“So where can we learn more about Islam?”

Given that I once held views not altogether dissimilar from those espoused by the Q Society today, I’m always interested to see how anti-Muslim arguments are presented and received at public events: the language used, the claims to authority, the framing of the other. In 2007, my curiosity led me to a community forum run by the Reverend Fred Nile and his mates who were opposed to the building of an Islamic school in Camden, New South Wales. Earlier this year I found myself listening to the Q Society explain its opposition to the building of a mosque in Canberra. Though at the Canberra event the content of the forum wasn’t the only interesting aspect.

During the question and answer session it became clear that many members of the audience were genuinely curious about Islam. Having heard so many terrible things about the religion – not just at the forum but elsewhere too – they wanted to understand its core teachings and central texts. One woman commented she had attempted to read the Qur’an but found it unintelligible and confusing. That’s a pretty normal response as it’s a very different book to, say, the New Testament. “So where can we learn more about Islam?”

The response at that forum, naturally enough under the circumstances, was not all that helpful. The conveners were unanimous in their advice, “There’s an excellent website called Jihad Watch, which is run by an organisation that we’re linked with. Its main author, Robert Spencer, has also written a lot of books that are essential reading”.

Of course, you don’t need to attend a meeting of the Q Society, a fringe group fighting the good fight against the ‘Islamisation of Australia’ and the implementation of sharia law in our school tuckshops, to meet people who see Islam as a baffling unknown. Through conversations in pubs and coffee shops, by reading letters in tabloid newspapers and on blogs, or by listening to commentary on television or radio, it’s easy to see that Islam is a poorly understood religion in Australia.

For a student of Islam and its role in the modern world, the general level of knowledge about the religion among people I speak with is often disappointing, frequently frustrating and occasionally a little frightening. Still that isn’t all that surprising. And while the Q Society forum is a small example of people reaching out in the wrong direction to find information to help them understand Islam, it’s symbolic of a more general pattern which can be observed across much of the Australian media.

This issue was on my mind this week when I attended a conference hosted by the Centre for Islamic Law and Society at the University of Melbourne’s Law School. It was a unique kind of conference offering an opportunity for students to give short presentations on their area of research and then receive feedback from peers and mentors.

Over two days of discussion, the topics ranged geographically from Australia and Indonesia to Turkey and Iran, and thematically from law to media to philosophy. A case study of the television series, East West 101, looked critically – and humorously – at media portrayals of Muslims and Arabs in Australia. A fascinating session described the ins and outs of Islamic banking, highlighting the need for better regulation and streamlining of international financial transactions. A field report from a small town in western Iran described how the traditional practice of female genital cutting had been eliminated decades ago following a ruling by a local imam.

Apart from inspiring me to revive my plans for further study, the conference demonstrated that Australia does indeed have substantial resources the public and the media can draw upon to answer their questions about Islam. It also reminded me of all of the books which have been published by universities with schools that look at issues related to Islam. As with many other issues – climate change, indigenous health, asylum seekers, water management – there is clearly no shortage of specialised knowledge about Islam.

So where’s the disconnect? Why do men and women attend events held by groups like the Q Society in order to find out what Islam is all about?

It may be the same reason people select the source of information they turn to about climate change, asylum seekers or indigenous health. Some sources can be trusted, some not; some provide bite-sized nuggets of digestible information, others not; maybe existing political beliefs play a role too. Basically, there may be a copy of Islam in Australia or Islam: A Short History in the local library, but some people don’t consider these sources of information to be useful. Perhaps the woman who attempted to read the Qur’an had determined the only reliable source was the original text itself or the advice provided by individuals with whom she shared a certain political orientation.

Or perhaps it’s another type of  problem and is among those people who understand and study Islam. Academic seminars, in my experience, tend to attract other academics, students, and the occasional nutter with an intense interest in the topic being discussed. All of the attendees at this week’s conference, for example, were academics or students. So while important messages and insights are regularly communicated by the research community, these channels of communication don’t penetrate mainstream thinking and discussion about issues related to Islam and its role in the modern world.

A sad example of this is the issue of female genital cutting. The attendees at the Q Society forum would have been left with the impression that female genital cutting is an Islamic practice as an example of the religion’s repression and abuse of women. By contrast, the conference attendees heard an account of a pre-Islamic cultural practice being eliminated from a community as a result of a local imam’s leadership during the 1950s.

It may be one of these factors, both of them, or both of them and others. The end result is concurrent and disconnected discussions about Islam: one that I would call ‘informed and informative’; the other ideologically-based and intended to misinform. Individuals who encounter Islam – by meeting people, by hearing stories, by consuming media – make choices about how they seek further information to help them understand. Whether it’s that the Q Society makes itself attractive, or academics make themselves unattractive, ultimately the individual will make the choice for themself. And so they should.

On this issues or others, there’s little point in hoping that Australia’s media landscape will transform itself and provide a more informed picture. Likewise, there’s no point arguing with members of the Q Society or media personalities with anti-Islam views. Which leaves me wondering what I can actually do.

When I commenced my postgraduate studies a couple of years ago I was focused on international relations. I believed that religion was a ‘soft’ issue, a sideshow. But the courses I took at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies helped me to see religion in general, and Islam in particular, in a very different way. They also gave me the opportunity to meet and learn from some amazing Muslims from a diverse range of countries and religious traditions. I count myself lucky. I now know what resources are available and I have friends and colleagues who I can talk to about the chunky, difficult issues.

And so I’ve decided to start small. To think about the things I can influence, rather than those I can’t. People will decide for themselves what to believe about Islam and its role in society, both in Australia and globally. Some will continue to reach out to sources of information that, in my view, are toxic and uninformed. I need to remember that a simple thing I can do is to let them know there are other sources, that those sources can be trusted, and that obtaining information from a range of sources is the best way to become informed.

If someone asks me how they can learn more about Islam, I’ll suggest they visit their local library, not Jihad Watch. If I attend meetings of the Q Society again – just for research, of course – then I’ll politely raise questions and challenge unsubstantiated or misleading statements. And I’ll share my feelpinions about Islam and society through the occasional column here at Limited News, my own small contribution to a public discussion that is too often dominated by toxic and poorly informed voices.

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