Penrith to get its first Muslim community centre

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Some residents of Penrith are opposing the centre, but Muslim community leaders say the building is needed as the population is expected to grow 80 per cent in 15 years

The Muhammadi Welfare Association (MWA) has acquired 22 acres of land at Kemps Creek, Penrith, for a community centre. Penrith currently has a Muslim population of 4,000, which is expected to grow by 80 per cent in the next 15 years. Penrith council has approved the application for the development in Kemps Creek.
Some residents of Penrith, including Independent Liberal councillor Marcus Cornish, have started a campaign against the proposed centre saying that they fear a “mosque” will irreversibly change the fabric of local life.
MWA president Athar Zaidi and secretary Abbas Raza Alvi say the association has had a community centre in South Granville for several years now but decided to have a community centre in Kemps Creek to service the fast growing Shi’a population.
“The community is in urgent need of a new and bigger centre with more facilities for education and recreation, as well as better parking facilities,” says Athar.
Opponents of the MWA centre, according to Abbas, have created the impression that the association is planning to build a mosque. “There are no such plans as a mosque and community centre are two different things,” says Abbas.
Athar says that the community centre is a project planned by and for the local Shi’a community, and funds for it have so far been raised from within Sydney’s Shi’a community itself.
Athar and Abbas say when the MWA proposed a new community centre and requested contributions from members the response was overwhelming. “We received thousands of dollars from members in a few days,” says Athar. “We applied to build a community centre, not a mosque,” he says.
According to Abbas, a mosque can only be built with funds raised specifically for the purpose. “The community centre will not have the five daily prayers, and unlike a mosque, the centre will permit food and drink in the premises. The centre will have discussions, seminars, educational lectures, birthdays, marriage ceremonies and other activities,” says Abbas.
Another notable feature of this project, says Abbas, is that it is a joint venture by Indian and Pakistani communities, and in that spirit will aim to bring the two communities together. MWA members are mostly Urdu speakers from the Indian subcontinent (Sydney has had an Urdu speaking community for well over three decades now). Most of this community, Abbas says, lives within 25 kilometres of Kemps Creek.

Islamophobia on the rise: report
A recent research report Mosques of Sydney and New South Wales, by University of Western Sydney’s Husnia Underabi, discusses the history of mosques in NSW, and their role within the Muslim community, and the wider community’s perceptions of Islamic religious institutions in NSW. Husnia’s report says that in recent decades fear of Muslims and Islamic institutions (Islamophobia), has become prevalent in western societies.
Husnia’s research found that close to half (44 per cent) of NSW’s 167 Islamic places of worship experienced resistance from the local community in the initial stages. In some cases, the report says, the resistance was not of a fierce wide-scale nature. The level of acceptance and opposition mosques faced was not particular to any regions of Sydney.
In his foreword to Husnia’s research report, Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp, Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation, Charles Sturt University, says, “Suspicion and scrutiny over the Muslim community in Australia seems to have reached new heights with the emergence of terrorist organisation ISIS. Accused of being unwilling to integrate, Muslims are often portrayed as alien to Australian values. Media images of bearded men with puritanical rhetoric hurled in the backdrop of mosques only served to grow the suspicion and enigma of mosques. The inevitable outcome of such framing coalesced in campaigns against the mosques throughout Australia. Yet, mosques as places of worship are fundamental in the lives of observant Muslims”.
Areas surrounding mosques in Sydney have witnessed a noticeable rise in the Muslim population and a decline in the non-Muslim population. This trend, according to the report, is not necessarily linked to Islamophobia as Sydney has witnessed significant socio-economic changes in the decades when mosques were built. “These changes coupled with migration patterns have manifested in population movements from one area to another,” says the report.
Among the main findings of the report are that mosques in NSW are of relatively recent origin with the majority being built in the last four decades. “The increase in the number of mosques in NSW corresponds with census figures for the Muslim community showing steady increases since the beginning of the 1970s,” says the report. While the earliest mosques in Sydney were built in the inner-city suburbs, the majority (62 per cent) are now located in the western suburbs. From the 50 mosques the research surveyed it established that approximately 22,000 Muslims visit the mosque on a daily basis, 35,000 visit for Friday prayers and 63,000 participate in annual festive (Eid) prayers.
The report says that English is widely used in Australian mosques, and it adds that mosques are generally understaffed and run by volunteers. The report also says that while the primary function of the mosque is the “provision of a place of worship for Muslims to fulfil their religious obligations and the delivery of religious education, mosques in NSW also perform the role of community centres where social activities are organised”. The study also says that mosques and mosque leaders encourage Australia’s Muslims to participate in civic institutions and local political processes. Mosque leaders also, the report says, actively discourage extremist views and ideas.
The report highlights the nature of Australia’s Muslim community as a local community with local community concerns. Funds raised through charity in mosques are also used in the local community for humanitarian purposes.
The report says, “mosque leaders and imams are exposed to a wide range of social issues (such as marriage and parenting problems), which require them to operate as social workers as well as religious advisers. Imams are stretched and overwhelmed with the volume and diversity of problems they have to negotiate. Although their grounding in Islamic disciplines and their extensive experience help, having support and additional training in counselling and social work would dramatically improve their effectiveness.”

Ethnic composition of worshippers
The Muslim-Australian population is now 476,300, constituting 2.2 per cent of Australia’s total population. This figure represents an increase of nearly 70 per cent since 2001. The majority of Australia’s Muslim population lives in NSW and Victoria. In previous decades, the ethnicity of mosque imams and leadership corresponded with that of the congregation. In recent years though this is changing, and Husnia’s research indicates that the ethnic organisation of NSW’s mosques has gone through significant transitions.
“Although a large group of individuals are of the same ethnic background as the imam, a significant proportion, in some cases above 50 per cent, are not of the same ethnic background as the imam. The most dispersed group of Muslims, as indicated by their presence in mosques dominated by ethnicities other than their own, are individuals with a subcontinent ancestry who were found to attend most mosques in Sydney. On the other end of the spectrum, individuals of Turkish ancestry largely attend Turkish mosques as represented by the ethnic background of the imam and the management committee. Individuals of Turkish ancestry were rarely cited to attend other mosques in large numbers.” In the mosques surveyed in Husnia’s report, as many as 24 per cent of worshippers were from a South-Asian background.
The report says, “The ethnic backgrounds of the imam and the dominant ethnicities of regular attendees who attend Shi’ite mosques are predominantly Lebanese, Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian, as their country of origin have significant Shi’ite populations. The dominant ethnic groups in Sunni mosques display far more diversity reflecting the demographics of the Muslim world and Australian Muslim community”.
In its discussion of the challenges facing mosques, the report highlights space as one of the problems facing many mosques. The report also says that the number of mosques in NSW continues to increase, the most dramatic rise being in the western suburbs of Sydney. The numbers attending mosques are also on the rise. Where the report found a decline in numbers this was traceable to demographic shifts and other socio-economic changes in an area.
Mosques in NSW are not just places of worship, but are community centres catering to a wide variety of individuals. Mosque designs and facilities are not always suitable for these varied needs, the report says. According to the report, Imams and mosque leaders are generally stretched and overworked, switching between the roles of spiritual and religious leader, social worker or counsellor.
Islamic religious institutions in Australia, far from being breeding grounds for militants, are contemporary Australian institutions serving the needs of its growing urban populations. The problems and challenges of mosques in Australia, according to Husnia’s research, are to a great extent the problems of urban immigrant communities. An open day was organised recently in Australia to counter the prejudice against Islam. As Abbas says, the community centre at Kemps Creek will welcome everyone.
Published in The Indian Sun, Australia

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