My earliest memory of experiencing islamophobia was during my schooling years at Al Taqwa College in Melbourne’s outer west, almost 30 years ago.
We just had the official opening ceremony of our newly built prayer space. We finally had a masjid on campus for students and Muslim staff to pray in congregation, behind our school imam, instead of praying separately in our demountable classrooms.
This was during a time when there was an intense global political climate. There was a war going on and several of our relatives and friends were asking with concern why my parents were continuing to send us to ‘that Muslim school’ because it’s ‘probably not a good time right now’ and ‘Are you sure it’s safe?’
Shortly after these conversations, one morning we found a taped parameter with barriers around our new masjid’s entrance. There were signs of a fire, with black smoke soot at the entrance and all along the interior, as far as we could see.
Someone had broken into our new masjid and set it alight in an arson attack; our first experience of Islamophobia fuelled hate crime.
With time, and with greater media literacy, I understood that the relentless negative media coverage played a key role in fuelling that hate which drove a person to burn down our place of worship at the school.
With time, I understood that the words used in mainstream media, the labels, were selected to establish a foundation of bias and discrimination, so injustices against minorities, against indigenous people and people of colour, could appear justified; a system which serves the elite.
I remember, at the time, our principal, Mr Omar Hallak, in his usual optimism, reassured us and our families, “Don’t worry. The good thing is nobody got hurt. We will rebuild.”
And rebuild they did, only bigger and better, thriving today as one of the oldest serving Islamic schools in all of Victoria.
Wouldn’t it be great to say, at this point, that Australian media has come a long way from those fear-mongering days?
Over the years I’ve watched certain media platforms circle Al Taqwa College like hyenas.
The most recent example of this was during the misleading and inaccurate reporting of the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria where the term “Al Taqwa College cluster” was thrown around across multiple news platforms.
This term was used to incorrectly imply that the majority of the cases reported in that particular region were contracted on campus, or that Al Taqwa College was in some way responsible for the outbreak.
To put this into perspective, on 19 August 2020, 19 new cases were attributed to the “Al Taqwa Cluster” even though the school has been closed for the past 7 weeks.
In a statement made to The Age newspaper in September Mr Omar Hallak, founder of Al Taqwa College, said “When there are Government statements and media reporting of a cluster “at” Al-Taqwa College, it gives the false impression that all the cases in the cluster were contracted on-site. That is simply untrue, and needlessly feeds prejudices where they exist. Many people linked to this cluster are not Al-Taqwa College staff and students, and will have never been near the College. We sincerely hope the media, the Premier and the Government, in giving COVID-19 updates affecting Al-Taqwa College, can take this into consideration in the language they use.” (1)
Of course we now know that approximately 90% or more of current COVID-19 infections in Victoria can be traced to the Rydges hotel and the hotel’s quarantine failures.
ABC News recently reported that according to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) epidemiologist Charles Alpren, “Ninety per cent or more of Victoria’s current coronavirus cases can be traced back to a family of four that returned to Australia and stayed in Melbourne’s Rydges on Swanston hotel.” (2).
Dr Alpren is a key witness at the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry.
Al Taqwa College deserves an unreserved apology and immediate measures must be taken to rectify any damage done to their good name, brand and reputation.
Having one not-so-terrible article about Al Taqwa College in The Age (3), following the flood of negative media coverage they received prior, does little to undo the widespread misrepresentation of Al Taqwa College and more broadly of Victorian Muslims during this second wave of COVID-19.
It simply reinforces the bigger problem of the systemic prejudice inherent in mainstream Australian media.
- Statement supplied by Mr. Omar Hallak to The Age