect to Islam for Australians.

"Yes, tragically there are radical elements in all spectrums of life, we know that, but it is so unjust and it is against the principle of every religious tradition to judge people en masse," Ms Smith said.

"It goes against every single thing that Christianity teaches."

Ms Smith said those who thought of Islam as a religion that oppressed woman had probably never had a conversation or cup of tea with a Muslim woman.

"I know people don't believe it but I personally have not met a woman who has been forced to wear Hijab," she said.

"It's all very much a choice.

"You go to Hurstville Westfield or Roselands and there will be a Muslim mother and Muslim daughter. One will wear one, one won't and you see that especially when groups of Muslim women are out together."

Although she had not encountered oppression, she was not saying it never happened.

"I am sure there are plenty of women in Christian situations who are subjugated too," she said.

Ms Smith said we could not have a multicultural society that enjoyed the food and traditions of other cultures and rejected others.

"If we are truly going to move forward as a harmonious, multicultural society then we have to be open to allowing people to maintain that which is important to them."

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust has helped more than 3700 Australians embark on overseas research projects to improve their communities since it started in 1965.


Helen Smith of Mortdale wants those who suffer from agoraphobia to know ‘‘the impossible is possible’’. 

Ms Smith felt trapped by her anxiety and was not able to catch public transport, fly or go to places with large crowds, such as supermarkets. 

‘‘There are times when you think it’s just never going to be possible to overcome this,’’ Ms Smith said.

‘‘Although the fear may be irrational to others and yourself, it is real.’’ 

Only recently did Ms Smith overcome her fear and flew to England and the United States as part of a Churchill Fellowship trip.

‘‘That I did this was nothing short of a miracle,’’ she said.

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