SYDNEY // One of Australia's oldest and biggest mosques has opened its doors to the public in an attempt to demystify Islam and promote religious harmony. The event at the Lakemba mosque in Sydney has attracted hundreds of non-Muslims, from middle-class families with children to retired couples and students, who had the rare opportunity to quiz imams about their beliefs in a series of lively question and answer sessions.
Muslim leaders have acknowledged that their faith has had an image problem in Australia, but have been keen to explain how their religion has been unfairly demonised by the actions of extremists both at home and abroad. "The misconceptions are that Muslims are in general a bunch of fundamentalists, terrorists and secretive, non-peace-loving people and don't really submit to the laws of the country. These have no basis as far as Islam is concerned," said Samier Dandan, the president of the Lebanese-Muslim Association, which organised the open day.
"We see great benefit in destroying some of the misconceptions that are out there in order to really demonstrate what Islam is truly all about," Mr Dandan said. The relationship between a growing Muslim population and broader Australian society has been fraught in recent times, where mutual understanding has been destabilised by global shocks, such as the September 11 attacks in the United States, as well as corrosive events closer to home, including race riots on Sydney's Cronulla beach in 2005.
There was further controversy when a senior cleric at Lakemba, Sheikh Taj el Din al Hilali, described Australian women as "uncovered meat" in 2006, comments that infuriated the country. Tensions flared again last month with the conviction of home-grown Islamic militants, jailed by a judge in Sydney for plotting attacks on an unspecified target. The Lebanese-born imam of Lakemba mosque, Sheikh Yahya Safi, said it was vital that Islam was accurately portrayed in Australia as peaceful as well as compassionate and was not hijacked by a nefarious minority.
The open day "is to make a bridge between us and other Australians because nowadays there are big misunderstandings of Islam amongst the Australians. We need to give them the real picture of Islam. It is a good opportunity for all of us to talk freely," he said. No issue was off limits during the discussions between the assembled clerics and an inquisitive crowd, which gathered in the cavernous mosque on a warm, sunny day in the blue-collar suburb in western Sydney.
A range of concerns and questions were raised from the floor: the status of women in Islam was of particular interest to many visitors, who wanted to know more about the importance of the burqa and hijab, while others wondered why there was so much hostility between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. "I've always had a burning desire to see inside a mosque and hear a bit more about Islam," said Betsy Woodfeld, who drove 55km from her home north of Sydney. "It was a bit different to what I expected because I thought it would have more symbolism. I was surprised that women aren't more predominant. Islam is very male-dominated. I'm not an arch-feminist, but women should be treated equally.
"But the Muslim women who were answering questions were very happy with the status quo. It didn't worry them," Mrs Woodfeld said, adding that she went away enriched and appreciative of the efforts made by the organisers. "People often think it [Islam] is a secret society, but today very plainly they did get the message across that they are just looking for peace and well-being in their own religion and it is just a small minority that are causing all the problems," she added.
Throughout the day coaches continued to pull up outside the mosque, disgorging visitors who were eager to learn about Islam. "It is nice to know all the different cultures," said Rosemary Shepherd, a Sydney resident. "A lot of Australians don't care about Islam and perhaps they don't really want to understand, whereas we do." Her husband, Paul, admitted that in the past he had considered Muslims to be unapproachable, but those apprehensions had been swept away by frank and open discussions with imams and other volunteers, who wore bright green T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Ask Me" on the back.
The mosque at Lakemba was built in 1977 and attracts thousands of people to daily prayers, which continued as scheduled during the open day, creating the unusual spectacle of a small group of devotees worshipping to an enthralled non-Muslim audience amid a blaze of flashes from digital cameras. "We want to open our hearts to people that aren't Muslims so they can understand that we mean no harm and the religion is really beautiful and peaceful," said Kerry Lewis, 21, who converted to Islam last year and was busy explaining her beliefs to curious guests.
"In the beginning I was sceptical of the gender issue and this was a major thing I had to look into. I found that women in Islam are liberated. Women are like gems in Islam," she said. firstname.lastname@example.org