ABU DHABI // An Australian imam who travels the world preaching tolerance and respect is in the UAE to foster closer ties between the Gulf and the Muslim community in his home country. Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman describes himself as a "home-grown Aussie" imam. He was invited to the UAE by the Australian Embassy, and has been meeting fellow scholars, organisations and social groups.
"I would like to send the message that being a Muslim you can live anywhere in the world, and Islam fits anywhere and any time," he said. One of only a few imams born and raised in Australia, Sheikh Shady's message to Muslims around the world is that there are "brothers and sisters" in the West who are living "their way". More than 400,000 Muslims live in Australia, 75 per cent of whom are under the age of 25, he says.
The Muslim presence in Australia can be traced back to the 1890s, although the main wave of immigrants arrived in the 1960s, including Sheikh Shady's parents, who came from the West Bank town of Jenin. Sheikh Shady, 31, grew up in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba, where he still lives with his young family. He describes his own upbringing as secular and it was only after he started to delve into his Islamic heritage as a teenager that he found his calling. At 16, he left Australia for the first time, living in Pakistan for two years, before moving to Damascus for six years to further his studies, specialising in Islamic jurisprudence.
He returned to Australia shortly before the September 11 attacks and says he was shocked to see the challenges facing young Muslims in his community, where drugs, unemployment and delinquency were rife. He is heavily involved with the Muslim community in Sydney, but works at the country's largest mosque, which is also in Lakemba. "I realised that the youth were misguided and it was my responsibility to make a change and admit that there was a problem," he said.
Along with a group of other like-minded imams, Sheikh Shady "hit the streets" of Sydney, trying to reach out to the disenfranchised. "There were amazing changes, but Allah is the one who was able to make this happen," he said. "It required not just talk, but follow-up and reaching out." "There is nothing worse than losing identity," he said. "Being Australian and being a Muslim can work together. This is what makes our country so beautiful."