Muslim leader offers solution to Australians' fear of marrying into Muslim families

Maha Abdo. Source: Supplied

An Islamic leader says learning more about Muslims may tame the fear indicated in a new poll about Australians attitudes towards Muslims.

As a new poll suggests 60 per cent of Australians would be apprehensive if their relatives married Muslim people, Islamic leader Maha Abdo has questioned whether such concern is valid.

“Everyone had a right to be concerned about things that they don’t know about,” Ms Abdo, executive officer of the United Muslim Women Association, told SBS.

“I can’t take away the fear of other people, but all I can do is, wherever I can, provide a balanced perspective of Australian Muslims.”

The poll, which surveyed 304 randomly selected Australians, asked respondents to answer on a five-point scale their perspective on a relative marrying a Christian (8.1 per cent), Buddhist (29.4 per cent) or Jewish (33 per cent).

Islam forbids a Muslim woman from marrying a man from any other religion. It allows a Christian or Jewish woman to marry a Muslim man without converting.

The poll also invited respondents to provide their opinion on statements such as “practicing Muslims should be searched more thoroughly than others in airports and stations” (36.5 per cent agreed) and “practicing Muslims pose a threat to Australian society” (40.4 per cent).

Ms Abdo proposed people’s fear would dissipate upon getting to know Muslims in their communities.

“I’m sure everyone has a neighbour, there are colleagues at work, friends at university – start talking to one another and using those bricks that have been thrown around to build bridges, rather than walls.”  

Then people will discover “we’re all so similar”.

“We all have the same needs, the same aspirations for our children, the same hopes and dreams.”

Dr Matteo Vergani, coauthor of a Deakin University paper that analysed the data from the 2016 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, said the data supported Ms Abdo's views.

“Knowledge of Muslim people, like having Muslim friends and coworkers, is associated with less fear of terrorism,” he told SBS.

Likewise, knowledge of Islam, tested by questions such as: ‘Is Jesus a prophet in Islam?', is associated with more tolerance. “The more people knew the answers, the less prejudice [they displayed] against Islam and the less fear of terrorism.”

Dr Vergani said that while the poll only interviewed about 300 people, it had a wide sample distribution, covering politics, education, gender and age.

“I would not say it’s representative, it’s a national snapshot.”

The poll follows One Nation leader Pauline Hanson's rhetoric in recent weeks that Muslims "bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own".

In her maiden speech in parliament, Ms Hanson said she believed antisocial behaviour was "rampant" in Australian Muslim communities.

"Our leaders continue to tell us to be tolerant and embrace the good Muslims. But how should we tell the difference? There is no sign saying 'good Muslim' or 'bad Muslim'."

Reading between the lines of 'yes/no' polls

The poll, based on Australian Survey of Social Attitudes data, required respondents to provide an answer to a question across a five-point scale, Dr Matteo explained.

However, other polls, such as the one conducted by Essential last week which suggested 49 per cent of Australians wanted a ban on "Muslim immigration" - a figure One Nation leader Pauline Hanson believed was less than the true amount - required respondents to answer either "yes" or "no".

Professor Andrew Markus from Monash University told SBS this method could result in gross oversimplification.

"The problem with a 'yes/no' survey question is that public opinion cannot be placed in two categories," Professor Markus said.

In an op-ed in The Conversation he went on to explain that surveys that randomly selected respondents provided more accurate snapshots than those who were often paid and were interested to take part in an online panel.

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