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The Bendigo mosque: Nothing breeds hate and fear faster than hate and fear themselves.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Last night a group of 150 anti-Islamic campaigners stormed a council meeting at the Bendigo Town Hall. The meeting was cut short when the protest couldn’t be managed and the councillors left under police escort.

“I was quite numb being escorted out by police, I just think that that would never have happened during my mayoral term, but it has,” Bendigo Mayor Peter Cox told the ABC. “There was so much noise and protest that we couldn’t continue the meeting, so I adjourned the meeting for about half an hour and the police were called and at that time, there was so much yelling we just couldn’t continue.”

A councillor being escorted from the meeting in Bendigo last night.

The point of contention is a planned mosque. Last year a $3 million mosque was approved by the local council in East Bendigo, despite fierce opposition from some local residents. Just last month, an area in Bendigo had to be shut down due to a protest led by the anti-Islam group United Patriots Front (UPF).

Last year users on a Facebook page opposing the mosque (which has since been removed), say the mosque’s very existence will prompt ‘a Muslim rising’, a ‘violent jihadi takeover’ and will leave Bendigo at risk of ‘death from suicide bombers and terrorists’.

And yet what is creating the tension and uncertainty for local residents? These protests.

The view perpetrated by the media and embraced by too many in the western world is that Islam is something to be feared. That view is reinforced daily as we see violent, oppressive or sexist acts committed in the name of Allah broadcast in glaring technicolour and with shocking clarity onto our TV screens.

And I hate it when our community can’t separate the actions of a sick and twisted minority from the peaceful practice of a faith shared by hundreds of millions.

Please be tolerant. Thank you.

Sure, you say. But who cares what a lot of nameless, faceless people, shielded by a computer screen and a keyboard think? There aren’t many who would put their name to these sort of ignorant, racially charged attacks.

And yet, according to The Age newspaper, this is exactly what happened at a council meeting about the mosque last year:

One woman asked the councillors if they would be able to sleep at night if Islam “descended” on Bendigo. One councillor also read out letters which voiced fears about Islam. Cr Elise Chapman repeated comments around Muslims having more children than Australians do.

When another councillor, Mark Weragoda, was speaking in favour of the proposal one of the protesters played Middle Eastern music. When Cr Weragoda said the mosque would be used for funerals and marriages, a member of the gallery replied: “yeah, to young girls”.

Then, as now, we can pre-empt the reaction to this story.

Some will bemoan the state of our nation, claiming that Australians are inherently racist and that this is further proof of that xenophobia. Others will take up the cause of maintaining a safe and secure white, christian Bendigo with gusto.

Xenophobia doesn’t have a place in Australia.

With each scuffle, each argument, each tit-for-tat, the country is slowly torn further and further apart on issues of tolerance. And every young muslim living a private and peaceful existence in Australia, wonders once again whether they truly belong.

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I have written before for Mamamia that – similarly to countries all over the Western world – there is a small but significant group of disenfranchised young Muslims here in Australia. They are mostly men and they feel angry and disconnected from the community. They feel misunderstood. They feel misrepresented. They feel alone.

Incidents like what happened at last night’s council meeting in Bendigo only fuel those feelings of isolation. Those who label all muslims as terrorists and connect the actions of extremists with Islam as a whole, compound the perception amongst Australian muslims that full and warm acceptance of their beliefs by this community is a fruitless dream.

This sort of isolation is incredibly dangerous – because nothing breeds fear and hate faster than fear and hate itself.

Our response as a community has to be to stand up: to say strongly and loudly that racism and intolerance do not belong in the Australia that we want to live in. We cannot shuffle in our places uncomfortably, look at our shoes and hope nobody noticed that we stood silently by and watched our muslim friends, colleagues and neighbours be treated so poorly.

Yes, there have been acts committed in the name of Islam that are truly depraved. Acts that make us sick to our stomachs, acts that directly contradict the values of freedom, equality and peace that we hold dear in Australia.

“Our response as a community has to be to stand up: to say strongly and loudly that racism and intolerance do not belong in the Australia that we want to live in.”

But by explicitly or even implicitly holding peace-loving Australian muslims responsible for those acts, we give the people who committed them exactly what they want: further division.

To take the deplorable actions of an extremist few and use those to paint the peaceful majority is unfair. As is a failure to speak up, by those of us who see injustice playing out in our community, even if we ourselves have not taken part in it.

The vast majority of Australian muslims are tolerant, kind and peaceful people who are building a life in this country the same way each and every one of us is.

We cannot allow them to feel even more alone.

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