Mosque security in the age of the rising far-right

A man reads messages placed on the Lakemba Mosque wall in tribute to the victims of the Christchurch attacks on March 22, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. Source: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Muslims across the world mourned the events in Christchurch a year ago, as fears of far right violence grew. In Australia, ASIO have flagged the rise in right-wing extremism, while some mosques have begun rethinking their security measures.

A year on from the Christchurch massacre at Al Noor and Linwood mosques in New Zealand, concerns surrounding mosque security have heightened. In Australia, government grants have been issued to secure religious places of worship and security measures are beginning to be applied.

The decade long journey to build a mosque in Bendigo

Dr Aisha Neelam is among the over 300 Muslims who live and practice in Bendigo. She’s a local GP in a small medical practice in the suburb of Marong. She answers the phone in a car with the mutterings of children chatting away in the background, it’s after school as she drives her children home after a day's work. 

She is among the volunteers who began a decade long process to build a mosque in Bendigo. It all began as Neelam says all those years ago, as “an idea”. This small collective of volunteers’ quest to find a bigger community space drew national interest and intrigue, and ended up having it’s future tested in the High Court. 

The whole experience, Neelam says, “almost felt like it was happening to someone else.” She thinks back to what she calls the “bad Islamic vibe” that came to the fore in 2015 when protests turned the spotlight on the regional centre. 

The council initially approved plans for the mosque in 2014, and soon after appeals were lodged against the construction. The far-right United Patriots Front were among those protesting, while others were arrested in a series of clashes.  The protests quickly turned what Neelam thought would be a small local government bureaucratic process into what she describes as a scene of “ugliness”. 

“There were some fringe elements that will always be present who won't be happy with change. I think that's the case here that people didn't react well to their perceived change, and a lot of them fear the unknown,” Neelam told The Feed.

“They didn't know what they were dealing with, and what would happen. There was a lot of media hype at the time surrounding world events, and what ISIS had been up to. I think it kind of created the perfect storm.

“So, fear of the unknown, there was a bad Islamic vibe and all of that combined with now Muslims are building a mosque in Bendigo -- it was almost too much.”

Protests Against Mosque In Bendigo
Protests Against Mosque In Bendigo
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Neelam was working in a medical clinic at the time, and remembers crowds of co-workers rushing “apologetically”, and asking “are you okay?” The storm, as she described it, was thundering into the small town, leaving her and others “appalled at how something like that could happen in Bendigo”.   

“I think living through it, you might find this contentious,” she says with a chuckle.

“I see it as a very positive experience. Because I think sometimes you need to get to that stage before you can start building bridges. It needs to come out, you need to know what you're dealing with, and then you start to address it.”

Appeals against the Bendigo mosque were taken to the High Court, which ruled in 2016 that the project could go ahead. Locally, the Bendigo Interfaith Council was born amidst the conflict, as well as community group ‘Believe in Bendigo’, designed to promote diversity in the town. After years of tension, construction began on the mosque last year. 

But despite the communal strides, Neelam describes the “vitriol” and “vial” she experienced over the last years as disheartening. 

“And the reason it's disheartening is that you realise that sometimes the world is just a very cruel place. It doesn't cost much to be kind,” she said.

“The extreme right wing threat is real and it is growing”

After last year's terror attack on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, the Federal government announced new security grants for religious places of worship and schools. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time, "This must be the first freedom we secure, to practice their faith in safety, other (freedoms) should follow."  

This year, ASIO signalled in its annual threat assessment report that “the extreme right wing threat is real and it is growing.” 

“In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology,” ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess said.

“We expect such groups will remain an enduring threat, making more use of on-line propaganda to spread their messages of hate. While we would expect any right wing extremist inspired attack in Australia to be low capability, i.e. a knife, gun or vehicle attack, more sophisticated attacks are possible.”

An ASIO spokesperson told The Feed Islamic extremism remains their “greatest concern”, although extreme right-wing groups are an “increasing and evolving threat to security.”

