I have a friend who is a pastor in one of the most fundamentally Islamic parts of Indonesia. A few years back he was in Australia for a conference when news broke of an outbreak of violence against Christians in his hometown. Churches were being burned to the ground and an angry mob was bent on destruction. My friend, worried for the safety of his wife and newborn child, was about to set off for the airport when he received a phone call. It was a neighbour from up the road, a Muslim neighbour. She had good news for my friend. She and her husband were staying with my friend’s family to protect them and the local Imam had promised that if the violence escalated he would shelter the Christians in the mosque. In the years since, my friend said there had been many episodes where Muslim leaders acted to protect Christians from violence. “But you never hear these stories in Australia” he commented. “All you hear are the bad stories.”
Over the last 18 months I have spoken in churches across the country about Australia’s response to refugees and one of the recurring things I encounter are people suspicious and frightened of Muslims. Rarely do they know a Muslim and not one has recounted a story of a violent or abusive encounter with a Muslim, yet they are terrified by the thought that increasing numbers of the population are Muslim. They experience aggression or violence in their own community and recognise it as an aberration, but they hear of aggression or violence in Muslim communities and regard it as the norm.
Reinforcing their fears are false and misleading rumours. This week I was forwarded an email that claimed 1/3 of all ration packs the Australian army served its soldiers are halal, a sure and certain sing that we are becoming islamicised. Yet a cursory look as the sources made it clear that the data had been misread. The document the author cited as his smoking gun identified 12 types of ration pack, four of which were halal certified. It said nothing about the quantity of packs ordered.
We’ve got to stop peddling these fear-creating falsehoods. Rather, we non-Muslims need to tell positive stories of our encounters with Muslim people.It matters because the shape of our future and the future of Muslim/non-muslim relationships in this country will be strongly influenced by the narratives we tell. If all we have are narratives that breed fear, suspicion and loathing, we will see our communities divided rather than uniting around mutual respect. So if you have a good story to tell I invite you to share it in the comments section below.