'We have phobias of each other': Meet a Muslim campaign launches across Australia

WELCOMING: 'Meet A Muslim' campaign members, from Baitul Huda Mosque in Marsden Park, are encouraging one-on-one contact with the community. Picture: James Brickwood

WELCOMING: 'Meet A Muslim' campaign members, from Baitul Huda Mosque in Marsden Park, are encouraging one-on-one contact with the community. Picture: James Brickwood

A new campaign by an Australian Muslim community is encouraging people to "meet a Muslim" over coffee and cake.

Muslims Down Under, a group of volunteers from across Australia, are willing to answer any and all questions members of the public may have about their faith when they book in for a one-on-one coffee with a practising Muslim through their website.

Imam Mohammed Atae Rabbi Hadi, a leader at Baitul Huda mosque at Marsden Park and the national spokesperson for the group, says the initiative is designed to counter misinformation about Islam and an increase in extremism "not only on the side of Muslims, but also on the other side, in the far right".

"Why not meet an Aussie Muslim, and get to know them and see you have so much in common?" he said.

The group has previously run Q&A sessions at Western Sydney University's Parramatta and Lithgow campuses. While some people are interested in Islam's history and theology, Mr Hadi says most ask questions about "what they see on television."

"They ask: Is Islam really a violent religion? If it's not, why has violence happened? What does 'jihad' mean?"

The "meet a Muslim" concept is not new, with Muslim communities in the US using the phrase to brand public information sessions.

A Canberra-based group Muslims for Progressive Values have held a number of Q&A sessions this year.

Mr Hadi will travel to Mudgee in NSW's Central West this week to run a Q&A session for residents.

Relations between Australian Muslims and their local communities were in the spotlight this week, with the release of a Charles Sturt University study of reports to the Islamophobia Register of Australia.

The study, which analysed the 243 verified reports made from September 2014 to December 2015, found women were overwhelmingly the target of Islamophobic attacks, being the sole, or one of, the recipients of harassment in 79 per cent of the reported attacks where the victim's gender was reported.

Najm Sehar, national coordinator of the Muslims Down Under campaign and one of the volunteers Sydneysiders might meet if they sign up for a coffee, says she has overwhelmingly had a positive experience with members of the public, and these experiences should also be discussed.

The 29-year-old mother of two and master's graduate says people often smile at her in public, where her religious beliefs are "very visible".

"To tell you the truth, from 9/11 happening while I was in high school, through the seven years I spent commuting from the western suburbs to Sydney Uni for study, I really only had one incident when I was at school which could be described as 'Islamophobia'," she says.

While she appreciates the importance of talking about instances of harassment, Sehar says focus on the negative aspects of interactions between Muslims and their local communities can make Muslims "scared" of those around them, which is isolating and unhelpful.

"When you hear about these reports, it almost encourages us to have phobias of each other."

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