“The extreme right wing has been in ASIO’s sights for many decades and we have maintained continuous and dedicated resources to this area,” the spokesperson said.

“Where we become aware of potential threats relating to either the promotion of communal violence or acts of politically motivated violence, we act in accordance with our legislation.”

Last week, days before the anniversary of the Christchurch attack, the New Zealand Police revealed they were investigating a new threat to Al Noor mosque

Superintendent John Price said they had arrested a 19-year-old suspect, on an “unrelated” matter as the police continue to gather evidence. 

“Police have increased patrols around Al Noor and Linwood mosques and will be maintaining a visible presence in the community as we approach the anniversary of the terror attacks,” he said.

Dr Kristy Campion is a terrorism studies lecturer at Charles Sturt University in NSW, and told The Feed that the threat of right-wing extremism “pre-existed” ASIO’s threat assessment. 

“I think the recent events in New Zealand over the last few days, has really highlighted the continued targeting of various elements of the Muslim community by the extreme right,” she said.

Campion says it's tricky to be sure how organised the extreme right is because some of them are “lone offenders” whereas others are members of groups or communities. She says what she has noticed in the “extreme right models” is that there does tend to be a lot of divisions within the movement itself, “so that obviously has an impact on how organised they are”.

Despite this infighting, Campion says the far right movement has always been “well networked” for decades. 

“What you still have is a movement that is quite well networked internationally. And it always has been so even before the internet. Australian members of the far right were engaging with members of the far right in the United States and the United Kingdom. So there's quite well established information highways between those between the various hotspots,” she said. 

Perth’s forgotten mosque attack 

In June 2016, during the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Sheikh Safdar Parkar was leading Taraweeh at Perth’s Thornlie Mosque - it’s a long prayer, sometimes lasting up to an hour, and being Ramadan, the congregation was at its largest.

Suddenly, a “loud bang” echoed through the mosque mid-prayer. “We didn’t know it was something criminal,” he told The Feed.

“I personally assumed there might have been a speaker that fell down, or something heavy fell down in the mosque. It was only after the prayer had finished that we realised that there was an explosion in a car.”

A car outside the gates of the mosque had been set alight, and a wall next to it was marked by graffiti with the words “Fuck Islam”.

Car Firebombed Outside Thornlie Mosque
A burned-out Toyota 4WD vehicle and graffiti is seen, after a suspected fire bombing outside the Thornllie Mosque during the late evening of June 28, 2016.
Paul Kane/Getty Images

The Western Australian Police said at the time they "believed an accelerant was used to start the fire." As well as making clear to VICE AU that  "there was no bomb blast, there was no bomb whatsoever." 

This week, a Western Australian Police spokesperson told The Feed that the investigation “has been filed pending new information coming to light. There have been no charges relating to this incident.”

The mosque shares its space with the local Islamic school, the Australian Islamic College. No one was injured by the attack but Sheikh Parkar says it “sent shock waves” through the Muslim community in Perth.

“It sort of brings to the realisation there are certain elements within the Perth community, do have this sort of resentment or hatred towards either the religion or the people that are the adherents of the religion,” he said. 

In the aftermath of the attempted attack, there was “disappointment” at the mosque, however they didn’t feel an exodus. But the effects began to weigh on Sheikh Parkar, whose role quickly turned into community counsellor.

“When things like this happen, personally for me it was we're strong people, we're resilient, we're patient, we're this we're that. So we feel we're strong enough to deal with this kind of thing,” he said.

“When you talk with people, you get thrown more into the reality, because sometimes you just feel you're tough. But when you talk with people you sort of talk with yourself as well. And you realise, it's not as simple as it sounds.”

The Muslim community in Perth is small, and make up only eight percent of the overall population nationally, which means stories travel quickly. Sheikh Parkar began to “hear stories within the community” about Islamophobic attacks.

