Organisations: Brisbane City Council
Contact: Sumathy Selvamanickam
Community Development Officer Access and Equity
G.P.O.Box 1434 BRISBANE QLD 4001
Tel: (07) 3403 4051
Fax: (07) 3403 4774
Funding: Brisbane City Council – approximately $1000 per event.
Description of Initiative
The Muslim Dialogue Project emerged from a resource tool called Islam in Brisbane established in 2004. The catalyst for the resource tool was the events of September 11th. This resource tool was designed ‘basically to dispel any bad press and myths about the Muslim community’. The Islam in Brisbane resource tool was used by the council who ‘ran a series of lunch sessions for council staff, which were very popular but it was only for council staff, and we got calls from people in the region asking if we could do a similar thing out of the city centre’. The Muslim Dialogue Project emerged out of this context.
The principle aim of the project was to inform people about Islam and help people appreciate Muslim-Australians as human beings and to overcome the myth that ‘Muslims are terrorists’.
‘So we decided to take it a bit further, and actually reach out to some of the communities as well, because sometimes it’s like preaching to the converted, so we wanted to open up to the broader community’.
There were a number of stakeholders in the project such as the Islamic Women’s Association of QLD and various Community Development Organisations such as Respite Centre and Acacia Ridge Community Centre. The project ran five sessions of the Interfaith Dialogue Program, which took place in five different regions within Brisbane. The regions were: Central, Eastern, Northern, Western, and Southern.
Each session involved an informal mixed audience of fifty to eighty people, and a panel of several speakers. At each forum there was at least one, usually more, Muslim-Australian speakers. There were also speakers from other cultural and religious backgrounds.
Maya: we decided at … that each region could target a certain section of the community. For instance, south, because the Islamic Women’s Association said we could do a women’s section, and then with the west, because the CDO there does a lot of work with youth, so we did one about schools...it didn’t mean that that was the only way we could do it, but we just thought that was a good way to target different audiences.
Each of the sessions was slightly different, tailored to the needs of the community and target audience.
[Someone suggested] …. ‘Why don’t you do something with the older women in the area?’ so we went to Rockdale and every second Tuesday of the month, the women get together... They can do whatever they want to do, and the third and fourth is more structured, someone comes and talks …. And because Acacia Ridge Community Centre is also in the south, I approached them and they were very keen to do something together, so we thought we’d try and do a morning tea together.
In these sessions a lot of women participated such as Indigenous Australian women, women from the local African communities, Muslim-Australian women, and non-Muslim- Australian women. ‘… a really nice blend of women from a cross-section of different cultures’ were involved. The sessions were not just focused on Muslim issues but were broad-based involving story telling, question and answer time, and presentation.
So, each one gave the story of their journey, whether it was from a refugee perspective or whether from Muslim women’s perspective or indigenous women view, or the stolen generation.... There was a lot of exchange of stories, and they had morning tea. … questions like how come Muslim women were... the men could marry more than once, and Muslim women, they were really very fascinated with the stolen generation and were asking questions like, ‘How did you allow that?’ without realising that it was not something they allowed, it was just something that happened.
In the dialogue session held in the Northern region, a local Mosque was involved and the event was held around the time of the Harvest Festival to ensure a good turn out.
… we thought that this year what we could do is have a panel of speakers. We had two panels. One was a panel of people from refugee backgrounds telling their story and how they came here, and what life was like, and the other one was a panel of four speakers, four Muslim speakers, which is the one that we co-ordinated. So we had a lady from Islamic Women’s Association of Queensland, we had an Imam, we had a young Muslim man, and we had a young American girl who converted to Islam. So, all four gave their perspectives. Sorry – he wasn’t an Imam. He was a religious leader who teaches, and he sang and played [his] little instrument ….
The event was held as part of the Harvest Festival activities at the Mosque.
