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by Edmund Campion

Islam in Australia by Abdullah Saeed

Last month I was invited to Melbourne to speak to the Islamic Council of Victoria on "Vilification: the Jewish and Catholic Experience in Australia". First thing I did, was to go into town to see what's on the bookshelves about Islam - I'd lectured about the Prophet but you need to be fresh when you're speaking to a new group. I found a whole shelf of new authors about Islam, such as Geraldine Doogue and Peter Kirkwood, as well as George Negus, reflecting a growing consciousness of the importance of Muslims in our lives. Abdullah Saeed's Islam in Australia (Allen & Unwin $22.95), which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards last year, proved to be a useful update; and I already had The Muslims in Australia by Wafia Omar and Kirsty Allen in the Australian Government's excellent Religious Community Profiles series. When you have to teach, you should know something of the people you're teaching. As for my material, I thought I could get by on what I'd written myself in Rockchoppers and Australian Catholics; and I took a long, nostalgic look at a rare book on my shelves, DC Shelton's history of the Rock newspaper with its nutty headlines and crazy anti-Catholic cartoons; but I decided not to say much about that, in case the Muslims thought it more important than it had really been. Good for a laugh, but I didn't know whether they thought religion was a laughing matter (indeed, I counselled myself NOT to tell jokes: they might not be appreciated). On Australian Jews I had Hilary and WD Rubinstein's huge two-volume The Jews in Australia, which I re-read carefully, taking lots of notes. So many notes, in fact, that I found myself quoting to myself Pound's line, 'I had over-prepared the event'.

And so to Melbourne. The venue was a mosque just off the CBD with an upper room that could double as a prayer hall on crowded holy days. It reminded me of the church halls of my youth, bits of furniture scattered about, rows of seating, a few books and ancient decoration, a tea urn and some plates of food on a side table ('Ladies bring a plate', I thought). The audience were young professionals, quick on the uptake, sympathetic, and transparently good (no other word for it). They spoke easily of prayer and, Pope John Paul having died, many of them offered me their condolences.

At question time, I was asked about the things that had shaped my life and I told them a story from one of my books. It was my first day of lectures at the University of Sydney, in 1951, and I sat next to a boy I had just met. Across the room was a dark-haired, lively girl I'd already observed talking to him. So I asked him, who's that girl over there; and he replied, Myfanwy Gollan. Who? Myfanwy Gollan. Myfanwy (he had to spell it for me). A strange, new name I'd never heard before, because I'd grown up in a tribe where all the girls were called Maureen or Eileen or Kathleen. Now: Myfanwy. I knew then that I was taking my first step outside my own tribe and that at the University of Sydney I would meet members of other tribes.

Not that I and my fellow members of the Irish Australian Catholic tribe would turn our backs on our own people. I told the Muslims how our generation discovered new ways of being Australian Catholics; how, a decade before the event, we had tried out, at the University of Sydney, the major themes and meanings which historians would come to call the Vatican II reforms. It was history in the making. For, ten years later, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council put their names to all that we had already experienced at the University.

I told them something else about the Irish Australian Catholics that may have been news to them. For many years, I said, the ruling view in society had been that there was really only one way of being Australian. It's no longer true, of course, but in those ancient days, the prevailing view was this: to be Australian was to be proud to be British, to glory in being a member of the British Empire, to celebrate Empire Day each year and to wave the Union Jack. We Irish Australian Catholics didn't wear that. We celebrated Australia Day, not Empire Day. The flag we waved was the Australian flag. And as for all of us Australians being Britannically the same, we thought the essence of democracy was to be pluralist... to allow state aid for near on a century - our schools where our own traditions, our own culture, our own stories, our own ways of being Australian could be transmitted to generation after generation. We Irish Australian Catholics were the first ethnics. When others came along, they found the ground prepared for them, by us.

Then I told the audience that one of the strategies employed by a Jewish roof body facing vilification half a century ago, was to get their people to stop crouching, to walk tall. Afterwards, at question time, a lady at the back of the Hall stood up and said this: "When you said that about not crouching, that meant something to me. You see, when 9/11 happened, people started shouting at me in the street, so I crept along with my eyes down, not looking at anyone. And after a while I stayed home, frightened to go out. I stayed there for three days. Then I thought about it and I prayed about it, and I made myself go out. I made myself walk along with my head up, and I looked people in the eye and I smiled at them. And you know what? THEY ALL SMILED BACK."

The Work:

  • Islam in Australia Abdullah Saeed (Allen and Unwin) $22.95

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