“I mean even in my family itself, I've had many of the women folk within my family who face at least verbal abuse on quite a frequent basis,” he said.

“There was one incident in my own family, where my brother's wife, she was physically attacked in one of the shopping centers. So, we have kind of come to accept that this thing happens but the reality is we shouldn't be accepting that.”

Building a mosque in 2020

Bryan de Caires is the CEO of the country’s security professionals peak body, Australian Security Industry Association Limited. He told The Feed that new buildings can be designed to be safer and secure without making the space feel like a “prison”.

“There's a philosophy called crime prevention through environmental design. So what that does is, if you were starting out today, you would look at things slightly differently. To look at building an environment, for the facility to be where you can control access of people in and out,” he said.

An illustration of the Bendigo Mosque.
An illustration of the Bendigo Mosque.

This doesn’t mean tall fences and barbed wire across buildings, de Caires says, adding simple design measures can be very effective. Instead of a vehicle having access to drive directly to the front of the building, he says obstacles like “water features”, “windy paths and roads” make it difficult for people to do harm. 

“So you can still have the aesthetic of the building, but you make it so it is harder for people who want to do harm to the building or the facility. You can also build other physical [barriers] whether it's planting trees, whatever it is,” he said.

“So it's just a slightly differently reset in how people look at the functionality of the building and how it's built. But it can be built in a way that it doesn't look ugly, it doesn't look like it's in a cage or in a prison.

“If you feel like you're in a prison, if it's a place of worship, it should not look like that.”

Security measures after an attack 

In light of the Christchurch attack, de Caires says the security steps facilities should take are about “common sense” more than anything. 

“I think any security threat starts off with what's called a risk assessment. Someone would need to get a professional, a licensed security professional to undertake a risk assessment, which basically looks at the location, the building, when it's open, when services are run,” he said.

“Then undertake where there's threats, and what time are the threats, and what are the best ways to try to mitigate the threat. So you basically have to understand each situation is slightly different, a one size fits all doesn't always apply.”

Perth’s Thornlie mosque security previously consisted of “a few brothers” - meaning community volunteers - watching the car park to ensure there wasn’t an overload. 

It all changed after the Christchurch attack. Thornlie mosque successfully applied for the security grants offered by the Morrison government.

The mosque transformed their outlook on security, increasing personnel and installing CCTV cameras. The shift in mindset changed how Sheikh Parkar saw the layout of the mosque and its surroundings.

“Now the good thing is that the way our mosque is set up, access to the mosque is not as open as many other mosques where it's just like an entrance,” he said.

“Here you will have to go through separate gates, so which is a good thing in a way, just the way it's set up there.”

"God will protect us"

Bendigo, once a site of protest, hostility and division about plans to build a mosque, saw the first shovel turn the soil to mark its construction. There currently isn't a completion date set, but work is underway.

Mosque Bendigo
Andrew Perryman

There have been no direct threats on the proposed building but security plans are in mind. Dr Neelam says security is the "need of the hour", despite her uncertainty around the government security grants. She says the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre can't "afford to be slack", and will be equipped with CCTV cameras and other security precautions.

"Just gotta make sure that the people who go there are safe and that if anybody were thinking about doing something that they think twice before the attempted something," she said.

"You know, we're peaceful. This facility is designed for people to worship in peace in no way [is it] intended to be something that's divisive or to provoke anyone."

Neelam is lukewarm, however, about the necessity for increased security funding, and says the government grants act as "bandaid therapy because the root of the problem remains and that is intolerance."

She is a woman of faith, and is at peace with whatever may or may not happen.

"I truly believe that you know, God will protect us," she said.

"And if some harm were to come while we're there, then Allah will compensate. So I think as a Muslim, that answer is quite easy because we believe that Allah controls our destiny.

"Yes, there's precautions that you take along the way, you don't put yourself in harm's way, you take what measures you can and then you just leave the rest to God."