On Saturday 10 September, Bendigo saw protests both against and in support of building a mosque in the town. The Feed spent the week talking to members of the local community to hear what they had to say.
“When people see the news each night, terrorism, a lot of it is coming from the Middle East. Muslims are involved. I guess they're fearful that, will it happen here in Bendigo?”
Mayor Peter Cox has seen his small town of 110,000 located north west of Melbourne become a hotbed of controversy. Early last year, the proposal to build a mosque became public, and opponents immediately rallied to lobby the council before they voted on the issue in June.
“Historically a mosque hasn't just been a place of worship; it's been a social centre, a place of learning, a community centre. That's why we need a mosque."
Despite the proposal being approved by the council, protests have continued and escalated, with residents groups taking their objections to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and the Victorian Court of Appeal.
"We look at other places where great big mosques are allowed to go ahead, and it has caused issues. Can you tell me where it hasn't caused issues?” said Julie Hoskin, a Bendigo resident who has led the charge against the construction.
In 2012, a mosque was approved in the similar-sized town of Ballarat, and the much smaller Shepparton has four, all built without protest, but as the threat of IS and terrorism has received more attention, so too has the Muslim community here in Australia.
“If there is any point in history where the introduction of Islam into a Judeo-Christian Anglo society has had positive outcomes, tell me - where is it?” said Ms Hoskin.
There are currently approximately 300 Muslims in Bendigo, a mixture of long-term resident families, students at the local university, and refugees from Afghanistan who have come via Australia’s resettlement program.
'Divisive voices don't represent Bendigo'
At present they use a room donated by La Trobe University as a place of worship, but as the community grows, so does the requirement for a space.
“Historically a mosque hasn't just been a place of worship; it's been a social centre, a place of learning, a community centre,” said Heri Febrianto, a resident and practicing Muslim. “That's why we need a mosque.”
The chosen site covers two hectares and backs onto the local bushland. “If we're going to build a mosque in the country, it should reflect nature. It's a very peaceful place,” said Mr Febrianto.
“What's happened in Parramatta with the shooting of the police civilian is very tragic. People link that very closely to perhaps what might happen in Bendigo in 20 years' time.”
Mick West, a Victorian police superintendent, confirms the claim that the local Muslim community is peaceful.
“This is an extremely inclusive and caring community and we've got a number of differing groups of Muslim people,” he said. “They don't cause us any concerns. They're lovely people. They provide good values to our community.”
He voices concerns about the series of protests that have taken place in the town around the mosque controversy.
“With any event of this type, I'm always apprehensive,” he said. “Most of the people that come to support the right-wing view here tomorrow will come from outside Bendigo.”
Tensions were exacerbated by the fatal shooting of a civilian police employee in Parramatta, NSW. The gunman, who was shot dead, 15-year-old Farhad Jabar, was found to be radicalized by local extremists.
“What's happened in Parramatta with the shooting of the police civilian is very tragic," said Mr. Cox. “People link that very closely to perhaps what might happen in Bendigo in 20 years' time.”
On Saturday 10 October, approximately 600 anti-Islam protesters turned up to protest the building of the mosque, many representing United Patriots Front. While there were four arrests, a large police force prevented the protest from descending into violence.
Concerns over Sharia law
The Feed spoke with many of the protestors, quoted below:
"You can either be a Muslim, or an Australian. It must be either or because the two do not correlate”
“We do not put up with this ridiculous rot. And their sharia law is ridiculous rot.”
“I'm opposed to it because I can see Islam infecting every country in the world.”
“I'm a true Australian, I believe in Australian, and the way we are and the freedom of speech. Whereas when other countries come over and try to stop that, that's when i get my back up.”
“I'm protesting for the pride of the white Australian men. They [Muslims] come here, they don't want to try and live the Australian way or have respect for us to begin with. That's what I'm protesting against.”
“Islam will take over Australia, and we don't want it to.”
“It would be good to have one city with no mosque, no Muslims. They're just evil. They're evil people.”
World War III?
Daniel Nalliah, the Australian evangelical Christian pastor and leader of Rise Up Australia was also in attendance.
“To the Muslims coming here, we have one message for you - shut up, and get out,” he told the crowd.
Rise Up Australia’s slogan is ‘Keep Australia Australian’ and is based upon opposition to multiculturalism and Muslim immigration, and the protection of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Nalliah is a Tamil who was born in Sri Lanka. He was introduced to the ‘ways of God’ by an Australian missionary before migrating in 1997. He has also been a candidate for the Family First Party and is associated with the Australian Christian Churches and the young earth creationist movements.
He firmly believes that Islam is intrinsically to blame for the conflicts both in Australia and globally.
“Hitler and the Nazi ideology is nothing compared to Islam and Islamic teachings,” he said. “World War III is already on our soil. Our enemy is right around us.”
“The problem is Islam, and you've got to deal with the problem. If you don't deal with the problem it will continue and it will get worse.”
Sameer Syed, a local resident and practicing Muslim, insists that violent extremism is not part of the teachings of Islam.
“People have hijacked the religion, carrying out these terrible acts in the same of Islam,” he said. “These aren't core Muslim values and this is not the teaching of the Koran or The Prophet.”
“I do believe in Sharia Law, but not the Sharia Law that's been widely communicated in the media,” he said. “Sharia Law from an Islamic perspective is following the law of the land. Doing good to overcome evil - that's the basis of Sharia Law. I wouldn't say the Middle East is a 100 per cent reflection of true Islamic Sharia Law.”
“Sharia Law says follow the law of the land so we're not here to change the law, we're here to follow the local Australian law.”
Rally for diversity
Not all the local residents are against the building of a mosque. About 200 anti-racism protesters also attended under the banner of the Rally For Diversity, and a group called Believe in Bendigo previously gathered a crowd of over 2000 to show support for the mosque and the Muslim community.
“Believe In Bendigo is basically a group that believes in community,” said Jayson Tayeh. “There is enough faith in our community; people that believe in inclusiveness, people that believe in diversity.”
“It's heartening to see over 2000 people turn up to show their support for inclusion and tolerance,” said Mr Syed. “Why can't we live together with respect, peace and harmony?”
Mr Cox believes the community and the country can be strengthened from diversity and unity.
"It's not as if Muslims have arrived just yesterday, they have been here for over a hundred years,” said Mr Cox. “They're Australians, we're Australians, we all share those values.”
“We probably have the best or one of the best democracies in the world,” he said. “Bring your culture, bring your differences, and bring your belief systems.”