Building Bridges Between Cultures
By Suzanne Clarke, Courier Mail, 31/01/07
BECAUSE of the way he dresses, Dr Mohamad Abdalla is used to people's initial misconceptions. When we meet in his Griffith University office, he is wearing the traditional garb of a Muslim scholar. It gives him more than a passing resemblance to an Islamic firebrand.
But it would be wrong to assume that Abdalla agrees with extreme statements.
"I know I might look like Osama bin Laden, but I'm not, I'm Mohamad
Abdalla from Brisbane," he says, repeating the way he introduced himself to a hall full of mocking teenage boys on a post-September 11 visit to a Gympie high school. That got the boys' attention.
"Then I spoke about what our religions had in common you believe in God, we believe in God; you believe in Adam and Eve, as do we. If I cut you, you bleed, as I do. Why do we always have to concentrate on our differences?"
Abdalla grimaces when I ask the inevitable question about his opinion of recent statements by radical Muslim clerics in Australia, which have drawn the ire of politicians and the community.
"The great majority of Muslims have serious problems with people who make stupid statements like these," he sighs.
"The Prophet condemned extremism. He solved huge conflicts using non-violent methods. The problem is, they take a verse out of context like the verse of the sword and use it as an excuse. It frustrates me, because I am working so hard to build bridges of understanding."
Abdalla, together with Muslim scholars from the universities of Melbourne and Western Sydney, initiated the concept of the new National Institute of Excellence for Islamic studies, announced last week by the Federal Government.
"But it is not being portrayed in the right light," he says.
"It is not a centre for homegrown imams, simply Islamic studies in a secular context One must look at the social and economic context in which one is living - the way Islam is interpreted in Pakistan or India does not have to be the same here.
"We would love to see Muslims in Australia creating their own institutions to produce their own imams, but we don't yet have the infrastructure, we don't have the people to deliver. Imams need to be credible in the eyes of the Muslim community."
Abdalla has considerable practice at working to overcome the religious discord festering beneath the surface of Australian society.
He was plunged into this role 11 days after September 11, 2001, when Kuraby mosque in Brisbane was destroyed in a firebomb attack. At the time he was the mosque's acting imam.
"We were living 100m away from the mosque. My wife Peta woke up thinking our house was on fire," he says.
“By 3.30am the whole community had congregated. The mosque is the soul of Muslim society. Everybody was angry, but it needed to be a time of restraint.
"We forgave the man who had done it because it was a false impulse. People were angry because of what they saw on the news. How can I now retaliate against someone who doesn't know who I am?
"I thought that we could use this opportunity to build bridges. Yes, we live here, but before we had not made the effort to come to non-Muslims and tell them about ourselves."
Support flowed in from surprising quarters. Christians offered to lend their churches for the Muslims to worship, their people to protect the new mosque as it was built, and many people who were non-Muslims gave donations towards the rebuilding, as the mosque had been uninsured.
And invitations rolled in from all over Queensland to speak about Islam.
In the years since, Abdalla and others have spoken to hundreds of groups.
"I always say, don't judge the other based on what you hear about them.
Go and sit and talk with them," he said.
Mohamad Abdalla wasn't always a spiritual man. He was born in Libya to
Palestinian parents, who relocated to Jordan. He has three brothers and two sisters. Their father was a karate instructor who ran sports clubs, and when they were forced to emigrate to Australia in 1985, they lost everything.
"If we had stayed in Jordan our lives would have had a very different direction. Australia is a place I can call home and I have found significance and meaning here."
Initially his lack of English made fitting in difficult, and it wasn't until his later high school years that he began to feel comfortable.
"In the society we live in now, human value is equated with what you look like," he said.
"I wanted to dress the way I do to change people's perception of this type of dress. Don't judge people by the way they look, but by the way they behave and speak.
"I was involved in trying to stop the first Gulf war. I joined every left-wing action group you can think of, and spoke at rallies of up to 10,000 people as the spokesperson for the Arab community. It wasn't effective.
"Millions of people were rallying to try to stop the possible deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, yet this became a reality."
Abdalla gave up his studies in microelectronic engineering and sought a more meaningful role through his original faith.
"Many Muslim practices are cultural and customary. They do not have a connection with the teachings of Islam - the sprit, ethics and values of Islam are absent. I want to try and revive these.
"The Prophet Mohammed said religion is dealings. It's how you deal with others - neighbours, friends, animals, Muslims, non-Muslims, those we like and don't like."
Three years ago, Abdalla went to the local Muslim community and asked for donations towards an Islamic Research Unit at Griffith University.
"Now we study issues that relate to the Muslim community in Australia and offer a substantial scholarship. We are attracting high-calibre people like Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia.
"Our unit is run in a secular setting, with academic credentials and we can do highly critical research."
Abdalla hopes the Abrahamic Faiths Forum next Wednesday, organised by the State Government, will promote dialogue between leaders of Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions.
"We need to stand up for one another in times of difficulty. It happens to be the Muslim people under the spotlight at the moment, but the actions of a few does not reflect the attitudes of the larger community.