Sheikh Zainadine Johnson is the Sunshine Coast’s first Imam. He grew up on the area’s pristine beaches, played in a moderately successful rock band in his youth and is regularly seen running down to the beach shore to hit the waves with his surfboard.
“I do martial arts, I’m a surfer and I climb mountains: this is not your ordinary sheikh,” he jokes to SBS.
But while he may not look like your average Imam, the everyday challenges Sheikh Zainadine and his community face very much are, particularly when it comes to the anti-Islamic rhetoric espoused by their local senator Pauline Hanson.
While just four per cent of the population voted for Ms Hanson’s One Nation party nation-wide, the figure was closer to 10 per cent in her home state of Queensland. The area is also popular with anti-Islam groups such as Reclaim Australia and the plans to build a mosque in Maroochydore have been marred by strict, council-imposed conditions that have since been lifted.
“I think Australia, in general, is 50/50 or maybe 60/40 - where 60 per cent don’t mind Muslim people and Islam and 40 per cent have a bit of a grudge," says Sheikh Zainadine, who converted to Islam 16 years ago.
“What I’ve found myself here [on the Sunshine Coast] is that because of the negative side, where [people] are quite vocal and quite aggressive, the positive [group] of people [who don't mind Muslim people] are trying harder – they’re reaching out and communicating more than they used to.”
Of great concern however, is how anti-Islamic sentiment is disproportionately targeted at women.
“Usually what happens, which is very sad, is that the racism goes towards our wives because they cannot hide their Islam when they’re wearing the hijab,” he explains. “A lot of the time they get spat on or they get their hijabs pulled off or get yelled at. Usually they do it to the women, it’s very bad, very cowardly.”
While the 43-year-old Imam doesn’t currently have a local mosque to pray in, he holds sermons and runs youth groups out of a community centre and a large part of his work outside of his religious duties involves speaking to the broader community about Islam.
Misconceptions about the religion are the real drivers of hate and fear in his opinion, and having furthered his study of Islam in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, Sheikh Zainadine’s believes his secret weapon lies in his passion for getting people to know the real Islam.
“I know a lot of people have some anger, but I think it’s because they’ve only seen Islam on the six o’clock news,” he says. “I keep saying to people, if you only know Islam from the six o’clock news then, quite frankly, you don’t know Islam. The only time you’ll get to know Islam is when you actually meet Muslims and sit down with them and you realise wow, they’re not all carrying knives and running around [like that].”
“No one’s asking people to become Muslim, but rather to understand that the religion of Islam is not 'crazy', as a lot of people think.”
“I keep saying to people, if you only know Islam from the six o’clock news then, quite frankly, you don’t know Islam."
Sheikh Zainadine has hopes to one day travel the country and continue changing people’s perceptions about his religion through a better understanding of it, but when it comes to Ms Hanson, he is adamant no amount of eye opening will help.
“Pauline’s got a good job now and she’s been elected because of hating Islam, so I really don’t think anything’s going to change with her even if the truth jumps out of her own handbag,” he says.
“I think she’s got what she’s always wanted, to be up there in the limelight in parliament but it’s tough that she’s using the hate.
"She’s not only putting down Muslims, she’s putting down Indigenous people, refugees - it’s just craziness.”
In spite of the current climate, Sheikh Zainadine believes Australian Muslims will continue to hold an integral place in modern, multicultural Australia, and urges that people be judged by their actions rather than their race, culture or religion.
“Multiculturalism is really wonderful and makes life more colourful,” he says. “We have a verse that’s in the Qur’an that says:
...‘O you people, verily we have created you from a single male and female, and we have divided you into tribes and nations so that you may get to know each other and the best of you are those that are best in conduct’.
“That’s how we live our lives, we don’t see anyone as seeing black, white or whatever. We see people as being judged by their conduct and how they behave themselves in this life. There should not be racism in Islam.”
Alongside Ms Hanson's anti-Islam sentiment, the draw of violent extremists is another thing Sheikh Zainadine is acutely aware of and also tries to combat through a better understanding of his faith.
While studying in Yemen under his birth name Zean Johnson, he had had his Australian passport cancelled for four year for having an association with a terrorist. He claims however, that the extent of this association was a single phone conversation instigated by the terrorist.
The experience has given him the opportunity to engage in the discourse around violence extremism and Islam he says, in a way that convinces him the two are mutually exclusive.
“I’ve been listening to the arguments of extremists for the last 10 years and they come up with some crazy understanding [of Islam], and every time someone came with something new and something crazy, I was able to go to the books and research it and discover for myself that they have misunderstood it,” he says.
“My way of fighting violent extremism in Australia is very much an approach of educating and once again debunking misconceptions.”
Sheikh Zainadine is heavily invested in the young people in his community and as part of his duties as an Imam, he runs the youth programs and also organises fortnightly weekend activities like bush walking, mountain climbing and even visiting the sick, to keep the teenagers busy and social.
“We’re not only up against extremism, we’re up against drugs, we’re up against all these types of vices, we need to try and keep the youth healthy and occupied and using their time for good,” he explains.