All the celebrations… dancing and all of that was happening, and there was food here, and some of the demonstrations on this side, and the Diversity Tent, as we called it, was on this side, so we had – from 12 to 1, I think, were the speakers from the refugee community and then after half an hour’s break we had speakers from the Muslim community. It was attended by about fifty people…
The research team had arranged to attend one of these sessions and speak to participants about their experience. Unfortunately the organisers subsequently withdrew their support for this aspect of the research and asked us not to attend due to the ‘sensitivity’ of the issue. Therefore this case study is limited only to a single interview with one of the main organisers of the project and is thus limited in terms of the extent to which we are able to judge its effectiveness in meeting its stated aims.
The success of Muslim Dialogue Project manifested itself in two important ways:
It brought together people in different communities not just Muslim and non- Muslim-Australians. For instance, during dialogue sessions Indigenous, African, Muslim, and non-Muslim-Australian women participated and exchanged ideas and stories.
It inspired important new initiatives such as:
The Coles Morning Tea initiative (see Case Study) where Muslim-Australian women met a group of Coles staff on a weekly basis for morning tea.
Cross-cultural dialogue with high school students where students visit a mosque, receive information about Islam, and participate in a question and answer session.
The organisers felt that the informal setup was a draw card and helped participants feel relaxed about the dialogue.
… a very informal way of setting it up. There were chairs and open air. The good thing was that it was informal enough for people not to feel threatened or uncomfortable. They could sit anywhere they liked. There was an area on the floor where people could have sat as well. They could come and go as they pleased. There was no pressure that they had to stay for the whole session.
This relaxed environment allowed the participants to ask questions in a comfortable and good humoured way.
Maya: … I think it was dealt with very...because it was all women, and there was a sense of humour, people started laughing. The Australian women said, ‘We can’t deal with one man. Why would you allow them to...’ (laughs) Isn’t it bad enough doing it once, (let alone) having four women to contend with! So I guess initially what could have been quite tense was diffused, because there was an element of humour in it, which was good.
The organisers felt that ‘return business’ was a key indicator of success.
I guess people coming out here and saying, ‘Can we have another one?’ is a clear indication that it is a success …
A second outcome from Brisbane City Council’s point of view has been the value in the links and networks established as part of the process – both organisational and community connections.
it has been a very good experience for them because it’s really opened doors. They’ve made some links with different community organisations, so they can actually work on some other stuff with them. All the barriers that were initially put in your face were overcome with this project. There’s been a lot of good come out of this project, and not just for this project, but in terms of other things as well, because it’s made people more aware of the different community organisations around and what issues they have. And we’re not just talking about racism, but whether it’s (?) or whether it’s more knowledge about libraries...it’s been good for us as well, because there’s been a disconnection, so there’s more work that can be done with them to get them more access to council services.
The organisers felt that participants found the project worthwhile and would like it to continue. Their view was that it does work and brings people together, if not in a direct and sustained way.
There was however an acknowledgement that the format (at least the Harvest Festival event) did not provide enough opportunity for interaction between Muslim and non- Muslim-Australians.
Organisational and Sustainability Issues
The key challenge faced by the project is funding and organising dialogue or relation building activities.
next year we’re not going to get money to do this, and as I said, I don’t think you really need heaps of money to do it.
And in some instances, venues can be free. And I guess it’s more than biscuits. I mean, the food can be a bit more expensive, but still.... But you need someone to drive it, and I think this is where we might have to jump in … and do a bit of liaising. And eventually completely step out of it.
Another challenge which is related to organising the dialogue sessions is the issue of informing the public about the initiative and reaching the right target ‘audience’.
It was attended by about fifty people, but my understanding, the feedback that I’ve got, is that it was a bit far out from the main crowd, and some people said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about it, otherwise I would have come.’ So, if we did it again next year, we would bring it closer, or have more publicity about it.
The Muslim Dialogue Project is one example among many ways of building relationships. Demonstrated from the discussion above, dialogue is a sound and effective way to reach out to people and engage in healthy discussion in a safe environment.
Dialogue is not necessarily about making presentations and having a series of talks on a particular issue or topic. It is very much about exchanging ideas and views and interacting.