I first became aware of my difference when I was age seven, on a Saturday morning just like any other. I woke up, ran to the living room, and sat cross-legged in front of the television expecting to catch my favourite cartoons.
There were no cartoons. There was nothing on any channel except rolling news coverage. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. No Dragon Ball, just sombre-faced news-anchors and plumes of smoke.
From that point on, in 2001, I was the “Osama Bin Laden” of the playground. I was Jihadi Fahad; Raghead Ali.
It may seem inconceivable that a single act of terror could define my religion, or any religion. We do not judge all Buddhists by the violence of Burmese nationalists against the Rohingya minority, nor should we. But the Western world was primed towards a hostile view of Islam for years before the tragedy of September 11.
For example, Samuel Huntington’s 1993 thesis, the Clash of Civilisation, hypothesised that the next great world conflict would be between us and them; that is, the Western and Islamic worlds. Islam is the threat. With the rise of Islamic State, Huntington’s perverse doctrine of Western superiority against Islamic savagery has had a surge in popularity. Unfortunately, little is said of the Muslim victims of Islamic terrorism, or the fact that Western weapons have “somehow” ended up in the hands of the Islamic State.
While Christians and Muslims have come together after the defeat of the Islamic State in terror-ravaged Iraq, the spirit of unity seems not to have taken hold here in Australia. Instead, tensions are on the rise, spurred on by politicians like Pauline Hanson who want to see parts of Islamic culture banned in Australia.
The defeatist position among many of us in the Muslim community is that we will never be able to overcome these retrograde currents within Australian society. What can we do? We are expected to integrate, to remake ourselves in the image of the West, and even then we are still under the microscope, always viewed under the lens of suspicion. This is something that one Muslim parliamentarian, Anne Aly, is familiar with, after it was falsely alleged that she refused to lay a wreath at an ANZAC Day service.
Those of us, like me, who believe in certain universal ideals, a common humanity, must strive towards telling our stories. We must stress that we are, fundamentally, the same. We should be more than willing to share our religion with others. For example, a lot of people wonder at what goes on inside a mosque? What are those shadowy Islamic preachers actually preaching?
What can we do? We are expected to integrate, to remake ourselves in the image of the West, and even then we are still under the microscope, always viewed under the lens of suspicion.
The last time I attended the Friday prayer at the Islamic Council of Victoria headquarters, it was a largely uneventful affair. I made the ritual ablution. I went to the main hall and performed a short prayer, customary when entering the mosque. I sat and waited for the sermon to begin, in which the imam prescribed solidarity with our fellow man regardless of his or her faith. Then, finally, the imam gave the call to prayer and I followed in his lead, surrounded by dozens of Muslims: the young, the elderly, fathers, brothers, professionals, and tradesmen.
This is routine, and I suspect that this is not radically different from what would happen on a Sunday in a Christian church. But then again, nothing we do appears to be very different to any major religion. We fast for a month each year – think Lent, but with a lot more food come sundown. We celebrate the end of Ramadan with Eid, which is essentially the Muslim version of Christmas, except that adults dispense with Santa Claus and take on the role of gift-giver themselves.
The fact that we have our own rituals does not mean that we cannot celebrate with others in theirs. I’ve been happy to attend Christmas dinners and events with my friends and co-workers. In some places in the world, like Syria and Iraq, this joined celebration is a symbol of unity in the face of common adversity. Why should it not be here?
We are a diverse group. I am a geneticist, my brother is a public servant, and my mother trained as a pharmacist. One of my best mates, a Muslim woman, is a boxer. I love hip-hop, my sister loves alt-rock. We get on with our lives. We range from barely practicing to entirely observant. To be sure, we are a single community, but the diversity within the Muslim community is just as broad as that within all of Australian society.
So the next time you’re wondering at what goes on inside a mosque, come inside. You’ll meet people who are nothing alike each other, but entirely like yourself in one regard: we are all Australian.
The Mosque Next Door begins Wednesday 8 November, 8.40pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.