The role of local city councils in building bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim- Australians is complex and multifaceted and involves everything from consultation processes, access and equity policies, internal anti-racism and cultural sensitivity training, to community based festivals, initiatives and projects. This project has primarily been interested in the latter approaches which we view as ‘capacity building’ at the grass roots level to foster stronger inter-ethnic social capital between Muslim and non-Muslim- Australians through partnerships, community engagement, community based activities and revitalising local communities. Socio-economic and cultural changes are transforming local communities and local municipal councils play a pivotal role in both facilitating as well as managing the change processes brought about by immigration and cultural and religious diversity. Community capacity building involves;
Developing the capacity and skills of the members of communities so that they can:
It is this community capacity building role that interests us here and is the focus of this chapter. Through this lens, we will look at community-based initiatives and programs of local councils from the top twenty Muslim-Australian Local Government Areas to improve relations between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians.
Religious vs Secular Role of City Councils
Local city councils in Australia are still based on rigid secular foundations. They often distance themselves from religious or faith-based issues and programs in an attempt to preserve the secularity of the council. Such a position is not surprising; after all Australia is a modern secular capitalist society, and religion, if anything, is perceived as a ‘private affair’.
However, despite religion being a private affair, local city councils, particularly those in large capital cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, are increasingly finding they need to pay attention to communities with religious needs and strong religious convictions. Since local city councils are the first point of community contact in a three tiered government system in Australia, they will inevitably need to incorporate ‘religion’ in their agenda for community development and management.
This section identifies what councils with relatively large Muslim-Australian populations are doing to build better relations between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians at the local level. These are referred to as the top twenty Muslim-Australian Councils in the report for the very reason that Muslim numbers in these LGAs are relatively higher than elsewhere in urban and rural centres in Australia.
Table: Top Twenty councils in terms of number of Muslim residents ABS 2006 Census