Muslim youth speak on Islamophobia and questions on faith
06 June 2015
Aynur Simsirel wants to dispel myths about Muslims, to escape the seemingly endless political talk about radicalism, terrorism threats, citizenship or halal food.
But as principal of Ilim College, one of Melbourne's largest Islamic schools, Simsirel also wants the voice of youth to be heard first – to know what this constant questioning of their faith means for young Muslims.
"We haven't asked our young enough how they feel," Simsirel says.
To spark what she hopes will be an ongoing "community conversation", her school reached out this week, inviting teachers from neighbouring schools, youth workers and council staff to gauge and discuss stronger social ties.
The forum of almost 50 included staff from the nearby Penola Catholic College, the new state school Mount Ridley College in Craigieburn, as well as primary schools.
"We are here as an Islamic college, we see ourselves as a resource, and we're more than happy to actually help," Simsirel says.
But it was the experience of recent school graduates, Yusuf Ozen and Usama Iftikhar, that really brought home the effect what is sometimes labelled "Islamophobia".
"As teenagers we already face a wide range of different issues," says 19-year-old Iftikhar.
"Then that added pressure from the media, from government policies, and some things that politicians may say – sometimes it just destroys young people."
Ozen, 21, despairs when non-Muslim friends ask what he regards as absurd questions linking to Islam to extremism, leaving him wondering where to start.
"It's a bit of an extreme example, but with the beheadings by ISIL, they say, 'Is that a norm?' It's just so abnormal to us," he says.
"They don't mean to be rude, but I don't know how to react. It's got no relation to us."
Iftikhar agrees: "Even at times when the question might be innocent, it still feels quite insulting … like we have to prove our humanity all the time."
Surveys have shown Muslims are the faith group most likely to be singled out for negative sentiment – the widely respected Scanlon Foundation poll last year reported roughly a quarter of Australians hold "somewhat" or "very" negative attitudes towards Muslims.
Islamophobia was highlighted in recent weeks after a train commuter was attacked for standing up to two tradesmen insulting women wearing aheadscarf.
Protesters from the far-right United Patriots Front also staged a rally in Richmond last weekend, claiming "political correctness" had allowed the spread of radical Islam in Australia.
Researchers are concerned at the cost to the Islamic community of what amounts to walking on eggshells, constantly responding to unreasonable demands to justify their faith.
"It should never be the burden of school kids, or everyday people to correct bigotry. That's unfair," says Yassir Morsi from the Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia.
"Just to flesh it out a little bit, what kind of psychology will my daughter grow up with if her part-time job is always to respond to forms of hatred."
Morsi said the forums such as the one at Ilim College may well be positive, but were also testimony to the scrutiny on Muslims.
Simsirel plans to involve current students in future forums, to ensure the Muslim community does not become isolated.
"Naturally as a community we are becoming all the more protective of our young, even our covered girls for that matter, thinking, 'Look, don't go out alone'. I think all this is just further alienating," she says.
"But we've really got to be working on how we move away from that, and what kinds of tools, skill sets and confidence we need to build in our students before they graduate to have them connect to the wider community, because that's where we feel the answers lie."