Building bridges after Boston

Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla, founder of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit

Almost as soon as the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings hit the international media, Griffith University Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla was readying his response.

As a leading voice within Australia’s Muslim community, the Founding Director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit realised the importance of providing a calm voice amid the maelstrom of conjecture he knew would ensue.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks against the US in 2001, one outcome of which was the burning of his own mosque in the Brisbane suburb of Kuraby, Associate Professor Abdalla has sought, as he puts it, to calm tension by building bridges of understanding.

“When the choice is harmony or hatred, I strive for harmony,” he said. “When the choice is accusation or understanding, I choose understanding.”

The enormous public reaction to Associate Professor Abdalla’srecent appearance on the ABC’s Q&A television program, which saw himhailed as a voice of reason for all religions, spoke to the success of his cause. For example —

“Dr Abdalla of Griffith University has done more for the silent majority of Muslims than all the rhetoric of our leaders of the past four decades.”

“How important it was for people to hear a Muslim authority conveying the message of authentic Islam.”

“I’m sure I’m not the only one who sat in amazement and discovered that Islam is about peace and love and not about guns and hatred.”

Reasoned response

Such observations buoyed Associate Professor Abdalla’s optimism for a reasoned internationalresponse to the tragedy in Boston. He was also particularlyconfident that improvements in the relationship between the Muslim and Australian societies would not be undermined by any anger or accusations arising out of the attacks.

This has not always been the case.

“When 9/11 occurred, people were understandably frightened and desperate for answers and a sense of certainty,” Associate Professor Abdalla said.

“Unfortunately, out of that vulnerability grew a kind of paranoid nationalism that swept through the West and condemned Islam in its entirety.”

In Queensland,two major incidents exemplified the impact of suchthinking, namely the burning of the Kuraby mosque in October, 2001, and the treatment of Doctor Muhamed Haneef in 2007.

Suspected of aiding terrorists, the Indian-born and then Gold Coast-based Dr Haneef was detained without charge and his visa cancelled. This was later overturned by the Federal Court and Dr Haneef sought and received substantial compensation.

“When people at last saw through the propaganda, what followed was a softening of anti-Muslim feeling and the awakening of a desire for greater understanding about Islam,” Associate Professor Abdalla said.

Major commitment

This attitudinal change had already begun to be demonstrated with the establishment in 2005 of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit. It was followed more recently by the creation of the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies of which Associate Professor Abdalla is the director of the Queensland node.

Griffith is the only university in Queensland to offer a major in Islamic Studies and, as wellas providing a thorough coverage of Islamic history, beliefs, laws and scriptures and their impact throughout the world, the degree explores contemporary issues such as human rights, terrorism, politics, banking and finance, mass media and Islam-West relations.

“Interestingly, the majority of our students are non-Muslim,” Associate Professor Abdalla said. “They come to us as an open book, wanting to find out more, and you can see the change in them as they recognise the many shared connections between Islamic and Western civilisation, whether referring to religious values, achievements in science, literature, society or other fields.

“We are eager to attract the type of young talent able to understand both sides of the Muslim-Australian relationship and then conduct research that provides empirical answers and allows an application of Islam not in conflict with the socio-political scene in this country.”

Associate Professor Abdalla said Australia’s geographical position, so close to the huge Islamic societies of Indonesia and Malaysia, was another reason why an understanding of Islam was wise and beneficial.

“It might not have seemed possible after 9/11, but the Australian and Muslim communities have fostered a good relationship and that hasn’t evolved by chance,” he said.

“Therea lot of good in the world, a lot of goodwithin these communities, and it should be strong and considered enough to withstand times when events and a few individuals put them to the test.

“The community, the media, politicians, they all have a massive role in deciding whether society heads in the direction of harmony or hatred.

“Here at Griffith, I only have to see the faces of the students to know which direction they have chosen.”